On California’s Point Loma Peninsula, the Cabrillo National Monument commemorates Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s landing on North America. Cabrillo, was a Spanish explorer and is widely considered the first European to set foot on what is now the western coast of the United States.
Are your kiddos history buffs? Future marine biologists? Like a good hike? If yes to any, Cabrillo is a must see.
Established October 14, 1913, California’s most Southwestern monument is a 144 acre plot, home to historic military encampments, a picturesque lighthouse, craggy tide pools, a 2.8 mile hiking trail, whale-watching overlooks, and sweeping panoramic views of the San Diego Bay and Pacific Ocean.
Address – 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr, San Diego, CA 92106
Phone – (619) 557-5450
Hours: Seven days a week from 9AM – 5PM. ***Tide Pools close at 4:30PM***
Suggested Stay: One day. Ideally December through February. See discussion of tide pools below.
Getting There: We used Waze and generally stick with ’em unless they lead us astray. For this trip, we searched “Cabrillo National Monument.” Waze took it from there.
We followed the little blue arrow which landed us at the Monument Entry. You may second guess yourself a bit as the final approach to the monument leads you through what looks like an active US Navy base. Fear not! You’re on the right track. Continue following the GPS and you’ll pass Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. We’ll save the National Cemetery for another post but, suffice it to say it’s a sacred and deeply humbling sight. The cemetery will hug the peninsula’s east and west coastlines. When you reach its end, you’ll be at the Cabrillo National Monument gate.
Once in the park, its a straight shot to the Visitor’s Center. Almost no room to mess up save one exit to right which leads you to the tide pools.
While You’re There:
- Visitor Center – We started our journey at the Visitor Center. Inside you’ll find whatever you need to get started…and a little more. The Rangers and volunteers, wear forest green and baby blue shirts respectively. They’re easy to spot, friendly, and helpful. Whatever this blog can’t answer, they can! Also of note, there is a restroom area and water-fountain. Vending machines are maintained, but no restaurants. Probably best to eat breakfast/brunch before your visit and pack a light snack. See Food Tips below for our local favorite for breakfast/brunch. Lastly, we found the whole scene very kid friendly. The site boasts media and hands-on exhibits, nearly all well suited to your child’s eye. You can snap a couple of pictures of your tots or a selfie in our case, suiting up in the 16th Century armor.
- The Junior Ranger Program – I’ll write a bit more on the National Park Junior Ranger program in a follow-up, but at Cabrillo, it’s in full swing: Explore, Learn, and Protect! According to nps.gov, The Junior Ranger Program is an activity based program conducted in almost all parks. Interested youth complete a series of activities during a park visit, share their answers with a park ranger, and receive an official Junior Ranger patch and Junior Ranger certificate. Junior Rangers are typically between the ages of 5 to 13, although people of all ages can participate. Whether you’re rolling with the Beav or Willy Wonka’s Veruca Salt, the staff is attentive, patient, and prepared to transform what could otherwise be a day of drudgery, into an exciting scavenger hunt. Stop in, grab a Junior Ranger guide, and be on your way.
- Lighthouse Exhibit -A short walk up the hill next to the parking lot, you will find the now inactive Old Point Loma Lighthouse. As advertised, it’s a lighthouse, but you’ll have to take their word for it. The top was roped off leaving the residential quarters for exploration. Our kids got a kick out of the experience as one of their Junior Ranger activities asked them to, “imagine [themselves] as a resident of the lighthouse.” Having the kids do the imagining was fine by us, because anyone over five feet wouldn’t stand for it. It’s quite cramped. Inside you’ll see a kitchen, bedrooms, and an uncomfortably placed spiral staircase which bears witness to an ocean of forced smiles and overly-polite “excuse mes” having long since deciphered that “excuse me” translates to “Please move aside. In fact, would you mind? Please get the hell out of my way, it’s damn hot and cramped in here!” When Old Point Loma Lighthouse finally delivers a more claustrophobic version of you into fresh air, you and the kids, who were in no way inconvenienced by the small space, can check out the retrofitted Assistant Light-keepers House which now houses an interactive lighthouse display. As a sailor, I’ll admit to being overly interested but, Jen and the girls enjoyed learning how lighthouses actually work as well.
- Bayside Trail – This is the most challenging part of the visit. Absolutely doable, but requires a bit of planning and commitment. The Bayside Trail starts at a poorly marked fork in the road near the base of the Lighthouse. You’ll know the fork as there’s a sign that mentions the trail starting .3 miles away. As you can see from the picture to the right, it’s a nice sign but doesn’t have an arrow pointing the way. When you see the sign, bear left. You’ll walk down a nicely paved service road. At exactly .3 miles in, you’ll see the trailhead. The rest is a series of switchbacks with various views of San Diego harbor. The map at the very bottom of this post will give you a good idea of what you’re getting into, but be aware, it is an “out-and-back.” You’ll reach the half-way point which is mockingly marked “End of Trail.” So into the carriers your kids go and back up the hill you’ll march. If you focus on the view you’ll enjoy both directions.
