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Is the Cabrillo National Monument Worth Visiting?

Historically, California has a deep attachment to Hispanic ancestry. But many people don’t know that its coastline was first visited by a European living in Guatemala. Almost 500 years ago, a shipbuilder and businessman set out to find a trade route. They wound up discovering the coastline of what would become the Golden State. Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego celebrates Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s accomplishments. It protects his landing point and its beautiful vistas for future Californias to enjoy.

Keep reading to learn more about this national monument and the many things you can do while visiting it.

Where Is the Cabrillo National Monument?

Located on a piece of land jutting into the ocean just west of present-day San Diego, Cabrillo National Monument marks the explorer’s initial landing on the coast of North America.

The southern tip of the Point Loma peninsula hosts a visitor center and a lighthouse. There’s also a monument celebrating Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s visit as the first European to set foot on the west coast and a popular hiking trail.

Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego (15 of 419)

The view from the point encompasses the San Diego skyline, Coronado, and the Naval Air Station North Island. And the most popular activity within the national monument is whale watching from one of the best vantage points on the California coast.

Who Was Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo?

Born in Spain, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was considered a conquistador who spent his later life exploring the southwestern coast. He concentrated on California. He accumulated wealth as a leaser of land in Guatemala, building a shipping empire, and made money from mines on the land.

Asked by Guatemalan Governor Pedro de Alvarado to use his shipping and business-building skills to explore the coast of California, Cabrillo was tasked with finding a trade route between Central America and the Spice Islands.

Cabrillo National Monument entrance sign
Head to San Diego to explore the Cabrillo National Monument.

He accepted the challenge, thinking he could also search for the Seven Cities of Cibola, which were considered to be in the same area. But once underway, the expedition got no further than Monterey Bay. On the way, he did, however, claim San Diego Bay for Spain in 1542, although he named the future settlement San Miguel.

Cabrillo died soon after from complications of a fall during a skirmish with indigenous tribes in the Channel Islands. He never returned to Guatemala.

Pro Tip: After exploring the Cabrillo National Monument, head to one of these 7 Best National Parks in California.

What Is Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo Famous For? 

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to set foot on the American West Coast in 1542. He was looking for a trade route and rumored golden cities. His accomplishment occurred in what is now known as Point Loma in the region of San Diego. There, he planted the flag of Spain but didn’t create a settlement.

This one accomplishment provided the first look at the North American coastline. There was no improvement for another 200 years until the establishment of the fort and mission system.

The Cabrillo National Monument
After seeing the Cabrillo National Monument, hike the coastline trail for some stunning scenery.

Other benefits of Cabrillo’s expedition were in his writings about the flow of currents in the Pacific Ocean. With long, slow water movements traveling south, future sailors learned that it was almost impossible to sail north along the coast.

What Can You Do at the Cabrillo National Monument?

Aside from being in a stunning location, Cabrillo National Monument has several activities available to visitors of all ages. You can hike, and there are historic locations. View animals from the tiniest algae to the largest of whales and take in spectacular landscapes. The monument is a great stop on the southern California coast.

View the Exhibits in the Visitor Center

The park visitor center of the Cabrillo National Monument reflects the modern California landscape design. It has exhibits ranging from 16th-century Spanish armor, 400-year navigation instruments, and lighthouse lenses.

Cabrillo National Monument visitor center entrance sign
Learn the history behind the Cabrillo National Monument in the visitor center first!

Guests can view a short video describing the park’s history and participate in various ranger-led tours. Or, they can go on self-guided hikes like the Bayside or Coastal Trails. Park rangers are available to answer questions, and a park service store is onsite. It’s also a great place to learn about low tides, so you can see the tidepools at the perfect time.

Visit the Tidepools

The Cabrillo National Monument’s intertidal zone along the coastline has tidepools with diversified species like sea lettuce, barnacles, algae, mussels, and kelp. Visitors can marvel at the sea urchins, crab, anemones, and octopus found here during low tide.

The best time to visit the tidepools is in the late fall or winter when tides have a -1 rating or lower during daylight hours.

Take a Self-Guided Tour of Old Point Loma Lighthouse

The Cape Cod-style lighthouse at Point Loma was originally put into service in 1855 and has been restored to its grandeur. From Fresnel lenses to oil lamps and reflectors, the old lighthouse put out guiding light for almost 40 years before it was retired. That was mainly because it stood too high on the coast. Its light was difficult to find through the marine fog.

Couple looking at tidepools along the California coastline
Search for unique sea creatures in the tidepools close to the Cabrillo National Monument.

Today, park visitors can tour the two-story structure, see its third-order fixed lens, and peruse numerous displays about the building’s history and service.

Hike the Bayside Trail

This 2.5-mile trail transverses the east side of Loma Point. It includes highlights like the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, the tidepools, whale-watching points, and Ballast Point. That’s where Cabrillo landed back in 1542.

Views of San Diego, Coronado, and even Tijuana are spectacular on cloudless days. You will also see many military stations from Bayside, showcasing the region’s strategic position in our country’s history. The trail starts at the Lighthouse, following an old military road down to the bay. But the trip back is a Class 5 trail with a 340-foot gain in elevation. 

Pro Tip: Need more things to do in San Diego? Find out what we did there while we were visiting!

When Is the Best Time to Visit the Cabrillo National Monument?

Late fall and winter are the best times to enjoy the abundance of tidepool sea life and the migrating gray whales from the viewing point. But with San Diego’s mild weather, any month of the year could be the right time to come for a visit!

8 Things To Do at Cabrillo National Monument

Is the Cabrillo National Monument Worth Visiting? 

With a wonderful temperate climate, a thriving city nearby, and the history of its discovery by outsiders, Cabrillo National Monument has so much to celebrate and preserve.

It’s a reminder of California’s past and represents curious explorers. They not only dreamed of finding new lands but put their entire lives on the line to see what was just beyond the horizon.

Did you know the National Park Service manages national monuments? Learn more here: Is a National Monument Considered a National Park?

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