Cabrillo National Monument
a walking tour by Carol Mendel
In September of 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo
, a Portuguese explorer sailing for Spain, brought his two small Spanish caravels into what is now known as San Diego Bay. Thus began the first European exploration of the California coast, just 50 years after Christopher Columbus set foot in the West Indies. Today a walk around Cabrillo National Monument recalls those beginning times and treats you to spectacular views of the bay, the city of San Diego, and the Pacific Ocean. You will catch glimpses of over 400 years in the history of San Diego Bay -- from the landing of Cabrillo, to the construction of a lighthouse in the early 1850's, to the modern activities of the harbor.
Cabrillo National Monument
Old Point Loma Lighthouse
is administered by the National Park Service. Its unsurpassed beauty, coupled with its easy accessibility, probably explains why nearly two million visitors come here every year.
The main walking tour takes you through the area around the visitor center, up to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, and then to the whale-watching station.
Distance: A half mile. Time: An hour.
A separate, more strenuous, walk follows the Bayside Trail, winding down the bay side of Point Loma. It offers the opportunity to see some fortifications remaining from World War II, and to learn to recognize some of the most common plants of the Southern California coast.
MAP of the walking tour
Terms and Conditions
for using this material
Ballast Point and San Diego Bay
Begin your walking tour on the patio behind the Visitor Center. Below you is Ballast Point, the small spit of land where Cabrillo is believed to have come ashore. Take a few minutes to view the bay and city, then push the button for a short talk about the history of the bay.
Walk a few feet to the right. A series of plaques will allow you to identify dozens of the naval warships, auxiliary ships, planes, and helicopters that you may see around the harbor.
A little farther on, two other plaques identify the major geographical features of San Diego, ranging from Mexico north to Mount Soledad.
Now walk between the buildings and across the patio to the exhibit hall, where you will find exhibits about Cabrillo and other Spanish explorers who forged paths across the New World.
Next door to the exhibits is the auditorium. Here the National Park Service shows a variety of half-hour films, including "In Search of Cabrillo," about Cabrillo, and "On the Edge of Land and Sea," about the tide pools. Check the posted list outside the auditorium for the schedule of film titles and showing times.
Walking beyond the administration building, follow the path to the left to the Cabrillo Statue. Sculpted in sandstone by the Portuguese sculptor Alvaro de Bree in 1939, a stalwart Cabrillo proudly holds a sword in one hand, a pair of dividers and a quadrant in the other. This handsome figure was intended for the Golden Gate International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1939, but it arrived too late. It was subsequently taken and transported southward by a San Diegan who thought this city its rightful place. Note the Portuguese spelling of Cabrillo's name on the statue and the carved inscriptions on the back. Behind the statue is perhaps the most magnificent view of the bay.
Retrace your steps back to the road, then walk to the left along a sidewalk that leads up to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. The lighthouse first sent its beam out to ships in 1855, five years after California joined the Union. Unfortunately, however, the beam didn't always reach the ships -- the light was 462 feet above sea level and often obscured by low clouds. Hence 36 years later, in 1891, the government built a new lighthouse, still in use, at sea level at the base of Point Loma. The original lighthouse fell into disrepair, but now has been restored to reflect the way it was in 1887.
Lighthouse and Assistant Keeper's Quarters
Go inside the lighthouse to see the fully furnished living quarters of a 19th Century lighthousekeeper and his family. Also visit the Assistant Keeper's Quarters, which contains exhibits about lighthouses.
When you finish, return to the concrete walk, turn right, and continue along the walk. Soon you reach a gravel path where you can enjoy a view of the Pacific Ocean as you make your way south to Whale Overlook.
Every winter the Gray Whales migrate from the Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea, between Alaska and Siberia, to their breeding grounds in the warm, shallow lagoons of Baja California and mainland Mexico. As late as the 1800's, female whales calved in San Diego Bay as well, which partly explains why whaling was a significant San Diego enterprise in the second half of the 19th Century.
Whale-watching is a popular sport in San Diego, and Cabrillo National Monument is one of the best land-based spots to see them. If you come between mid-December and the end of February, you will probably be able to see a few of the huge mammals on their journey south. (For a close-up and exciting view of the whales, you should take one of the whale-watching excursion boats that leave from Shelter Island or Mission Bay.) Whale Overlook contains a series of paintings about the Gray Whale, Point Loma, and coastal marine life.
Point Loma Light Station, at the ocean's edge
The path on the south side of the overlook affords a fine view of the present, operating lighthouse down at the ocean's edge.
Return to top.
A side trip: the Bayside Trail
Distance: Two miles, including return. Time: One and a half hours.
This side trip begins at a well-marked road near the east side of the lighthouse. It is particularly delightful in April and May, when many of the plants of this coastal sage scrub community are in bloom. Excellent interpretive signs along the trail enhance your experience.
Please remember that all plants and animals here are protected. You are not permitted to pick any of the flowers or remove any of the plants.
As you begin down the road, you have a beautiful view of San Diego Bay on your left. Especially on weekends, you will find the entrance to the bay dotted with the white sails of dozens of sailboats.
On your right you will see the lemonadeberry shrub. You will see many of these plants along the trail. Recognize the lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia
) by its leathery, stiff, and sometimes toothed, leaves. In the spring, it sports pink blossoms, which later become sticky, red-orange fruits with a lemonish flavor.
Both sides of the road are sprinkled with prickly pear cactus (Opuntia littoralia
). Indians carefully removed the spines from the prickly pears and ate the fruit raw. They also boiled the fruit to make a syrup. Mexicans today sometimes boil and crush the pads and add the resulting sticky juice to their mortars and whitewashes to make them stick better to adobe walls.
World War II command post "pillbox"
On your right, at the crest of the hill, you will see some antennas enclosed by a fence. Look at the southern tip of this enclosure to see the World War II bunker. Many of these "pillboxes" line Point Loma. This one was used as the command post by the officer in charge of guarding the entrance to the bay.
Continue down the road and soon a trail leads off to the left while the road continues south to some military installations.
Follow the trail, and in a few yards you will come to some yucca plants on your left. Also known as the Spanish dagger and the Spanish bayonet, the yucca (Yucca schidigera
) grows throughout the West. The Indians had a variety of uses for it. The roots and stems were used for soap. The leaf fibers were turned into rope, sandals, mats, and baskets. The buds, flowers, and fruits were used for food. The fruits could be eaten raw, turned into a fermented drink, or dried and stored for a wintertime food.
Along the rest of the trail you will see some sagebrush, and a lot of buckwheat.
The California sagebrush (Artemisia californica
) is not a true sage, but a member of the sunflower family. The Indians and early Spanish Californians regarded it as a general cure-all, and had good results bathing wounds with a strong sagebrush wash. Early miners found that a branch of sagebrush in their beds would drive away fleas.
The California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum
) is easy to recognize: the undersides of its small, green, oblong leaves are whitish, with a prominent green vein, and its tiny pinkish white flowers turn a rusty brown color as they die.
After a while you will come to a concrete box with a green metal door. During World War II, a searchlight was plugged in here and used to watch who was coming into or out of the bay.
Building that housed the searchlight
A few yards further along the trail brings you to the building where the searchlight was kept when not in use. In a few more yards you will find an old building that housed the electrical generator for the searchlight.
The trail continues around a few more bends and ends below the Cabrillo Statue Overlook. You then return by the way you came.
Return to top.
Copyright © by Carol Mendel