Santa Ysabel Creek is a major tributary of the San Dieguito River. As it flows near Ramona, it is separated into upper and lower branches by the Pamo Valley. The Upper Santa Ysabel Truck Trail is a segment of the Coast to Crest Trail that will extend from Volcan Mountain to the ocean in Del Mar. The Upper Santa Ysabel Truck Trail follows Upper Santa Ysabel Creek from Pamo Valley to its intersection with Black Canyon Road near Sutherland Dam. The hike described can be extended from Black Canyon to Sutherland Dam, to complete this part of the Coast to Crest Trail.
This is a great cool season hike with expansive views and a chance to experience most of the diverse habitat types found in San Diego County. The hike can be done as a one-way trip with shuttle arrangement or as a much longer, all day out-and-back journey. It can be done from either end, but the description here assumes a Pamo Valley beginning.
Try to arrive at the trailhead early in the morning to experience the spectacular descent into Pamo Valley from the Ramona plateau. Shortly after you pass the Ramona landfill, Pamo Valley Road begins a surprisingly sharp descent of more than 600 feet into the valley. The broad oak-forested valley floor extends 6 miles north and sits between Orosco Ridge to the west and Black Mountain to the east. In the 1880s, J.M. Woods bought land here with the idea of constructing a dam to provide water for agriculture. This idea was slow to die. In 1925, the City of San Diego bought property in the valley with the same idea. In 1950, the city obtained a permit to build a 264-foot-high dam that would have converted 4300 acres of Pamo Valley into a reservoir. However, in 1986 the Environmental Protection Agency ruled against the dam. The City of San Diego continues to own the valley, but it is now part of the San Dieguito River Park and is leased to cattle ranchers.
Start the hike where the Upper Santa Ysabel Truck Trail (FR12S07) begins from Pamo Valley Road. Although it is a truck trail, it gets relatively little vehicle traffic. The trail rises steadily about 700 feet up a ridge and through grassland first, then chaparral. At the crest of the ridge, Black Mountain Truck Trail splits off to the left while the Upper Santa Ysabel Truck Trail heads east, but it never reaches Santa Ysabel Creek. From here to Black Canyon the truck trail undulates but remains substantially above the creek. It is easy walking along the road and, if the day isn’t hot, you can enjoy the views down to Pamo Valley. A little further on, the trail passes into a tributary canyon where Engelmann’s oaks and western sycamores provide welcome shade and a good place to rest. At 2.3 miles there is a view down into Santa Ysabel Creek, where western cottonwoods, western sycamores, willows, and oaks line the stream. In the fall, the cottonwoods and sycamores turn a brilliant shade of yellow.
At five miles is Black Canyon, with its oak forest with lush riparian vegetation. A campground was here until it was destroyed by a flash flood and never rebuilt. From here you can either end your hike or continue up the Sutherland Dam road, adding another 0.7 mile to your hike. You can arrange to be picked up at either place, but if you are doing an out-and-back, you are only halfway. Turn around and go back the way you came.
UPPER SANTA YSABEL TRUCK TRAIL FROM PAMO VALLEY
Distance from downtown San Diego: 50 miles. Allow 1 hour driving time. From CA-78 in Ramona, go west on Haverford Road for 0.8 mile. Continue onto Pamo Road, go 5.4 miles. Trailhead is at Forest Road 12S07, on the right.
Hiking length: 5, 8, 10, or 15 miles out-and-back and one-way options. Plan on 4–8 hours of hiking.
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous with 1000 feet to 1700 feet elevation gain/loss. Leashed dogs and bicycles permitted. High-clearance 4WD vehicles are essential if you plan to drive.