Mountain Bike Bill, Get the Dirt on the Dirt

The Santa Margarita River Trail


Sometimes referred to as the "SMaRT", this trail system offers quite a bit of variety along with enough options to get in just about as many miles as you would like.  The Santa Margarita River Trail was mainly developed by the equestrian community of Fallbrook working with the Fallbrook Land Conservancy.  I first started riding here in 2000 and kept the area on the down low as I had not fully explored the entire area.  In 2002 a fire in the Fallbrook area damaged the western end of the area and turned the sandy soil along the trail into one gigantic sandpit, destroying the "feel" of that area. I stopped riding there and only checked in on it's recovery about once a year until 2005 when the western area was suitable to ride again. This is when I dedicated some time to figuring out the majority of the network and I am quite impressed with what is available considering I did not originally rate this trail system very highly.

UPDATE: You will notice that I am using a bunch of strike throughs on this page. Unfortunately a good chunk of the ADD-ON options to this area no longer accessible as described due to a property purchase by a conservancy group who have fenced the Rainbow Creek area. This effectively eliminates that the ability loop in the Red Mountain Area as well as the Hill's Loop. The Santa Margarita River Trail area is fun on it own but the reduction in available trails/mileage is a bit of a "downgrade"


Some of the singletrack that you find along this trail is quite different that most of the trails in San Diego County. Particularly some trails in the Oak forests alongside creeks. Sure there are other trails like this in the county but this trail has something different about it that must be experienced. Be forewarned, if you loath riding on loose stuff you might not have fun here. There are sporadic sand pits that must be negotiated, particularly down close to the river bed, as the raging waters of the extremely wet winter of 2004/5 caused the river to reshape quite a few sections of the low lying trails and dump a lot of sand over the trail. In some of these spots you will have to hike up to 30 yards at a pop. The sandy trails are best packed in the winter and are at their loosest near the end of summer. This area is also very popular with the equestrian community so the trails have that slightly pulverized feel that horse trails tend to get in some places particularly on the steep pitches. Also to do some of the bigger and cooler loops you have to be willing to get wet. I'm not talking just your feet, but wading across the river that is usually mid-quad to crotch deep. Okay, even with all of those items this area is worth getting to know.

General etiquette reminder:  When dealing with horses, cyclists should yield to horses.  You should stop and move to the side or off the trail with ample distance so the the horse has plenty of time to figure you out. Make conversation with the rider as this will help to ease any anxiety the animal may have about your presence.  Horses on the trail may act unexpectedly if spooked or frightened and the last thing you want is to get kicked by a frightened horse.   While horse owners are responsible to make sure their horse has the temperament and training for riding on public trails, this trail system is not particularly busy and is predominately known as "horse country". This makes your chances of encountering a rider with a "green" horse much higher than what you may find on many of the county's other multi-use trails. You are an ambassador for the cycling community so leave our equestrian trail users with a positive experience.

Maps and Resources
Trailsforks Map. Mobile TIP: Access fullscreen via Expand
GPS Files for all trails in area: GPX KML
Featured routes in this area (See Description Below):
South Side Out and Back: (6.6mi, 500'▲) GPX Long Trailforks Long Ride
North and South Side (8.9mi, 900'▲) GPX MediumTF Medium
Old School Map (PDF)
Related BLOG Posts
Related Blog Posts
Trailhead Directions
  • Preserve Staging Area (West): Sandia Creek Drdrections
  • Willow Glen Staging Area(East): At the corner of Stage Coach Lane and Willow Glenn Rd.drections

Ride Notes: This trail was burned in the 2007 Wildfires but has since recovered nicely.

There are many options for rides here and while there are less accessible miles than there used to be there is still enough an the unique nature of the area has a lot of "stuff" per mile.  This is one of my more complicated and lengthy trail descriptions. This ride will require the use of some navigation skills on your first time out, particularly if you are going to cross the river. Even with having a GPS track on a screen in front of you, it is easy to get turned around you first time out here. I recommend you stop at key intersections and gather as many visual cues as you can. The numbers on the PDF map correspond to the numbers on the trail signs/posts thoughout this trail system. This first description is what I call the base route that involves no river crossings which makes it good when it is cold out. It is also used as the foundation from which to add additional trail loops.

A bit of the north and side trails



From the trailhead proceed on the trail east. It is quite sandy at the start but it does get better.  At .25 miles you will come to a rock garden/cliff side that will have nearly all riders dismounting. New lines have developed over the last several years but you can clearly see that the high lines are the older, much more difficult lines. After you scramble through this section for 30-40 yards the trail becomes smooth again and the trail is now about 20 feet or so above the river right next to a cliff down to the riverbed. This used to be a gradual slope down to the rivers edge but the power of mother nature's raging water during our 2004/5 winter rains radically reshaped this area of the river.


