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.
Better Than a Selfie Stick
Part of the fun of a hike is taking pictures, and a flexible JOBY smartphone tripod takes it to the next level. You can use it as a selfie stick, as a regular tripod, but more importantly, as a flexible tripod that can attach to tree branches and other objects. It’s not expensive, and it’s something you can use when not hiking too.
Your Biggest Asset If You Get Lost
If something goes wrong and you get lost, sprain your ankle, or get delayed, you might be caught out after dark. And one of the top items that search and rescue departments recommend you carry is a light. Now smartphones have lights, but they drain the battery quickly. It’s better to invest in an expensive yet high-quality headlamp like the Black Diamond Astro 250. It takes AAA batteries, can last 200 hours, and has an emergency strobe. Carry it with you off the trail to use in emergencies as well.
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Get It Here
Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated October 2021.
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 keep the website ad and promotion free. 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.
Explore Map on CalTopoView a Printable PDF Hike MapDownload the Hike GPX File
If you try to download the GPX file and your browser adds a “.txt” or “.xml” extension to it, simply rename it as a “.gpx” file.
How Are You Going to Navigate This Hike?
If you are a hardcore hiker and/or hike in extreme conditions, I recommend getting a dedicated GPS like a GPSMAP 66sr or 66i, or a wrist-based GPS with maps like the Garmin Fenix 6. If you only hike in fair weather and a touchscreen is fine, or just want a solid tool, I highly recommend downloading the smartphone app, Gaia GPS. It’s a piece of cake to use and very powerful, just make sure your phone is in airplane mode so the battery doesn’t drain. You can also check for wildfires, weather, snow, and choose from dozens of map types with a premium membership (HikingGuy readers get a big discount here). Note that I also carry a paper map with me in case the phone dies or gets smashed.
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.
This guide last updated on June 13, 2021. Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.
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