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Santa Margarita River Trail 2

Santa Margarita River Trail

In This Guide
  • Santa Margarita River Trail Video and Turn by Turn Directions
  • Getting to the Hike & Tips
  • Why the Santa Margarita River Trail Is So Special
Total Distance5.7 miles (9.2 km)
Other Options 3 miles all flat
Hike Time2-3 Hours (Total)
Difficulty (?)Moderate
Total Ascent (?)630 feet (192m)
Highest Elevation490 feet (149m)
Fees & PermitsFree
Dogs AllowedLeashed
Alerts & Closures (?)Santa Margarita River Trail Preserve
Park Phone909-732-4029

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.

Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 1
These impressive gates are at the entrance.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 2
The lot is big but does fill up; this is a popular hike.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 3
Be conscious of the time and make sure you are back before closing.

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.

Wildcat Small

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.
Latest Price on Women’s ShoeREI | Amazon
Latest Price on Men’s ShoeREI | Amazon

Rei Flash 22 Yellow

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.
Latest PricesREI 

Garmin Inreach Mini Beacon

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.

My October 2020 Top Gear Picks

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.

Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 17
If you pick up a free map from the trailhead, look for corresponding markers on the trail to locate your position.
Click Here To View Map

Download the Hike GPX FileView a Printable PDF Hike Map

Fenix 6 Pro

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.

Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 12
Stay on the trails and let nature have its space.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 41
Share the trail with horses.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 11
If you look at the map, the Santa Margarita River Trail Preserve has many other trials. A good number of them are geared to equestrians, and this is what it looks like when you see a river crossing on a horse trail. The hike in this guide doesn’t have any water crossings like this though.

There’s no swimming in the river; give the wildlife its space and stay on the trail.

Hike Brief

Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 42
At one point, the California Southern Railroad ran along this trail. The railroad is long gone, but you can still spot a relic or two like this old rail (waypoint in the GPX file).

Santa Margarita River Hike Directions

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Video Directions

Watch This Video In 360/VR Why 360/VR Is Great

Turn by Turn Directions

Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 5
The trailhead is at the end of the parking lot.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 6
Check the trail boards for any notices and pick up a free map if you need one. Since the park is free and run by a non-profit, I strongly recommend leaving a couple of bucks in the donation box if you can afford it.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 7
Head past the signs and porta-potties to start on the trail.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 8
Avoid the horse trails to the left and head straight.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 9
You’ll start to get a taste of the shade.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 10
When you get to the narrower rocky section, you can go either way, they both join together later. We’ll follow the narrow section along the riverside.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 13
The narrow section winds around the canyon…
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 14
And eventually opens up to be a wide trail once again.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 15
A nice feature of the hike are the benches spaced out along the entire trail.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 16
Avoid the small trail to the right and continue along the river.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 18
The trail widens and meanders under trees. Sections like this that are wide and steady are generally where the old railroad tracks were.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 43
Keep your eyes open for evidence of native peoples (the stone mortar holes on top of this rock) and the railroad (the long cut in the rock used to blast with dynamite). I have a waypoint for this rock in the GPX file.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 19
Hike right away from the equestrian river crossing to the left.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 20
The trail continues through the boulders.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 40
Bear right to head up and away from the river.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 21
More nice shaded trail.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 22
Okay, this is an important intersection. Make the counterintuitive right turn.

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.

Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 23
You’ll start hiking uphill.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 24
Make the right as the trail joins another.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 25
And at the top of the hill make the hard left turn.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 26
After the turn you’ll start heading downhill. You’ll also be treated to some great views.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 27
At the bottom of the hill is a small gully crossing (usually dry).
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 28
After the gully and then a bench, start looking back to your left for the ruins of an old car. When the power company owned the land you could evidently drive down here.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 29
After the car there’s a small uphill and junction, hike to the left.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 30
Keep your eyes open for wildlife.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 31
The trail gently heads uphill, above the river below.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 32
At the bottom of the hill hike to the left.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 33
And then make the quick right after that to rejoin the river.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 34
When you get to the junction for the trail along Rainbow Creek, hike to the left.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 35
And then hop over the rocks to cross Rainbow Creek.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 36
After a while you’ll reach another park entrance. Make the sharp left to continue on the trail.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 37
And then keep left as the sandy trail meanders through the scrub.
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 38
And eventually you’ll come out at a sandy beach, the offical end of the Santa Margarita River Trail
Santa Margarita River Trail Directions 39
Enjoy the scenery and shade at the beach and then just go back the way you came to finish the hike.

Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.

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