- The Tide Pools – Full disclosure here: We were advised by the volunteers at the Visitor Center to NOT make the trek down to the tide pools. After explaining the tide chart to the right, she told us that the best time to visit them is at 2am, when the park is not open. The best time of year to visit the tide pools is in December, January, and February, where you can expect to see something more along the lines of the photograph below and those in the hyperlink above. *Photo credit to Dan Zeller. Nevertheless, before we left, we drove down anyway. We can now confirm that the staff knows exactly what they’re talking about. We’ll be back in January!
Ounces = Pounds: Everything is within a quick jog to your car. You can knock out the whole trip with a day pack, but as we’re rolling with three under five, one in the throws of potty training, we figured we’d wear lots of stuff that we really didn’t need. Outside our Bayside Trail excursion, the extra weight was of no consequence. The monument caters wonderfully to folks of all ages and mobility levels. We were never far from a good resting bench.
This outing, Jen carried Norah in an Ergobaby on her front and an Osprey Manta 25 on her back. The Manta is a nice daypack with a reliable Nalgene hydration system. Carries about 100 ounces of water which we went through pretty easily. I carried Clarke in a 2012 Osprey Poco Premium child carrier. I referenced the year for you because we’ve put some serious miles on this thing….and mashed granola, and spit up, and every other conceivable toddler waste product and it cleans up to a showroom finish. It could probably be sold as “like new” on eBay. It is one helluva bag. The newer version has some nice features (more on that later) but if you can find one of these used, buy it! And count yourself lucky. Years from now, your back will thank you.
-Junior Ranger Program and it’s scavenger hunt feel. Really sparked Ainsley’s interest.
-Mr. Jack, the Volunteer Ranger, who really made the experience special for our girls.
-The art cave (in a converted generator shed) on the side of Bayside Trail. Inside was an art display and active art studio. It was fun to admire the view with real artists. Every other Saturday there’s a kid project to do!
-Your phone will likely pick up Movistar due to the proximity of Mexico’s North, Middle, and South Coronado Islands.
-The tide pools. As discussed, they are best viewed December through February or in the middle of the night. We totally missed what is said to be Cabrillo’s crowning highlight.
San Diego is a bit of a breakfast/brunch restaurant Mecca but, if you’re looking for a recommendation, we love The Mission Restaurant in North Park. Try the French Toast!
Let’s be Real:
-PUBLIC SAFETY ANNOUNCEMENT – If you go in the summer, wear sunscreen! In fact, bring an umbrella or a full blown tent or something. San Diego sun is no joke. We had a helluva time convincing our three daughters to keep their sun-hats on. There is only the Visitor Center and lighthouse exhibits for finding refuge from the sun. The temperature however, was just as you might expect from Southern California…Perfect!
-Potty training while trekking – Probably wouldn’t have hurt for us to practice the “hiking method” before it was game day. Not much of an issue if you’re the parents of boys, but proved a cultural experience for us. This is a whole other post waiting to be written.
-Ainsley (our oldest) did NOT want to go on a hike when she woke up the morning of our Cabrillo outing. This led to a detailed discussion of whether or not we were going on a hike or a “walking adventure.” We quickly learned that our chosen vocabulary can make or break a determined four year old’s willingness to participate.
-Norah freeloaded literally the entire day. She napped freely and wouldn’t have known any different if we’d been trekking a hot combat zone. We’re going to spend some time figuring out how to more effectively carry three kiddos at once. Clarke cried (HARD) on the Bayside Trail because she wanted to continue her ride in the carrier. Wouldn’t have been an issue but, Ainsley needed some time off her “walking adventure” feet! We’ll work on this and give you an update…but until then, if anyone has any good tricks, we’re all ears.
-Hiking has taught us that there is a difference between “good for kids” and “easy”. Kids will be tired because hiking is hard work! We learned a long time ago to get comfortable going nowhere fast. Don’t expect to go quickly and remember to be realistic about making it to the “end”. Account for the need to sometimes trek back from where you came and know your kiddos’ limits.
-Lastly, be mindful of wildlife. We are afterall trekking headlong through their habitat. The news is crushing with tragic stories of family fun gone wrong. Know the animals. At Cabrillo be on the look out for rabbits, jays, and lizards. In addition, the trail was marked at the beginning with a warning about snakes. We didn’t see any, but it led us to an extensive “snake bite preparedness” discussion. Cabrillo has rattlesnakes and yes, they enjoy sunbathing during the summer months. Stay on the trail and you’ll be just fine.
Soundtrack: Band- California Guitar Trio; Album – Whitewater
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