Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve

General Information
   Tour Procedure
   North Entrance
   South Entrance
   Rainbow Glen Entrance
Sources and Other Information

General Information

The Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve (SMER) is a Research Field Station of San Diego State University (SDSU) and the San Diego State University Foundation. The purpose of the reserve is "to keep the property in its natural state for the preservation and protection of the native plants, animals and habitat, and for related educational and research purposes."

The Reserve is a key part of preserving the entire Santa Margarita River, one of the last free-flowing rivers in coastal Southern California, and its rich ecosystem. The Santa Margarita River officially begins at the northeastern boundary of the Preserve, at the confluence of Temecula and Murrieta Creeks. The River flows through the impressive Temecula Gorge of the Reserve, the lands owned by the Fallbrook Public Utility District, and empties into the Ocean through the largely undisturbed lands of Camp Pendleton.

The upper watershed of the Santa Margarita River is thus the combined watersheds of Temecula and Murrieta Creeks. (See Map of the Santa Margarita River Watershed.) Although there are two dams in the upper watershed, both dams must release water that roughly corresponds to natural flows in the tributaries that they are on. As a result, the flow of water in the Santa Margarita River is very close to what it would be in the absence of those two dams.

The Reserve has a total area of 4344 acres. Murray Schloss bequeathed the core 2480 acres to SDSU in 1962, ~1200 acres are leased from the BLM, and ~400 acres were donated by the Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy intends to acquire and donate 9 more nearby parcels of lands as they become available.

The research focus of the Reserve has become critical as humans pave over more and more of Southern California. It is now recognized that we cannot save the huge number of endangered plants and animals without saving large enough areas of the right kinds of habitat for them to thrive. Experiments conducted at the Reserve help us to understand what needs to be done to save our world-recognized rich plant and animal diversity.

Research is also done that benefits humans directly. The Reserve has a working citrus and avocado grove and an eucalyptus plantation with over 35 varieties. Past research led to the introduction of a predator to control the bark borer that devastated eucalyptus plantings in the 1980s. Current research includes a study on the effectiveness of importing bees to pollinate groves.

Murray Schloss originally intended to establish a Utopian community at the site, and in a sense, his vision has come to fruition with the establishment of the Reserve. While the Reserve is not the Eden it once was before the presence of humans in Southern California, it is about as close to an Eden as one can find.


Because SMER is a Reserve, it is not open to the public except through a pre-arranged hiking or horseback-riding educational tour. Note that you must bring your own horse for the horseback-riding tour - we do not supply horses! Most tours occur on the weekend, but tours during the week are also possible. With the graduation of the first docent class in August 2000, SMER now has the staff to accommodate visitors who wish to explore and learn about this special area.

Tours can be arranged by contacting Dave Bailey at "dbailey" "@" "" (remove all quote marks and spaces to reconstruct his email), or at 760-728-9446.

The request should specify hiking or horse-back riding, a range of desired dates, the number in your group (15 max for hiking; 10 max for horses), the route desired (see below), and whether you would prefer a docent with a particular special interest (birds, plants, kids, geology, history, etc.) Again, note that you must bring your own horse for the horseback-riding tour - we do not supply horses!

There is an optional donation of $5 for each participant that will go to benefit SDSU and to meet the expenses of the docent program.

The Docent will meet the tour group at the appointed date, time and place; have all participants sign liability release forms; collect the optional donation of $5 per participant, and conduct the tour. Docents will show up rain or shine, but will understand if tour participants don't show up in bad weather!

Map: TopoZone Map. SMER is essentially the upper right quadrant of this map.

USGS 7.5' x 7.5' Maps: Temecula. The Reserve is not shown on the 1975 edition. Approximate coordinates: NE end: (33.4744° N, 117.1379° W, 970'); NW end: (33.4502° N, 117.2057° W, 1380'); SW end: (33.4278° N, 117.2015° W, 600'); SE end: (33.4325° N, 117.1528° W, 1600'). The Thomas Brothers Map shows the Reserve (San Diego 998 and Riverside 978).

Technically, nearly all of SMER is in Riverside County, but since the main part of SMER is clearly in the Fallbrook area, I consider it part of these San Diego County pages.

By Car:
South Entrance: From the Mission Road exit on I-15 in Fallbrook, take Mission Road west 1.6 miles to Willow Glen north (right). After 2.2 miles, Willow Glen turns to dirt at its intersection with Stage Coach Lane virtually at the River. Take Stage Coach Lane northeast (right) 1.7 miles to its end at the locked gate to the Reserve. The gate will be opened for tour participants, who will park in a dirt parking lot at the entrance to the citrus grove, about a half mile from the gate.

North Entrance: From Rancho California Road exit on I-15 in Temecula, go west 2.3 miles to Via Santa Rosa, the first left after ascending into the foothills. Continue 1.5 miles and turn right on Via Tornado, 0.8 miles to its end at the locked entrance gate.

Rainbow Glen Entrance: We no longer have adequate parking near the Rainbow Glen entrance to offer tours from there in general. Here are directions in case special arrangements can be made for parking. The first part of the directions depends on which direction you are coming from:

Rest of directions for Rainbow Glen Entrance: Go 3 miles down Rainbow Glen Road, a winding road that heads west then north, to the end of the paved road. The dirt road 100 yards to the right is the gate to John Hogan's farm at 3048 Rainbow Glen Rd.

By Trail: None.


List of Docent-led Tours (Hiking or Horseback Riding) Note that you must bring your own horse for the horseback-riding tour - we do not supply horses!

NameHikeMileageElevation gain / lossHighlights
Short Hikes/Rides
North Rim Loop TrailTrailhead near North Field Station looping through an overlook into Temecula Gorge0.9100Waterfall in side canyon, view of Temecula Gorge showing former railroad bench, coastal sage scrub
South Gate to Stone CreekField station (South Gate) to end of Oak Riparian area and back1.5320Orchard, Stone Creek
North Gate to GorgeTornado (North) Gate to Gorge and back1.7440Temecula Gorge
Rainbow Glen to GorgeRainbow Glen (Southeast) gate to Gorge and back2.5750San Diego Aqueduct, chaparral, coastal sage scrub, Temecula Gorge.
Organic Farm to Gorge and back3.8870
Long Hikes/Rides: South Gate Trailhead
South Gate to GorgeField Station to Gorge and back6.51400Orchard, Stone Creek, San Diego Aqueduct, chaparral, coastal sage scrub, Temecula Gorge
Reserve TraverseField Station to Tornado Gate and back8.21840Orchard, Stone Creek, San Diego Aqueduct, chaparral, coastal sage scrub, Temecula Gorge

The south gate of the Reserve is at the end of Willow Glen Road in Fallbrook, and the Field station (the former ranch house) is about a half mile past the gate. The north gate of the Reserve is at the end of Via Tornado in Temecula. The Rainbow Glen Road is in Rainbow on the west side of I-15.

Trip descriptions: Field Station to the Temecula Gorge.

Comments from participants of previous tours

Sources and Other Information

The total area of SMER is clearly the subject of some disagreement. Here are numbers given in different sources:

Claudia Luke, the Reserve Manager, says that 4344 is the correct number.

Go to Field Guide to San Diego County: Places

Copyright © 2000-2007 by Tom Chester.
Permission is freely granted to reproduce any or all of this page as long as credit is given to me at this source:
Comments and feedback: Tom Chester
Last update: 25 October 2007.