If you are planning a visit to San Diego in southern California, carve out a morning or an afternoon to spend visiting Cabrillo National Monument, situated at the southern tip of the Point Loma peninsula. With a historical monument, an old lighthouse, walking trails, and oodles of spectacular scenery, Cabrillo National Monument will wow outdoor enthusiasts, history buffs, and nature lovers. Read on to discover what to do at Cabrillo National Monument!
Called the place “where California began,” the park and the monument celebrate Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who landed at nearby Ballast Point in 1542, effectively discovering the west coast of present day USA for Europeans. Cabrillo National Monument was created in 1913, and today it is one of the most visited national monuments in the country.
WHAT TO DO AT CABRILLO NATIONAL MONUMENT, SAN DIEGO
For a park that is less than 150 acres in size, Cabrillo National Monument packs a powerful punch when it comes to things to do. As an amateur photographer, I found tons of cool photo ops. If you like to walk or hike, you will love the scenic location of the monument. If you enjoy military history, you will enjoy learning about the use of the Point Loma peninsula for defense purposes. And, of course, history lovers will enjoy learning about the expedition led by Cabrillo that led to the first landfall by Europeans on the US west coast.
Here are 10 fun and fabulous things to do at Cabrillo National Monument:
#1 Look for marine life in the tide pools
If you visit during the winter (from November through March), when low tide occurs during daylight hours, don’t miss the perfect opportunity to go tide pooling on the west side of the park! In the winter, you can experience not just low tides but negative low tides during the day when the park is open. The tide pool area under the sandstone cliffs at Cabrillo National Monument is one of the prime tide pooling locations in San Diego.
You will see lots of marine plants, fish, and invertebrates in this amazing intertidal zone. From limpets clinging to rocks to colorful anemones, sea stars, lobsters, and even an octopus or two, you will be awe-struck by the variety of creatures you can spot here. Look and enjoy, but don’t touch, to preserve the delicate ecosystem and its inhabitants.
The tide pool area is best accessed by car. The turnoff for the tide pools comes up on the right soon after you enter the park. The access road going down to the water is stunning, especially on a bright sunny day.
As some of the best tide pools in San Diego, the pools here are very popular, so visit in the morning for your best shot at finding a parking spot without having to wait. From the parking lot, a signposted short trail leads down to the pools.
#2 Admire the beautiful birds in the park!
If you visit in the morning, you will see tons of beautiful birds in the roped green area right next to the parking lot at the tide pools. Although you can see birds elsewhere in the park as well, we spotted a large number just sitting in our car with our windows rolled down. Over 200 species are reported to have been spotted at Cabrillo National Monument!
While some birds call the Point Loma peninsula home, others are migrant species and stop here temporarily. You can see both land and sea birds here. During our brief time in the park, we saw some gorgeous Western bluebirds, white-crowned sparrows, mockingbirds, and a falcon.
So if you love birding, don’t forget to pack your binoculars or your zoom lens when you visit Cabrillo National Monument! The official web site of the park has a page to help you identify the birds you spot or capture with your camera.
#3 Photograph the stunning views of the Pacific Ocean!
As you return to the main road and continue up towards the Visitor Center, you’ll see a pullout on the right where you can park and enjoy the magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean. Especially on a bright sunny day, the deep blue of the ocean far below is breathtaking.
When we visited the first time, it was a drizzly gray day, so we actually came back on a sunny afternoon a couple days later to enjoy the views. According to many locals, these are the best ocean views to be had anywhere in San Diego, so it’s worth stopping to take a few photos for your Instagram account.
#4 Learn at the Visitor Center
Your next stop in the park is the Visitor Center, where you can park in the large parking lot and then visit the center to peruse the exhibits and talk to a ranger if you have questions. You can also inquire about ranger-led programs on the day of your visit if you are interested.
The exhibits at the Visitor Center are a good way to learn more about Cabrillo’s expedition and the history of the Cabrillo National Monument. You can also view short films in the auditorium that offer more information on the park. Also browse the book shop if you want to carry home a souvenir!
The plaques outside in the back also provide information. From here, you can see Ballast Point, where Cabrillo reportedly landed in September 1542. It’s a little strip of land that juts out into the San Diego Bay.
From here, you can also get fabulous views of the San Diego skyline, and the Cabrillo Monument. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Mexico!
