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Cabrillo: A San Diego must-see

Cabrillo National Monument's Visitor Center and exhibits are the natural starting spot for a tour of the historic site.
Cabrillo National Monument's Visitor Center and exhibits are the natural starting spot for a tour of the historic site.
Photo by Karen Sweeny-Justice

Desert dwellers seeking to escape the Valley’s excessive summer heat with a trip to San Diego, Calif. should be sure to put Cabrillo National Monument on the ‘must-see’ list. Located on the southern tip of the Point Loma peninsula, Cabrillo marks the landing site of the Europeans to set foot on the western coast of what is now the United States.

The entrance sign at Cabrillo National Monument is especially striking.
Photo by Karen Sweeny-Justice

Established as a national park site in 1913, four distinct themes are covered by the monument’s boundaries: the Visitor Center and the Cabrillo Statue; Old Point Loma Lighthouse; the Coastal Defense Military Installation; and the Tide Pools. While all are physically close together, plan on at least half a day to really enjoy the site.

The Visitor Center

While the park visitor center undergoes earthquake reinforcement this summer, the park bookstore and visitor contact station have been moved into the park auditorium. This is where you’ll want to begin your visit. Be sure to pick up a copy of the Cabrillo Journal, a park map, and, if you have children, JUST for KIDS and the Junior Ranger Program guide. Between the bookstore, wild animal displays and the bookstore, space is cramped in the auditorium, but films are shown on a small screen.

Next door is the Age of Exploration exhibit where visitors can get up close and personal with life and travels in the 16th century. This is where you’ll find information on Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and the Spanish Exploration of the Americas, conquistadors, the native peoples, and where you’ll see what ‘modern’ instrumentation was available for navigating the high seas circa 1542. A statue depicting Cabrillo is located on one of the patios overlooking San Diego Harbor.

Old Point Loma Lighthouse

Just a short walk uphill from the Visitor Center is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. Completed in 1855, this simple lighthouse stands 422 feet above sea level. Unfortunately, that elevation had too much to compete against between fog and low lying clouds, so in 1891 Old Point Loma was shuttered and a new light was built closer to the water at the tip of Point Loma.

Today, the park service has refurbished Old Point Loma Lighthouse to its days as a working light and has reconstructed the adjacent assistant lighthouse keepers’ quarters. Displays and brochures explain the history of the lighthouse and ranger-led talks are offered as scheduling permits.

The Coastal Defense Military Installation

Cabrillo shares Point Loma peninsula with the US Navy and Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Thanks to that elevation of 422 feet above sea level, the US military early on recognized the area’s strategic views of both San Diego Harbor and the Pacific Ocean. In 1852, it was designated a military reserve; in 1899, Fort Rosecrans was dedicated and a series of gun batteries were built. During both World Wars the Point provided vital coastal and harbor defense systems: searchlight bunkers, fire control stations, and gun batteries were built between 1918 and 1943.

What remains of these coastal defenses include base-end stations, fire control stations, searchlight bunkers, and a radio station that now houses the interactive exhibits of They Stood the Watch.

The Tide Pools

On the west side of the park, reached via road from up top, are the Tide Pools. Parking here is limited, but a short walk along a sandy path brings visitors to the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Here, in the rock strewn region that exists between land and sea live myriad varieties of marine plants and animals. When the tide cooperates, visitors of all ages can gently search for living creatures in shallow pools or simply hang out on massive boulders and take in the beauty of the Pacific. A park ranger or volunteer is often on duty with a touch table and hands-on information on what can be seen in the tide pools.

Cabrillo National Monument is open daily – except for Christmas – from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The entrance station closes at 4:55 p.m. and all vehicular and foot traffic must exit at closing. Visitors arriving in the afternoon should plan on seeing the tide pools first, as they close to visitors at 4:30 p.m. The two mile long Bayside Trail which links the Visitor Center, Cabrillo Statue, patios and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse closes daily at 4:00 p.m. Cabrillo is a federal fee area. Federal recreational passes are accepted; otherwise an entrance fee of $5 is charged per vehicle.

For more information, contact Cabrillo National Monument, 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive, San Diego, CA 92106-3601. Phone (619) 557-5450.