Rivers in Southern California Aren’t Really Rivers… But This One Is!

This past weekend I went to Temecula, a beautiful wine-producing area about two hours outside of Los Angeles, for a wedding. I was a groomsman, and I clean up nice, if I do say so myself!

The wedding was a blast, and I’m so excited and happy for my friends Amber and Nandor, the bride and groom, but this post isn’t about the wedding. It’s about the hike I did that morning.

I’m pretty much a non-drinker, for health and calorie reasons, but a couple times a year I’ll indulge in alcohol, at a big event or holiday. I wanted to drink at this wedding and have a good time, so I made sure to get some exercise that day. Since I was in a hilly area surrounded by mountains, I poked around online to find a place to hike.

The Santa Margarita River Trail caught my eye, mostly because it was close, which was important, because I was a schedule that day. It was still 25 minutes from my hotel, but I had the time to go.

When I see the words ‘river trail’ in a hike description in Southern California, I assume I won’t actually see any water. The whole region is a desert, which means actual rivers are few and far between. There may be lots of river beds, sure, but since we only get rain a few times a year, there’s a good chance that most of the year they’re as dry as a bone.

I’m speaking from experience. I’ve gone on countless hikes that involve creek or river beds, and most of the time, nada. There are exceptions and lucky days, of course, and on one hike, to the Bridge to Nowhere, I even went for a swim. But that’s the exception, not the norm. I’ve even gone on hikes to waterfalls where I wound up staring at a dry rock and imagined what it looked like when water is cascading over it.

So I didn’t have high hopes for the Santa Margarita River Trail, but I needed a workout, and even if it was dry, it was bound to be pretty, because the whole area is pretty.

Guess what? The Santa Margarita River Trail surpassed all my wildest expectations! There’s actually a river! A big one! With lots of water!

At points it was maybe thirty or forty feet across.

This is a great hike. The trail basically follows the river upstream, along its south bank. The trail gently rises and falls, with a bunch of access points so you could easily go wading in the water, or let your water-loving dog have a grand ol’ time.

JJ would love this trail. He loves water, and there was a good number of other people there, and other dogs, and he loves meeting everyone, no matter how many legs they have. Alas, JJ didn’t come with me on this weekend trip. He stayed at home with my cousin Aaron, who came and dogsat. And the trailhead is over two hours away from my house, in optimal traffic conditions, so it’s too far to take him for a day hike.

It’s even a horse trail, which I learned after nearly stepping in horse shit. I saw about five horse and riders on the hike.

The trail is pretty easy, for the most part. There are some mild ups and downs, and a few moments where you have to climb up or down a short rocky incline, but mostly you just follow the river. Sometimes you can see it, sometimes you can’t, but you can always hear it.

While I never waded in the river, I did head down to the bank a few times, and, on one occasion, climbed out onto a rock island in the middle of it.

The other thing that I loved about this hike, besides the actual water, is that there are a lot of trees, so the trail is actually pretty shady, which is another rare thing in California.

The info I read online said that the trail goes about 2.5 miles out, before you have to turn around and head back. I made it about halfway, and realized I lost the trail. Maybe it crossed over somewhere to the other bank, and I missed it? But instead of backtracking, I climbed a very steep embankment and made it to the summit of a little hill. I found a trail that brought me back to the trail I had done, and started back to the car.

I wanted to get more uphill hiking in, though, so I took a side trail up a hillside. It went for about a mile, to the top of a much bigger hill. I went all the way until I reached private property and the ‘No Trespassing’ sign. Beautiful views from up there!

From there I headed back down, and returned to the car. All in all, a great way to spend the morning. I got about 600 feet of elevation gain in (roughly a 50-story building), and between the exertion and the sun during the non-shady parts of the hike, I ended up working up a nice sweat. Here are the rest of my stats:

If you’re in the area and are looking for a nice hike, definitely check out the Santa Margarita River Trail. The trailhead and parking lot are at 38430 Sandia Creek Drive in Fallbrook, California. (There isn’t anything at that address, but if you plug in into your navigation, it will get you there!)

Keep it up, David!

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