A small national park near downtown San Diego, Cabrillo National Monument offers plenty of things to do on a day trip.
With sweeping views of the San Diego skyline from the top of the point, it’s easy to see why we had to visit Cabrillo National Monument during our month in California during a West Coast summer trip. I would highly recommend it as a stop for anyone looking for an enjoyable day out in San Diego.
History and nature lovers alike will enjoy a trip to Cabrillo National Monument. It is a great place to visit while in San Diego and admission is included with your national park pass.
8 Things to Do at Cabrillo National Monument
Cabrillo National Monument is an interesting and educational thing to do in San Diego.
Visitors to the park can explore the history of the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the WWI and WWII military presence on Point Loma, and visit the historic Point Loma lighthouse to learn more about lighthouses.
Nature lovers can hike multiple trails for bay and ocean views. Whale and bird watching are popular at the park during certain times of the year. Low tide is a great time to watch the sea life in the intertidal pools on the west side of the park.
Keep reading for 8 things to do at Cabrillo National Monument.
Cabrillo National Monument is an interesting and educational thing to do in San Diego.
1. Visitor Center
As always, we recommend starting your national park visit at the Visitors Center. It is a great spot to learn more about things to do in Cabrillo National Monument.
Park Rangers are happy to share recommendations based on your interests, available time and fitness level.
The Cabrillo National Monument Visitor Center offers visitors the opportunity to learn more about early exploration at the “Age of Exploration” exhibit. The display focuses on Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his voyage.
Also, educational films are shown in the auditorium at the top of the hour from 10 am until 4 pm.
At this time, the park rotates the showing of three different films including ‘In Search of Cabrillo’, ‘On the Edge of Land and Sea’ and ‘First Breath: Grey Whales’.
2. Learn Military History
Point Loma was a key military location during WWI and WWII due to its sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. It was an ideal location to spot approaching enemy ships.
There are still bunkers and communication equipment used in WWI and WWII throughout the park. These are easily accessible via numerous short paved walking paths and staircases.
The WWII radio station contains the military history exhibit of Fort Rosecrans, “They Stood Watch”.
Along Bayside Trail, we also saw remnants of a searchlight and power plant used by the military to signal approaching danger. The educational signs along Bayside share about the soldiers who lived at Point Loma and their daily lives including the rat infestations they endured.
3. Old Point Loma Lighthouse
The Old Point Lighthouse is a very pretty retired lighthouse and is the main attraction at Cabrillo National Monument.
A self-guided tour is available of the Point Loma lighthouse and surrounding area. The tour shares a glimpse into the lonely life of the lighthouse keeper in the 1880s.
The “Lighthouses of Point Loma” exhibit in the restored lightkeepers house teaches visitors about lighthouse functionality.
After 36 years in operation, the lighthouse was closed in 1855 due to its poor location. The lighthouse was built high on the cliffs of Point Loma, 422 feet above sea level. Sadly, the light from the lighthouse was often blocked by fog and clouds and resulted in many avoidable shipwrecks.
The replacement lighthouse opened in 1891 at a lower elevation. Visitors cannot access the new lighthouse but it is viewable from the old lighthouse.
4. Whale Watching
Cabrillo National Monument and the San Diego coastline are home to several species of whale during certain times of the year.
Every winter grey whales migrate by the Cabrillo National Monument from their summer feeding grounds in the Artic on their way to the warmer waters of Baja California.
When do whales migrate past San Diego?
Grey whales migrate along the San Diego coast in winter. The best times to spot whale blow spouts in the distance is late December through February. Mid-January is peak whale watching season. Their spring journey back north for summer is less predictable for whale watchers.
Bring binoculars and a lot of patience. Park rangers at Cabrillo told us most spouts are seen at least 3/4 of a mile from the shoreline where the kelp beds begin.
The high vistas west of the Point Loma Lighthouse make Whale Overlook the best location in the park for spotting whales.
Educational displays about the lifecycle and habits of grey whales make Whale Overlook a good thing to do at Cabrillo even if it isn’t during whale watching season.
Fun Facts about Grey Whales
- Adult Pacific gray whales range from 30 to 50 feet long and weigh from 20 to 40 tons.
