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San Diego County's "big" Black Mountain (not the smaller one looming above Rancho Peñasquitos) rises gently to an elevation of 4051 feet outside Ramona. A fire-lookout tower once stood on Black Mountain's summit, taking full advantage of a panoramic -- and certainly unique -- vista furnished by the mountain's strategic central location within the county.

Hikers, bikers, runners, equestrians, and four-wheel drivers have public access to Black Mountain's summit via a winding fire road up the southwest flank -- though motorized vehicles will get no closer than one mile (or more distance if the road is impacted by weather) from the top. Unquestionably, the late-winter period is perfect for an exercise-oriented trek up this road. The air's clear and cool through March, and the dominant chaparral vegetation hereabouts is dressed up in its best spring-green foliage.

To reach the base of Black Mountain, first head for Pamo Road, using either Haverford Road off Highway 78 north of Ramona or Seventh Street (becomes Elm Street) north from "downtown" Ramona. As you drive north on Pamo Road, your car pitches deeply downhill into the sublime and isolated Pamo Valley. Continue north in the valley to where the pavement ends and further 1.3 miles to a dirt-road intersection on the right, Forest Road 12S07. You may park near this intersection, or else (using a high-clearance vehicle only) drive 1.5 rutty miles uphill to a wide intersection where Black Mountain fire road forks left. Parking at this upper starting point (elevation 1645 feet) requires that a National Forest Adventure Pass be displayed on your car.

From the upper starting point, 5.6 miles of moderate and almost unrelenting ascent lie ahead. As you climb toward the mountain's broad summit, scrubby chamise chaparral gradually yields to sparse Engelmann oak woodland, and finally to planted groves of coniferous trees (mostly Coulter pines). The Organ Valley Research Natural Area, a square mile of oak-dotted ravines and slopes in Cleveland National Forest designated for special protection, lies east of the road. You may notice a hiker's entryway into this natural area 3.3 miles up the road. At 3.8 miles you'll pass a perennial spring and fire-fighting reservoir, where horses and dogs can fill their bellies with cool, slightly murky water.

The road ends 5.4 miles up, and a final rough 0.2 mile on bulldozed former roadway lets hikers reach the fire-tower site. Concrete steps, footings, and a cistern remain amid a surviving ground-covering carpet of vinca, or periwinkle. Using fingers and toes you can launch yourself atop the cistern. There you can spin your head around for a 360-degree panorama not available elsewhere: rolling pasturelands in Mesa Grande a mile or two north and east, and range after range of mountains in every direction except west, where the cobalt-blue or sparkling silver ocean reveals itself on the clearest days.

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