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A wild and scenic section of the Santa Margarita River, a part of the last undammed major watercourse in San Diego County, is open to visitation by self-propelled explorers, courtesy of the Fallbrook Public Utilities Department and the Fallbrook Land Conservancy (an advocacy group). A rather free-form recreational trail, for hikers, horses and leashed dogs, incorporates fragments of earlier dirt roads, paths, and an old railroad grade, and wends its way nearly three miles along the south bank of the river. Additional looping side paths descend to the sandy banks of the river itself.

Despite the paucity of recent rain, water still slides down the silty, willow-fringed riverbed and gurgles its way around obstacle courses of rounded granitic boulders. The trail is semi-shaded by trees and chaparral, which keeps things cool this time of year -- though in summer you'd best get an early-morning start to avoid the midday heat.

To find the trailhead, first drive to downtown Fallbrook's northwestern corner, which is where Mission Avenue northbound from Highway 76 meets Mission Avenue westbound from Interstate 15 at a right angle turn. Just one block east of this turn, follow Pico Avenue north; it quickly becomes De Luz Road. After negotiating a short, twisty downgrade, turn right on Sandia Creek Drive. Proceed 1.2 miles to a large dirt trailhead parking area on the right. There's a trail register here; please sign in.

In the first half mile of trail you negotiate a couple of slippery stretches where the trail, squeezed by the river, presses close against a steep slope. Here and there in the next two miles, side paths lead down to the river, some crossing it to meander amid the dense growths of willow on the floodplain. Try to stay on the main south-side path, where all around you filigrees of wild grape and poison oak climb the trunks and limbs of sturdy live oaks and many-trunked California sycamores.

The serene, almost pristine scene around you belies the state of affairs over a century ago, when trains following the tracks of the short-lived California Southern Railroad rumbled through here right on top of some of the flat-bedded pieces of today's recreational trail. Completed in 1882, ripped apart by winter floods along the Santa Margarita in 1884, rebuilt, and finally destroyed and abandoned for good in 1891, the Oceanside-to-Temecula section of this railroad was San Diego County's first connection to the nation's transcontinental rail network.

At 2.5 miles into the hike, there's a fork in the south-side trail. The left fork, Willow Glen Trail, continues on a level course toward Willow Glen Road. The right fork, signed Rainbow Creek Trail, meanders upstream along gorgeously shaded Rainbow Creek for another 0.9 mile, finally reaching a bridge on Willow Glen Road, 1.3 miles north of Mission Road.

This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.

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