There’s an easy way and a hard way to get to Black Mountain, a 2,800-foot summit in the Santa Cruz Mountains west of San Jose. I’ve done the easy route a couple times with Mike and Kathy’s hiking group for their annual First Hike on New Year’s Day. It starts on a fairly remote trailhead at Monte Bello Open Space Preserve and tracks through gorgeous grasslands and forest for about two and half miles. It’s too close to civilization to be considered backcountry, but it does feel pretty wild out there.

Then there’s route I took on Saturday: 7.5 miles and 2,400 feet of climb from Rancho San Antonio County Park — easily the most crowded park in the county — to the Black Mountain summit. The last four miles go along the Black Mountain Trail, which is mostly a tree tunnel until the last mile and a half, when a rather wicked slog to the summit ensues along an old Jeep road.

It takes three and half miles of hiking on gravel roads just to reach Black Mountain Trail, and the scenery is unremarkable till you get there. Half of the 15-mile out-and-back from Rancho is borderline boring, though you have the consolation of knowing you’re getting some exercise (if you don’t mind the hardcore trail runners’ attempts to crush your spirit by effortlessly dashing past you on the way up).

The route has something going for it only under certain conditions: Namely, a sunny day during the cool, wet season a few days after a storm’s gone through. The rain knocks a lot of the gunk out of the Silicon Valley air, which can mean amazingly clear vistas from the nearby hills.

These were precisely the conditions I enjoyed on Saturday, so it turned out to be a pretty nice hike that yielded a raft of pretty pictures. Let’s take a look at ‘em.

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This transmission tower is a major landmark a mile and a half from the top. It comes after a couple miles of pleasant switchbacks through the aforementioned Black Mountain Trail tree tunnel. The tower tells you the fun is about to begin: straight up an old jeep road, with a false summit thrown in to make things interesting, then some down and then some back up again. If you didn’t have to hike six miles to this point, though, it’d be no sweat.

Almost to the top


When these towers come into view, it’s less than a quarter mile to the top.

The rocks at Black Mountain Summit


These rocks are the most distinctive feature of the Black Mountain summit.

Handy poles


Ye ol’ hiking poles, most handy for distances over 10 miles. (I bought these with birthday money a couple years ago — thanks, Mom! — and they’ve definitely got some miles on ‘em).

Meadow, Black Mountain summit


The first clouds of an approaching storm system roll in. Note the faint green tint of the meadow here — just a few minor showers this fall have already started greening the hills up.

Me and my shadow


You’re never truly hiking solo as long as your shadow’s there to keep you company.

Pods and sky


I think these are walnut pods.

Clouds starting to darken


More clouds gather over the ridge on my way back down the trail toward Rancho.

Quite the view


Here’s one of the many expansive views I saw — San Francisco, the Bay and Oakland are off in the distance.

Holly season


Holly season!

Fuzzy plant


When the sun’s at the right angle it makes these fuzzy plants glow.

Fading light


Saw this sky overhead on my way to the parking lot. You never can tell when a great image will show up… sometimes you’ll hike six and a half hours in search of great shots and find one only at the very end.

This route does have something else going for it, come to think of it: it’s an excellent introduction to distance hiking in the Bay Area. The climb is spread pretty evenly until the last mile and a half, and the trails are all well-groomed. Plus there are lots of people around so you’re never far from help in an emergency. If you think all you can handle is 10 miles, this is a great place to prove you can do 15.

Just for fun: here’s a link to a picture of a bobcat spotted at Rancho. Got into a little dust-up with a rattlesnake.