The Cabrillo National Monument out on the end of Point Loma is the city’s only National Park.
What draws most people here today are the 144 acres surrounding a monument to explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo that offer fantastic panoramic views of the city, San Diego Bay, and the ocean.
Other highlights include hiking trails, tide pools, a vintage lighthouse, WWII-era military structures, the Visitor Center, and even seasonal whale watching. A visit here is a fantastic way to spend a half-day in San Diego sunshine.
What Is the Cabrillo National Monument?
The park’s namesake monument is a statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a navigator (maybe Portuguese, maybe Spanish) who landed at what is today Ballast Point in San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542.
This was the first time a European expedition had set foot on what is today the West Coast of the United States. It’s regarded popularly as the discovery of what is today California (despite native people having lived here for centuries).
For any of us living in San Diego today and visiting the Cabrillo National Monument now, this event is arguably the but for causation of why we are all here, almost 500 years later. That’s the historical significance of the namesake Cabrillo.
It’s possible to see Ballast Point from the Cabrillo National Monument, but the statue itself isn’t located on the spot of his landing.
The statue today is a 14-foot limestone replica of an original statue donated to the United States by the Portuguese government in 1939. Weathering due to conditions in the area required its replacement in 1988.
Things to Do at Cabrillo National Monument
There are five main reasons to visit Cabrillo National Monument:
- Panoramic views,
- The historical aspect of Cabrillo’s landing at Ballast Point,
- Mild hiking and bird watching,
- Tide pooling in winter months (even seasonal whale watching), and
- Impressively large WWII-era bunkers and other buildings, and even the Old Point Loma Lighthouse (which is open to the public).
A stop at the Visitor Center is a must and recommended at the beginning of your visit (unless heading straight to the tide pools which we’ll discuss in more detail below). Here, pick up a schedule of the day’s events and to talk to a park ranger.
The Visitor Center is where kids can pick up the Junior Ranger information. They’ll need to keep an eye out for certain things around the park for how to earn their badge.
Many visitors like to walk through the “Age of Exploration” exhibit room near the Visitor Center, contextualizing Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. Films play in the auditorium there.
Snap a Photo at the Monument
The view from where the statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo stands is one of the best in all of San Diego. It’s located near the Visitor Center, so the second thing people typically do during a visit to Cabrillo National Monument is take photos here.
Many also take a look inside the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which operated from 1855-1891. It is open to the public for self-guided tours (which take just a few minutes).
It was one of the first navigational lights on the West Coast and was the highest in the United States at the time. Later, it was abandoned in favor of one built nearby at a lower elevation.
The site of the original lighthouse is now where the actual Cabrillo Monument stands today.
Cabrillo National Monument Hiking Trails
If you want to walk or hike, there are two trails at Cabrillo National Monument. One is the 2.5-mile Bayside Trail with great, panoramic views from the ocean to the mountains, and of Ballast Point (where Cabrillo landed).
It begins near the Old Lighthouse and winds around toward the side of the park facing the San Diego Bay. Detailed signs along the way explain the various flora, fauna, and points of interest along the way including a searchlight shelter used during WWI and WWII.
The second of the two trails is the Coastal Trail, a one-mile round trip hike with a few steep slopes and stairs (strollers are not suitable for this trail). The trail starts at parking Lot 1 and Lot 2 off of Gatchell Road.
Cabrillo Tide Pools
The Cabrillo tide pools are regarded as some of the best tide pools in San Diego. Upon entering Cabrillo National Monument, you can either go left toward the visitor center or right down toward the Cabrillo tide pools.
There is a tide pool parking lot here though it can fill up. Walking downhill from the Visitor Center parking lot is not at all recommended due to distance and the fact that you have to then walk back uphill (it’s not doable with kids in tow).
Tide pooling is best done at minus tides, which happen in daylight during winter months. Online tide calendars are pretty accurate with predicting times. Good tide pooling occurs typically a few hours prior and a few hours after a peak minus tide.
Cell phone service usually not available here so please plan your transportation accordingly.
WWII-Era Defense Structures
Fearing attack by Japan, the Cabrillo National Monument was made part of the War Department’s coastal defenses during World War II. There are over 15 such structures still standing there (though some are underground).
In reality, some are more visible than others to visitors today. Some are periodically open to the public, while others you may drive by or walk by on the hiking trails.
More detail about the military history of this strategically located park and its role in our national defense are available on the park’s website.
Vending machines with coffee, soda, and snacks offer the only available food and drinks for purchase at Cabrillo National Monument. Bringing food for a picnic is a common choice for families visiting with kids.
Tips for Planning a Visit
Cabrillo National Monument’s location on a point jutting into the Pacific Ocean means that it can be windy even on sunny days. It can be cold and wet in foggy weather, too, so layering is advised.
Despite being relatively close distance-wise to downtown San Diego and local freeways, the drive from downtown takes up to 30 minutes due to stoplights on residential streets.
My daughter’s fifth-grade class also studied the not-so-savory aspects of the Spanish conquistadors and their conquests in the New World. If your kids have done the same, they may bring up Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s mixed personal legacy.
A half-day visit is plenty of time.
Opening Hours: The park is open 365 days a year from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Entrance Fees: Find details for entrance fees on the park’s website. Currently, prices are $15 per car and $7 for individuals on foot/bicyclists. Active duty military personnel and their dependents are admitted free, upon showing proper identification. No prior reservations are required. Annual Passes are also available.
Indoor Activities: In the event of poor weather, there are a few indoor activities. However, Cabrillo National Monument is best explored when it’s not raining.
Pets: The park’s policy on pets is a little nuanced and detailed on their website. In short, service animals are allowed. Dogs are allowed at the tide pools but not around the upper park/monument area.
Directions: Driving directions from various parts of San Diego are listed on the park’s website.
Kids’ Activities: Families of fourth graders should be sure to sign up for Every Kid in a Park, a pass that provides fourth graders and their families free admission to National Parks for the year.
Annual Cabrillo Festival: This festival is held on a Sunday in October each year, including a reenactment of Cabrillo’s landing at Ballast Point.
What is your favorite thing to do at Cabrillo National Monument?