Blog · San Diego · Cabrillo National Monument: History, Trails, and Tide Pools

Cabrillo National Monument: History, Trails, and Tide Pools

October 15, 2023
cabrillo national monument in San Diego

From its picturesque setting high above San Diego Bay, Cabrillo National Monument tells the story of Spanish exploration in this part of the world and reveals a wonderland of natural treasures. From scenic hikes to learning about the geology of Point Loma to photographing the sea life in the shallow tide pools, there’s plenty to keep you busy for an afternoon — or a day if you’re a true outdoor lover.

Wondering what to see and do at Cabrillo National Monument? This handy guide covers all the attractions along with practical tips for your visit like when to spot whales and the best trails to try.

Cabrillo National Monument history

Cabrillo National Monument history

Created in 1913, Cabrillo National Monument is dedicated to the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo — specifically his three-month long voyage in 1542. It was the first European expedition to touch on the West Coast.

Today, a visit to the park tells the story of Cabrillo’s three ships on that pivotal journey as well as the first encounters with the native Kumeyaay. It also shares a glimpse into coastal life at the time. 

Fun fact: Cabrillo originally named the area San Miguel, but 60 years later, another explorer changed it to San Diego. 

Begin at the visitor center

Old Point Loma Lighthouse

Upon arrival, the visitor center is your first port of call. You can take in the Age of Exploration exhibit, watch films, and check out ranger-led programs. Depending on the direction of a short walk, you’ll find the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, the giant statue of Juan Cabrillo, the whale-watching overlook, or the entrance to the Bayside Trail. 

If you’re anything like me, you’ll head to an overlook to take in one of the best views of water and sky.

Here’s what you can do at the visitor center:

  • Find the daily schedule of programs, films, videos, and ranger talks.
  • Stamp that national parks passport book.
  • Get tips on what to see from the park rangers.
  • Find Junior Ranger activities for the little explorers in your group.
  • Learn what the tide schedules are (more on this later).
  • Shop for swag at the park store.

The visitor center is open daily starting at 10 a.m. and typically closes at 4 p.m., except on the weekend (Fridays through Sundays) when it’s open an hour later.

What to see and do at the Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument

A visit to Cabrillo National Monument offers tremendous views of San Diego and opportunities to explore the area. All in one spot, you can track back in time and get to know a few creatures of the deep.

Here’s what you need to do when you visit this park.

  • Juan Cabrillo Statue: Check out the views from the foot of the grand statue and read about the famous Spanish explorer and the mark his journey left on this region.
  • Old Point Loma Lighthouse: Restored to its late 19th century appearance, the lighthouse is a great place to enjoy interactive exhibits and explore more period history.
  • Bayside Trail: The 2.5 miles of trail skirting the coast of Point Loma winds through dirt paths and steep hills, and you can glimpse the often active U.S. naval ships as well as sailboats out for their daily jaunts. 
  • Whale-watching: Bring your binoculars, and keep an eye out beyond the horizon. You may see a pod of whales in the distance.
  • Birdwatching: This might be easier than the whales, but the binoculars can again be handy. Search the skies for pelicans, cormorants, and other feathered friends.
  • Tide pools: Wear sturdy shoes, and throw on your marine biologist hat as you wander among colorful cliffs to discover vibrant ecosystems amongst these shallow rock depressions abutting the coast. 

Hiking at Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument

This park is a hiker’s dream, but it’s pretty accessible for various skill levels.

One of my favorite short trails is Cabrillo’s Bayside Trail. The 2.5-mile roundtrip route takes you down about 300 feet to sea level. With views of San Diego Bay, downtown, various naval bases, and sailboats, the trail is a treat for photographers too.

You’ll pass native coastal plants, remnants of old war defense systems, and get a peek into coastal life. 

The Bayside Trail doesn’t have restrooms or water fountains, so freshen up before you go. Be sure to lather that sunscreen on and pop on a hat too. This trail is definitely not shaded. 

Whale-watching at Cabrillo National Monument

Whale-watching at Cabrillo National Monument

While peak migration time in their annual 12,000-mile journey is the middle of January, you can spot them between December and March from your vantage point high above the Pacific. Set yourself up at Kelp Forest Overlook or even the Old Point Loma Lighthouse for the best possible viewing and be sure to keep those binoculars at the ready. 

From your base at the overlook, shift your eyes to the west. Watch the wide ocean for those gray whales moving from the arctic to the warm waters of Mexico. Turn your binoculars towards the horizon, scan right to left, and keep your eyes peeled for the blow from the spout that can rise about 15 feet, the swish of the flukes (tails), or, if you’re lucky, the full on breach and splash of these awesome mammals. 

Tip: Remember to check at the visitor center where rangers have the most up to date information on daily sightings. 

Tide pools at Cabrillo

Tide pools at Cabrillo

One of my favorite spots in all of San Diego are the tide pools at Cabrillo. I head there for peaceful moments, short walks, to connect with nature, and to feel the splash of the waves as they hit the cliffs of the shore. 

From here, the sunsets are epic, the view clear, and the colors of the sea absolutely endless. These tide pools are one of the best preserved and most open in all of southern California. 

What’s a tide pool, you ask?

These coastal rock depressions allow space for water (and tiny critters) to gather, and an entire ecosystem is on display in miniature. 

