Cowles Mountain Sunrise Hike vs Potato Chip Rock Hike

Looking for a special & unique hiking experience in San Diego? Use our guide to compare a Cowles Mountain Sunrise Hike and a hike to Potato Chip Rock.
Jess Tucker
Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. This means if you make purchases through them, I may be compensated at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain my own.
Cowles Mountain Sunrise vs Potato Chip Rock Hike
Two of SD’s Best Hikes
The Basics
Save on Tours
Views & More
Navigation and Parking
Amenities & Safety
Rules & Considerations
Our Choice

Highlights

Cowles Mountain Sunrise vs Potato Chip Rock Hike
Scenery
Parking
Tips
Cowles Mountain Sunrise vs Potato Chip Rock Hike
Scenery
Parking
Final Verdict

Compare Two of the Best Hikes in San Diego

Reaching Potato Chip RockNative Brush at Mission Trails Regional Park

San Diego’s warm weather and sun are best experienced by spending lots of time outside. Going for a hike at a national park or nature preserve in Southern California is an excellent way to do so.

For hiking enthusiasts, I highly recommend taking the two-hour San Diego Hiking Tour with a guide who will show you around either Mission Trails Regional Park or the Tecolote Canyon Nature Park.

This activity is part of the Go City San Diego pass, letting you save when you bundle admission to dozens of attractions such as a visit to the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park and other things to do around San Diego.

Use our discount code GVSD5OFF when buying your pass for even more savings.

Mission Gorge Entrance at Mission Trails Regional Park
Mission Gorge Entrance at Mission Trails Regional Park

How to Choose the Right Hike for You

There are many places to hike around San Diego, and two of my favorite trails are the Cowles Mountain Sunrise Hike and the Potato Chip Rock Hike. The Cowles Mountain trail is part of Mission Trails Regional Park, and is one of the trails included in the hiking tour.

The other path, Potato Chip Rock, is in Poway. It’s one of San Diego’s most iconic hiking spots and definitely worth considering.

Before you can book your hike, you’ll need to decide which park appeals to you. With our handy comparison guide, the decision just got a lot easier!

Local Tips
Family-friendly Hike?
Choose Cowles Mountain for a manageable, family-friendly hike with breathtaking sunrise views, or tackle Potato Chip Rock for a longer, more strenuous adventure with iconic photo ops.

Cowles Mountain Sunrise Hike vs Potato Chip Rock Hike in San Diego California

To start, we’ll take a look at the basics of each hiking trail.

The Trail in the Background at Cowles Mountain Summit Hike
The Trail in the Background at Cowles Mountain Summit Hike

Hiking the Cowles Mountain Sunrise Trail

The trail at Cowles Mountain is just over 3 miles long. At an average pace, it took me a little under 2 hours to finish. The trail is moderately difficult, but still approachable enough for kids and pets as long as you take things slow during the tougher portions.

Cowles Mountain Sunrise Hike has a total elevation gain of 849 feet. This is much less steep than at Potato Chip Rock Hike, which is over 2100 feet.

The Lafayette Hotel in University Heights, San Diego
The Lafayette Hotel in University Heights, San Diego

Accommodations Nearby

I recommend getting an early start at Cowles Mountain, both to avoid the crowds and to see the sunrise, which is totally worth waking up early!

The trip from The Lafayette Hotel, Swim Club & Bungalows to Mission Trails Regional Park is a short one, and nothing beats cooling off in the hotel pool after your hike.

Getting to the Summit at Potato Chip Rock

Hiking up to Potato Chip Rock via the Mt. Woodson Trail is more difficult by comparison, featuring more incline and a narrow path which could prove too challenging for families. Still, I find it well worth the effort if you’re up for it!

Just make sure to bring plenty of water and to go early to avoid the baking sun and crowds.

It’s about 7.5 miles long, and takes between 3-4 hours. However, if you’re a seasoned hiker, you’ll find the climb to be tough yet rewarding.

