Arising on the west slope of the Volcan Mountains, Santa Ysabel Creek slides through Santa Ysabel Valley and soon enters the Lake Sutherland reservoir, northeast of Ramona. Once below the dam, water in the creek trickles (in fall) or tumbles (after winter rains) down a steep, rocky gorge and emerges upon the flatter terrain of Pamo Valley. The following one-way, mostly downhill 5-mile-long hike, on Cleveland National Forest lands, traverses this pristine and isolated region. You'll need to obtain and post a National Forest Adventure Pass on your car for the privilege of parking. Call 619-673-6180 or 760-788-0250 for information.
You may set up a car shuttle in advance this way: Leave one car at the finish (north of Ramona) along Pamo Road, 1.5 mile north of its crossing over Santa Ysabel Creek. Ride in the other vehicle to a point along Black Canyon Road just north of an old metal bridge at the intersection of Black Canyon Road and Sutherland Dam Road. (By enlisting a volunteer driver who will drop you off and later pick you up, you can avoid the car-shuttle procedure and save time and extra driving.)
At a point 200 yards north of the old metal bridge, you'll find a gated, descending road - the Santa Ysabel Truck Trail. Walk 0.3 mile down its deteriorating paved surface. 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 to contour along the north slope of the Santa Ysabel gorge, heading circuitously toward Pamo Valley. Step over or wade across the Black Canyon stream by way of the concrete ford (but not if the water is too deep and swift). Gradual ups and downs and many twists and turns on the truck trail ahead take you farther and farther away from Santa Ysabel Creek. Most of the time you're on sunless, south-facing slopes thickly grown with chamise and other drought-resistant forms of chaparral - fine if you're hiking this stretch in late fall through early spring but insufferably hot from late spring through early fall.
At 3.3 miles, a live-oak-shaded ravine spreads a dense pool of shade across the trail. Shortly thereafter, on a ridgeline at 3.5 miles, a road comes down-ridge from the right. It leads upward toward Black Mountain, a former fire-lookout site, nearly 6 miles away. Your course continues downhill to Pamo Road, a crooked 1.4 miles away, which is where the hike ends.