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Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego: Things to Do (+ Tips for Visiting!)

Cabrillo National Monument is one of San Diego’s most iconic attractions. With its beautiful setting, panoramic views, and rich history, Cabrillo National Monument is definitely deserving of a top spot on your San Diego itinerary!

Nature lovers, history buffs, landscape photographers, and wildlife and birding enthusiasts will all find something to love at Cabrillo National Monument. Families will enjoy the easy walks and tidepools. If you visit on a good weather day, this small park is a fabulous spot for basking in the San Diego sunshine!

In this article, you will discover all the fun things to do at Cabrillo National Monument, plus things to know before you go.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Overview of Cabrillo National Monument
Things to Do at Cabrillo National Monument
Getting to Cabrillo National Monument
Essential Information for Your Visit to Cabrillo
How Much Time Should You Allow for Your Visit to Cabrillo?
Tips for Your Visit to Cabrillo National Monument

Overview of Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument commemorates the landing of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo at Ballast Point in San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542. Cabrillo’s expedition was the first European expedition to land on the west coast of present day United States.

Cabrillo National Monument was created by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, and the intent was to erect a statue of Cabrillo here, but that didn’t occur until many years later. The original monument was just 0.5 acres!

In 1935, the monument was overhauled and Old Point Loma Lighthouse was restored. The Portuguese presented a plaque celebrating Cabrillo for display at the renovated monument.

In 1939, the Portuguese government presented the US with a sandstone statue of Cabrillo for the San Francisco Expo, but it arrived too late and was held in storage for several years, before being installed at Cabrillo National Monument in 1949. Cabrillo National Monument finally had its statue of Cabrillo!

Statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in Can Diego
Cabrillo Monument PC: Andrew Satre/Shutterstock

The statue suffered weather-related damage and was replaced by a limestone copy in 1988. The enormous statue is 14 feet tall.

Cabrillo National Monument is one of the most visited national monuments in the country, and visitors come not only for the history but also for the magnificent views from Point Loma Peninsula and for the opportunity to enjoy local flora and fauna.

Things to Do at Cabrillo National Monument

Start at the Visitor Center

Unless you are only planning to visit the tide pools, start by heading up the hill to the Visitor Center, where you can learn about events planned for the day (such as ranger-led tours and talks), and browse the bookstore for a souvenir to take home.

Plaque in Courtyard of Visitor Center at Cabrillo National Monument

Step into the room that houses the “Age of Exploration” exhibit, to gain insights into the history of Cabrillo National Monument and to learn more about Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo. You can also catch a short educational film (or three!) in the auditorium.

Walk outside into the courtyard of the Visitor Center for fabulous views of San Diego Bay and the city skyline. You can also look down onto Ballast Point, the spot where Cabrillo is reported to have landed in September 1542, and get your first glimpse of the famous monument.

The Visitor Center building itself is handsome. It is built in the Park Service Modern style, with lots of glass to let in light, along with the gorgeous views.

Snap a Photo of the Cabrillo Monument

Your next stop in the park is the statue of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, located just a short distance from the Visitor Center. Snap a photo of the statue, and take in the awesome views!

A view of San Diego and the bay from Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego

The original sandstone statue of Cabrillo was installed in 1949, but was replaced by the current limestone version in 1988, after the original deteriorated due to damage from the elements.

If the day is clear when you visit, you will get unparalleled views over San Diego (and the blue waters of the bay) from the statue gallery. It’s definitely a great spot for photos!

Tour Old Point Loma Lighthouse

If you love snapping photos of charming lighthouses, you will love Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which sits just up the hill from the statue of Cabrillo. The highest lighthouse in the US when it was put into operation in 1855, Point Loma featured a Fresnel lens.

Inside Old Point Loma Lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego
Inside of Lighthouse PC: bonandbon/Shutterstock

The high location of the lighthouse proved ineffective, and just 36 years later, Old Point Loma Lighthouse was abandoned in favor of a new light station at a lower elevation. The old lighthouse was later restored, and today it is hugely popular with visitors to the monument.

Tour the interior of the little lighthouse, step into the adjacent furnished lighthouse keeper’s quarters, and peek into the little kitchen garden.

Stop by the Whale Overlook

A short paved trail leads from Old Point Loma Lighthouse to the Whale Overlook and the Kelp Forest Overlook, both excellent spots for taking in spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. There are informative plaques to read and benches so you can sit for a bit if you like.

Whale Overlook at Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego

California gray whales (also known as Pacific gray whales) migrate each winter from the Arctic Seas to the warm waters of Baja California, where they calve. In the spring, they make their way back to their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic Seas.

The gray whale migratory period is December through March, but you are most likely to see whales from the Whale Overlook at Cabrillo National Monument on good weather mornings in January. You may see a whale spout, fluke, or even breach! Bring your binoculars and zoom lens.

