Cabrillo National Monument and Park "The Most Beautiful Coastal Spot in Southern California"
Cabrillo National Monument 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive San Diego, CA 92106-3601
Phone: Headquarters (619) 557-5450 Visitor Information (TTY) (619) 222-8211
Welcome to Cabrillo National Monument and tidal pools located in Point Loma San Diego. The Cabrillo National Monument is widely regarded as one of the most scenic spots in California with 360 degree views of downtown San Diego and the Pacific Ocean. Cabrillo National Monument offers hiking trails, a visitors center with movies and a bookstore, a historical lighthouse, tidal pools and some of the best views in San Diego and Southern California.
ACCESSIBILITY: The Monument is quite accessible. Ramps are available throughout much of the park. Special passes are provided to allow vehicles into less accessible view areas. The Visitor Center's rest rooms include an accesible unisex facility and a baby changing room. The historic Old Point Loma Lighthouse, however, is accesible by stairs only. Audio Station Programs are available in six languages. There are written copies of audio messages, a tactile model of a whale, adjustable phones, and a TDD.
Cabrillo National Monument San Diego
On September 28, 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed at San Diego Bay. This event marked the first time that a European expedition had set foot on what later became the west coast of the United States. His accomplishments were memorialized on October 14, 1913 with the establishment of Cabrillo National Monument.
The park offers a superb view of San Diego's harbor and skyline. At the highest point of the park stands the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which has been a San Diego icon since 1854. A statue and museum in the Visitor Center commemorate Juan Rodr'ez Cabrillo's exploration of the coast of California. In a former army building an exhibit tells the story of the coast artillery on Point Loma. In the winter, migrating gray whales can be seen off the coast. Native coastal sage scrub habitat along the Bayside Trail offers a quiet place to reflect and relax. On the west side of the park is a small but beautiful stretch of rocky-intertidal coastline.
Come see why this is one of San Diego's best "attractions", and places to visit when you are in the area!
Operating Hours & Seasons
Daily: 9:00 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Open until 6:15 p.m. during the summer, July 4 through Labor Day. Winter and spring are especially good times to visit the park.. The annual migration of gray whales occurs December through February. November through March is generally the best time to explore the park's rocky intertidal (tidepool) area. The coastal sage scrub is usually at peak bloom between February through April. Air visibility tends to be clearest in the Winter, and visitors to Cabrillo National Monument often discover spectacular views of San Diego Bay and downtown, Mexico, and the surrounding ocean during this time.
Juan Rodr'ez Cabrillo--A Voyage of Discovery
Juan Rodr'ez Cabrillo led the first European expedition to explore what is now the west coast of the United States. Cabrillo departed from the port of Navidad, Mexico, on June 27, 1542. Three months later he arrived at "a very good enclosed port." That port is known today as San Diego bay. Historians believe he anchored his flagship, the San Salvador, on Point Loma's east shore near Cabrillo National Monument. Cabrillo later died during the expedition, but his crew pushed on, possibly as far north as Oregon, before thrashing winter storms forced them to back to Mexico. More information about Cabrillo and the expedition is presented below.
Cabrillo National Monument, established in 1913, commemorates Juan Rodr'ez Cabrillo's voyage of discovery. A heroic statue of Cabrillo looks out over the bay that he first sailed into on September 28, 1542. A film, "In Search of Cabrillo," and an exhibit hall present Cabrillo's life and times each day at the Visitor Center. Ranger-led programs about Cabrillo are usually available on weekends and on many weekdays during summer months.
So Who Was Cabrillo? by Park Ranger George D. Herring
The Young Conqueror Cabrillo was a Conquistador in his youth. Conquistador is the name applied to the mostly Spanish soldiers who explored, conquered, and settled in the New World. We know little of Cabrillo's early years until 1519 when his name appears in the ranks of those who served in the army of famous conquistador Hernan Cortes. In the terrible battles between the Aztecs and the Spanish, Cabrillo fought as a captain of crossbowmen.