#5 Visit the Cabrillo Monument!
Next, walk over to take a close look at the Cabrillo Monument. The original statue of the explorer was presented to the United States of America by the Portuguese government in 1939. Sculpted by Alvaro de Bree, the sandstone statue was meant for the Golden Gate International Expo, but arrived too late. Eventually, it was installed at the current location in 1949.
The sandstone statue suffered damage from the elements over the years, and was subsequently replaced by a limestone replica in 1988. The statue stands 14 feet tall.
There’s also a plaque at the Cabrillo Monument presented by the Portuguese government to honor the occasion of the first landfall in California by Cabrillo. Portugal claims Cabrillo by tradition even though he was born in Spain.
MORE ABOUT CABRILLO’s EXPEDITION
Juan Cabrillo was a conquistador serving Spain. He helped in the conquest of Cuba and amassed a lot of wealth from gold mining in Guatemala.
In 1540, he was part of a fleet that sailed from El Salvador to Mexico, charged with exploring north from Mexico to acquire land on behalf of Spain. On June 27, 1542, Cabrillo and his men sailed north from Navidad, Mexico, in three ships. By the end of August, they had sailed further north than any other expedition that had gone before them. And on September 28, 1542, Cabrillo landed at Ballast Point in the bay he named San Miguel but is today known as the San Diego Bay.
The expedition continued north, all the way to the Russian River in Northern California, before storms forced them to head back. Around Christmas that year, Cabrillo injured his leg on a rock when he stepped out of his boat. The wound became septic and led to Cabrillo’s death on January 3, 1543.
Pro Tip: Cabrillo’s landing is re-enacted at Ballast Point each year in September. The Age of Exploration is brought to life through music, costumes, and dance. If you enjoy history and culture, you may want to time your visit to attend the celebrations!
#6 Explore the Old Point Loma Lighthouse
A short walk up the hill from the statue is the Point Loma Lighthouse. I love taking photos of lighthouses, so I was thrilled when I saw the cute lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument!
The lighthouse was completed in 1855 with the installation of state-of-the-art lighting equipment imported from France, just a scant few years after California became a part of the United States. The lighthouse functioned as a welcome light for ships for the next 36 years.
During this time, it was discovered that the location of the lighthouse was not ideal, and the light was not visible during periods of fog or low hanging clouds. So the lighthouse stopped functioning at the location in 1891, and the active light was moved to a new lower location. The new light is still active! You can see the new lighthouse from the tide pools area or the Whale Overlook at the top of the hill.
The old lighthouse was restored, and today you can not only view the lighthouse, but also the interior of the lighthouse keeper’s quarters, which are furnished! There is also a little kitchen garden in the back. The tower of the lighthouse is only open on three days of the year.
Exploring the Point Loma Lighthouse was one of the highlights of the time we spent at Cabrillo National Monument.
#7 Do some whale watching!
The waters of the Pacific Ocean at Point Loma are part of the migration route of the Pacific gray whales. Every winter, the gray whales migrate from the Arctic, where they spend the summer feeding, to the warm waters of Baja California, to mate, give birth, and nurse their young. In the spring, they migrate back to the north. The round trip is about 12,000 miles!
On the way south, the whales pass by close enough to shore (just beyond the kelp beds) to be able to see with binoculars. On the way north, however, their route is too far out in the ocean for viewing from shore.
December through March is the season to spot whales from the Whale Overlook or Kelp Forest Overlook at Cabrillo National Monument, with your best chance in the month of January. Bring binoculars, or powerful zoom lens, to be able to better see the telltale spouts, tail flips, a head poking out of the water, or most exciting of all, a breach! The Visitor Center rents out binoculars in season with a picture ID.
Even if you don’t spot whales, the expansive unobstructed views of the Pacific Ocean are gawkworthy, and it’s a lovely spot to sit down for a few minutes in the peace and quiet of the overlook area.
#8 Walk a trail…or two!
There are many short walking trails throughout the different areas of Cabrillo National Monument, such as the trail to the tide pools or the overlook trail. But for a long walk, try the Bayside Trail. The walk is 2.5 miles round trip, and classed as relatively easy. On the return trip, you do gain some elevation (340 feet), so turn back at any time if you are not comfortable doing the entire out-and-back length.
