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As day breaks on many a September or an October morning, cone-shaped Mount Helix floats like a desert island above the cool, sopping-wet marine layer. While walking up along the mountainside on mornings like these, you may find yourself rising above the mist into the bright, balmy, temperature-inverted world above. Like mock surf, cottony clouds break upon the shores of Mount Helix below and swirl around the tops of peaks and ridges all around. Only the diffuse roar of traffic floating up through the murk reminds you that you are smack-dab in the middle of a binational metropolitan area of over four million people.

For a comprehensive five-mile walking tour (or running tour, if you have the stamina) of the mountain, try following the route arrowed on the map, beginning at Eucalyptus Park in Spring Valley. This, or one of its many possible variants, is a favorite early-morning run of mine. Car traffic on the narrow byways twisting across Mount Helix is generally sparse and practically nonexistent early on a Sunday morning. There's little or no road shoulder, however, so proceed with caution.

As you climb eastward through residential areas toward the summit, progressively fancier houses sprout amid the hillside boulders. Retaining walls and exotic vegetation stabilize the sheer-cut slopes. There's not much danger of landslides here, as solid igneous rock lies just below the thin veneer of soil, but one wonders what a loosened boulder falling from above would do.

Nearing the top, you ascend in the helical pattern carved by Mt. Helix Drive. Despite this little coincidence, historians seem to agree that the mountain's name derives from the helical shell of a snail, Helix aspersa, found nearby and noted by a botanist in 1872.

The stone amphitheater and white cross atop the rounded summit of the mountain were dedicated Easter Sunday, 1925, and subsequently deeded to the county. Today, a private foundation owns the facility, which is used every summer for outdoor stage plays.

As you circle about the amphitheater grounds, there are views in every direction -- the blue wall of the Cuyamacas and the Lagunas in the east, Mexico's Table Mountain in the south, Palomar and the San Bernardino Mountains in the north. When the mist clears below, the urban tapestry seems to stretch forever.

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