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After flowing across the pristine, oak- and sycamore-dotted Pamo Valley north of Ramona, Santa Ysabel Creek cuts southwest down a steep gorge and finally emerges on the flatlands of San Pasqual Valley. In the '70s and '80s, environmentalists struggled and finally fought off a proposal to construct a large dam across the creek in the upper part of the gorge.This would have flooded the entire valley to a depth of as much as 150 feet and destroyed some of the finest oak-woodland habitat in Southern California. More recently, local water districts have turned to alternative methods of storing emergency water supplies around the county, and the Pamo Dam proposal seems, for the foreseeable future at least, moribund.

Part of the gorge lies on the westernmost edge of Cleveland National Forest and is included within the future San Dieguito River Park. An ill-maintained fire road, now evolving into a trail -- the Lower Santa Ysabel Road -- threads the wall of the gorge and will one day be incorporated into the river park's Coast to Crest Trail.

The eastern segment of this road is worth exploring on foot, especially in the early morning when long shadows fall across the trail and mist rises from the depths of the gorge below.

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. To get to the trailhead drive north on Pamo Road, a rural road accessible from Haverford Road or Elm Street just north of central Ramona. Pamo Road quickly dives downhill toward lush Pamo Valley. At the foot of the grade, turn left on the Orosco Truck Trail and park amid a grove of oaks within 200 yards. Do not cross Santa Ysabel Creek. On foot, head west (and briefly uphill) on the Lower Santa Ysabel Road, where you soon pass a gate designed to block vehicle traffic.

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