More often than not, Cabrillo National Monument is the first place that I take my out-of-town visitors. The expansive views of both the Pacific Ocean and the city are a great way to orient someone to the city.
Cabrillo National Monument is part of the National Park Service and is San Diego County’s only national park. The history presented spans nearly 500 years, dating back to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first arriving on 28 September 1542. From the park’s museums and facilities, you can get a sense of 16th century Spanish exploration of the west coast; 19th century life as a lighthouse keeper; and 20th century coastal defenses during World War II.
It’s also home to over 300 species of birds and has intriguing tide pools that you can walk out and explore during low tides. There are rare and protected plant communities throughout the park. From December through March, you may see Pacific Gray Whales off the coast on their annual migration. You may encounter small mammals and reptiles—including an occasional rattlesnake—as you wander through the 160 acres of the park.
There are two hiking trails. The Bayside Trail runs along the harbor side of the point; it’s about 1.8 miles / 3 km in length and has an elevation change of about 300 feet / 90 m. The Pacific overlook trail runs along the sandstone cliffs over the Pacific Ocean. It’s about 0.5 miles in length (one-way) and with minor elevation changes along the cliffs. Check in the Visitor Center for volunteer-led nature walks.
You can enter the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which operated from 1855–1891, but the actual lantern room is closed to the public (except on 22 March, 25 August, and 15 November when they have Open Tower days). The adjacent Assistant Keeper’s Quarters houses a small museum highlighting lighthouses up and down the west coast and a complete third-order Fresnel lens.
On occasion, there are after-hours events for additional fees sponsored by two partner organizations, the Cabrillo National Monument Conservancy and the Cabrillo National Monument Foundation. Seeing the city at night from high atop the point is truly special.
Cabrillo National Monument is a special oasis right within the city. Check it out.
[Full disclosure: I am an unpaid volunteer at Cabrillo National Monument.]
What You Need to Know:
Address: 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr., San Diego, CA 92106
Hours: 9 a.m–5 p.m. daily; closed Thanksgiving and Christmas days
Cost: $10 per car, good for 7 days or use your national park pass
Tips: No pets are allowed outside of your vehicles in the park, except by the tide pools where they must be kept on a 6-foot leash. Certified service animals are permitted throughout the park. There are no picnic tables, but plenty of benches and stone walls that you can sit on for a picnic lunch. Pack out your trash.
The tide pools are exposed when the tide is +0.7 feet or less; negative tides are the best times to see the tide pools. The best time of year to see the tide pools is between October and March; in the summer, the lowest tides happen in the night when it’s dark and the park is closed.
Click to see full-sized photos.