Santa Margarita River Trail
|In This Guide|
|Total Distance||5.7 miles (9.2 km)|
|Other Options||3 miles all flat|
|Hike Time||2-3 Hours (Total)|
|Total Ascent (?)||630 feet (192m)|
|Highest Elevation||490 feet (149m)|
|Fees & Permits||Free|
|Alerts & Closures (?)||Santa Margarita River Trail Preserve|
The Santa Margarita River Trail hike is a true gem. The hike follows the shady shores of the Santa Margarita River, Southern California’s last undiverted, free-flowing river, home to over a hundred species of animals. The peaceful river banks also hold glimpses into the area’s past, including Native American artifacts and relics of a railroad that once connected San Diego to the outside world. Today the Santa Margarita River Trail is protected and well-marked thanks to the non-profit Wildlands Conservancy. It’s a beautiful trail that’s easy, with a flat 3 mile option or a longer 5.7 hike to a hidden beach.
These trails were voted #1 out of San Diego County’s top 50 trails by San Diego Magazine.
Where is the Santa Margarita River Trail?
The start of the Santa Margarita River Trail is located in the northern part of San Diego County at:
4251 River Edge Rd, Fallbrook, CA 92028
The Santa Margarita River Trail Preserve is open from 8am-5pm every day. Outside of those hours the gates are closed and you cannot park on the street and walk in early. This lets the wildlife have the space they need when they are most active.
There are porta-potties at the trailhead.
Gear for the Hike
This is a pretty easy and mellow hike. Make sure you bring enough water (1-2L); it can still be hot with the shade. Bugs can be a problem and insect repellant is helpful. Light hiking gear or fitness-wear work well here.
My Goto Hiking Footwear: La Sportiva Wildcat
If you hike a lot or just want the best (but not the most durable) hiking footwear, the Wildcat trail runner is your best move. It’s fast and light on trails, the sole gives me good grip off-trail or scrambling, and they dry quickly.
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Best Budget Day Pack: REI Co-op Flash 22 Pack
Bang for the buck, you can’t go wrong with this pack. It’s super-lightweight and big enough to carry everything for a day hike, including a water bladder. Every year REI improves this pack and after a few years, it’s really solid in every way. I pack mine in a carry-on when I travel to do hikes on trips. And if you’re into ultralight backpacking, this is also a solid choice.
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Stay Safe Out of Cell Phone Range
If you’re not familiar with the Garmin InReach technology, it allows you to send and receive text messages where you don’t have cell phone signals. You can also get weather reports and trigger an SOS to emergency responders. Even if you don’t have an emergency, sending a quick message telling a loved one that you’re okay or are running late is well worth the cost. The Garmin InReach Mini (REI | Amazon | My Review) fits in your palm and weighs next to nothing.
Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated October 2020.
No company pays me to promote or push a product, all the gear you see here is gear I use and recommend. If you click an a link and buy gear, I get a small commission that helps offset website expenses. There is no cost to you.
Santa Margarita River Trail Maps
The trail and preserve is run by the Wildlands Conservancy, the largest nonprofit nature preserve system in California. While there are some twists and turns, the trails are well-marked and easy to follow.
Download the Hike GPX FileView a Printable PDF Hike Map
How are you going to navigate this hike?
To start, you should always have a paper map and compass. And it helps to print this guide out or save it on your phone. I highly recommend a GPS as well. I use the Garmin Fenix 6 smart GPS watch ( REI | Amazon | My Review) with maps (or the more affordable Garmin Instinct). You can also use most smartphones. Check out my navigation recommendations and resources on my top gear picks page for options at all budget levels.
There’s no swimming in the river; give the wildlife its space and stay on the trail.
- The Santa Margarita River is one of the only (or maybe the only) river in Southern California that remains un-diverted, un-channeled, and un-dammed. The Preserve forms a vital habitat link between the Santa Ana Mountains and inland San Diego County.
- The protected status of the land has made it a haven for wildlife. Keep your eyes open for hawks, mule deer, or some of the other 100+ animals that call the area home.
- This fertile area was originally home to the native Luiseño peoples, and you can still see some stone mortars where they ground acorns into flour.
- In 1882 the California Southern Railroad ran through here, connecting San Diego with Temecula, Barstow and the transcontinental railway. Floods destroyed the line and it was abandoned in favor of the coastal route that is used today by Amtrak.
- For 80 years the local power company tried to dam the river for a hydroelectric project. They abandoned the effort and the non-profit Wildlands Conservancy purchased the land in 2018.
Santa Margarita River Hike Directions
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Turn by Turn Directions
If you want to do the shorter 3 mile flat hike, just go left at the last junction, down to the water, enjoy, and then turn around and hike back the way you came.
Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.