Santa Margarita River Trail in Fallbrook

Map showing location of Santa Margarita River Trail.
Map showing Santa Margarita River Trail, keyed to trip log below. See caveats mentioned below.

The Santa Margarita River is one of the last wild rivers in Southern California, and is relatively unspoiled in its journey from the Temecula River Gorge, starting at I-15 in Temecula, along with its main tributaries, Rainbow Creek, Sandia Creek, and De Luz River.

Thanks to the Fallbrook Land Conservancy (FLC) and the Fallbrook Public Utility District (FPUD), a trail through FPUD land was opened in 1996. The trail is 2.8 miles (one-way) with 400' elevation gain from the trailhead at Sandia Creek Drive to its end at the corner of Willow Glen and Stagecoach Lane. A longer hike is possible by connecting to the Rainbow Creek Trail toward Red Mountain.

Negotiations began in May 2000 for the FLC to purchase the land from FPUD for permanent open space preservation, but are on hold in November 2000 while FPUD explores the restrictions imposed by their agreements with Camp Pendleton to use the FPUD land as mitigation for Camp Pendleton.

A Pocket Field Guide to Plants & Wildlife of Fallbrook and San Diego is available to help identify the birds, butterflies, mammals, reptiles and plants along the trail.

The plaque at the beginning of the trail says:

Santa Margarita Trail
Established by Fallbrook Land Conservancy
In cooperation with Fallbrook Public Utilities District
With the generous help of
The Santa Margarita Riders
Dedicated to the memory of
Irene McCullough

The trail quickly became popular due to the beauty of the area, and we all are grateful for the opportunity to enjoy this beautiful spot.

Directions to the trailhead. See Map. If you are coming from outside of Fallbrook:

to De Luz Road, which is one block east of the right-angle corner where the two Missions meet in downtown Fallbrook.

Take De Luz Road north from its beginning at Mission Road in Fallbrook, and descend into the Santa Margarita River Canyon. After about a mile, just before you reach the bottom, turn right on Sandia Creek Dr. and follow it another ~mile to the parking lot on your right, immediately before the first crossing of the River at the T-junction with Rock Mountain Drive.

Both the topo map, the 1993 Thomas Brothers map, the map in Sunset and the "official Fallbrook map" have this junction incorrectly portrayed. The old crossing hasn't been in existence for decades, and Sandia Creek Dr. no longer curves left at Riveredge Road. (You can see where it used to be with the concrete barriers on your left just before you approach the parking lot.) Sandia Creek Dr. instead now continues straight until it hits Rock Mountain Drive, and then has appropriated the west end of Rock Mountain Drive as a new portion of Sandia Creek Drive. The junction is portrayed accurately in my map.

I have drawn an extremely crude Map showing the first part of the Santa Margarita River Trail, keyed to trip log below. The map was based on the USGS "Temecula" topo map, with the trail drawn as indicated in a map kindly supplied to me by the Mission Resource Conservation District. I have hiked only on the southern part of the trail "for hikers, not horse riders", and so cannot vouch for the other parts of the trail. My map looks like it was drawn freehand with a mouse, since that is how I did it!

The trail begins at the far end of the parking lot, and has many junctions where horse riders and hikers take separate paths. There is one small scramble near the beginning of the trail that is the "worst" part of the trail, but our old dog and young 5-year-old Matt had no trouble negotiating it. (Matt did want to bring a "rope" = yarn to "help his Mom" over this spot on subsequent hikes!) The trail is not easily done by mountain bikers due to the "mushy" quality of the trail caused by sandy spots, as well as this scramble.

Most of the trail is on purpose well-away from the river to avoid washouts. There are periodically places where one can leave the trail briefly and get directly to the river.

Here is a detailed description along the first part of the trail, hiked on 9 November 1996. I was with my 5-year-old and an elderly dog, so we didn't travel very quickly. I have removed the side trips and longer stops, so the times below reflect about a 2 mph pace along the trail. The mileages below have been read with a resolution of 0.05 miles.

0 0.00 00:00lots of dead arundo, giant reed, which is often mistaken for bamboo. It is a non-native, invasive plant that grows 6-20' high. It is being removed as mitigation for some construction at Camp Pendleton. I met a SDSU professor near here who was monitoring the arundo removal.
1 0.05 00:02 west end hikers/horses split.
2 0.20 00:05 trail stays high on rocks; narrow in 1-2 places, but then goes low
3 0.25 00:08 scramble up and around side canyon; hold onto roots of downed tree, but test which ones to hold onto! piece of cake from then on.
4 0.30 00:10 enter Spooky Forest and shade; watch for a "low bridge" tree trunk!
5 0.35 00:12 side canyon; jct hikers/horses
6 0.40 00:14 side canyon with mini-gorge near river; east jct hikers/horses; first side stream on topo map
7 0.45 00:16 side canyon; trail goes 50' up canyon and back; leave Spooky Forest
8 0.50 00:17 moss-covered rocks; shade still from 10' high cliff to south in November
9 0.50 00:19 jct trail to south that ends up at a private road off santa margarita road
10 0.55 00:20 major canyon with water and mud on trail; enter trees again; second side stream on topo map. I measured 0.55 miles to this point from the topo map, agreeing with my pedometer.
11 0.70 00:23 side (open) canyon and jct trail to south
12 0.75 00:25 jct pool. Go left 0.05 mile to pool and back if desired. You may have to guide your dog out if he is like ours!
Trail now leaves vicinity of river due to river meander north.
14 0.85 00:26 west jct. hikers/horses; back along river. big boulders in streambed, open side canyon
15 0.95 00:29 on rocks again; diorite? with big 3" diameter dark sparkly inclusions
16 1.05 00:33 side canyon
17 1.10 00:38 end shade; jct hikers/horses; very open canyon
18 1.15 00:39 jct road. The main trail jogs right here, but we took the road left, then went to the right. At the end of road in river, there's a flat "campsite" and a big pipe in the hill to the north of river, an FPUD water pipeline. We took the trail to the east of the campsite.
19 1.25 00:43 trail forks at ridge. Took right trail which ends at river. Turnaround.
21 1.35 00:46 took left trail at fork; can see trail across river and footprints in river bed. Turnaround.

The trail was written up in Sunset Magazine, 3/97, p. 17.

For information about the Fallbrook Land Conservancy, call 723-0889. To contact another great local organization, Friends of the Santa Margarita River, call Nancy Backstrand at 909-677-7341 or Ken Weaver at 760-723-2448.

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Copyright © 1997-2000 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: 7 November 2000.