Water splashes over small waterfalls at Black Canyon near Ramona.

In Black Canyon water has amply illustrated its mindless yet artistic ability to sculpt stone. Every once in a great while, a great gush of sediment-laden water tears through the canyon bottom, carving and polishing the bedrock slabs, drilling potholes ever deeper, toppling trees, and pushing rounded boulders downstream. By now (and unless we get another El Niño gully-washer), Black Canyon's stream should have calmed down, happily splashing over small waterfalls, pausing in pools, sliding along inclined slabs, and finding hidden passages beneath immense boulders.

Black Canyon

Fifteen or twenty years ago, the canyon (beyond Ramona in the Cleveland National Forest) tended to attract rowdy, gun-slinging alcoholics. A prohibition on target shooting within the local national-forest lands enacted some 13 years ago helped end that unhappy circumstance, and today the place seems safe and serene. The San Dieguito River Park may manage the area in the future, but for now you must display a National Forest Adventure Pass (call 619-673-6180 to obtain one) if you park your car and visit here.

To reach the starting point, drive east from Ramona on Highway 78 and turn north on Magnolia Avenue. Magnolia soon becomes Black Canyon Road and later becomes a narrow, twisting, graded dirt road. At 7.3 miles from Highway 78, just short of an old metal bridge over Santa Ysabel Creek, you meet the road coming down from Sutherland Dam. (This road, which is rough and rocky for one mile between here and Sutherland Dam and paved south of there, connects to Highway 78. This is an alternate route for your drive in or out of the area.)

Turn left over the bridge and continue 200 yards on Black Canyon Road to a junction with a gated, descending road -- the Santa Ysabel Truck Trail. Park at the top, along the road shoulder.

Walk 0.3 mile down the deteriorating macadam surface of the descending road. This once was the entrance to the Black Canyon Campground, closed nearly two decades ago. At the bottom, the road fords Black Canyon and doubles back. Don't cross the ford but stay right, following an oak-shaded bench on the south side of Black Canyon's creek.

Noting traces of the old campground facilities, continue another 0.3 mile to where some moderately difficult scrambling begins. Although kids are often adept at such moves, they must be watched carefully and perhaps helped at a couple of spots. The most serious hazard is the slippery surfaces of rocks at or near the stream.

Perhaps 20 to 40 minutes later, depending on how much time you wish to dawdle amid the fine scenery, you'll come to a wide, shallow pool fed by a 20-foot waterfall. Black Canyon Road lies on the slope immediately above. Climb up to it and return to your car by walking along the road.

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