Cowles Mountain is much less steep than at Potato Chip Rock Hike, which is over 2100 feet.

Steeper regions are broken up by stretches of even terrain so you can catch your breath.

Escondido Sign in Central Escondido
Escondido Sign in Central Escondido

Accommodations Nearby

Hitting the trail early is the best way to avoid walking in direct mid-afternoon sunlight. Booking a hotel near your trail of choice lets you get to the park as soon as possible.

The Potato Chip Rock Hike is in Poway, which isn’t far from Escondido. If you’re planning on taking your dog, see our picks for pet-friendly hotels in San Diego.

The Trail at Cowles Mountain Summit Hike
The Trail at Cowles Mountain Summit Hike

Our Winner: Cowles Mountain Hike

As far as the better hiking experience, Cowles Mountain Sunrise Hike is our pick when looking at the basics of each trail, though both hiking paths are some of the most rewarding in San Diego.

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San Diego Hiking Tour
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Local Tips
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Views of the Desert, Photo Ops, and More

The views at these two trails are some of the best in San Diego! See what makes them both special.

Loving the View at At Cowles Mountain
Loving the View at At Cowles Mountain

The Scenery at Cowles Mountain

My favorite view at Cowles Mountain was watching the sunrise at the summit. Even if you’re more of a night owl like I am, getting up early is so worth it for the view. There’s also a little Cowles Mountain plaque near the top where you can snap a great commemorative photo.

On your way up the mountain, there’s a big rock formation that’s another nice photo op, which is only part way through the trail.

The trails at both Cowles Mountain and Potato Chip Rock are bordered by desert scrub and natural rock formations. Potato Chip Rock also has wildflowers down by the lake, while Cowles Mountain is mostly sandy and rocky.

Take in the View at Potato Chip Rock

The huge boulder that gives Potato Chip Rock Hike its name is a popular photo taking spot, though you may have to wait if you visit during peak hours. The rock is just a few minutes from the very top of the trail, where you can look out over the Pacific Ocean for a truly stunning sight.

Potato Chip Rock also has wildflowers down by the lake.

San Diego is generally sunny, and neither hiking trail has much shade. If you’re planning on going during the warmer months, make sure to pack lots of water, especially at the longer Potato Chip Rock hike.

Rain is infrequent, but a storm could still leave the paths muddy. Hike on mild, partly cloudy days, so you can still enjoy the view without any of the setbacks.

Beautiful Flowers Along the Cowles Mountain Summit Hike
Beautiful Flowers Along the Cowles Mountain Summit Hike

Our Preferred Scenic Hike: Cowles Mountain

The view of sunrise at Cowles Mountain just can’t be beat, which is why it’s our winning choice for the best view.

Ease of Navigation and Parking

Whether you’re navigating on the hike or just getting to the trail itself, here are some things to keep in mind at each location.

Dog Friendly Trails at Cowles Mountain
Dog Friendly Trails at Cowles Mountain

Conditions at Cowles Mountain

Cowles Mountain is mainly a dirt pathway with a few rocky sections. If you set out before sunrise like I did, be careful on the way up, especially when stepping over loose gravel. As long as you take it slow on the inclines, you should have little trouble reaching the top.

There are a few entrances to Mission Trails Regional Park. If you’re hoping to hike Cowles Mountain’s trailhead, you’ll find it right near the Cowles Staging Area parking lot off Navajo Road.

Both trails have designated parking lots not far from the trailheads. Mission Trails Regional Park has multiple free lots on the property.

Getting Around at Potato Chip Rock

Mount Woodson Trail, the pathway up to Potato Chip rock, has fewer gravel sections, but the narrowness of the path does mean you’ll be stepping over rocks a few times. Though it’s mostly uphill, there aren’t many hazards to worry about.

To get to Potato Chip Rock, start at the trailhead down by Lake Poway Road. Follow Sumac Trail to Lake Poway Trail, then continue to Mt. Woodson Trail.

