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Exploring Fallbrook's Santa Margarita River Preserve


Last updated 4/19/2007 at Noon

Cross your fingers that the Santa Margarita River stays undisturbed in its free-flowing state. The Santa Margarita Reserve is Southern California’s last wild river in the Santa Margarita Canyon, a refuge hosting numerous species of endangered birds and plants.

The five-mile trail hops along the south bank, bringing a serene atmosphere that will relax your mind. An open, inviting trail, it can be used for many activities; however, hiking and horseback riding seem to be most popular here.

The lower canyon is widely considered the most beautiful spot in the area, with expansive scenic views of a pastoral community and surrounding mountains. There is a public hiking trail along much of its course here. A few forks in the trail give hikers quick there-and-back options, but the main trail eventually flows into Rainbow Creek Trail, where it dead-ends at a darkly shaded grove. Lining the river are beautiful willow trees that bend over the trail, giving it a somewhat surreal feeling. Point-to-point hikers can head up to Willow Glen Road for the ride back or turn around and give the south bank another run.

Sharing borders with Temecula Valley and Fallbrook, the reserve is formed by the junction of Murrieta Creek and the Temecula River just west of I-15 in Temecula and south of State Route 79 South. It immediately cuts a beautiful gorge through the southern end of the Santa Ana Mountains. The reserve, along with neighboring open land, is the largest regional ecosystem near the coast south of the Santa Monica Mountains. About 345,000 acres – 539 square miles – are contained in the river corridor, the adjacent Cleveland National Forest, the Santa Rosa Plateau and Camp Pendleton. Below De Luz Creek, the reserve has mostly finished its erosion, creating a large floodplain as it flows through Camp Pendleton. The river is mostly protected there as well by the Marines.

The gorge is protected by the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve and has survived quite well despite suburbia exploding around it and numerous attempts to damn it. The current land owners are the state of California, Camp Pendleton, San Diego Gas and Electric and the Nature Conservancy.

Directions to the trailhead

From I-15: First, head to downtown Fallbrook by taking the Mission Road exit, turning west (right) on Mission Road and following the road into town. (On the west side of the freeway, Mission Road will curve north before heading west.) You’ll pass through a stoplight at Stage Coach Lane with its “Welcome to Fallbrook Avocado Capital” sign at a real estate office, continue winding through curves and go through another stoplight near downtown at Brandon Road. Then, you’ll head up a small hill; on the way down, the speed limit will change to 25 mph and you’ll pass through the stoplight at Main Avenue.

The next block also has a stoplight, at Pico Avenue, with a sign “To De Luz Road.” Take Pico Avenue north from its intersection with East Mission Road. Pico Avenue turns into De Luz Road in one block and you descend into the Santa Margarita River Canyon with eight curves or so, and immediately at the bottom there is a fork in the road with Sandia Creek Drive on your right.

To get to the parking lot for the Santa Margarita River Trail, go right on Sandia Creek Drive (it is almost like going straight, since De Luz Road curves left there). Follow Sandia Creek Drive for one to two miles along the river. Just before it curves left to cross the river on an Arizona crossing, turn right into the parking lot for the Santa Margarita River Trail. In the parking lot is a stream gauge in a concrete block building with an antenna.

The trail begins on the east end of the parking lot.


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