Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego marks the spot where explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first stepped foot on the West Coast of the United States in 1542. This National Monument features historical sites, historical exhibits and artifacts, maritime collections, Junior Ranger activities, and more.
In addition to the historical information available here, there are plenty of outdoor opportunities to explore including walking trails, tide pools, birding, and whale watching.
Cabrillo National Monument Details
Address: 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive, San Diego, CA 92106
Fees: Entrance fee per vehicle or per walker
Operating Hours: Open Daily from 9AM – 5PM
Dogs: Not permitted in park, with the exception of the Coastal Trail on Cabrillo Road.
Things To Do At Cabrillo National Monument
- Take a self guided tour of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, dating back to the 1880s. The Old lighthouse is one of the original 8 lighthouses on the west coast.
- Step inside the assistant keepers quarters and see other informative exhibits.
- Explore the exhibits and artifacts at the Visitor Center.
- Visit the World War II Radio station and see the military history exhibit, “They Stood Watch”.
- Whale watching from the point. The best time to look for whales here is during January when Pacific Gray whales are on their annual migration. The Whale overlook has telescopes, shaded areas, and informative sign displays with info about whales.
- Head down to shoreline to explore the tidepools.
- Talk a walk or hike on the trails.
- Come for the Cabrillo Festival at the end of September for reenactments of the arrival of Cabrillo, demonstrations, performances, and activities.
Trails To Explore
Bayside Trail – Open everyday rom 9AM to 4PM, the Bayside Trail is a 2.5 mile round trip trail that offers scenic coastal views. You can also see the bunkers, whale lookout, lighthouse, tidepool area, Ballast Point, Coronado Bridge and many other sights. The path includes a self guided tour with descriptive signage. Keep an eye out for the searchlight shelter and the 1919 power plant.
Coastal Trail – The Coastal Trail is a short one mile round trip hike that runs along the coastal bluffs near the shoreline and leads down to the tidepools. You’ll see amazing views, plus you’ll see one of the remaining underground searchlight shelters installed by the military during WWII. This is an uneven, unpaved trail with several stairs, and strollers are not recommended here.
History of Cabrillo National Monument
After three months at sea, Cabrillo and his crew set anchor at this point along the shore of San Diego Bay. Here, it is believed that Indigenous California tribes first came into contact with Europeans. Cabrillo spent just six days here in the harbor before continuing his expedition. According to Cabrillo’s notes, he named the area San Miguel, and called the area “a closed and very good port”.
Sitting 422 feet above sea level sits the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. Construction of the Cape Cod-style lighthouse began in 1854 and it was officially put into service in 1855 using the newly developed Fresnel Lenses. Point Loma was in operation for nearly 36 years, until a new Point Loma Light Station was developed in 1891 at a lower elevation. The old lighthouse served many purposes through it’s lifetime including a radio and signal tower, Army post exchange, visitor center, and tea house. The structure was rehabilitated for preservation in 1933 when it became part of Cabrillo National Monument.
Many years later, the Point Loma Peninsula, where Cabrillo previously anchored, became militarily significant. The area became a military reserve in 1852. Fort Rosecrans was dedicated in 1899 by the War Department, and a series of gun batteries were built, with additional facilities serving as coastal and harbor defense systems during the World Wars, and the Army constructed searchlight bunkers, fire control stations, and additional gun batteries between 1918 and 1943. The Old Point Loma Lighthouse was painted olive green and used as a command post and radio station. As you explore Cabrillo National Monument, you’ll be able to see the remains of many of these military installations, including a radio station with the exhibit, “They Stood The Watch”, which tells the story of the monuments remains.
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Heidi Deal is the author of the Newcomers Handbook to Living In Los Angeles & Orange County, and a children’s book author specializing in history and human rights.