The Santa Margarita River Trail Preserve is one of the last remaining free-flowing rivers in Southern California and is part of the South Coast Ecoregion, one of Earth’s 25 hotspots of threatened biodiversity.
There are 18 miles of trails here for both hiking and equestrian use. Located in Fallbrook, east of Camp Pendleton, this is a fantastic hiking destination if you’re looking to get away from the usual Orange County spots.
Santa Margarita River Trail Preserve Details
Hours: 8AM to 4:30PM
Gates are closed promptly at 5PM so be sure to return to your car and exit the parking lot before then
4251 River Edge Road, Fallbrook, CA 92028
Admission and Parking Is Free
Dogs are allowed on leash here
Temporary Restrooms are located at the trailhead
Exploring the Trails
The Santa Margarita River Trail is relatively easy as far as elevation goes. The main trail is mostly flat with small hills here and there, but does have rocky terrain. This is not a suitable hike for jogging strollers.
There are several out and back and loop options available. A trail map from the Wildlands Conservancy shows the available trails here. The information kiosk at the trailhead usually has printed copies of the trail map. You can find your location on the map by identify the corresponding trail markers (A4, A5, B1, C1, etc.)
The most popular hike follows the main trail along the river to a turnaround point. For our hike, we used the turn by turn directions from Hiking Guy. This page offers a 3-mile out and back option and a 6-mile out and back option. The directions are easy to follow and the images on the page helped us identify our location to ensure that we were going the right direction. We opted to do the 6-mile out and back.
Along the main trail, there are many spots and crossings where you can head down to get closer to the river. Take a few of these down to get different views, look for wildlife, and enjoy the sound of the river rushing over the rocks. One spot had a really nice sandy beach that was relatively large. It would have been a perfect spot to stop and have a picnic (remember to pack out everything you pack in. Please don’t leave your trash behind and ruin the beautiful scenery here).
While the 3 mile hike is mostly flat, with small elevation changes, the 6-mile hike takes you uphill several times – the stretches are short, and not terrible, but this direction does require a little more climbing. This legwork offers a few extra bonuses though.
First, when you get to the top of the hill, you’ll get some great views of the mountains and surrounding area. Take a moment to appreciate the view here before heading back downhill.
Next, you’ll get to see the remains of an old car buried in the hillside just above the river.
There are also some great forested areas with gorgeous trees and branching about overhead with some easy stream crossings, and one spot where you’ll have to hop on the rocks to cross Rainbow Creek.
The end point for the six mile hike is a small beach marking the end of the Santa Margarita River Trail. We made it here and it was a nice beach, but we thought some of the other spots along the trail where we were able to venture down to the riverside were better than this one. We would likely do this full hike again though, just for the extra length and scenery.
We saw lots of fish in the river and two really big turtles sunning themselves on a rock out in the water. We also spotted two large snakes on the trail. Be aware of where you are walking, always scan the ground in front of you to be careful of snakes on the path or along the sides of the path.
We only saw one person near the end of the trail with an off-leash dog, however most people were following the rules and kept their pets on leash. This is important for a number of reasons. The off-leash dog was near the meadow area where it’s common to see deer. Dogs can threaten local wildlife like this and we don’t want to do that. Also, the dog began to rush towards the kids and our on-leash dog. I had to divert to keep my dog out of sight until the owner could get their pet back on a leash. We ended up turning around anyway for safety reasons as the dog continued to lunge and the owner didn’t seem to have good control. Off leash dogs, especially on crowded trails can be a danger to kids and other dogs. Let’s keep it safe and fun for everyone, right?
On the way back to the parking lot, we stopped at a few more river crossings to take in the scenery along the river side. This was hands down one of our favorite hikes. Being located in north Orange County, it was about an hour and a half drive for us, but since we planned on being out an extended hike, we didn’t mind the mini-road trip. If you’re located in South County, the trip will be much faster – about an hour or less from San Clemente.
Things To Remember!
- Be considerate of other people on the trail.
- Don’t litter! Pack out what you pack in to keep things beautiful.
- Don’t take things from the trails or the riverside.
- Don’t disturb the wildlife! Take photos from afar, but leave animals where they are and give them space.
- The Santa Margarita Trail is helping to recover the Steelhead Trout population.
- Fishing, hunting, and swimming are NOT allowed here.
- There is no water available here.
- Be careful of poison oak.
More About Fallbrook
Fallbrook, California is located in southern California, just east of Camp Pendleton. Because of the avocado groves in the area, it is unofficially called the Avocado Capital of the World. They host an annual Avocado Festival downtown every April.
There are a number of preserves and open space areas within the Fallbrook area for hiking, biking, and equestrian use. In addition to the Santa Margarita River Trail Preserve, try vising Los Jilgueros Preserve for more easy walking trails and beautiful scenery.
The Fallbrook Gem & Mineral Society is another great place to visit. Open on Fridays and Saturdays, visitors can view collections of specimens and artifacts dedicated to gems, minerals, geology, and paleontology, and they have jewelry and gifts to browse as well.
Heidi Deal is the author of the Newcomers Handbook to Living In Los Angeles & Orange County, and a children’s book author specializing in history and human rights.