North and east of Ramona lie several back roads offering splendid late-spring bicycle riding for those who care to venture off the car-clogged two-lane ribbon of Highway 78. Black Canyon Road is perhaps the best of these. You can ride 14 miles from Ramona to Mesa Grande, expending considerable effort to accomplish 1800 feet of net elevation gain, then coast most of the way back. Or you may opt for an alternate return route, turning your trip into a loop. Many years ago, I rode Black Canyon Road very gingerly and successfully on a ten-speed with delicate sew-up tires; but today a robustly tired mountain bike, or a hybrid street/mountain bike, is a far better choice.
Begin near the intersection of Magnolia Avenue and Highway 78, just east of Ramona. Start by riding north on paved Magnolia Avenue. Magnolia turns into Black Canyon Road and passes a Cleveland National Forest ranger station. Beyond a few scattered houses and farms, the road starts climbing into Cleveland National Forest lands and the pavement ends. A graded but slightly rutted or "washboard" dirt surface continues for the remaining distance to Mesa Grande.
At 5.2 miles, you roll over a crest and begin a breezy, if somewhat bumpy 2.2-mile descent. Oak- and sycamore-lined Santa Ysabel Creek lies down-slope to the left. At 7.4 miles you cross a narrow old bridge over Santa Ysabel Creek and begin a steady climb up along the east wall of Black Canyon -- a tributary of Santa Ysabel Creek.
The next several miles of winding ascent are delightfully shaded at frequent intervals by wide-spreading live oaks. After briefly crossing Mesa Grande Indian Reservation lands, you arrive at the paved Mesa Grande Road (14.0 miles). If you want to, go left or right on the pavement for a little exploratory spin on the rolling plateau of Mesa Grande to get a taste of one of San Diego County's hidden treasures. The oak-dotted hillsides, blanketed in grasses turning summer gold at the moment, are reminiscent of much of California's rural past.
If you opt for a return to Ramona on pavement, ride south on Mesa Grande Road and tangle with light to moderate but fast traffic on Highways 79 and 78. Use the delightfully curvy Old Julian Highway to escape most of the cars on the final leg to Ramona.
Our map suggests other looping bike routes in the Ramona area. For example, you can fashion a loop out of Black Canyon Road, Sutherland Dam Road, and Old Julian Highway. Another is a loop involving the rough-surfaced Santa Ysabel Truck Trail and Pamo Road.