Continuing along the trail you will see an off-shoot trail at around .85 miles going off to your right.  There are quite a few of these along this trail and most of them climb up the finger canyons to the end of streets.  This particularly one climbs for about 3/4th of a mile before coming out at the end of and someone's home.  Feel free to explore them as you can always retrace your steps back to where you split off from.


At 1.35 miles you will come to split in the trail.  Take the split to the right and go uphill for maybe 1/10th of a mile where the trail joins an old fire road where you will turn right and continue uphill. Don't worry if you miss this split as the lower trail will seemingly dead end at the rivers edge in about 2/10th of a mile.  If this happens just turn around and look for the fireroad off to your left and take it uphill where you will soon pass by the top of the trail/fireroad junction you should have taken originally. This fire road is steep but short and at 1.5 miles you will turn left and downhill by an oak tree in the middle of an open area. The downhill is short as well and you will soon be back to following along the river.



At 1.7 miles the trail comes to a very distinct T-junction. If you go to the right you will reach The 500' trail.  For now turn left and continue along the SMaRT.   You will do some gradual climbing as the trail gets firmer and rockier for a bit before it descends again back towards the river bed.  At 2.3 miles you will come to another prominent offshoot trail coming in from your right and uphill.  This is a connector to The 500' Trail, but continue downhill along the SMaRT where you will soon be back under Oak trees. You actually turn away from the river now and you will soon, at around 2.5 miles, come to the junction of the Rainbow Creek trail. If you go to your left you will cross Rainbow creek and continue along the SMaRT. If you go to the right you will follow the Rainbow Creek trail. For this route go right on the Rainbow Creek trail.  This is one of the prettiest wooded trails in North County with lots of greenery and trees alongside a creek.  It is quite short but very enjoyable.  After only 1/4th of a mile, at the top of the steep rise, you will come to the eastern end of The 500' Trail on your right.  Remember this spot as you will be come back this way and take this trail later in the ride.  For now continue on straight and in about a 1/3rd of a mile you will come to a creek crossing. Cross the creek and you will promptly come out on the paved Willow Glen road. Your mileage should be around 3.1 miles at this point.


Turn right and take Willow Glen Road for 1/2 mile until you come to a really sharp right-hand turn at the bottom of a steep hill. You will see a fence in the outside of the turn.  Take the trail on the right-hand side of the fence. You are pretty much done with dealing with loose sandy stuff now as this trail quickly becomes rocky as you climb about three hundred feet over the next 1.25 miles. There is one creek crossing about half way along this trail where you may have to do a bit of looking to find just the right spot to cross if you want to keep your feet dry.   After crossing the creek you will continue climbing and before long you will come out in a bend of a dirt road. This is an important spot because you have several options to expand your riding in this area.  I will refer to this spot as the Rainbow Creek Turnaround in the rest to the descriptions.


For this basic route, turn around here and enjoy the mostly downhill route back to Willow Glen Road, and continue back the way you came getting back on the Rainbow Creek trail where you initially came out on the road.   Once back on the Rainbow Creek trail take it back to the junction of The 500' Trail.   This time turn left on to The 500' Trail.


The 500' Trail is quite smooth and for the most part flat as it follows the contours of the finger canyons for about 1.75 miles where it comes out into a wide open dirt area.   The trail is not so easily followed so as you come out into this area, look to your 2 o'clock and travel downhill until you pick up the trail on the downhill and far side of the open dirt area.  From here pickup the downhill singletrack that will quickly take you back to the T-junction described earlier.  Hang a left and you will drop back onto the SMaRT that you were on earlier in the ride.   Retrace your route back to the trailhead.



UPDATE: Like I mentioned above a property purchase by a conservancy group and their lovely fencing in the Rainbow Creek area has cutoff the ability loop in the Red Mountain Area as well as the Hill's Loop. I need to spend some more time on the ground there to see if the Hill's Loop can be salavged but as of August 2022 I have knocked figured it out.

The base route is rather short, but these options can make for some great riding out in this area.


Red Mountain(This description assumes you followed the basic route already to the Rainbow Creek Turnaround.)
From the Rainbow Creek Turnaround , turn right on the dirt road and follow the road first downhill and then up a sickening steep climb up to the top of Red Mountain.  There are a couple of dirt intersection here and there but just keep turning towards the mountaintop and you will get to the top.  Your total mileage out and back from the turnaround will be 3.4 miles, but you will climb 800' in just a 1.3 miles. The views from the top of Red Mountain are quite nice and if you are feeling adventurous there is a singletrack heading off the mountain to the south.  From what I have been told it will drop you into Fallbrook where there are some social trails and streets that will allow you to work your way back to the mail trailhead.


