Exploring the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego

The San Diego coast has always had strong naval ties, long before Top Gun and even before the opening of the city’s iconic naval base in in 1922.  In fact, the area’s seafaring days can be traced as far back as back as far back as the 16th century when the first European navigator reached what is now San Diego.  Fast forward to today, when a visit to the often-overlooked Cabrillo National Monument will allow you to take in some of this history while exploring its beautiful natural setting.  Plus the views aren’t half bad either.

How to Get There
Located at the southern tip of Point Loma, the Cabrillo National Monument commemorates the 1542 landing of Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who is credited as being the first European to set foot on the west coast of the United States. He set sail from Mexico to map the coast to the north, open trade and discover a “mythical passage” among other explorer-type things.  Visiting the monument today requires much less effort, as it’s an easy 20 to 30-minute drive from most places in and around San Diego.  The gentile 2-lane Catalina Boulevard winds through a neighborhood before transitioning to Cabrillo Memorial Drive where it passes through the countless rows of gleaming white headstones of the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on either side as you approach the entrance fee station.  Bear right to reach the Point Loma Tide Pools (more on that later) or bear left to reach the parking lot for the Visitor Center.

What to See and Do
The best place to start is at the Visitor Center where you’ll find a little museum with exhibits about the monument and panoramic harbor views.  A short walk away is the Cabrillo Statue depicting the site’s namesake explorer proudly overlooking his shoulder at the expanse of the surrounding San Diego Bay.

Continue along the paved path to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse.  The lighthouse was originally built in the 1850s and was among the first lighthouse on the west coast constructed by the U.S. government.  At one time it was the highest lighthouse in the country at 422 feet above sea level and its position at the tip of Point Loman meant it could be seen from both the ocean and the bay.  It remained operational for only 36 years as low hanging clouds and fog often obscured its light, thus a new lighthouse was eventually built at the bottom of the hill.  Go inside the lighthouse up its narrow spiral staircase to see reconstructions of rooms that depict how the lighthouse keeper lived.  The adjacent building was once the Assistant Lighthouse Keepers Quarters with a wealth of information about lighthouse technology and the demanding job of the keepers.  Also nearby is the whale overlook and a military history exhibit that digs deeper to the area’s strategic position.

Another distinguishing feature of Cabrillo National Monument is its natural environment and one of the best ways to experience this is on the Bayside Trail.  The trail is about 2 miles round trip and follows an old U.S. Army roadway through a wild landscape of coastal sage scrub, succulents, flowers and grasses.  Benches are perfectly placed along the trail to take in the scenery and sweeping views, with informational signage about the natural and militaristic significance of the area and remnants of coastal defense systems that helped protect the harbor during WWII.  It’s a relatively easy trail that’s suitable for all ages and abilities that’s mostly flat or downhill on the way out with a slight incline on the return.

A short drive away from the Visitor Center is a separate parking area for access to the Point Loma Tidepools.  It’s a fun spot for adults and kids alike to partake in a nautical scavenger hunt on the coastal side of the Cabrillo National Monument.  There’s also a short 1-mile round trip Coastal Trail that extends from the parking lots.  Despite the sign that said the tides were too high on the day of our visit, we still managed to find a plethora of sea grasses, crabs and other tiny creatures clinging to crevices so as not to get swept out to sea as the tide washed in and out.  We were also treated to beautiful coastal views from the higher vantage points of the sandstone cliffs that overlooked the deep blue ocean and foamy waves below.

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