Metal weapons, good tactics, and great bravery made the conquistadors formidable opponents. The Aztecs, however, were also very brave and they greatly outnumbered the Spanish. Ultimately what tipped the scales in the favor of the Spanish was small pox. Small pox, a disease previously unknown in the New World, swept through the Aztec defenders and killed perhaps a quarter of their population. Everywhere the Spanish went, advanced disease went before them, making it possible for a relatively few Europeans to conquer the New World.
After the defeat of the Aztecs, Cabrillo joined other Spanish military expeditions in what is today southern Mexico, Guatemala, and San Salvador. Eventually Cabrillo settled in Guatemala. There he received encomienda's --long term leases for land uses such as gold mining and farming, along with the right to use forced Indian labor for these projects. The king of Spain granted encomiendas as a reward for services to the crown.
A Businessman and Leading Citizen of Guatemala By the mid-1530's, Cabrillo established himself as a leading citizen of Guatemala's primary town, Santiago. Later, in 1540, an earthquake destroyed Santiago. Cabrillo's report to the crown on the earthquake's destruction is the first known piece of secular journalism written in the New World. Meanwhile, in 1532, Cabrillo traveled to Spain where he met Beatriz Sanchez de Ortega. The two married that year and Cabrillo returned with her to Guatemala where she bore two sons.
As the Cabrillo family grew, so did his wealth and reputation as a ship builder. Using a port on Guatemala's Pacific Coast, Cabrillo imported and exported goods in the developing trade between Guatemala, Spain and other parts of the New World. The ships he used for this trade were constructed in Guatemala using skilled labor and ideas Cabrillo brought back from Spain and the physical labor of Native Americans. Some of these ships would play a vital role in Spain's early efforts to explore the Pacific.
Why Explore California? The Governor of Guatemala, Pedro de Alvarado, selected Cabrillo to build and provision ships to explore the Pacific because of his skills as a leader and businessman. Alvarado planned to use the ships to establish a trading route between Central America and the Spice Islands off of Asia. When Alvarado died during an Indian uprising, his business partner, the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, prompted Cabrillo to lead one of two expeditions to explore the Pacific. Cabrillo accepted and soon set out to explore the coast north and west of New Spain (Mexico). Meanwhile, the other expedition, led by Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, sailed directly across the Pacific to the Philippines. While this expedition did reach the Philippines, Villalobos was killed in a mutiny and the hungry, disheartened crew eventually surrendered to a Portuguese garrison in the Spice Islands.
The Cabrillo expedition sailed out of the port of Navidad, near modern day Manzanillo, on June 24, 1542. Accompanying Cabrillo were a crew of sailors, soldiers, Indian and probably black slaves, merchants, a priest, livestock and provisions for two years. Three ships, the flagship built by Cabrillo himself, were under his command. A model of Cabrillo's flagship, the San Salvador, is on display inside the Exhibit Room of Cabrillo National Monument.
A partial map, from a 1565 Paolo Forlani tinted copperplate world map made in Venice, suggests the route for which Cabrillo searched. Among other details, it depicts North America and Asia as one land mass, a large river with head waters in Siberia emptying into the Gulf of California, and the island of Cipango (Japan) only a few hundred miles west of the coast of California. The expedition, of course, did not discover such a coastline, but some who returned felt they had come near to their goal. This caused many 16th century map makers to draw maps like this, filling in the blanks with their best guesses.
Cabrillo also sought seven fabulously wealthy cities known as Cibola that some believed were near the Pacific coast beyond New Spain and the possibility of a route connection the North Pacific to the North Atlantic -- the Straits of Anian.
Exploring California One hundred and three days into the journey, Cabrillo's ships entered San Diego bay. He probably landed at Ballast Point (visible from the Cabrillo NM visitor center) where he claimed the land for Spain. Cabrillo described the bay as "a closed and very good harbor," which he called San Miguel. The name San Miguel was changed to San Diego 60 years later by another explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino.