- Baby gray whales average 15 feet in length and weigh about a ton.
- A mother gray whale’s milk is more than 50% fat.
- Gray whales live 20 to 40 years on average, and some can live 60 years. They reach sexual maturity at eight years.
- Gray whales don’t sing like humpback whales. They make a series of grunts, clicks and low rumbles to navigate and communicate among themselves.
- Long sheets of baleen (made of the same material as your fingernails) hang from the roofs of their mouths instead of teeth. They use these comb-like sheets to filter food from the water.
- Gray whales eat tiny animals called amphipods by filter feeding along muddy Artic seafloors. They lie on their side and slurp up mouthfuls of mud and water filtering out the amphipods through its baleen.
- A gray whale’s skin is dark gray. But it is mottled with scars and patches of light-colored barnacles growing on its back. Scientists use these distinctive patterns of barnacles and scars to identify individual whales.
- Gray whales have six to 12 knobs, or bumps, along the tops of their tail ridges instead of a fin like some other whales.
- Killer whales, large sharks and people are the known predators of gray whales.
- Gray whales were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century.
5. Explore the Tidepools
The tidepools at Cabrillo National Monument are a great place to have a scavenger hunt. Exploring the tidepools is one of the most popular things to do at Cabrillo National Monument.
You will feel like you’re in a nature show when you see of the creatures in the tidepools. Anemones, mollusks, invertebrates and crabs are all visible during low tide.
Remember this scavenger hunt is all about watching but not moving or taking anything from the tidepools. National Parks have a strict leave nothing, take nothing policy to protect the plants and animals in the park.
Pro Tip: Be sure to time your visit to include low tide at Cabrillo National Monument’s Tidepools.
Low tide is the only time the water is low enough to see the small sea life that lives along the rocky shoreline. During high tide, you will be treated to seabirds and great ocean views.
6. & 7. Hiking at Cabrillo National Monument
Despite its small size, the Cabrillo National Monument has a few unpaved hiking trails in addition to the paved paths around the lighthouse and visitor center.
The Bayside Trail is longer and more strenuous. Its path is more accessible and better maintained than the Coastal Trail which is constantly being eroded by the adjacent Pacific Ocean.
6. Bayside Trail
The 2.5-mile Bayside Trail at Cabrillo National Monument offers visitors a chance to stretch their legs. It is the longest trail within the park and is open 9 am until 4 pm.
The trail winds along the San Diego bay with great views of the Naval Base on Coronado Island.
On clear days, other sights visible from the Bayside Trail are Ballast Point where Cabrillo landed in 1542, downtown San Diego, Tijuana, sandstone cliffs, passing ships and planes, and native plant life. Snow can even be spotted on nearby mountains during certain parts of the year.
The Bayside Trail offers several educational signs to keep the whole family entertained during the walk.
Topics include information about the bay, military operations at Point Loma during WWI and WWII, native plants and animals and the history of the area.
7. Coastal Trail
The one-mile round trip Coastal Trail strolls along the rocky cliffs and offers opportunities to access the Tidepools area of the park.
The Coastal Trail at Cabrillo can be accessed from either Lot 1 or Lot 2 along Gatchell Road. Leashed dogs are allowed on the coastal trail.
Coastal views along this wide dirt path are great but it’s not a flat easy path. Some steep stairs are required and the trail is regularly impacted by erosion causing uneven surfaces. It is not a good option for those with balance or mobility challenges.
There is a WWII underground searchlight shelter along the Coastal Trail but you can only see the sliding roof of the structure. The unstable roof should be avoided. This is the only searchlight shelter visible within Cabrillo National Monument.
The tidepools along the Coastal Trail offer a great opportunity to see macro sea life during low tide.
8. Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery
Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery is located just outside the park entrance along Cabrillo Memorial Drive. Although not technically part of the park, it is worth a quick stop.
It is open to visitors from sunrise to sunset daily. The views over the bay from the cemetery are beautiful.
Who is buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery?
Many interments in Fort Rosecrans date back to the early days of the California Territory including soldiers’ remains from the battle of San Pasqual in the Mexican-American war.
