Santa Margarita, California, US
Murrieta Creek to Sandia Creek Rd. (Temecula Gorge)
||IV(V) (for normal flows)
From: Rocky Contos
Subject: FIRST DESCENT: Temecula Gorge, Santa Margarita River
Class IV+ (<1500 cfs), V- (>1500 cfs)
Length: ~7 miles (or 9 miles)
Drainage area: 588 sq. miles at the gauge (confluence of Murrieta and Temecula Creeks where
it becomes Santa Margarita River)
Elevation: 950 ft (at gauge/confluence), ~450 ft (take-out)
Shuttle: 12 miles
To get to the take-out:
From I-15, 7 miles south of Temecula turn west onto Old
Highway 395/Mission Rd. Make a right at the stop sign onto Mission Rd (County Road S13). In about
1.6 miles, make a right onto Willow Glen Rd, and follow it two miles down to the river, where it
makes a right onto a dirt road. Continue about 1/3 mile past the fences and no trespassing signs to
a spot with easy access to the river. The legality of river access here is questionable.
(Editor's Note: Coordinates for the end of the gorge, and the upper (potentially problematic
access) take-out are: 33.4286, -117.1962. This shortens the trip by 2.5 miles of largely lower
gradient paddling, likely through cattails and willows, but may necessitate securing permission to
cross private property.)
A better take-out is about 2.5 miles down the river at the Sandia Creek Rd bridge. To get here,
instead of turning down Willow Glen Rd, continue on Mission Rd (S13) 3.2 miles through the city of
Fallbrook, and make a right on De Luz Creek Rd. In 1.2 miles it reaches the river and T's off. Make
a right onto Sandia Creek Rd. This will cross the river in another 1.2 miles.
Directions to the put-in:
Exit I-15 at the southern Highway 79 exit (I.E. 79
east). This is the southernmost exit in Temecula. Turn west off of this exit, and put-in on
Murrieta Creek just downstream of the Texaco station in a large open lot that usually has some
big-rig trucks parked in it.
The Santa Margarita River begins at the confluence of Murrieta and
Temecula Creeks at the city of Temecula (about 30 miles south of Riverside). Temecula Creek (the
southern drainage area) has a slightly larger drainage area than Murrieta Creek. Just after this
confluence the river heads west and cuts through coastal mountains in the 6 mile-long Temecula
Gorge. From here it continues 8-10 miles through canyon and enters Camp Pendleton before opening up
into a coastal valley for the remaining 10 miles to the Pacific Ocean.
It is a common misconception among many Southern Californians that the Santa Margarita River is the
only river in the region left undammed. While it is true that it is not dammed, Vail Dam impounds
Temecula Creek approximately 10 miles above the confluence, and Skinner Reservoir impounds Tucalota
Creek (which is a major tributary of Murrieta Creek) and stores imported water. The site of
Temecula Creek near I-15 is disappointing, with trees clogging the creek-bed due to the lack of
water flowing out of Vail Lake in a normal year. Thus unless Vail Lake is spilling, most of the
flow into Temecula Gorge will come from Murrieta Creek (to the north).
On February 9th, it was two days after a good storm when I decided to do a solo first descent
through the Gorge (I attempted to get other boaters, but I either couldn't contact them or they
didn't want to do it). There was a hard shower or two the previous night, but these didn't seem to
create a lot of runoff. When I put on there was about 300-400 cfs in Murrieta Creek, and almost no
flow from Temecula Creek. A gauging station is located on river right 100 yds downstream from the
put-in on Murrieta Creek, and this read 1.6 ft. It looked like in the past week the water level had
gotten 5 ft higher at the put-in, and up to 10 ft higher in the gorge, based on the debris along
the banks and all the grass being pushed down with the current.
