Cabrillo National Monument

West of downtown San Diego, on the tip of a narrow peninsula jutting out into the Pacific, lies another amazing national park that most people have probably never heard of: Cabrillo National Monument. We discovered it as we were looking for a way to spend a day in San Diego, and after visiting the famous zoo we were in search of something a little more budget-friendly. We saw Cabrillo on the map and decided to check it out and see what it was. Once again, we felt as though we had stumbled across a hidden treasure. This is another one for the list of amazing places to visit that you probably didn’t know existed.

San Diego bay
Views over downtown San Diego


Cabrillo National Monument is named for Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who led the first European expedition to explore the West Coast of North America. He found what is now called the San Diego bay and claimed the land for Spain before continuing north and exploring more of the coast. It was a difficult expedition and Cabrillo died after injuring himself in a fall. The expedition was widely considered a failure at the time, but with hindsight we know that the information they gathered was pivotal in the colonization of what is now California.

We claim this land for Spain!
(This picture was also featured in an article about roadschooling families in the National Park magazine!)

It might not be a super impressive story, but the rangers and volunteers tell it very well. There was much to learn about sea travel in the 1500s and what kind of equipment the sailors used. A man in period clothing taught us about the uniforms they wore, their armor and shoes and weapons. He was knowledgeable and in character and the kids were enthralled.

Notice that his shoes were basically made of rope. This was what surprised us most!

There is also a lighthouse on Point Loma from the 1850s that is worth exploring. The home on the lower level of the Cape Cod style house is restored to show how the lighthouse keepers used to live. There is also a museum explaining the lighthouse technology of the time.

As always the park rangers were knowledgeable and helpful, and the junior ranger activity books helped guide our learning and engaged the kids in exploring the area.

Tide Pools

The most memorable part of the day was exploring the tide pools. Visiting the tide pools at low tide is very popular and the parking is very limited, causing something of a traffic nightmare on the roads nearby. We chose to split up, and I took Emelie and Peter to explore while Staffan took Micah and searched for other parking options. He found a spot within a reasonable walking distance and joined us later.

Back at the visitor center, we had watched a video about the tide pools. We learned what was safe to touch, both for us and the animals. There were laminated cards available at the tide pool area to help identify what we were seeing, as well as volunteers on patrol both to help find and identify interesting creatures, and to protect those creatures by enforcing the rules. I was impressed by how seriously our kids responded to the instructions. As we climbed down the rocks toward the tide pools, suddenly Emelie stopped and shouted “This area is teeming with life! There is literally no where that I can put my feet that won’t damage the ecosystem!” Someone was paying attention to the video!

tide pools
Using the photo card to identify sea life in the tide pool

tide pools


tide pool

Exploring tide pools was an amazing adventure for all of us. When the area closed at sunset, we were glad to have a nice walk along a beautiful trail as the sun set over the Pacific, far from the crowds and the traffic. It was a fitting way to end a lovely day.

We would highly recommend Cabrillo National Monument to anyone visiting the San Diego area as a welcome respite from the expense and crowds of the area tourist attractions.


Read about other unexpected places we had never heard of but ended up loving:
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Red Fleet State Park



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