At the various tide levels, you’ll see tide pool zones playing host to surprisingly different plant and animal life. The high zone — where you’re bound to get wet — is home to those who can manage on limited tidal splashes like barnacles and crabs. The middle zone provides a glimpse of snails, algae, kelp, and even Sandcastle worms. And the lower zone, only visible at the lowest levels, is home to sea stars, urchins, and tons of fish.

Tips for visiting the tide pools at Cabrillo National Monument

  • A vehicle is necessary to get from the top of the park to the tide pools. Walking the road is discouraged. 
  • Sturdy shoes are key here for good grip protection on slippery rocks and sandy trails.
  • All life in and around the tide pools are protected under federal law. This is strictly a look-don’t-touch area of the world. 
  • Best times to visit are fall and winter months when tides are at their lowest. 

Learners of all ages

Statue at Cabrillo National Monument

Filled with educational info, Cabrillo National Monument offers heaps of opportunities for learners of all ages. If you’re a teacher, student, or a bit of both, check out the myriad of programs and add to your trivia knowledge. 

  • Self-guided field trips: no reservation required
  • Ranger-led programs: require calling ahead to book
  • Junior Ranger Program: free, fun, and could earn a cool badge
  • Scout Ranger Program: complete with the possibility of a patch or certificate
  • EcoLogik STEM Summer Day Camp for girls: great if your San Diego stay extends through summer
  • Conservation+Comics Program: building learning at every level with interactive lessons, a science field trip, and more

Things to do nearby

Sunset Cliffs at San Diego

While the monument is towards the end of Point Loma, a quick ride share or car ride can find you in multiple other insta-worthy San Diego spots. With one of the most temperate climates and often the most days of sunshine, the city will give your fill of Vitamin D year-round.

If you enjoy the outdoors, these are some great places to visit near the monument. 

  • Rosecrans National Cemetery: Minutes down the road from the Cabrillo National Monument is Fort Rosecrans Military Reservation. It’s a hilly, serene, space of rest dedicated to the veteran population and commanding of the utmost respect. Free to enter. 
  • Liberty Station Public Market: Open daily, this bustling market unleashes aromas that draw you in the moment you get close. Treats, sweets, meals, and more – all of it tempt every palate. Some of my favorites include Paraña’s empanadas and Wicked Maine Lobster’s whoopie pies, and the husband is a big fan of West Bean Coffee Roasters. 
  • Sunset Cliffs Natural Park: Along the Pacific Ocean, Point Loma’s natural park is where sunset chasers go. No matter the time of day, you’ll find photo shoots taking place, yogis practicing, surfers riding the waves, and nature lovers taking in the rocky cliffside. 
  • Ocean Beach: A stone’s throw from Point Loma lies Ocean Beach. Here the vibes of LA’s Venice Beach meet San Diego’s laid-back lifestyle. This local neighborhood has lots of bohemian energy, organic shops, a farmers market with live music, and sweeping views from the vintage pier. 

Tips for visiting Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument

The best advice I’ve ever heard for visiting any natural space is, without question, “take only pictures, leave only footprints.” With that foundation in mind, as you head out for your excursion to Cabrillo National Monument, pack sunscreen and a hat, put on your sturdiest walking shoes (especially for those lighthouse stairs) and comfortable layers, and bring your sense of adventure. 

A few helpful tips to remember:

  • No cellphone service is available at the tide pools, and there’s a steep hill between the tide pools and the top of the park.
  • During low tides (about 8.5 inches and lower), tide pool permits are required for groups of 10 or more. 
  • While the park is open daily, the tide pools and Bayside Trail close between 30 minutes and an hour early. 
  • The park is both smoke- and trash-free.
  • Pets are allowed only along the Coastal Trail.
  • There’s no food service available at the park, but park benches are open for picnics. 

How to get to Cabrillo National Monument

You’ll find Cabrillo National Monument at the end of San Diego’s Point Loma peninsula. You can get to the area by bus, car, motorcycle, or even bicycle. 

The bus will take you directly to the park on weekdays from Old Town Transit Center, but you’ll have to transfer at Shelter Island.

Is admission to Cabrillo National Monument free?

Alas, all this goodness does come with a cost, although it’s pretty cheap.

A fee or pass is required for every car, bicycle, or person passing into Cabrillo National Monument. Annual passes are also available.  

  • One-day private vehicle pass: $20
  • Motorcycle day pass: $15
  • Per person for walkers or cyclists: $10
  • Annual pass: $35

Is Cabrillo ADA accessible?

Yes, Cabrillo National Monument is a great place to visit if you or someone you’re traveling with is looking for an accessible outdoor adventure. The park prides itself on being ADA accessible.

That means service animals are welcome, wheelchairs are available for loan, and there are several visual and audio aids like captioned films, assisted listening devices, braille brochures, and large print books. Some park rangers know American Sign Language as well.

There’s also plenty of wheelchair access throughout the park, including for parking in both the main and tide pool lots, mounted-pedestal binoculars, and bathrooms (with changing tables) at the visitor center. 

Ready, set, visit!

Cabrillo National Monument

By now, I bet you’re looking forward to checking out the park and getting to know a little more about San Diego’s beginnings — and those tiny creatures living in the tide pools. So get out there and explore! 

If you’re ready to dig into more San Diego history, check out Old Town, another cool local spot with heaps of things to see, do, eat, and discover.