Small drops start right away. My apprehension regarding the unknown
grew as I floated past the confluence with Temecula Creek and entered the gorge. As I made my way
through, I was relieved to find everything runnable, and not class V. I spent about 2.5 hours on
the water. The granite gorge has a pool/drop character, with about 30 class III/IV rapids in there,
drops ranging from 4-15 ft. The largest single drop is about 6 ft. I shore-scouted about 6 times,
and could boat-scout the remainder. Besides a couple trees on the sides near the start, the gorge
was free of strainers. It's just plain granite bedrock rapids. Several are sliding falls of about
3-5 ft that would make very sticky reversals with more water. The pools are often quite short, and
many rapids would merge into one another at high flows. With the flow I had, the boating was very
technical, requiring precise maneuvering to safely float through most of the rapids.
On the first class IV ("Hard Hit") I pitoned in, cracking the front seam in my Extreme
(the boat leaked much faster after that). Some after these I thought of names for ("California
Dreamin" for the second or so class IV, and "Temmy's (Temecula's) Take" for the
largest one in the gorge about 3 miles down), but there were so many that I'd have to take a pencil
and paper down to write out good names for each. At higher flows the rapids would be more fun, and
probably approach class V at higher levels (it DEFINITELY would at very high water, where it would
be a continuous brown freight train of water flushing everything down).
This Southern California run is the best I've found in terms of fun rapids for technically boating
down and playing. At the right flows it would be better than even the Lower Kern. The one
detraction being that the water drains the city of Temecula. The isolated gorge itself is very
scenic, with typical Southern California inland chapparel covering much of the canyon walls, but
also some cacti in places.
There's a decrepit road/trail that runs through much of it, usually 20-50 ft above the water level.
At one point it crosses the river and a small drop is made from this old low-water crossing. The
old trail is the roadbed of the Southern California Railroad which started in Barstow and ended in
National City, Ca. and was the a part of the first trans-continental railroad to reach Southern
California. The railroad only survived six years or so and was then washed out to sea (probably by
an 1880's EL NinÃ¯Â¿Â½). The remaining railway was rebuilt along the coast to LA from SD and of
course still operates. Accounts of that flood can be found in railroad history books about Southern
California. It sounds like it was a whopper!
A couple miles down the gorge two beautiful clear waterfalls slide down into the river. The first
comes in on river right, and the second on the left about 1/2 mile downstream. They are both in
sections with tough rapids. After about 5 miles the gorge starts to open up a little (with a good
sized creek entering on river left), rapids become only Class II, and reeds grow in many places of
the riverbed. Though slightly obstructive, these aren't as dangerous as tree branches, because
they're easily toppled over. Avocado and citrus orchards appear on river left first with some
The current continues pretty good to the take-out at Willow Glen Rd. I had a bike stashed there on
the first descent, and recognized the place as being at the uppermost part of the first avocado
orchard on river right (the take-out is on river left though). Don't pick the citrus or avocados
that grow next to Willow Glen Rd (I would NEVER do such a thing!), 'cause you might risk getting
some residents angry at you.
Continuing for 2.5 miles past here you'd come to the Sandia Creek Rd bridge. I haven't run this
section yet, but it's probably got a lot of reeds in it, and some Class IIs. When I looked at this
potential take-out, Caltrans was working there to remove brush and trees that had clogged the
channel under the bridge. When really flowing with >3000 cfs, I plan on running the entire
length of the Santa Margarita to the ocean. The flow has peaked at 76,000 cfs in the past (near the
ocean). What a ride that must be!! The Temecula Gorge is one of the finest whitewater runs in
Southern California. Don't pass up the opportunity to run it!
(Editor's Note: Boating beyond Sandia Creek Rd takes you quickly into Camp Pendleton, which is
reportedly 'off limits' for boating.)
Other information Sources:
& photos by Charles Foster - temecula_canyon
the River: Santa Margarita River
Sand Diego State University - Santa
Margarita Ecological Reserve
Santa Margarita Ecological
Resource page with lots of info and further links.
Friends of the Santa Margarita River
Geology of Temecula Canyon
StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2004-10-27 15:33:19