The two-lane road to Cabrillo National Monument winds its way to the tip of Point Loma, leaving behind busy commercial intersections and residential neighborhoods as it leads to the park entrance. Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, a California Historical Landmark that dates to 1882, stretches along both sides of the road. Glimpses of San Diego Bay on the left and the Pacific Ocean on the right offer a preview of what lies ahead, but it’s difficult to get a feeling of the vastness of the views until you are standing at the monument.
We reached the park entrance just before the 9 a.m. opening and waited in the drive-through line to buy our admission pass. About a dozen cars and several groups of cyclists were ahead of us. A park ranger kept things moving efficiently, walking from car to car, letting those with passes pull out of the line and enter the park. After a short wait, we purchased our pass, found a parking space in the nearby lot and headed to the monument.
Established by the National Park Service in 1913, Cabrillo National Monument honors Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who led the first European expedition to explore the west coast of North America. Sailing for the king of Spain, Cabrillo landed in San Diego Harbor in 1542, declaring the spot “a closed and very good port.” The heroic-looking monument to the explorer stands majestically on a lookout point, offering extraordinary views of the city skyline and harbor, Coronado Island and the Pacific Ocean.
“Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo is as mysterious as the waters he explored. While much is unknown, we are certain about this: Cabrillo was the first European to set foot on the west coast of what is now the United States. His expedition brought Spain’s first great era of exploration to a close.”
~National Park Service Guide to Cabrillo National Monument
Even with early morning lingering clouds, the views from the monument are stunning. To the east, distant mountains form a backdrop for the San Diego Bay and city skyline. Looking west, the Pacific Ocean in all its breathtaking blueness spreads out to the horizon. Adding to the scene is a flurry of activity – seabirds, sailboats, naval ships, military planes – that creates a beautiful diorama of the area.
Next we headed up a path to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, built in 1855 to stand watch over San Diego waters. I was immediately taken with the charming tower-topped house and its moody setting that looked to me like something from an Andrew Wyeth painting. That soulful setting, often covered by fog and low clouds, made it difficult for ships to get an accurate view of the light. After thirty-six years, the lighthouse was closed and a new station was built at the bottom of the hill.
The lighthouse recreates the home of Cabrillo’s keeper, Robert Israel, who lived there with his family for twenty years. A parlor and kitchen complete the first floor, with a narrow winding staircase leading to sleeping quarters on the second floor and continuing to the third floor tower, which is closed to the public. A park ranger told us that the tower is open three days each year, with non-stop lines for the coveted viewing spot.
Back outside, we walked to Whale Overlook, a terrific Pacific viewing point and designated perch for spotting gray whales as they migrate between mid-December and March from the Arctic Ocean to Baja California. The overlook offers views of the New Point Loma Lighthouse, Cabrillo’s tide pools and the area’s native plants. The nearby Bayside Trail follows a partly-paved path for a two-and-a-half-mile round-trip walk through coastal sage scrub and past defense system remnants from World Wars I and II.
We stopped at the Visitor Center, a spacious facility that carries a large selection of books and souvenirs and includes a museum and movie theater. The ranger on duty was wonderfully helpful when I inquired about the Shaw’s agave plant, poring over pages of photos and information. Before leaving, we drove to the park’s lower level to check out the tide pools. Although part of Cabrillo National Monument, the tide pools are accessible only by car and have a separate parking area.
As we drove back up the hill, we took in a few last views. I hopped out of the car to get a photo of a Monterrey Cypress peeking over the Pacific that I had spotted earlier. It is, of course, an exaggeration to say that you can see forever from a particular place, but the views from this splendid national monument to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo are just about as close as it gets.