Walk the Bayside Trail

One of the two longer walking trails in the monument, the Bayside Trail is out and back, 2.5 miles round trip, with about 350 feet of elevation gain on the way back. The trail, which starts right by Old Point Loma Lighthouse, offers spectacular views of Ballast Point, San Diego Bay, the city skyline, Coronado Island, and even Tijuana.

Information Plaque at Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, California
Information Plaque PC: AutumnSkyPhotography/Shutterstock

Stop to read the many interpretive plaques along the way, admire the coastal flora, photograph wildflowers in season, and view military relics: a searchlight shelter and an old power plant that were used during World War II. There are benches to sit and take in the views of the ocean and the distant mountains.

Keep your eyes peeled for birds and wildlife: you may see California quail, hummingbirds and warblers in the spring, squirrels, rabbits, or even a fox. At the bottom of the trail, you will see Ballast Point, where Cabrillo landed. Today it houses nuclear-powered submarines!

Snap Photos at the Ocean Overlook

On your way down the hill to the tidepools, stop at the Ocean Overlook turnout for a few quick photos of the Pacific Ocean. The views are breathtaking!

View of the Pacific Ocean from Cabrillo National Monument

There is a bench if you want to sit and enjoy the views for a longer time, or if you want to take a break and have a snack if you’ve brought food and drinks with you.

Go Tidepooling

The road leading down to the tidepools offers great views of the ocean (there are so many places in Cabrillo National Monument where you get expansive water views!). If you visit during tidepooling season, you may want to start your visit by exploring the pools, because the parking lot fills up by late morning.

Egret at tidepools in Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego

The tidepools at Cabrillo National Monument are among the best you will find in San Diego. Kids and adults alike will enjoy exploring the pools, looking for colorful anemones and sea stars, limpets, crabs, fish, and other tiny creatures that live in the pools. It’s a fascinating world that can keep you engaged for hours!

The tidepools are located on the west side of the park, and it is best to drive down and park close to the pools, because the climb back up is quite steep. The best time to go tidepooling at Cabrillo is during negative low tides, which occur during the day in the winter months.

Walk the Coastal Trail

The Coastal Trail is one mile round trip, and rated easy to moderate because there are some steep stairs that can be uneven. But otherwise it’s a wide walking path that runs along the coastline. You can hike it from Parking Lot 1 on Gatchell Road to Lot 2, or vice versa.

Along with beautiful water views, the trail offers up-close looks at the lovely coastal vegetation, some of which is rare and endangered. In season, you may see sea dahlias in bloom, along with other wildflowers. At the top of the stairs, you can see the roof of an old underground searchlight shelter.

A view from the Coastal Trail at Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego

The Coastal Trail is great for birdwatching so look for birds in the brush and along the shore as you walk. Near Lot 2 is a spur trail that goes down to the tide pools and an ocean viewing area if you want to take more photos of the Pacific Ocean!

Enjoy the Flora and Fauna

Cabrillo National Monument is a great destination for birders and nature lovers, because there is such a variety of flora and fauna to observe! From the kelp forest and marine mammals in the ocean to the coastal scrub, wildflowers, birds and little animals on land, there is a lot to enjoy in the park.

Sea dahlias in bloom at Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego

Other than whales, you may see dolphins, seals or sea lions from the ocean overlooks and cliffs at Cabrillo. You will also see sea and shore birds, like Brandt’s cormorants and black oystercatchers. On land, you may see squirrels and cottontails during the day: other animals are largely nocturnal.

Point Loma Peninsula, where the monument is located, is on the Pacific Flyway. Over 270 species of birds have been spotted at the monument, and it is considered one of San Diego’s best birding destinations. We’ve spotted numerous birds on the two occasions we’ve visited, from California quail and white-crowned sparrows to Western bluebirds and hummingbirds.

Explore Military History and Relics

Because of its strategic location overlooking the entrance to San Diego Bay, Point Loma became an important part of US military operations from the middle of the 19th century. Military facilities here, from gun batteries to searchlight bunkers, were used extensively in the two World Wars.

Military Exhibit housed in old radio station at Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego
Military History Museum PC: Sherry V Smith/Shutterstock

As you walk through the park, you will see the remnants of military sites. There is also a military exhibit you can view, housed in what used to be a radio station. Here you can learn more about the historical military operations at Point Loma, and the huge gun batteries that were deployed here and later dismantled.

Getting to Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument is located at 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive, San Diego, CA 92106.

If you plan to drive from downtown San Diego: Take Harbor Drive, make a left onto Rosecrans Street, then a right onto Canon Street, and a left onto Catalina Boulevard, also called Cabrillo Memorial Drive. This will bring you to the main entrance to the park.

If you plan to take public transportation: Bus route 84 goes to Cabrillo National Monument. The bus stop is by the Visitor Center. There is no bus access to the tidepools area.

