Sweet fresh freedom. The Santa Margarita River is one of the last free-flowing rivers in San Diego County. Wildlife, including deer and other large mammals, depend on this river corridor. Meanwhile, you can come experience the kind of river rarely found in southern California.
There are 14 miles of trails that loop and cross the river within the property. The Santa Margarita River Trail itself is an out-and-back stroll just above the river to avoid the thick growth of willows, sedges, and cattails that line the riverbank. Start by hiking east from the parking area. The trail surface initially is soft sand. Horses aren’t permitted on this part of the trail, but you may encounter them later. (Remember, horses have the right of way.)
At about 0.25 mile, for about 100 yards, it is necessary to climb over or around large rocks, the only somewhat difficult part of the trail. After that, it’s an easy stroll through the forest with short-use trails that go down to sandy river beaches and pools of clear water. At about 1.6 miles, a fork will split hiker and equestrian trails. You can turn around here to complete a 3.2-mile out-and-back hike. If you hike on uphill, you’ll head out of the canyon to what has been called the 500-Foot Trail. Turn left here and you'll go through coastal sage scrub. The trail works its way back to the river in about half a mile. Continue up the river to Rainbow Creek, about 2.7 miles from the trailhead. Here you’ll find a good place to rest in the shade at an open oak forest before turning around and going back to the trailhead, ending a 5.4 mile out-and-back hike.
Before you go, check to ensure the trail is open. More detailed information about plants, wildlife, history, and geology of the area can be found at The Wildlands Conservancy.
The river peacefully flows under a canopy of tall trees, between banks lined with dense riparian growth. Enjoy the sheer beauty of a free-flowing river with abundant water, which is a rare treat in southern California.
Here you’ll find coast live oaks, Goodding’s black willows, California sycamores, white alders, western cottonwoods, and even a few dogwoods. The understory includes wild rose, western poison-oak, and skunkbrush, among many other plants. Definitely keep an eye out for western poison-oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) which is abundant and highly variable. In some cases, it is vine-like, climbing up the oaks and other trees. In other cases, it is bush-like. Skunkbrush (Rhus aromatica), which is also called basket bush or three-leaf sumac, is also found here and is similar in appearance to western poison-oak with “leaves in three.” The difference is that poison-oak’s middle leaf is “free” with a stem extending out. Steer your leashed dog away from poison-oak.
From I-15 go west on Mission Road and continue onto East Mission Road for 4.9 miles. Turn right on North Pico Avenue, which becomes De Luz Road, go 1.2 miles. Turn right on Sandia Creek Drive, go 1.1 miles. Parking lot on right. Trailhead GPS: N33.41326, W117.24128
Looking for more great hikes? Check out our Canyoneers page or purchase the book, Coast to Cactus: The Canyoneer Trail Guide to San Diego Outdoors.
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