The Old Lighthouse is located high on the tip of Point Loma. The "new" and actually useful Lighthouse is also located on the tip of Point Loma, but much lower down the tip. It turned out that the heavy night and morning costal clouds obscured the light at the top of the Point and it was useless to any ships sailing near.
The Old Lighthouse has been preserved and is shared as part of the history of San Diego. This and a couple of other building can be toured and at times there are docents or Park Rangers who will answer questions during at tour or demonstration.
The lower western coast of the Point is an intertidal zone - which means that at negative tide, lots of sea critters are marooned in little pools between the rocks. The park has a designated area, accessible by road from near the upper parking lot, for exploring these watery ecosystems, and ranger walks/talks are often available during daytime low tides.
A couple of things to be aware of if you’re an avid tidepooler:
• Lowest daytime tides occur during the winter during full/new moons. During the summer and shoulder seasons, tides are either not low enough to make critter-trapping pools and/or occur during hours when the park is closed so this is probably an activity to skip if your visit is during these months.
• You have around 2 hours on either side of the lowest tidal points to do your scrambling so reference a chart before you go:
To read the chart, look for the lowest dips in the graph for the date of your visit and note the time below it.
• Look but please don’t handle the little creatures. They are very fragile and easily harmed.
• There is no hiking path from the upper to lower part of the Point, and they don’t recommend walking the road as there’s no shoulder.
• The rocks around the pools are very, very slippery so appropriate footwear is a must, and do plan on getting wet! You may want to pack a change of dry clothing for curious and enthusiastic youngsters.
• Don’t tidepool on a day when rough seas produce high/violent wave activity
We were, unfortunately, not there it the best season or at the right time but having tidepooled on the Washington coast, I will absolutely recommend this activity: big fun!
For more information, see this NPS site, as well as topics related to the pools in the menu on the left side of the page
Cabrillo is very small compared to some other national parks/monuments so hikers will find their options rather limited. There is one longer trail - the 2-mile RT Bayside - that descends the slope on the eastern side of the park but is not a loop so you just turn around at the end and return the way you came. Otherwise, easy paths circle around to the lighthouse, visitor center and various overlooks on top of the Point. The overlooks provide excellent panoramas of the distant skyline of San Diego, military base on Coronado Island, new Point Loma Lighthouse (lower tip of the point; inaccessible to visitors) and the Pacific. Watching the marine traffic is especially fun as the naval and Coast Guard bases are very busy; you may see aircraft carriers, submarines, destroyers or other large craft moving in and out of San Diego Bay.
It’s said that on a crystal-clear day you can see all the way to Mexico and Los Angeles from some of the overlooks but it was a little misty when we were there so no go. Obviously, the Point can also be shrouded in heavy fog so plan your visit on a sunny day for optimal views and photos.
See the path/trail map here:
One of the things I love about our National Parks are the interesting tours and talks given by NPS rangers. Check the schedule in the Visitor Center when you first arrive for what’s going on at Cabrillo on your visiting day. Kids along? Sign them up for the Junior Ranger Program and make earning the badge an engaging, educational adventure for the whole family. Whether walking tours, guided hikes, re-enactments or talks about the flora, fauna or history of the Point, they’re covered under your $5 (per vehicle) admission fee: sweet!
Info on the Jr. Ranger program:
If you’re lucky enough to be in the area during the winter, the lofty Pacific-side overlooks are terrific places for watching the annual migration of Gray Whales. From mid -December through mid-February it’s possible to catch a glimpse of these great creatures as they head south to mating and calving waters in the Baja. There’s a designated, covered observation platform and some informational displays here and there about where and what to look for (bring binoculars) but you can watch for them anywhere along the western side of the point.
The park information states that only the southern migration is visible; they’re too far out at sea to be seen when they head north again for the summer.
