The Cabrillo National Monument on the end of Point Loma is San Diego’s only National Park, where 144 gorgeous acres surround a monument to explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.
These grounds offer fantastic panoramic views of the city, San Diego Bay, and the ocean. And they’re filled with a large variety of flora and fauna.
Other highlights include hiking trails, tide pools, a vintage lighthouse, WWII-era military structures, the Visitor Center, and even seasonal whale watching. Visiting here is a fantastic way to spend a half-day in the San Diego sunshine.
In this guide, I’ll share includes historical facts, a list of things to do, and important information for visitors to Cabrillo National Monument. You’ll want to check directly with the park’s website to see what is open and on offer during your stay.
Who Was Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo?
The park’s namesake monument is a statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a European navigator 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 the West Coast of the United States. It’s popularly regarded as the discovery of California (despite native people having lived here for centuries).
For any of us living in San Diego and visiting the Cabrillo National Monument now, this event is arguably why many of us all here, almost 500 years later.
That’s, in a nutshell, the historical significance of the namesake Cabrillo.
What to Know Before Visiting the Cabrillo National Monument
Before visiting the Cabrillo National Monument, you’ll need to know essential details like hours, ticket prices, nearby food, gift shops, and parking.
Tickets and Hours
The great thing about the Cabrillo National Monument is how accessible this attraction is. Hours of operation are open from 9 a.m.–5 p.m. every day of the week, 365 days a year.
Remember that the Bayside trail closes at 4 p.m., and the tidepools close at 4:30 p.m.
Tickets are issued by car, bicycle, or motorcycle that enters. A noncommercial car costs $20 to enter and the pass is valid for seven days. Check prices before you go.
Pets: The park’s pet policy is a little nuanced and detailed on its website. In short, service animals are allowed. Dogs are allowed at the tide pools but not around the upper park/monument area.
Cafe and Restaurants
There are no cafes or restaurants that sell food within the park. There are also no formal picnic areas, although you can bring food into the area and find your own place to enjoy your food. Just remember to pack out all your trash.
Parking and Directions
Directions: Driving directions from various parts of San Diego are listed on the park’s website. From any direction, you’ll need to get to Rosecrans Street and head out toward Point Loma.
- Make sure that you are on Rosecrans Street heading into Point Loma.
- Turn right onto Canon Street.
- Turn left onto Catalina Blvd. (also known as Cabrillo Memorial Drive).
- Follow Catalina Blvd.; go through the Navy gate all the way to the end.
Beyond the main, large parking area located next to the monument, there are three other smaller parking areas.
Remember that the small parking lot next to the tide pools is known to fill up very quickly. The additional parking areas are all located along Cabrillo Road.
Located inside the visitor center is the Cabrillo Store, a gift shop. Besides magnets, T-shirts, and postcards, there is a large collection of historical books.
This gift shop is also open 365 days a year and is operated by the Cabrillo National Monument Foundation. This is where kids pick up Junior Ranger information (more on this is below).
Indoor Activities: There are a few indoor activities in the event of poor weather. These include the lighthouse tour, “Age of Exploration” exhibit room, and the military history exhibit. However, the Cabrillo National Monument is best explored when it’s not raining.
The Cabrillo statue in the park is a 14-foot limestone replica of an original statue donated to the United States by the Portuguese government in 1939.
Due to conditions in the area, the original statue became badly weathered and required replacement in 1988.
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.
What to Do at Cabrillo National Monument
There are five main reasons to visit Cabrillo National Monument:
- Panoramic views,
- The historical significance of Cabrillo’s landing at Ballast Point,
- Mild hiking and bird-watching opportunities,
- 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).
Here are some of the best ways to enjoy the National Monument.
Stop at the Cabrillo National Monument Visitor Center
A stop at the Visitor Center is recommended at the beginning of your visit (unless you are 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 talk to a park ranger about what to see on the day of your visit.
See also: Best Things to Do in San Diego with Kids
Many visitors like to walk through the “Age of Exploration” exhibit room near the Visitor Center, contextualizing Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo. Three films are shown several times a day in the auditorium there.
Become a Junior Ranger
The Visitor Center is also where kids can pick up the Junior Ranger Program information, available daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. They’ll need to watch out for certain things around the park to earn their badge at the end of their visit.
Snap a Photo at the Monument
The view from where the statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo stands is one of the best in San Diego. It’s located near the Visitor Center, so it’s a natural second stop when arriving at the park.
Take some time to enjoy the scenery and get a few photos to share with friends and family. Many people sit on the small wall to enjoy a snack (which is why there can be squirrels here).
Appreciate The Point Loma Lighthouses
Many also 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.
Set off on a Cabrillo National Monument Hike
There are two main trails at Cabrillo National Monument for visitors to get some hiking in during a visit and a chance to admire views and coastal sage scrub.
The 2.5-mile Bayside Trail provides great, panoramic views from the ocean to the mountains, and of Ballast Point (where Cabrillo landed). It’s only open from 9 a.m to 4 p.m daily.
It begins near the Old Lighthouse and winds around toward the side of the park facing San Diego Bay. Detailed signs along the route explain the various flora and fauna, and you’ll find points of interest, including a searchlight shelter used during WWI and WWII.
If you head south, you’ll come across Whale Overlook, where people occasionally spot gray whales migrating between mid-December and March.
It’ll take around an hour or two to complete the round trip, and it’s a relatively moderate walk for all ages. On the way back, there is a bit of an uphill hike that may prove challenging, but the trail is dotted with rest stops and benches.
Pets and bikes are not allowed on this trail, and there are no toilets or water points (so pack some to take with you).
The second trail is the Coastal Trail, a one-mile round trip hike with a few steep slopes and stairs, making it inaccessible to strollers. The trail starts at parking Lot 1 and Lot 2 off of Gatchell Road.
