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The Ultimate Guide to Cabrillo National Monument

The Ultimate Guide to Cabrillo National Monument

While traveling to San Diego, don't forget to visit the unique and breathtaking Cabrillo National Monument.

Roubina Al Abashian


6 min read

November 18, 2022

Disclaimer: is not receiving any type of compensation for reviewing any of the products or services mentioned in this article.

On the edge of the Pacific in San Diego, and in the southwest corner of the United States, sits Cabrillo National Monument, one of the finest natural harbors on the West Coast. Its unique location, panoramic views, and rich history make this park a top contender on your San Diego itinerary. Enjoying Cabrillo National Monument’s breathtaking vistas, visiting its historical monument, and checking out the old lighthouse are just a few reasons why history buffs and nature lovers can’t get enough of this place. Before you get going, start by reading a brief history of this San Diego national park, know its ins and outs, make a list of all the awesome things you get to do once you arrive; and then head out. 

Gorgeous vistas and interesting history make Cabrillo National Monument a prime tourist attraction in San Diego.

Cabrillo National Monument: A Brief History 

On September 28, 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo landed at San Diego Bay, becoming the first European to set foot on the West Coast. Cabrillo National Monument was established centuries later, in 1913, to commemorate the landing of Cabrillo in what we know today as California. Less than two decades later, in 1932, the area was designated as a California Historical Landmark; and in 1966, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Despite only covering 160 acres of land, this national park in San Diego packs tons of fun things to do and vistas to see, making it a can’t-miss Southern California attraction.  

Important Things to Know Before Arriving at Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument sits on the tip of Point Loma, the peninsula which separates San Diego Bay from the Pacific Ocean. The park is open 365 days a year, from 9 am until 5 pm, but the tide pool area closes at 4:30 pm. Dogs are not allowed across the park, except on the Coastal Trail near the tidepools; and even then, they need to be on a leash. No restaurants can be found on the premises of Cabrillo, California when hunger strikes, but that shouldn’t be a problem since the best San Diego restaurants are just minutes away. As for entrance fees, visitors who come in on foot or bicycle pay $10, non-commercial vehicles pay $20, and motorcycles pay $15. If you feel like you’re going to be visiting the park over and over again, consider buying the Cabrillo annual pass which only costs $35.

All the Fun Things to Do at Cabrillo National Monument

The Visitor Center is the most informative spot in the park. Having said that, it should be an ideal place to kick off your tour.

1. Stop by the Visitor Center

Your trip to Cabrillo National Monument should start at the Visitor Center, where you will find a large parking space and all the information you need before embarking on a journey of discovery. The statue of Cabrillo and the bookstore are located right next to the center as well. In the bookstore, you’ll find great books and a lot of souvenirs. Outside the center, you’ll also find interpretive displays that talk about the region. And right down the street, there is a theater, and rotating park films including In Search of Cabrillo, and On the Edge of Land and Sea among others. Not only is the Visitor Center informative, but it also offers the most beautiful views of the San Diego skyline from a height of 300 to 400 feet above sea level. It’s easy to say that the Visitor Center, with all its surrounding attractions, is the most educational part of the park.

The statue of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and the scenic views surrounding it are a can’t-miss during your visit to the Cabrillo National Monument.

2. Visit the Monument

Before leaving the Visitor Center area, stop by the statue of the man whose name the park bears, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo. The 14-feet monument is a limestone replica of the original one, which was gifted to the U.S. by the Portuguese government in 1939. The sandstone Cabrillo monument was meant for the Golden Gate International Expo, but because of being late, was placed in its current location. Over the years, the sandstone statue suffered a lot of damage and was eventually replaced by the current limestone replica in 1988. Visiting this monument only means you’ll get to better understand the essence of this park.

You can watch them, but you can’t touch them; the beautiful tide pools at Cabrillo National Monument are meant to be left alone in order to thrive.

3. Check the Tide Pools

If you’ve ever heard of Cabrillo National Monument before, it’s probably because people wouldn’t stop talking about how it has some of the best tide pools in Southern California. As a matter of fact, those are not just rumors, they’re true — marine life is abundant in the region and you get to witness it all at the Cabrillo tide pools. Located under the sandstone cliffs, the tidepools are home to colorful anemones, lobsters, keyhole limpets, black tegula snails, Kellet’s whelks, and so much more. To take advantage of all the beauty in this particular area of the park, it’s advised to visit the park between November and March when the tide is low, and you can see it all crystal-clear. 

4. Hike the Trails

There are at least a dozen short trails snaking through this national park near San Diego, but the two relatively longer ones are the ones you shouldn’t miss. The first one is the Bayside Trail, which is a 2.5-mile easy roundtrip starting near the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. The second is the mile-long Coastal Trail in the tide pool area which is considered easy to moderate — because of only a few steep slopes. If you’re one who loves coastal hiking trails, you’re definitely in the right park.  

The Old Point Loma Lighthouse is probably the most popular structure in the park. To this day it’s still a brilliant piece of San Diego history.

5. Explore the Old Point Loma Lighthouse

Did you know that one of the coolest lighthouses in California sits within Cabrillo National Monument? Yes — we’re talking about the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which has a history almost as interesting as the park itself. The lighthouse was completed in 1855, years after California became a U.S. state. For the next 36 years, the lighthouse welcomed sailors from all over, except on foggy nights when the light was so dim it barely could be seen. On March 23, 1891, the lighthouse lamp was extinguished for the last time and moved to a more suitable and less foggy location. Today, you can see the Old Point Loma Lighthouse from the outside, and tour the keeper’s quarters on the inside. 

Cabrillo National Monument rightfully makes it to the list of top places for whale watching in California.

6. Watch the Whales

Every winter, gray whales migrate from the Arctic and arrive in Baja California; and they travel all the way back north during the spring. On their way to the south, specifically between December and March, the whales pass by real close to the shore that only a binocular will be enough for you to get a good view. January, in particular, is the month when the park not only becomes one of the best places for whale watching in California but singularly the best. On their trip back, they don’t travel too close to the shore, so the chances of spotting them are very low. The best spots to view the giants within Cabrillo National Monument are the Whale Overlook or Kelp Forest Overlook.  

7. Let Your Kid Join the Junior Ranger Program

Of all San Diego National Parks, Cabrillo stands out as the most kid-friendly. If you’re making your trip to the park a family affair, make sure to start at the Visitor Center, where your little ones get to pick up a Junior Ranger activity. As you tour the park, your child will be able to answer the questions on the paper, one at a time; and on your return, they will hand it to the Park Ranger, who will check the answers out, and reward them accordingly. A Junior Ranger badge is on the horizon, so you better not miss a spot in the park. 

The fun at Cabrillo National Monument doesn’t stop at the activities we mentioned; there’s so much more to do and see, and you’ll realize that once you begin your tour. Birdwatching and nature viewing are two extra activities that will take your breath away and have you returning for more. 

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