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Difficulty IV(V)
Length 9 Miles
Flow Range 300 - 5000 CFS
Flow Rate as of: 1 hour ago 7.46 [CFS] ℹ️
Reach Info Last Updated 10/27/2004 3:33 pm

River Description

From: Rocky Contos
Subject: FIRST DESCENT: Temecula Gorge, Santa Margarita River
Date: 1998/02/16

Class IV+ (<1500 cfs), V- (>1500 cfs)
Length: ~7 miles (or 9 miles)

Mile-by-mile gradients   
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.

General Info: 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.

Run Details: 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 Nin�). 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 houses.

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.)

Rocky Contos

Other information Sources:
Kayaking description & photos by Charles Foster - temecula_canyon
Friends of the River:  Santa Margarita River
Sand Diego State University - Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve
Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve  Resource page with lots of info and further links.
Friends of the Santa Margarita River
Geology of Temecula Canyon

Rapid Descriptions


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Keith Dinger
6 months ago

This is indeed a great run, as all accounts attest. A word of warning on the flow though: the trip report below (from 2008) reports 3.2' on the Murrieta Cr. stick and guesses that is 1300 cfs and would have liked more. In fact, for Jan 6, 2008, the USGS Santa Margarita nr. Temecula gage (just downstream after Temecula Cr, which usually doesn't contribute hardly anything) reads 350 cfs at the trip report's stated put-in time of 2pm, decreasing to 279 cfs at 4pm.

This indeed is a good flow. Three of us did it Jan 21, 2017 on 250'ish cfs and it was bony but still worth it, and friend solo'd it in a packraft on Feb. 5, 2019 and Nov. 29, 2019 both times at 300-350 cfs and reported it filled out nicely relative to our 2017 run. I also ran this twice in the 1990s but don't remember the flows.

He and I then just did it without portages on March 10, 2020 when the flow was 580 cfs rising to 814 cfs (got surprised by a secondary peak). The Murrieta Cr. stick gage read 3.6' at put-in time. It was pretty stomping compared to the lower flows. Lots of very long, continuous, legit solid class IV. 7.5 minute video at: and 17 minute version at:

I would be very cautious about going in at high flows. Watch the videos above and decide how much higher than 800 cfs you might want to go. Things might wash out and be fine, but there could also be some humongous holes, and for sure it will be moving like a freight train. It is certainly doable by sufficiently skilled boaters at high flows, but just don't be thinking that 1300 cfs is a normal, low-key, middle-range flow. I think you would want to be a solid class V boater at 1300+ cfs.

Another flow data point is that on Rocky's (solo) first descent he estimated 300-400 cfs and, presuming he put on in the morning, this sounds reasonable as the USGS gage reports 415 cfs at 8 am declining to 130 cfs at 4 pm. The AWA flow tab for this run quotes Rocky as saying 1500 cfs as optimal, but I don't think he actually says this but rather just estimates that as the boundary between class IV and V. (Edit: I just corresponded with Rocky and he reports he has done this run about 5 times and that the highest flow was 2500 cfs and that he thinks 500-1000 cfs is the best flow range).

Also, I recommend taking out along Stage Coach Lane and not fighting the horrible brush between there and the Sandia Creek bridge. We haven't had any problems. There are homes and associated private property and No Trespassing signs but in our experience those can be avoided.

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George Fitz
4 years ago

Sun 1/6/08 Santa Margarita River through Temecula Canyon. 7 miles - Class IV+ Carl called at 9am and woke me up. I didn't think my back would be capable of running anything, but it loosened up nicely as I surfed the internet for flow/rain data. I had my eyes on the Santa Margarita for a while, thanks to the really nice write up on AW by Rocky Contos and one by Charles Foster on his web site. I arrived at the put-in behind an interstate gas station. The rain was coming down in sheets and the river was way up in the brush- my butterflies were getting cranked up. It looked huge compared to what we had on the Big Tujunga. We did some quick scouting and then ran shuttle. Magically, the rain let up and as we put-in, I realized that despite my fear of water, kayaking and water actually go hand in hand. As soon as we got on the water, things started feeling familiar and the butterflies quickly left. It was a welcome feeling being on a real river again. What we found downstream was drop after drop of pure Class IV, boat-scoutable bliss. I highly recommend this run! It was very continuous, relatively clean of strainers and sketchiness, and full of quality boulder gardens and slides. We shore scouted maybe 3 times and only carried a couple times due to wood and brush. Flows: We had 3.2 feet on the Murrieta Creek gauge that is referenced in the two write- ups I talked about above. I think that's about 1300cfs. While Charles Foster says the optimum flow is 600-750, the flow we had was great, and a little more would've cleaned things up nicely without making the holes much stickier. We put on at 2pm (not recommended) and were off at 5pm. Scout the take-out!! We were late putting on and lazy, and almost missed the take-out. It was getting cold and that would've been a major buzz kill.

Gage Descriptions

Estimated optimum flow (per Rocky Contos): 1500 cfs

Charles Foster reports on his Temecula Canyon website that "3.2 feet/600-750 cfs is a good level."

arrmike reported on BoaterTalk,  "I've done it once at 8,000cfs and don't recommend that.  I'd love to get on it at a lower flow."

Directions Description

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Matt Muir


Revision #Revision DateAuthorComment
1192645 10/27/04 n/a n/a