This trail is popular with runners and hikers, and since pets are allowed, you’ll see many dog walkers too. There are no trash cans along the route, so hikers are expected to clean up after themselves (and their pooches).
Most of the trail comprises broad pathways that overlook stunning ocean views. The Coastal Trail is also the home of the only visible searchlight shelter in the park.
There is a spot on this trail called the ‘Hump,’ which leads off to the tide pools. And another path, the Spur Trail, also provides access to the tide pools.
Explore the Cabrillo National Monument Tide Pools
The Cabrillo tide pools in the Rocky Intertidal Zone (the unique ecosystem between high and low tides) 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 tide pools.
There is a parking lot here, though it can fill up fast. Walking downhill from the Visitor Center parking lot is not at all recommended due to the distance and the fact that you have to then walk back uphill (it’s not easily doable with kids in tow).
Tide pooling is best done at minus tides, which happen in daylight during winter. Online tide calendars are pretty accurate in predicting low tide times. Good tide pooling typically occurs a few hours prior and a few hours after a peak minus tide. You’ll see plenty of sea anemones, hermit crabs, fish, sea stars, and other critters.
The Cabrillo Sea Cave is another popular “secret” area to check out that you may have seen on Instagram, but it is often closed due to hazardous conditions.
View WII-era Defense Structures
Fearing an 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. A few are periodically open to the public, while others you may drive by or walk past on the hiking trails.
There’s an exhibit called “They Stood the Watch,” housed in an old military radio station and a popular attraction in the park.
Have a Picnic
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 popular choice for families visiting with kids.
Take a Guided Tour
While Cabrillo National Monument is a mostly self-guided adventure, there are occasional guided tours organized by the park rangers. These are especially great if you have kids with you.
The rangers will take you past the statue, the lighthouse, and the other important stops in the park. You’ll be able to hear much more about the monument’s history, and even some of the present-day interesting facts.
Tips and FAQs for Planning a Visit
Plan ahead for your visit, and you’re sure to enjoy a fun day out with the whole family.
What to Wear?
Cabrillo National Monument’s location on a point jutting into the Pacific Ocean can be windy even on sunny days. It can be cold and wet in foggy weather, too, so layering is advised.
As I mention in what to pack for San Diego, layers are advisable during any time of the year here. Just bring heavier layers in the winter.
How Long Does it Take to Get There From San Diego?
Despite being relatively close, distance-wise, to downtown San Diego and local freeways, the drive from downtown to the end of the Point Loma peninsula takes up to 30 minutes due to stoplights on residential streets.
How Long Should You Spend at Cabrillo Monument, San Diego?
A half-day visit is plenty of time to see the monument, perhaps go for a Cabrillo Monument hike, visit the tide pools, and marvel at the views.
Brush Up on Local History
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.
Top 5 Unique Facts About the Cabrillo National Monument
Discover more about the Cabrillo National Monument with these interesting facts about this family-friendly San Diego destination.
This National Monument is the Only National Park Unit in San Diego County
As a part of the National Park System, this national monument is fully staffed by rangers. These rangers offer extensive knowledge of the explorer Juan Cabrillo’s history and the surrounding natural area.
The Junior Ranger Program is free to participate in, and the park participates in Every Kid Outdoors, a program for 4th graders established by NPS.
The Statue’s Original Home Was in Oakland
Though the fourteen-foot statue is considered an icon of San Diego, many people don’t know the statue’s original home was to be in Oakland. The governor at the time, Culbert Olsen, thought Oakland would be a fitting place given the large Portuguese population within the city.
However, this caused quite a stir, as many San Diegans felt the beautiful monument was a better fit at the location Cabrillo landed. A surprising chain of events happened next, with politicians accusing a San Diego senator of “kidnapping” the statue. It arrived at what is now Cabrillo National Monument in 1949.
The Statue You See Today Is a Replica After Weather Damaged the Original
It’s true! Portuguese sculptor Álvaro de Brée created the original statue. It was fourteen feet tall and made of sandstone, a gift to the United States by Portugal.
However, years of exposure to the marine weather eroded most of the details of the heroic sculpture. In 1988 Portuguese sculptor João Charters de Almeida sculpted an exact replica out of limestone, a more weather-resistant stone.
The Monument Serves as a Renowned Whale Watching Spot Every Winter
If your visit happens to coincide with the winter months, there’s a chance you can see migrating whales from the whale lookout. The whale lookout is within walking distance of the monument and features educational facts about whales. There’s also some whale art and excellent views of a kelp forest below.
These Pacific gray whales have traveled from the Arctic to Baja, California. Each January or February, a Whale Watching Weekend festival is located at Cabrillo National Monument.
The Old Point Loma Lighthouse is 168 Years Old
While most of the United State’s history might be associated with East Coast sites, we have quite a bit of history in San Diego, too. The Old Point Loma Lighthouse was erected in 1855.
This Cape Cod-style lighthouse is now an iconic San Diegans building but was almost demolished three times. Due to the thick marine layer and fog, the lighthouse was not very effective for many of the years it was in use.
Why We Love the Cabrillo National Monument
Not only is the Cabrillo National Monument steeped in fascinating history, but it offers a wealth of ecological experiences as well. This family-friendly destination has something for everyone, from coastal hikes to historical places. If you time your trip to late January or early February, give the visitor’s center a call to see when the whale-watching festival is taking place.
We also love the location of the monument on Point Loma. If you or your family has military ties or are simply interested in history, you may appreciate and admire the Navy’s presence on the peninsula. On the way to Cabrillo National Monument, you’ll pass by Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery and the Bennington Monument inside of it.
What is your favorite thing to do at Cabrillo National Monument?