The soldiers are honored with a memorial consisting of a large boulder moved from the battlefield to the cemetery in 1922.
Another notable memorial in the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery honors 62 sailors who perished in a boiler room explosion on the USS Bennington after returning from the Pacific in 1905.
Why is Fort Rosecrans a National Cemetery?
Fort Rosecrans became a national cemetery in 1934 due to the need for more burial space.
New legislation had recently increased the number of people eligible to be buried in a National Cemetery. Grave space in the San Francisco National Cemetery was limited so Fort Rosecrans was added to the National Cemetry System.
Fort Rosecrans is closed for new interments. Only those with existing gravesites are being accepted.
Who can be buried in a National Cemetery?
Burial in a National Cemetery is open to military members who have met a minimum active duty requirement and were honorable discharged. Some military family members are also eligible. Reservists who died in service to the country or retired from the Reserves are also eligible for burial in a National Cemetery.
Cabrillo National Monument Basic Facts
Location: 10 miles from downtown San Diego on the Point Loma Penninsula
Park Size: 144 acres
Elevation: 400 feet to sea level
Number of visitors annually: 842k in 2018
Established: National Monument in 1913
Admission: $20 for a 7-day entrance permit for private vehicles or an annual America the Beautiful National Parks pass
Visitor Centers: Cabrillo National Monument Visitor Center
Who is Cabrillo?
The Cabrillo National Monument was designated to commemorate Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s 1542 landing. Cabrillo was the leader of the first European expedition to explore the west coast of the United States.
They set sail with a fleet of three ships and provisions for a two-year expedition. The ships departed from Navidad, Mexico (modern-day Manzanillo) heading north to explore new possible trade routes connecting the North Pacific to the North Atlantic- the Straits of Anian.
Upon arrival at San Deigo bay, he described it as “a very good enclosed port”. Each year a reenactment of the landing is performed at the park.
He is believed to have anchored his ship, the San Salvador, at nearby Ballast Point on the park’s east shoreline. Ballast Point is visible in the distance from the Cabrillo Statue near the visitor center or a closer view of Ballast Point is available on the Bayside Trail.
Cabrillo died during the expedition but his crew continued north past San Diego as far north as Oregon before winter storms forced them back south to Mexico.
Planning a Cabrillo National Monument Visit
Cabrillo National Monument is easily accessible from San Diego. Below find everything you need to know before you visit including details on the location, transportation, admission, and time needed.
Where is Cabrillo National Monument?
Cabrillo National Monument is located 10 miles from downtown San Diego.
It is a great budget friendly thing to do in San Diego.
How to get to Cabrillo
Cabrillo National Monument is located on the Point Loma peninsula which creates a naturally protected bay around San Diego. The park can be accessed by bicycle, public transportation, taxi or personal vehicle.
The roads on Point Loma are narrow with significant hills if considering riding bikes. We met a couple who had biked from Mission Bay on our visit. They took the bus for the last section to save their legs for the ride home.
The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (route #84) has a bus stop on the east side of the park near the lighthouse but doesn’t continue to the western Tidepools area. The bus runs hourly from Monday to Friday.
If arriving by taxi or a car share, be sure to arrange a pick-up location. Cellular reception is weak in most of the park with zero signal in the western Tidepools area.
Admission fees to Cabrillo National Monument are $20 per car but they are included with an annual National Park pass.
The $80 National Parks pass is a great bargain if you plan to visit multiple National Parks during the year. We’ve used ours over twenty times since buying it less than a year ago.
How long do I need at Cabrillo National Monument?
The Cabrillo National Monument is a relatively small national park and you can easily visit it in a few hours.
We spent a half-day and were able to explore the park including hiking the Bayside and Coastal trails.
Is Cabrillo National Monument worth it?
In summary, Cabrillo National Monument is worth a day trip while visiting San Diego. The National Monument offers a great place to access tidepools and history in one place. Plus admission is included with your National Park Pass.
Summary Cabrillo National Monument
The Point Loma peninsula offers amazing views of the area and rich history. Nature lovers and history lovers can both find plenty of things to do on a visit to Cabrillo National Monument.