Cabrillo National Monument and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse

Cabrillo National Monument Lighthouse San Diego

I work with my spouse. Together we own a design and development agency, providing graphic design, branding, and WordPress website services for clients around the world. One of the benefits of working with my husband is that we often get to travel to conferences together — and if we can swing it, we always try to add on an extra day to do some sightseeing together.

After attending a business conference in San Diego, we had a little extra time to explore Cabrillo National Monument and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. Apparently we had visited before with the kids almost 10 years ago, but that was during the early days of the business and due to a lack of sleep, I have major memory loss over those few years. That means I didn’t remember anything about our visit except the giant statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.

Point Loma Lighthouse

Brian and I began our visit with a tour of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. We love visiting lighthouses and getting little glimpses into the history of the area. Inside this lighthouse, restored to its 1880 appearance, is a museum that depicts life as it was for the lightkeepers and their families. In the adjacent Assistant Keeper’s Quarters, interactive exhibits tell the story of the Lighthouses of Point Loma. From here we were also treated to incredible panoramic views of the San Diego Skyline.

Whale Viewing Overlook

We then walked over to the Whale Overlook and a large whale skeleton. In the winter, Pacific gray whales pass by the western overlooks of Cabrillo National Monument on their way to the bays of Baja California, where they mate and nurse their young. Mid-January is the peak time for whale migration, but whales are visible from December through March and the cliffs above the park’s Kelp Forest Overlook and Old Point Loma Lighthouse provide the best viewing spots.

Military History Exhibit

Next, we visited the Military History Exhibit They Stood the Watch, telling the story of military history at Point Loma.

A World War II Army radio station set on a hillside covered in bright yellow wildflowers houses the military history exhibit. It features informational displays and wartime relics, and if you look closely, the area around Cabrillo National Monument includes remnants of military occupancy like base-end stations, fire control stations, searchlight bunkers, and coastal artillery batteries.

Visitor Center Complex

At the Visitor Center, we used up all of our change to get a variety of pressed pennies for Carter, walked through the gift shop, toured the Age of Exploration exhibit room to learn about Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s voyage, watched the film In Search of Cabrillo, and walked out to the promenade to see the 14 foot tall statue of Cabrillo.

Coastal Tidepools

Our last activity was visiting the coastal tidepools on the southwest side of the park.

Visited by more than 215,000 people annually, Cabrillo National Monument is an extremely popular tidepooling destination. It is one of the best-protected and easily accessible tidepool areas in Southern California. Late fall and winter are the best times for tidepooling because unlike the summer months, when low tides occur in the middle of the night, the good low tides in fall and winter occur during daylight hours when the park is open.

About Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo led the first European expedition to explore what is now the west coast of the United States. In 1542, Cabrillo sailed from the port of Navidad, Mexico and arrived three months later at “a very good enclosed port,” known today as San Diego Bay.

Historians believe Cabrillo anchored his flagship, the San Salvador, on Point Loma’s east shore near Cabrillo National Monument. He 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.

Cabrillo National Monument, established in 1913, commemorates Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s voyage of discovery with a 14 foot tall statue of Cabrillo looking out over the bay.

About The Formation Of Cabrillo National Monument

In 1913, the commanding officer at Fort Rosecrans recommended the Old Point Loma Lighthouse be torn down. Later that year, a presidential proclamation by Woodrow Wilson set aside the half acre area surrounding the lighthouse as Cabrillo National Monument. The Order of Panama was granted permission to construct a statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in place of the lighthouse. But by 1926, no statue had been placed and the Order of Panama no longer existed.

In 1935, when Cabrillo National Monument integrated with the National Park Service, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse underwent a major rehabilitation, a new road to the monument was built, and the Portuguese ambassador to the United States presented a bronze plaque, honoring Cabrillo as a distinguished Portuguese navigator in the service of Spain who made the first Alta California landfall.

In 1939, the Portuguese government commissioned a 14 foot tall sandstone statue of Cabrillo and donated it to the United States. The statue was meant to stand at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco but arrived too late. In 1940, State Senator Ed Fletcher obtained the statue and sent it to San Diego where was stored for several years out of public view. Finally, in 1949, the statue was installed at Cabrillo National Monument. Over the years, the sandstone statue suffered severe weathering because of its exposed position and was replaced in 1988 by a replica made of limestone.

During World War II, the entire south end of the Point Loma Peninsula was reserved for military purposes and Cabrillo National Monument was closed to the public. Following the war, the national monument was enlarged significantly by Presidents Eisenhower and Ford and today encompasses more than 140 acres.

About The Old Point Loma Lighthouse

In 1851, the U.S. Coastal Survey selected the tip of Point Loma for the location of a lighthouse to serve as a harbor light and coastal beacon. Sitting 422 feet above sea level, it seemed to be the perfect spot because the light could be seen from both the ocean side of Point Loma and the bay side.

Construction began on the Point Loma Lighthouse in early 1854 and was completed later that summer. Built in the Cape Cod architectural style, the lighthouse had a tower centered in the two-story dwelling, a tin roof painted in red lead, and a red iron lantern. However, more than a year passed before the light, a five-foot-tall 3rd order Fresnel lens, arrived from France and was installed. Finally, at dusk on November 15, 1855, the keeper climbed the winding stairs and lit the oil lamp for the first time.

In clear weather the Point Loma Lighthouse light was visible at sea for 25 miles and for 36 years, it welcomed sailors to San Diego harbor. Well, except on foggy days and nights. As it turns out, the location high atop Point Loma wasn’t the ideal location it was originally thought to be because the fog and low clouds often obscured the light from the view of ships.

The lighthouse operated for just under 36 years until the flame was permanently extinguished in 1891 and the lighthouse was replaced by the New Point Loma lighthouse at a lower elevation. In that time, 11 principal keepers and 22 assistant keepers served at Point Loma Lighthouse. The last keeper at the old lighthouse was Robert Israel. He stayed for 18 years and then transferred to the new Point Loma Lighthouse and stayed one more year.

When the new Point Loma Lighthouse opened, the old lighthouse was boarded up and abandoned, the outbuildings disappeared, and vandals broke in and took pieces of it away.

In 1913, the old lighthouse was almost torn down to make way for Cabrillo National Monument and a statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, but no action was taken and finally in 1935 it underwent a massive rehabilitiation when Cabrillo National Monument integrated with the National Park Service.

In 1984, the light was lit by the National Park Service for the first time in 93 years to celebrate the site’s 130th birthday.

Today the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, with a replica of the original lens, is open to the public and treasured by thousands of people each year.

Know Before You Go

  • Cabrillo National Monument and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse sit at the tip of the Point Loma Peninsula, just west of the city of San Diego at 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive, San Diego, California 92106.
  • Cabrillo National Monument is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. The Bayside Trail closes at 4:00 pm and the tidepools close at 4:30 pm. all visitors must exit the park at 5:00 pm.
  • Admission is $15.00 per vehicle, $10.00 per motorcycle, and $7.00 per walk-in or bicyclist, and is good for seven days.
  • If you want to do a little hiking, the Bayside Trail is a scenic 2 mile trail that takes you through endangered coastal sage scrub habitat.
  • The site was designated a California Historical Landmark 1932 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
  • Pets are not allowed anywhere around the upper monument, including the lighthouse, whale watch overlook, event bluff, statue, visitor center, Bayside Trail, etc. Dogs are allowed on the Tidepool Trail only. To access the Tidepools with your dog you must drive down and park in one of the three tidepool parking lots.
  • Service Animals, as defined by the Department of Justice, are permitted on a leash anywhere in the park, this does not include Emotional Support Animals.

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