The last time we visited the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse was in 2010 when my children we only six and almost four. We arrived late in the afternoon and the lighthouse was already closed so we didn’t get to go inside, but we did get to walk around the buffs and wear the kids out before heading back to the hotel for an early bedtime!
This time, we made sure to visit the lighthouse early in the day. After exploring the beaches at Russian Gulch State Park and Jug Handle State Natural Reserve, we arrived at Point Cabrillo just before lunch. This way we could hike down to the lighthouse, explore the headlands for a while, and hike back just in time for a shady picnic before continuing our day sand sledding at Ten Mile Dunes Natural Preserve and building sand castles at Pudding Creek Beach.
About Point Cabrillo Light Station
The 296 acre Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park features a beautifully restored 1909 lighthouse, 11 other historic structures, and hiking trails on a rugged headland 1.5 miles north of Mendocino, California.
The Light Station, one of the most complete in the United States, and Point Cabrillo Natural Preserve occupy a spectacular coastal headland and prairie thrusting out into the Pacific Ocean. And, in a cove nearby, lay the remains of the brig Frolic, the most important Gold Rush era shipwreck in California.
The Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park includes:
- The Lighthouse, still in use, containing the original 3rd order Fresnel lens
- Three restored Lightkeeper homes — one is a 1930s period museum of a lightkeeper’s house and the other two are vacation rental homes.
- The restored Blacksmith & Carpentry Shop houses a Marine Science Exhibit with a 240 gallon saltwater aquarium and exhibits on the local marine ecosystems and their inhabitants.
- Three restored storage buildings behind the residences — two are vacation rental cottages and one is the park’s public restroom.
Visiting Point Cabrillo Lighthouse
There are two options to access the Point Cabrillo Light Station. A dirt path begins at the north end of the parking lot and travels through the coastal prairie and a paved access road at the south end offers an easier more direct route. We walked the half mile paved road to the Light Station Complex, passing multiple groups of deer in the prairie brush.
We first visited the Lightkeeper’s House Museum, then the Marine Science Exhibit, and finally the Lighthouse — and were impressed with all of the restoration that has been done.
Directly inside the lighthouse at the bottom of the light tower, are examples of equipment used to illuminate and turn the lens as well as a guest book from the Lighthouse’s earliest days. Inside the fog signal building is a gift shop and the the Lighthouse Museum covering the history of Point Cabrillo, the Light Station, and the wreck of the Frolic.
The upstairs Lantern Room is closed to the public, except for eight days each year during the Coast Guard Auxiliary Led Lantern Room Tours.
When we were done visiting the lighthouse, we explored the trail around the windy bluffs for a bit, catching sight of a few Harbor Seals before making the half mile trek uphill back to the parking lot for a picnic lunch.
History Of The Point Cabrillo Light Station
In 1870, Point Cabrillo was named by the United States Geological Survey after the Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. Even though many shipwrecks, including the Frolic, occurred off the rocky coast near the point, it took many years for a lighthouse to be built.
Construction of the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse began in early 1908 and was completed in 1909. The original Light Station complex had 15 structures and was managed by the US Lighthouse Service. The US Coast Guard assumed control in 1939 and managed it until 1991.
The lighthouse’s third-order Fresnel lens, with 90 glass prism pieces, was first lit in 1909. At the time, it was the most advanced lens technology available and was rotated by a wind-up clockworks mechanism. In 1934, the oil lamp was replaced with an electric lamp and in 1935 an electric motor was added. In 1972, an automated beacon was installed outside the lantern room and the Fresnel lens was decommissioned.
The California Coastal Conservancy funded the acquisition of the property in 1991 and funded, along with private donations, the rehabilitation and restoration of the lighthouse, its lens, the Blacksmith/Carpenter Shop, and Oil House. That same year, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1999, the United States Coast Guard and volunteers restored the original Fresnel lens and reactivated it as a Federal Aid to Navigation. Today it uses a 1,000 watt lamp that shines non-stop and is visible from 14 miles at sea on a clear day.
The California State Parks acquired the Light Station and surrounding property in 2002 and the rehabilitation of the Lightkeepers’ houses and three outbuildings began. Restoration was been overseen by the nonprofit Point Cabrillo Lightkeepers Association, by agreement with the California State Parks.
The Wreck of the Frolic
In 1850, the brig Frolic, on its way to San Francisco with a cargo of Chinese housewares, struck a rocky reef just north of Point Cabrillo. The captain secured the ship in what is now Frolic Cove and traveled south to Fort Ross to share the news of the wreck. In 1851, Henry Meiggs, a San Francisco businessman, sent Jerome Ford north in hopes of salvaging the cargo, but by then the ship had sunk.
While Ford found no cargo, he did discover the large, lush groves of coastal redwood and Douglas fir in the area and one year later Meiggs had sawmill equipment shipped around Cape Horn and erected a mill at Big River. This led to the start of lumber industry in Northern California and the founding of Mendocino. The wood used to build Point Cabrillo Light Station came from these local mills.
Know Before You Go
- Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park is located midway between Mendocino and Caspar at 13800 Point Cabrillo Drive, Mendocino, California 95460 in Mendocino County.
- Download the Point Cabrillo Light Station brochure.
- Accessible parking is available in front of the light station residences. The public parking lot is a 0.5 mile walk away from the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse.
- The fully restored lighthouse is open 365 days a year from 11:00 am to 4:00 pm. The preserve grounds are open daily for public use from sunrise to sunset.
- The lighthouse houses the Visitor Center and Gift Shop, the original Blacksmith Shop is now a small Marine Science Aquarium, and the Lightkeeper’s Museum is inside the old cottage.
- Every spring, approximately 18,000 gray whales migrate from Mexico to Alaska past the Point Cabrillo Light Station headland.
- Public restrooms are located inside the Kearn Farmhouse next to the shady picnic area at the upper parking lot.
- Pets must be kept on a six foot leash at all times. The first floor of the lighthouse is dog-friendly.
- A hiking trail, part of the California Coastal Trail, was established in 2011 and connects the light station to Caspar Headlands State Beach one mile to the north, passing Frolic Cove along the way.