If you Google images of Cowles Mountain, themes will quickly emerge: stunning panoramic views of San Diego, people with triumphant grins posing in a variety of unique and/or weary positions next to the monument at the top, individuals being rescued from the trail due to injuries or other manner of distress, and yet more stunning panoramic views of San Diego. So it goes without saying that this is one popular mountain, and for good reason.
The worst part about Cowles is also the best part if you're a female who enjoys a good solo hike: it's well-populated on any given day of the week. The safety factor in this regard is a big selling point and I appreciate that about Cowles - pronounced "coals," not like the plural for hooded garments, "cowls," although the popular pronunciation is the latter. The trail that saddles over to Pyles Peak from the top of Cowles is a pleasant chaser to the bustle you experience on the way up. More on this later.
I liken the high traffic of the Golfcrest Drive trailhead that snakes around and finally switchbacks up to the summit as a one-lane, two-way highway designed to teach us the merits of coexisting with our fellow foot travelers -- all of whom are ascending and descending at a wide range of speeds. Whether it's the family of five encouraging their fussy eight-year-old that it's just a little further, the clutch of work friends bemoaning their tyrannical boss, the athletes bounding past with a singular mission, serious hikers making a trial run in full gear regalia, etc., Cowles offers a great workout no matter how fast or slow you choose to go.
On to Pyles Peak! The peace and serenity of the trail is restored after just a few turns, and you can once again hear your boots crunch pleasantly on rock and gravel. On the busiest of days I have passed five or so people en route to my destination, but I usually see only one or two at most. If you're early enough you'll catch a glimpse of California Quail making morning rounds of their favorite clearings, and springtime yields all manner of colorful blooms.
This trail winds up, down and around at a far more forgiving grade and offers stunning views. The final steep stretch to the peak will make you earn the amazing reward at the top, though (watch your footing here for sure). Once to the top, the trail peters out as you meander through tall grasses and rocky outcroppings. There is expansive scenery aplenty at this point, so bring your camera! If there ever was a place to sit a spell, breathe, and clear your head, this would be it.
At the risk of overthinking the notion, I've come to the conclusion that Cowles and Pyles make a dynamic pair in that they manage to compliment one another by way of their dramatic differences. Frenetic energy versus placid, if you will. I get a sense that their impact on the senses would be lessened were they not hand in hand, thus offering a deeper appreciation for what each has to offer. So if you want to get a true feel for one, be sure to get to know the other.