The expedition continued north to Monterey Bay and may have reached as far north as Point Reyes before storms forced the ships to turn back. Interestingly, the expedition failed to sight San Francisco Bay, which remained undiscovered until 1769. Discouraged by foul weather, Cabrillo decided to winter in the Channel Islands. There, after a fall incurred during a brief skirmish with natives, Cabrillo shattered a limb and died of complications on January 3, 1543. Following Cabrillo's death, the disheartened crew again sailed north -- this time under the leadership Bartolome Ferrer. The expedition may have reached a latitude as far north as the Rogue River in Oregon but thrashing winter winds and spoiled supplies forced them to return to Mexico.
While Cabrillo's contemporaries considered the expedition a failure, it left behind our first written glimpse of the west coast of North America. The expedition also helped to dispel myths and misconceptions and allowed Cabrillo's contemporaries to proceed with the difficult task of colonizing the expanded Spanish Empire. President Woodrow Wilson memorialized Juan Rodr'ez Cabrillo by creating Cabrillo National Monument in 1913.
Point Loma, a window to San Diego. Point Loma is a San Diego community located just south of Ocean Beach and on the opposite end of San Diego Bay. It is close to everything and one of the highest points in the region.
Many visitors come to Cabrillo National Monument simply to enjoy the dramatic view of San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The park has one of the best harbor views in world! To the east, the skyline of downtown San Diego framed by the Cuyamaca mountains serves as a backdrop to the bay along with the Coronado Bay bridge and rows of condominium buildings.
To the south, visitors can see Mexico across the shimmering waters of the bay and, to the west, the Pacific ocean extends to the horizon and beyond. Four hundred feet below the park overlooks, it is common to see sailboats, commercial ships and ships of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet glide in and out of the harbor entrance.
'Spectacular," 'Wonderful," or 'Sensational' are words commonly written by visitors in the park guest book to describe the view.
Park overlooks are open during normal park operating hours. For a unique perspective of the city and harbor, take a two-mile walk along the Bayside Trail which starts at the lighthouse. Ranger-led harbor-view talks are sometimes given on the Visitor Center patio.
The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, Illuminating the Past . . .
The Old Point Loma Lighthouse stood watch over the entrance to San Diego Bay for 36 years. At dusk on November 15, 1855 the light keeper climbed the winding stairs and lit the light for the first time. What seemed to be a good location 422 feet above sea level, however, had a serious flaw. Fog and low clouds often obscured the light. On March 23, 1891 the light was extinguished and the keeper moved to a new lighthouse location closer to the water at the tip of the Point.
Today the Old Point Loma Light House still stands watch over San Diego, sentinel to a vanished past. The National Park Service has refurbished the interior to its historic 1880's appearance -- a reminder of a bygone era. Ranger-led talks, displays and brochures are available to explain the lighthouses interesting past.
Construction: Why is it the "Old Point Loma Lighthouse?"
The Old Point Loma Lighthouse is a reminder of simpler times: of sailing ships and oil lamps and the men and women whom day after day faithfully tended the coastal lights that guided mariners. In 1851, a year after California entered the Union, and the U.S. Coastal Survey selected the heights of Point Loma for the location of a navigational aid. The crest seemed like the right location: it stood 422 feet above sea level, overlooking the bay and the ocean, and a lighthouse there could serve as both a harbor light and a coastal beacon.
Construction began three years later. Workers carved sandstone from the hillside for walls and salvaged floor tiles from the ruins of an old Spanish fort. A rolled tin roof, a brick tower, and an iron and brass housing for the light topped the squat, thick-walled building. By late summer 1854, this work was done. More than a year passed before the lighting apparatus -- a 5 foot, 3rd order Fresnel lens, the best available technology -- arrived from France and was installed. At dusk on November 15, 1855, the keeper climbed the winding stairs and lit the oil lamp for the first time. In clear weather its light was visible at sea for 25 miles. For the next 36 years, except on foggy nights, it welcomed sailors to San Diego harbor.
