Several back roads, some paved and some unpaved, strike off in various directions from Ramona, each offering splendid bicycle touring that doesn’t have to include tangling with snarling traffic on major roads. Black Canyon Road is perhaps the best of these routes. You can ride 14 miles from Ramona to Mesa Grande, expending considerable effort to accomplish 1800 feet of net elevation gain. Then you can coast almost all of the way back. Road-bike riders have covered the mostly unpaved route successfully (if carefully), but mountain bikes are more apt for the task.
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 national-forest land (no more houses), and soon pavement ends. A graded but often rutty 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 pass high over Santa Ysabel Creek and begin a steady climb up along the east side 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 touching upon 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 golden grasses, are reminiscent of much of California’s rural past.
Return by way of the same route. Or, if you don’t mind tangling with fast traffic on Highways 79 and 78 and want to try an alternate return, loop south to stay on pavement all the way. If you do, use the delightfully curvy Old Julian Highway to escape most of the cars on the final leg leading into Ramona.
Black Canyon bike ride
Hit the dirt with a mountain bike on a cruise from Ramona to Mesa Grande.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 42 miles
Biking length: 28 miles round-trip
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous