Santa Margarita River

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The Santa Margarita River – turnaround point just before Willow Glen
Margarita Peak from the 500-foot trail

Santa Margarita River

    • Location: North of Fallbrook.  From I-5, take highway 76 northeast for 13 miles to Bonsall.  Turn left on Mission, follow it into Fallbrook for a total of 6.7 miles.  Take a sharp right turn (be careful, this intersection is tricky) and take an immediate left on Pico.  Drive a total of 1.2 miles (Pico becomes De Luz) and bear right onto Sandia Creek Drive.  Go 1.1 miles and park in the dirt turnout just before Rock Mountain Drive.  From I-15 south of Temecula, take the Mission Road/highway S-13 exit and head west for 5 miles to Fallbrook, and turn right on Pico.
    • Agency:  Fallbrook Land Conservancy
    • Distance: 6.9 miles
    • Elevation gain: 800 feet
    • Difficulty Rating: PG
    • Suggested time: 3 hours
    • Best season: September – May
    • Recomended gear: hiking poles
    • Recommended guidebook: California Hiking
    • USGS topo maps: Temecula, Fallbrook
    • More information: here; Everytrail report here
    • Rating: 7

There are some places in the country where walking along a freely flowing river is commonplace, but in Southern California, it’s surprisingly rare to be able to do that. Tucked away in northern San Diego County, the Santa Margarita River is a popular spot with hikers, joggers and equestrians. While there are a few signs of civilization along the route, there are none of the concrete barriers and retaining walls that seem to surround most of Southern California’s rivers.

Although the area gets hot during the summer, much of the hike is shaded, so with an early start, this hike can be doable almost any time of year. There are also a wide variety of trails to pick, so if you’re not up for doing the entire loop, you’ll probably find that a shorter trip through this area can be just as enjoyable.

The trail leaves from the east end of the parking area. Some parts are washed out and eroded, so be careful as you make your way along the route. There are several splits where equestrians are asked to take the lower (usually left) path and hikers, the right. You get some nice looks at the peaceful, smooth surface of the river, beneath the shade of large oaks.

Just over a mile in, the trail begins a hot, exposed climb. From the top, you are rewarded with views of the hills nearby, including Margarita Peak, which holds the distinction of being the tallest mountain in San Diego county west of I-15. You head back down into the canyon, and as you do, you may notice a faint trail coming in from behind. This is the return route.

You continue along the river, soon arriving at a split. Head right (signed for Rainbow Creek), and walk through a jungle-like stretch with thick vegetation. Soon you leave this and climb again to another vista point. The 500-foot trail, which you will take on the return, branches off to the right. Stay straight and descend to the banks of the river. Shortly before reaching Willow Glen Road, the trail meets the river. This is the turnaround point, where you can sit and enjoy the scenery before turning around.

On the return, head left on the 500-foot trail. Why it’s called that I’m not sure (it’s 1.5 miles long); maybe that’s just one of life’s little mysteries. It winds around the upper folds of the canyon, almost completely exposed except for a short stretch where it dips into the shade of some oaks. You get great views of Margarita Mountain and some of the rolling hills nearby that look pretty atypical of what one might expect from San Diego.

The trail passes by a landfill and makes a sharp right, descending back into the canyon. Soon it meets up with the main trail. Head left and retrace your steps to the parking area.

Text and photography copyright 2011 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.


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