The light had only a short life because the seemingly good location concealed a serious flaw: fog and low clouds often obscured the beam. On March 23, 1891, the keeper extinguished the lamp for the last time. Boarding up the lighthouse, he moved his family and belongings into a new light station at the bottom of the hill. Today you can see the "New" Point Loma Lighthouse from the Whale Overlook, 100 yards south of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse.
Life At The Lighthouse -- Family Memories
My great grandparent's home by David & Jeanne Israel
The Old Point Loma Lighthouse was not just the housing for a light; it was the home of the people who took care of the light. It's a light and a house in one.
Where did your grandfather grow up? Mine grew up in a lighthouse. The day he was born, June 2, 1871, his father (my great grandfather), Captain Robert Decatur Israel, was appointed Assistant Lighthouse Keeper at the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. When my grandfather was three years old, his father was promoted to Keeper, and his mother (my great grandmother), Maria Arcadia Machado de Alipas Israel, was appointed Assistant Keeper. The Lighthouse was a bustling family home, with the Israel's three boys and a niece all growing up there. In the yard lived three horses, chickens, pigs and goats. The Israel's lived and worked on Point Loma for 18 years, where they watched their children and grandchildren grow up. One of the Israel's grandsons was born at the lighthouse. Maria and her mother, Juana Machado, of Old Town San Diego, delivered the baby.
Life on the isolated Point was, at times, an adventure. My mother remembers, as a child, complaining to my grandfather about having to walk to school, and him telling her, 'How would you like to have to ROW A BOAT across the bay to school?" That's how he and his two brothers got to school in Old Town San Diego from the Lighthouse.
Not only was their home one of the first lighthouses on the west coast of United States, it was also the highest in the country, the light being 462 feet above sea level. It was so high that ships often couldn't see the light through the fog and clouds. At such times, because there was no fog horn, Captain Israel would fire a shotgun to warn ships away from the treacherous rocks below. Eventually the lighthouse was replaced by the 'New' Point Loma Lighthouse, built at the end of the point at a lower elevation.
My great grandfather kept the Old Point Loma light longer than any other keeper, and he was also the last keeper. He extinguished the light for the last time in March 1891. In 1984, the light re-lit again by the National Park Service for the first time in 93 years, in celebration of the site's 130th birthday. Approximately 3,000 people and over 100 descendants of the Israel's attended. It is always a thrill for me to look up at night from anywhere in San Diego and see the light shining as it did over 100 years ago. It's as though my great grandparents still live there.
Recently it has been our pleasure to volunteer our time, effort, and memories at the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. On special occasions the Park opens the very top of the tower to the public. The 360 degree view is breath taking. We are there, in 1880's attire, to show visitors through the house at times. We can almost hear the footsteps of the children who once lived there, and glimpse in our imagination Maria knitting by the fire or the captain rushing upstairs to re-light a blown out wick. You may also see us recreating a kitchen garden beside the lighthouse, and helping park staff to reintroduce native plants to the area surrounding it. We are helping put the past back into place, for the enjoyment of future generations.
The National Park Service, by preserving this historic lighthouse, gives us all a special place to step back in time, a wind swept retreat from our busy modern world, a place to remember the people and times that went before us. Over 100 years ago, people drove out by horse and buggy, over steep and rutted dirt roads, to visit the Israel's, to picnic, and to enjoy the spectacular view that visitors still come to enjoy today.
Each winter the Pacific Gray Whales pass by the western overlooks of Cabrillo National Monument. After spending the summer feeding in the food-rich waters of the arctic, the Grays swim south along the coast to the bays of Baja California, where they mate and nurse their young. Along the way they pass Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument, where you can witness the annual winter journey.