The Hills Loop(This description assumes you followed the basic route already to the Rainbow Creek Turnaround.)
From the Rainbow Creek Turnaround, turn left on the dirt road.  After 1/10th of mile you come to a T-junction.  Turn left and follow the fireroad as it turns uphill.  At .4 miles there is a split in the fireroad, go right.  For a visual reference point, some where along through here you will see a house at the top of the canyon in front of you..  You will eventually end up going by that house.   At .7 miles you will see a fire road merging in from your left, continue straight.  At 1.0 miles you will come out by the house and a dirt road.  Look for a fire road heading off to the left and take it where you will gradually climb.  As you near the top of this climb, you will see a ridge line bending around from your right toward about your one o'clock where the ridgeline ends in a point.  Just to the right of that point is a slightly larger hill. You will be following the fire road around to the point over the top of that slightly larger hill. Work your way around to the point and as descend from the slightly larger hill look for a fireroad that merges in from your right and make a note of it as you continue on straight out to the point.  Take in the nice views of this point and when you are done, head back the way you came and take that fireroad that you saw merge in earlier.  You are going to shed off a good bit of elevation now as you descend this battered fireroad that has become quite technical with rocks and ruts. There are only a couple of turnoffs on this route but just remember that when in doubt go downhill and you will be on the right route. The final stretch of this will take you by a house on your right before dumping you out on a dirt road (Stage Coach Lane). You should have traveled 2.8 miles from the Rainbow Creek Turnaround spot.

The North Side Trail  This description starts at the Willow Glen Staging Area:
  • Option 1: North Stage Coach Lane to having you crossing the river at the far north end of the preserve.
  • Option 2: Has you crossing the river near the staging area and then do an Out and Back upstream before continuning down stream.


OPTION 1 : This From the Willow Glen staging area take Stage Coach Lane and north 1.3 miles.  Look for a house with a brick wall surrounding the yard on your left hand side (It is the only house on the left hand side). Just after you pass the house look for a single track off to your left, right by a telephone pole. Take it. This trail will drop you down into the river bed (Location A18 on PDF Map) where it will turn into a sand slog. Wade across the narrow river (It is more like a creek to me, but the water will most likely be quad deep).  (Water crossing 14) After you get on the other side and up the bank you will come out onto a large sand area. Slog straight across the sand and slightly to your left for about 30 yards and then turn even more to your left slog through the sand until the trail gets out of the sand on higher ground.  You should slogged no more than 80 yards or so total.


Once back up on the trail, enjoy some nice single track both under the trees as well as out in an open field for about 1.2 miles until you come to a four-way trail junction with a trail coming in from a steep hill on your right.  You will see a waterline pipe sign on the trail coming down from the hill.   This is A22 on the map/sign post.


OPTION 2: From the Willow Glen staging area, pick up the doubltrack in the bend of the road and travel south for about one hundred yards and turn right on to a wide singletrack.  The trail will turn to loosely follow the  river upstream until it comes out at river crossing 12 (near A14).  (This is the crossing I took in the video above).  Cross the river take it up to a four way junction. It is worth noting that if you take your shoes off when you cross the river, be aware that the sand can get really hot in the summer. From the junction, take the north side trail upstream as far as you like or until the trail ends. Retrace your way back to this junction and then proceed south.


From the four-way junction(A22), facing west (downstream direction of the river) proceed straight along the singletrack that follows the path of the river about 40 feet about the riverbed. This trail is quite nice and is better experienced than described. At .75 miles you will come to the junction of an off-shoot trail to your right. It goes up to the end of a country road, continue straight. At 1.0 miles you will come to a fork in the trail - Take it - (I know a Yogism) as both trails regroup at the bottom of the hill you are on.  At 1.5 miles you drop down close by the river where the trail gets sandy.  It is quite pretty here but as you continue along for the next quarter of a mile you will see at least one trail that goes off to the left that is flat or heading slightly downhill. Don't take any of these trails. Instead, take any forks to the right where the trail will gain some ground and generally be firmer riding. You get to do some some intensive climbing along the single track as it gains about 150 feet in the next quarter of a mile. As you peak out of the climb you will see a dead-end road ahead. Look for the trail within 30 yards of "peaking" off to left and downhill. When you see a steep trail with ruts in it, that is your way.  Go left and downhill. You should be about 2 miles from the A22 junction at this point. The next mile is a really great section. Look for the "Modern" Pictographs as well as Gene Chase Memorial dedication rock.


At 3.0 miles you will come to a sign directing you to a river crossing and the trailhead leading off to your left. You can go this way but you will be miserable as it 2/10ths of a mile of super deep sand slogging. Cool if your on a horse but it blows with a bike. Instead continue straight and the trail will soon come to a split by a telephone pole (Junction B1). Bend to the left and the trail will get skinny and cross a very small brook. After crossing the brook you will popg out on a small paved road.  Turn left and follow the road downhill for .3 miles to the junction of Sandria Creek road. Turn left here and proceed across the Santa Margarita River Bridge to the trailhead on the other side of the bridge. (Note: The North Side Trail is also pretty nice going from West to East)