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What is Cabrillo National Monument?

By K. Martin-Browne
Updated Jan 29, 2024
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At the southernmost area of the Point Loma Peninsula, just west of the city of San Diego, California, is Cabrillo National Monument, a 160-acre United States national park. Established in 1913 by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, the park memorializes the voyage of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European who landed on the west coast of what would become the U.S. The park, which is owned and maintained by the U.S. National Park Service, is open 365 days a year from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first came to the New World as a conquistador, serving under Hernan Cortes as captain of crossbowmen during the Spanish battles with the Aztec. In the 1530s, Cabrillo settled in Santiago, Guatemala. His report of a catastrophic earthquake that struck Santiago in 1540 is the first known piece of secular journalism written in the New World.

In June 1542, Cabrillo left Navidad, Mexico, near present-day Manzanillo, with his crew on the first European expedition to the west coast of the future United States. The expedition sailed into San Diego Bay three months later, and on 28 September 1542, Cabrillo’s flagship, the San Salvador, landed on the east shore of the Point Loma Peninsula. Cabrillo himself called San Diego Bay “a very good port” and named the land San Miguel. It was renamed San Diego by Sebastian Vizcaino 60 years later. Although Cabrillo died later on in the expedition, his account of the voyage offers the first written description of what would come to be known as the West Coast.

A statue of Cabrillo can be found on the east side of the Cabrillo National Monument, overlooking the San Diego Bay. In addition to the statue, the park contains several other sites of interest, including the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, a visitor center, remains of coastal defenses, tidepools and a hiking trail. Reenactors can be found throughout the park during operating hours, and guided and self-guided tours are available. In late September each year, the annual Cabrillo Festival offers cultural demonstrations, folkloric performances, food booths and a reenactment of Cabrillo’s landing.

The Old Point Loma Lighthouse came into service on 15 November 1855, making it one of the first lighthouses built on the West Coast. At 422 feet above sea level, it also was the highest lighthouse in the U.S. at the time of its construction. Its elevated location resulted in unexpected, negative consequences, though: its light often was difficult to see as a result of low clouds and fog. Thus, in March 1891, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse was closed, and the New Point Loma Lighthouse, closer to sea level, was opened.

The Old Point Loma Lighthouse has since been refurbished to resemble its appearance in the 1880s. Exhibits in its lower levels are open year-round, but the tower is open to visitors only twice a year: on August 25, the anniversary of the National Park Service, and on November 15, the anniversary of the lighthouse.

The climate, location and ecosystems of the Cabrillo National Monument also have much to offer, including more than 200 species of birds, 300 species of native plants and rare and endangered habitats. The park contains the most significant breeding rookery of great blue herons in coastal southern California and a genus of trap door spider that can be found only in the Point Loma Peninsula area. In collaboration with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, City of San Diego and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Park Service created the 662-acre Point Loma Ecological Conservation Area (PLECA) to protect the diverse wildlife, plants and ecology of the area.

The park has warm, dry summers and cool, mild winters. The average annual temperature of the area is 64 degrees Fahrenheit (about 18 degrees Celsius), and the average annual rainfall is 9.5 inches (24 cm). On the west side of the park lies the intertidal area, where plants and animals live underwater during high tide and above the water during low tide. In this zone live a variety of organisms: red and green algae, sea hares, fish, hermit crabs, snails, barnacles, chitons, limpets, anemones, mussels, lobsters, sea stars and, farther out, large kelp, urchins, abalone, kelp bass, sheephead and octopi. Along with this marine ecosystem, the park contains quite a bit of endangered coastal sage scrub habitat; Bayside Trail, a 2-mile path, takes hikers through this habitat.

From mid-to-late December through March, the Cabrillo National Monument is a great place for whale watching. Pacific gray whales migrate from Alaska to Baja California, Mexico, every winter, right along the California coast. The park even has a “Whale Overlook” from which visitors can look out on the Pacific Ocean and glimpse whales.

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