Travel: San Diego’s Cabrillo National Monument offers a little bit of everything

Steve Stephens More Content Now
The tide pool area is a great place to look out to sea to spot ships and whales, Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego, California. [Steve Stephens]

SAN DIEGO — Visitors come to this southern-most California metropolis for many reasons: The sun-soaked shores, the multicultural history, the marine life, the classic architecture.

Cabrillo National Monument on the Point Loma peninsula, just across San Diego Bay from downtown, offers a little bit of all of these, making it a great place to visit for families or friends with diverse interests.

The park is named for Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Spanish explorer who, in 1542, became the first European to set foot on what would become California. Cabrillo led a small flotilla north from Mexico into unknown waters, entering what would become known as San Diego Bay on Sept. 28, 1542, making land somewhere on the Point Loma peninsula.

My family’s first stop was the visitor center, which shows movies about Cabrillo and his expedition, the whales that are frequently spotted from the park and Point Loma’s popular tide pools. We also visited the park museum that tells of Cabrillo’s arduous journey, a trip that eventually ended in the explorer’s death in 1543. (We had better luck on our visit.)

Just outside the visitor center is the Cabrillo Monument, a large statue of the explorer gazing off toward the bay and the city of San Diego. Unless it’s foggy, no one will ever ask, “Hey, Cabrillo — what are you looking at?”

The view is magnificent, taking in downtown San Diego, the bay and Coronado Island. A visitor could spend hours just watching the ships go in and out of the harbor and the huge Naval Base San Diego.

San Diego has long been an important naval center, and several defensive gun batteries were manned on Point Loma during World War I and World War II. Ruins and remnants of the installations remain, and an old concrete bunker, used as a military radio and meteorological station, now houses an exhibit about the Point Loma harbor defenses.

A short hike from the visitor center is the old Point Loma Lighthouse, a picturesque structure completed in 1855. The building is short, for a lighthouse, but sits on a crest 422 feet above the ocean. In fact, the lighthouse was built so high above the water that it proved somewhat impractical, often throwing out its light above the fog and low clouds in the harbor below.

Visitors today can see what life was like for the lighthouse keeper and his assistant. Both the lighthouse and the assistant keeper’s house have been restored and contain exhibits about the structure and living and working there.

One of the most popular attractions at Cabrillo National Monument has nothing to do with human history. The magnificent Point Loma tide pools, set against the backdrop of beautiful sea cliffs undercut with caves and small natural arches, are a wonderful place to explore the area where waves meet the shore.

At very low tides, hundreds of yards of tide pools — and their fascinating little denizens — are exposed.

We arrived at the tide pools, a short drive from the visitor center, a couple of hours before low tide. The small parking lot was already nearly full — so be forewarned. We were also prepared with sturdy, nonslip water shoes, an important accessory on the sharp, slick, wet and uneven surfaces in and around the tide pools.

We all enjoyed finding anemones, hermit crabs and even a shy little octopus in the pools as the water receded and the big waves crashed farther and farther from the cliffs.

But scrambling around those steep cliffs and up and over the huge wave-washed boulders on the rocky beach was probably just as much fun. It was a perfect place to let my 12-year-old twins explore, although I would have wanted to keep a closer eye on them if they were much younger.

I enjoyed sitting atop a big boulder as far out as I dared scramble and looking toward the open sea. I was a few weeks late to see the winter-migrating whales that can often be seen off Point Loma.

But the roar of the surf, the cries of the gulls (who wanted their rock back) and the sight of laughing children exploring the pools made up for anything else that the spot might have lacked.

— Steve Stephens can be reached at or on Twitter @SteveStephens.