The trail starts near the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, and is signposted. It starts out as a paved road that gives way to a dirt path. There are plenty of benches to rest and catch your breath or enjoy the views of the water. Plaques along the route offer information on the flora and fauna and other interesting facts about the area. The trail is one of the few places where coastal sage scrub grow.
The second scenic trail to try at Cabrillo National Monument is the Coastal Trail, which is a one-mile round trip hike classed as easy to moderate because of a few steep slopes. The trail is on the west side of the park, in the tide pools area. You can start the trail at parking Lot 1 on Gatchell Road and walk towards Lot 2, or do it in reverse.
The trail offers great views of the water and the coastline. If you are starting from Lot 1, you will eventually climb the steps leading away from the water, and continue past the searchlight shelter from World War II. Stay off the roof of the shelter that is visible above ground, and continue on to Lot 2.
You will see beautiful wildflowers along the trail, as well as birds in the brush. It’s a wonderful walk! As with all nature walks, learn about your surroundings and follow park guidelines and regulations for your safety.
#9 Enjoy the native flora at the park
I loved viewing the native plant species in the park. I read that park rangers and volunteers have been aggressively removing invasive weeds and non-native vegetation from different areas in the park, leading to the re-emergence of native species. When we visited, the beautiful sea dahlia was in bloom, as well as other wildflowers.
Coastal sage scrub looks very attractive against the blue of the water. Apparently the plants are very aromatic, because they rely on moths using their sense of smell to find them for the purposes of pollination. The scent also keeps them safe from animals using them as food.
#10 Savor the silence at the Rosecrans Cemetery
Just outside the gate to the Cabrillo Monument is the lovely Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, a federal military cemetery. The cemetery is a National Historic Landmark, and covers close to 80 acres, on both sides of Catalina Boulevard, the road leading to the park.
With beautiful views over the San Diego Bay, the cemetery is a stunning final resting place for the veterans that have been laid to rest here, and a peaceful place for visitors to pay their respects and savor the beauty of the surroundings in silence and gratitude. I found it the perfect place to end a wonderful visit to Cabrillo National Monument.
TIPS FOR VISITING CABRILLO NATIONAL MONUMENT
If you go
Cabrillo National Monument
1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive
San Diego, CA 92106
Getting to Cabrillo National Monument
The scenic approach to the park is via Catalina Boulevard, and you will see gorgeous views over the water and pass Rosecrans Cemetery on your way into the park.
From downtown San Diego, take Harbor Drive to Rosecrans Street and on to Catalina Boulevard, also called Cabrillo Memorial Drive.
Cabrillo National Monument is open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. everyday. The tide pools, however, close at 4.30 p.m. The last park passes for the day are issued at the entrance station at 4.30 p.m.
Park entrance fees and passes
Current Cabrillo National Monument fees can be found on the park web site. There is an entrance fee for pedestrians and cyclists as well. Cabrillo National Monument is part of the America the Beautiful pass program, so if you have a valid annual pass or a lifetime pass, don’t forget to carry it with you!
Cell phone reception and WiFi
Free wifi is available in the vicinity of the Visitor Center. Cell phone reception is generally available in the upper parts of the park and along the Bayside Trail, but there is no cell phone reception in the tide pool area.
The best time to visit Cabrillo National Monument
While temperatures in San Diego are generally mild, making it a year-round destination, you might experience rainy days in the winter. Winter storms can close trails and other park features, so call the day before you go or check the park web site for closures.
January is the best time of year for whale watching from the park. Winter is the best time for tide pooling, since minus low tides occur during daylight hours in the winter.
In the summer, you may experience fog obstructing the spectacular views from the park, especially in June.
What to wear
Layers are recommended, because the park is at an elevation and it can get cool and/or windy here even on a sunny day. If you plan to go tide pooling, bring water shoes. If you plan to hike a trail, wear appropriate footwear. Bring along a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, and use sunscreen.
Food and drink
There are vending machines at the Visitor Center that dispense water and other beverages, but if you plan on having a meal at the park, pack a picnic.
Follow all park regulations and safety guidelines.
The park hosts special events through the year, so check to see if one is happening during your planned visit!
Have you visited Cabrillo National Monument? Comment below to respond! If you have not, I hope you will add it to your San Diego travel itinerary!
And if you plan to explore the Golden State, I have some fabulous destinations for California weekend trips from which to choose.
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