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  • Writer's pictureVien R. Guenther

Cabrillo National Monument – Point Loma, San Diego, California

Updated: Aug 16, 2023

In visiting San Diego, make sure to visit Cabrillo National Monument, located at the southern tip of the Point Loma Peninsula. This park commemorates the landing of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo on September 28, 1542 in “a closed and very good port”, which he called San Miguel, today San Diego Bay. Cabrillo was the leader of the first European expedition that set foot on the west coast of the United States, and his statue stands in this park as a reminder of that historic day. Also in the park is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, as well as some remnants of the old military defense system used during World Wars I and II. Besides that, the view from this park is fantastic; you would want to hang around and just enjoy looking at San Diego bay.


But before you reach the park, you will pass the Rosecrans National Cemetery along Cabrillo Memorial Drive. You can stop here on the way to the park, or on your way back. It's a beautiful setting for a cemetery, a nice place to walk around and pay tribute to the fallen heroes. The USS Bennington Monument, a 60 foot granite obelisk found here, is a memorial to the 66 U.S. Navy men who died when the gunboat's boiler exploded in 1905 in San Diego Bay.

Rosecrans National Cemetery


Visitor Center

Cabrillo National Monument was established in 1913 and designated as California Historical Landmark #56 in 1932 . Then it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. So, who is Cabrillo? Juan Rodrigues Cabrillo was a Portuguese explorer who led the first European expedition under the flag of Spain, to what is now the west coast of the United States. He died from complications on January 3, 1543, due to a shattered limb acquired after a fall during a brief skirmish with a local tribe. It is believed that he was buried on Catalina Island.

Before you explore, start at the Visitor Center to know what the park has to offer and what events are open that day. You can explore on your own but there is a guided walking tour if you wish. In late December through mid march, there is "Whale Watch Weekend", when migrating grey whales from Alaska to Baja California pass by the coast. Then, there's an "Open Tower Day" where the tower at the top of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse is open to the public for two days. You can also check the park's website for other events prior to you visit.


If you are staying in downtown and you are traveling on your own, meaning no family living in San Diego to take you, driving to Cabrillo is about 25 to 27 minutes. You can drive either via N. Harbor Drive or via I-5 North.


Cabrillo Statue Plaza

The monument is right across from the visitor center. The original sandstone statue, 14 feet high, was created by sculptor Alvaro de Bree for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, and was donated to the United States by Portugal in 1939. However, it arrived too late and was stored in a garage. The then state senator, Ed Fletcher, managed to acquire the statue and shipped it to San Diego where it was stored out of public view, until it was finally installed in 1949. The statue suffered weathering later on and was replaced in 1988 by a limestone replica. The one that stands today.


The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, located on the highest point in the park (422 feet), is one of the original eight lighthouses on the West Coast. The walls were built of limestone mined from the hillside and the floor tiles were salvaged from an old Spanish Fort. This lighthouse was in operation from 1855 to 1891. But the lighthouse was not as effective due to its high location. The light was often obscured by fog and low clouds, so it was replaced in 1891 with one built at a lower elevation. The original 5 foot tall 3rd Order Fresnel lens, invented by a French physicist Augustine Fresnel, was removed within a week after the tower closed its operation.

During World Wars I and II, Cabrillo was closed to the public. The entire south end of the peninsula was reserved for the military to protect the harbor from enemy warships. The old lighthouse was painted olive green and was used as a command post and radio station. As you walk along the paths, you will find remains of these military defenses.

Old Point Loma Lighthouse

Standing beside the old lighthouse is the rehabilitated Assistant Keepers Quarters which displays collections of lighthouse-related artifacts, including the Fresnel lenses.

Third Order Fresnel lens
Third Order Fresnel lens


New Point Loma Lighthouse


Don't limit your visit to the monument. If you are wearing proper shoes, drive down to the Point Loma Tide Pools. This is one of the best protected intertidal areas in California. You can walk all the way down if the tide is low. During high tide there are some great photo opportunities here.

Point Loma Tide Pools

BAYSIDE TRAIL - 2.5 miles

There is a two-mile hiking trail here that begins near the old lighthouse. The Bayside Trail is an easy 2.5 miles (round trip), open every day from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, located on the southeast side of the park. There is no access to the beach but the trail follows the old military road ending at the Ballast Point. It is believed Cabrillo’s ship was anchored at this point in 1542. Today, nuclear-powered submarines are docked here. Pets and bikes are not allowed on the trail. It’s a short hike, but some might find it hard to hike back up.


There is a fee to enter the park. $20 per vehicle, $15 for motorcycles and $10 for individuals. There is an annual pass that you can buy if you plan on visiting several times.

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