If you plan to use a rideshare app: You may be able to use Uber or Lyft to get to Cabrillo National Monument. Note that the tidepools area has no cell reception, so make arrangements for a time and location for the return trip ahead of time to avoid having to walk uphill to the upper areas of the park.

Tidepools at Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego

Essential Information for Your Visit to Cabrillo National Monument

Park Hours

Cabrillo National Monument is open everyday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Specific facilities and attractions in the park may have different hours. Prior to visiting, check the park website for current hours and any special closures in effect.

Park Entrance Fee

At the time of writing, the entrance fee per vehicle is $20.00. Motorcyclists pay $15.00, and bicyclists and pedestrians pay $10.00. The entrance pass is valid for seven days.

The America the Beautiful National Parks Pass is accepted at Cabrillo National Monument, so if you already have a pass, don’t forget to bring it with you!

Purchasing a National Parks Pass will save you money if you plan to visit a few national parks (or other national recreation sites) during the course of the year. Valid for one full year from the month of purchase, the National Parks Pass costs $80.00 and offers admission (one vehicle or 4 persons) to over 2,000 Federal recreation sites, including national parks, national forests, and more. Get yours online at REI now!

Videw from Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego

Pets

Pets are only allowed in the tidepool area. They must be leashed and cannot be left unattended in vehicles.

Restrooms

There are restrooms at the Visitor Center and by Lot 1 in the tidepool area.

Food and Drink

There are vending machines at the Visitor Center with beverages and snacks. Bring a picnic lunch to enjoy if you plan to spend a few hours at the monument!

Cell Reception

You’ll generally get cell reception in the upper areas of the park, and there is free wifi at the Visitor Center. But you will not get cell reception in the tidepools area, so make sure your transportation arrangements are made ahead of your visit to that area of the monument.

Camping

Cabrillo National Monument is a day use area, and there are no campgrounds inside the park. The nearest commercial campground is Campland on the Bay, about seven miles away. Campland on the Bay offers both tent camping and RV sites.

How much time should you allow for your visit to Cabrillo?

If you have the time, we would recommend spending a morning or an afternoon (about 4 hours) enjoying all there is on offer at Cabrillo National Monument. Although it is a small park, less than 150 acres, there is a lot to see and do here!

In that amount of time, you can get an overview at the Visitor Center, walk one or both trails, spend some time at the tidepools, and tour the rest of the park. On a good weather day, the views from the park are some of the best you will find in San Diego!

Tidepools at Cabrillo National Monument at Sunset

Of course, if you enjoy being outdoors and you have the time, you can bring a picnic lunch and spend even longer!

If you are on a short visit to the city, we would still suggest a quick visit to view the statue of Cabrillo, take in the views from the viewing gallery by the statue, and step inside Old Point Loma Lighthouse.

Tips for Your Visit to Cabrillo National Monument

Best Time to Visit Cabrillo National Monument

San Diego is blessed with beautiful weather, making it a year-round destination. That said, you may encounter some rain here or there in the winter. You will want to visit Cabrillo National Monument ideally when it is bright and sunny, for the best views.

January is the best month for whale watching from Cabrillo. Winter is the best season for tidepooling at the park, because that’s when minus tides occur during the daytime when the park is open.

The Cabrillo Festival is held at Ballast Point each year at the end of September. There are craft demos and performances, and a re-enactment of Cabrillo’s historic landing.

There are a few days in the year when guided tours of the lighthouse tower are offered. Check the park website prior to your visit for exact dates.

Park Safety

The park website has a page with safety recommendations, to help you have a safe and enjoyable visit to Cabrillo National Monument. Read and follow all safety guidelines!

Old Point Loma Lighthouse at Cabrillo NM San Diego

What to Wear

Dress in layers. It can be cool and windy by the water even on summer days, so bring a windcheater or light jacket. Wear sturdy closed-toed walking shoes with good traction: the rocks by the tidepools can be slippery.

Sun Protection

Trails at Cabrillo National Monument, and much of the park, are exposed. Wear sunscreen and a wide-brimmed sun hat, sunshades, and light loose clothing that covers your arms and legs.

We generally wear clothing with SPF protection if we are going to be in the sun for several hours. Check REI for women’s SPF shirts here and men’s SPF shirts here.

Bring binoculars and your camera

The views at Cabrillo National Monument will have you reaching for your smartphone or camera every few minutes to snap yet another photo. So do not forget your usual photography gear!

We always travel with our Panasonic Lumix camera. It is small enough to fit in a jacket pocket, but has a 30X zoom and takes great shots of birds and animals, and nice landscape photos as well.

These are the compact binoculars we use. You may be able to borrow a pair in the park if you visit during whale watching season and don’t have yours: check at the Visitor Center.

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Discover the best things to see and do at Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, California. Plus everything to know before you go!

Dhara

Dhara loves to explore her home state of California. With her husband Kishore, she has done numerous road trips in the state in every season. She hopes to share her love of the Golden State with you, and help you find your own exciting experiences here.

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