When To See Whales
Mid January is the peak of the migration, but the Grays are visible mid-December through March. The heights around the park's Whale Overlook and Old Point Loma Lighthouse offer the best viewing. Bring binoculars if you have them. Binoculars make viewing much easier and more enjoyable. It is possible to see a whale at any time of the day (they swim 24 hours a day)! Park staff will happily help you spot a whale if possible. Check at the visitor center for information about ranger talks and whale watching. A movie about the Pacific Gray Whale is shown daily during the Whale Watch season.
Where to Look
Look west from the park overlooks, toward the ocean. The whales are migrating from the arctic to the warm bays of Baja California and mainland Mexico, so they will be moving from the north (right), to the south (left) as you look from the park. Expect them to be moving at a steady speed of four or five knots (about five miles per hour). Although some swim close to shore, most whales swim in an area that extends from the kelp beds (about 3/4 miles out) out to the horizon. Binoculars are an immense help, so bring a pair if possible. A limited number of binoculars are available with a picture i.d. at the park visitor center during the whale season; ask for them at the information desk.
NOTE: Later, in the spring, the gray whales will migrate north again, but they are generally too far out in the ocean to see from the park, even with binoculars.
What to Look For:
The Blow or Spout
A gray whale's blow is up to 15 feet high, and each blow is visible for about 5 seconds. When warm, moist air exhaled from the animals' lungs, meets the cool air at the ocean surface, it creates the bushy column we call a blow, or spout. Anticipate that the whale will dive for 3 to 6 minutes, then surface for 3 to 5 blows in row, 30 to 50 seconds apart, before diving deep for 3 to 6 minutes again.
The Flukes (Tail)
Before making a long, deep dive, a gray whale often displays its 12 foot wide fan shaped flukes, or tail. The weight of the tail above the whale's body helps the whale to dive deep. The gray whale normally swims about 5 miles per hour about the speed of a child on a bicycle. The flukes have no bones and connect to the body and tail muscles by banks of tendons.
The Knuckled Back
If the lighting is right, and if the whale is close enough, it is possible to see the back of a gray whale during and after the blow. It is shiny and black or gray, with a knuckled ridge along the spine. After the whale submerges you may note an elongated, smooth oval of calm water, known as a footprint, where the whale has been.
Breach and Splash
Gray whales occasionally hurl themselves out of the water and plunge back in with a tremendous splash! This is called a whale breach. Scientist do not know why gray whales do this, but it is very exciting sight to see! Sometimes other whales in the area will copy this behavior, so keep your eyes open.
Once you have spotted a Whale
Remember that they are migrating south, which is to your left as you look west out over the ocean from Cabrillo National Monument. Once you have spotted a whale, you can expect that it will surface again to the south. Gray whales swim in a cycle of 3 to 5 blows, 30 to 50 seconds apart, followed by a deep dive lasting 3 to 6 minutes. After watching an individual Gray Whale you will be able to anticipate its unique rhythm of breaths and dives, and where it will surface next.
Local Interest Article:
How come we don t see as many whales as we used to? by Park Ranger George D. Herring
At the whale overlook, rangers hear it all the time: How come we don t see as many whales as we used to? Many visitors remember seeing more gray whales from Cabrillo National Monument during the 1970 s. Are they seeing fewer whales? The answer is yes, despite an overall increase in the gray whale population. Do we know why? No, but researchers are trying to find out.
Biology students under the guidance of Dr. Jim Sumich, a whale biologist with Grossmont College in San Diego County, observe the annual winter gray whale migration from Cabrillo N.M. Each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning during the season (December -- February) you may see these diligent biologists at the whale overlook patiently recording the direction, numbers, and behavior, of the passing whales.
