WOW! For a very short, around eight miles, this in-town ride packs a lot of punch. There are several ways to do this ride, with the most popular being starting from Barker Way and climbing right up the 1.4 mile fire road to the top. It is a very steep climb to with some sections having as much as a 22% grade. There are typically some rather large ruts in the road. This place is known for draining extremely well and it is one of the first places in the county to dry out. The route I describe here includes the Mesa and Big Rock Park singletracks as well as the Pyle's Peak out and back trail which gets you pretty much all of the legal singletrack on the mountain.
From Areas North: From Hwy 52, take the Mission Gorge Road exit in Santee. Turn west and proceed 0.4 miles to Mesa Road. Turn south onto Mesa Road. After the first stop sign, look for the the Big Rock Park trail on your right just past the school playground, you will be coming out here. Continue up the paved road for maybe a 1/4 mile until the pavement ends. There is parking right here or you can continue 1/2 mile further up the dirt road to the trailhead. There is limited parking at the trail head so you may want to park where the pavement ends.
From Areas South: From Interstate 8 - Take the Mission Gorge/Fairmount exit. Turn north onto Mission Gorge Road. Proceed on Mission Gorge Road for 7.5 miles to Mesa Road. Turn south onto Mesa Road. After the first stop sign, look for the the Big Rock Park trail on your right just past the school playground, you will be coming out here. Continue up the paved road for maybe a 1/4 mile until the pavement ends. There is parking right here or you can continue 1/2 mile further up the dirt road to the trailhead. There is limited parking at the trail head so you may want to park where the pavement ends.
There are additional directions and trailhead options on the Mission Trails Regional Park website.
Ride Notes: My mileage readings start from the parking area where the pavement ends on Mesa Road.
From the parking area at the end of the pavement proceed up the now dirt road for about 1/4 of a mile and go around the closed gate. About 100 yards up the fireroad you will see a small trail heading down to a rocky waterfall area. Don't take this trail, continue further up the fire road another 100 yards or so until you see another trail heading off to the right. Take this trail were you will quickly cross a seasonal stream. Your mileage should be around .38 miles.
The single track gets pretty tough as it has a significant grade and there are a number of water bars made out of old railroad ties that will cause you to expend some extra energy on technical moves to get up and over them. The vegetation is quite thick and in many spots the chaparral is high enough that you travel through a veggie tunnel. You may find that you do not get to fully enjoy this as you are busting your lungs and legs to try and clean all of these waterbars.
At around 1 mile you will come out to a T-junction with the Big Rock Park singletrack. Hang a left and continue uphill were more water bars and rocks await you. Over the next .6 miles the singletrack gets as steep as 18% in sections while keeping up with the water bars, rocks and switchbacks theme.
At around 1.7 miles you come out onto the Cowles Mountain fire road. Please take a good look around as this single track is easy to miss when coming down the fireroad on your back. Once you have the location locked into your melon hang a right and go uphill on the fireroad. Just as you crest out into a flat spot take a look over you shoulder just to make sure you have an additional visual on where the singletrack turns off is at.
Right after you get to a flat spot your main goal will be in plan sight, as well as the route to get up to it. The fire road heading up to the Cowles Mountain peak gets brutally steep. In some spots the grade is as high as 22 percent near the top. There are also some nasty ruts in the steeper sections that are quite challenging in your momentum deprived state. I think just about any riders would call it a good day to clean the entire climb.
Once you make it to the top your mileage should be around 2.5 miles and you will have climbed about 1300 feet. Steep in just about everyone's book. Particularly considering you climbed 300 fee in the last 3/10ths of a mile alone. Your reward is some really nice views and a real sense of accomplishment (This route is considered a challenging hike so wither you cleaned it or did a good deal of pushing, you have earned a little rest at the top.
After you have had you fill of the views and a bit of rest. Look for the Pyle's peak trail that is about 30 yards over the summit off the left hand side of the fire road that heads over to the radio towers. You will soon get to enjoy the water bars going in the other direction as this singletrack sheds off quite a bit of elevation as you head down the northwest side of Cowles Mountain.
Soon you will ride down to a saddle and from here you get to do some contour riding for change but there is plenty of technical ups and downs coupled with the ever-present waterbars to keep your heart pumping. I have to give you what I call is the "San Diego Spring Disclaimer" at this point. We have had record amounts of rain over the winter which has created the most lush and green springtime flora in well over a decade. It is not normally this green here.
The Pyles Peak trail is 1.25 miles long and it will eventually bring you out to very picturesque point below the peak. There is a hiking trail that goes up to the peak if you feel like leaving your bike at the turn around point.
From here you will retrace your route back up to Cowles Mountain summit, which can be quite strenuous on its own. Once at the summit continue retracing your steps and make sure to pick up the singletrack that you joined the fireroad on. From here enjoy this singletrack as it is a blast to go down. There are some great lines you can take with rocks and waterbars combinations. Some people refer to this trail as "Baby Noble", as it quite possibly most the most technical "in-town" trail we have, even if a good bit of the technical features are installed waterbars.
You will not follow the same route all the down this singletrack. Remember during the climb when you came to a T-junction and turned left and when uphill? On your way down you will not turn back on to that single track instead you will continue straight on the main trail. If you slow down enough at the junction you will see that the sign points to Big Rock Park. Continue to enjoy the downhill rocks and waterbar action on the Big Rock Park singletrack. As the trail starts to flatten out a little you will come to a fork in the trail. Take the right fork and continue rolling downhill. You will have a couple of quick steep rises then the trail will work it's way back to Mesa Road coming out just past the stop signed intersection you came through on your way to the trailhead. Hang a right and head uphill to your vehicle. Your mileage should be around 8 miles or so.