At Lake Poway, parking is $10 on weekends but free during the week.

The Easier Trail to Access: Potato Chip Rock

There’s more parking available at Potato Chip Rock, making it the more convenient choice, even accounting for the fee.

However, if you’re arriving early, you shouldn’t have much trouble finding a spot to park at either trail most days.

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Hiking Facilities and Safety Tips

Be aware of potential hazards as you hike and make use of amenities at each location to reduce the risk of accidents and injuries.

Early Morning Hike at Cowles Mountain Summit
Early Morning Hike at Cowles Mountain Summit

Safe Practices at Cowles Mountain

Keep an eye out for snakes as you walk Cowles Mountain’s trail. Feel free to take pictures, but don’t disturb the wildlife. Rattlesnakes are known to live there, so watch where you step.

The route to the Cowles Mountain summit is shorter and doesn’t have any facilities along the way, though there is a restroom at the trailhead.

Trail Facilities at Potato Chip Rock

The biggest hazard at Potato Chip Rock is the sun, so come prepared. This means sunscreen, hats, appropriate hiking attire, and more water than you think you’ll need. It’s a long trail, so don’t underestimate it!

Take breaks as you hike to Potato Chip Rock. There is a picnic area and a restroom by the start of the trail. There are two lookout points as you proceed up the path.

The Spot with Better Amenities: Potato Chip Rock

Potato Chip Rock has more available amenities, including the picnic tables and a few places to catch your breath along the way, though the difference isn’t too significant here.

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Rules to Follow and Other Considerations

Here are a few regulations to keep in mind while hiking, plus info about crowds.

Great Feeling at the Top of Cowles Mountain
Great Feeling at the Top of Cowles Mountain

Guidelines to Know for Cowles Mountain

There are no fees and no necessary permits for hiking at Cowles Mountain.

The trail allows on-leash dogs. Hikers are expected to clean up after their pets.

Cowles Mountain can get crowded, especially on weekend afternoons, though it tends to be less crowded than Potato Chip Rock. We set out on our hike before sunrise so we could avoid running into too many other people, and getting to see the sunrise at the summit was the cherry on top.

Regulations at Potato Chip Rock

Aside from weekend parking, Potato Chip Rock does not charge visitors to hike the trails. You do not need any permits either.

Dogs are allowed here as well. Like at Cowles Mountain, dogs must be on-leash at all times. Bring a water bowl as well, especially on hot days.

Potato Chip Rock is similarly crowded and draws many hikers no matter the season. It’s not recommended to hike this trail in low light due to its steepness, so be prepared to share the path.

Sunrise at Cowles Mountain
Sunrise at Cowles Mountain

Our Team’s Pick: Cowles Mountain Sunrise Hike

Most rules are the same between the two trails, but Cowles Mountain Sunrise Hike is a little less crowded and has free parking even on weekends and holidays, giving it the edge.

What Hikers Should Know Before Setting Out

Here are a few bonus tips to consider before you go on either hike.

One of the Markers at Cowles Mountain
One of the Markers at Cowles Mountain

Cowles Mountain Tips

  • Mission Trails Regional Park has a visitor center right off the Father Junipero Serra Trail park entrance. It is open from 9:00 am-5:00 pm.
  • It’s best in my opinion to do the hike during spring or fall, when there’s less risk of heatstroke or severe sunburns.

Potato Chip Rock Information

  • This hiking spot doesn’t have a visitor center.
  • Since there is little shade at either trail, I’d caution against hiking during the hot summer months, especially at Potato Chip Rock, unless you are willing to go early.

Where We Recommend Hiking

Potato Chip Rock Hike is in Poway
Potato Chip Rock Hike is in Poway

Though Potato Chip Rock is one of the most iconic hiking spots in San Diego, its notoriety draws plenty of crowds.

For our money, Cowles Mountain Sunrise Hike is the better spot to go hiking if you like having the trail more to yourself, especially considering the amazing view of the sunrise from the top.

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