So what did we learn? Gray whale census counts by the National Marine Fisheries Service from Cabrillo N.M. in 1979 did report more whales -- up to 40 whales in one hour during the mid-January migration peak. Today only about eight whales are visible each hour. Curiously, this drop in shore sightings coincides with a dramatic increase in the overall population of gray whales. In 1979, 15,000 gray whales were estimated to exist. Today that number is close to 27,000. A large percentage of whales in recent years, about 65% in 1993-94, migrate too far off the Southern California coast for watchers to see from shore. This does not seem to have occurred in the late 1970s.
Some San Diegans believe this is because the animals are being harassed by a growing number of boaters in the waters off San Diego, particularly whale-watching boats. Sumich, however, believes many reasons could account for the whales' behavior, including water quality changes, military and commercial boat activity, natural shifts in migration routes, or all of the above. Nevertheless he believes that at least part of the reason is whale watching boats. Of particular impact, he feels, is the increasing number of private vessels hoping to get a close look. Federal law does not allow boaters to move within one hundred yards of whales (unless the animal moves closer on its own), but the rule is ignored by some boat captains. From the whale overlook it is not uncommon to see a whale being pursued by a dozen or more boats on a busy weekend, or to see whales take evasive action to avoid boats.
Are the boats responsible for us seeing fewer whales today than fifteen years ago? Only the whales know for sure. In the 1976 gray whale census report, referring to San Diego, Dale W. Rice wrote that, The marked decline in the Point Loma counts (of Gray Whales) in the late 1960s was thought to be due to harassment of the whales by increasing boat traffic, causing them to migrate farther offshore. Even considering the better weather [in 1976], the [higher than average] count at Point Loma this year is unexpected . This seems to indicate that the whales have migrated far off shore in the past too. If this is so, perhaps we will see 40 whales an hour again soon!
The National Park Service supports long-term research efforts like the gray whale census being taken now, because good data collected over a long period helps us better understand whale migration trends and avoid jumping to conclusions about gray whale behavior today, and tomorrow.
If you visit the park on a clear sunny morning, mid-December to mid February, you may see the passing gray whales for yourself --and develop your own theory for why the whales do what they do.
San Diego Tidal Pools at Cabrillo National Park
On the western side of Point Loma lies the rocky inter-tidal zone, a window into the ocean ecosystem that lies along of San Diego's coast. During low tide's pools form along this shore in rocky depressions. In them you may see flowery anemones, elusive octopai, spongy deadman's fingers, and a myriad of other creatures. The tidepools are a wonderful discovery zone, but be careful if you visit. Few animals in this ecosystem can harm humans, but many animals are sensitive, and can even be killed, when handled or just touched by humans. Ask a ranger or volunteer how you can best explore the tidepools without harming them.
Ranger walks are available during most low tides and a slide program is shown daily at the park visitor center. Low tides during convenient daylight hours are most common in the winter during full and new moons. Check a tide-chart before you visit for the best time to visit. The inter-tidal area is a very sensitive ecosystem -- park rangers patrol the area regularly and strictly enforce park regulations!
The rocks are wet and slippery! Wear shoes with good traction, wear clothes you don't mind getting wet, and expect to get wet. You will be more relaxed, have more fun, and be safer, if you don't have to worry about your good shoes or pants getting doused by a stray wave.
For tide information contact the park at: (619)557-5450 x 0, or (619)222-8211 (TTY).
Getting to Cabrillo National Monument
San Diego International Airport (Lindbergh Field) serves the area, and is within sight of the Monument. Follow State Highway 209 south, from Interstate Highways I-5 and I-8, to the tip of Point Loma. Major car rental agencies are available in San Diego.
Car Follow State Highway 209 south, from Interstate Highways I-5 or I-8, to the tip of Point Loma.
Public Transportation Local bus route 26 and taxicabs serve the park.
Exploration of the park is limited to designated trails in order to minimize erosion and to protect the dry coastal sage scrub plants from trampling. Cliff edges are extremely unstable and may collapse, causing serious injury to visitors exploring off-trail areas. The intertidal areas are slippery and falls are frequent. Rattlesnakes have been seen in the Monument
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