A short walk from the Visitor Center you’ll find a statue of the park’s namesake overlooking the bay he’s reputed to have discovered. The view is fabulous and the sculpture is very nice but how it GOT here involved a journey almost as arduous the one it memorializes.
Way back in the 30’s, the nice people of Portugal - claiming Cabrillo was one of their homies, although the jury is out there - commissioned the piece as a gift for the state and bundled it off to San Francisco to be exhibited at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. It appears that U.S. customs was as big a hairball then as it is now ‘cause the thing ended up stuck in one of their warehouses and a copy had to be scrambled together for the fair.
The Governor of California finally bailed it out and sent it to somebody's house until he could figure out what to do with it. After noodling on it a bit, he decided it should go to Oakland as the city had a large population of Portuguese pedigree. Well, that put a real bee in the bonnet of San Diegans and the scrap that ensued went all the way to the state senate, who voted in favor of Juan’s chiseled boots being planted at his aforenamed San Miguel. But an ornery Oakland assemblyman man threw a wrench in that machinery and so a Senator Fletcher, who sponsored the bill, took a record of the vote to the lady who’d been storing the statue in her garage and convinced her that he had the OK to remove it. He and his accomplices scamper off with Juan, load him onto a train and send him off to San Diego where he’s stuffed into another warehouse…
….and all hell breaks loose.The folks in Oakland, the assemblyman and the Governor pitch collective hissy fits and throw more bills at an exasperated legislature to get the “kidnapped” conquistador back. No go: Juan is temporarily settled at the Naval Training Center in 1940, trundled out to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse in 1949, and finally moved to his present perch in 1965.
But here’s the kicker: what you see on the pedestal today is an impostor. Yep, the first Juan went AWOL again in 1987 when his limestone gaze started to wither under the elements. He was replaced by this Juan, yet again of limestone carved by yet another Portuguese artist, and the real Juan is back in storage - probably in another warehouse.
You could say Juan thing led to another?
Point Loma’s military history stretches back to 1852 but its strategic location at the entrance to the harbor - high above the Pacific ocean - made it a particularly valuable piece of real estate during the dark days after Pearl Harbor. Gun batteries, bunkers and other defensive structures were built on the point during both WWI and WWII and you’ll run across the vestiges of some of these relics as you explore the park. A nice exhibit housed in the old radio station explains what some of them are, how they were used, and a bit about since-decommisioned Fort Rosecrans’ role in the Second World War.
History buffs interested in the Monument’s military architecture may find this chapter from the park’s online book, “Shadows of the Past at Cabrillo National Monument” worth a read:
Next door to the old lighthouse is a reconstruction of the quarters for the Keeper’s assistant, which contains the original 3rd order Fresnel lens from the New Point Loma Lighthouse (replaced in 2002) as well as a 4th order from the Ballast Point tower. Exhibits around the room explain how the old oil-fueled lights used to work and what life on the Point was like in the 1800’s. Out back is a garden planted with the sorts of produce that would have supplied the keeper’s table; it was a loooong haul to town in those days.
The cottage is handicapped accessible, and there are restrooms around the back as well.
What started as a small army burial plot for the San Diego Barracks, once located near today’s Seaport Village, Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery flows gently over nearly 80 well-tended acres near the monument’s entrance. The first official interment was 1879 but casualties of the 1846 Battle of San Pasqual, four years before California became a state, were moved here in the 1880’s so it’s the honored resting place of servicemembers dating from the Mexican War to present day. The cemetery was formally dedicated and named after Civil War Union General William Starke Rosecrans in 1934, and is nearly full; management of the property will transfer from the Veteran’s Administration to the NPS at the point of maximum capacity.
The over 90,000 buried here include astronaut Walter Schirra; screenwriters Laurence Stallings and Alan LeMay; actors Richard Garrick, Mack Williams, Coy Watson and Dick Wessel; and Major General Joseph H. Pendleton. Background on these and other notables may be found here:
The cemetery is free for respectful exploration and provides beautiful views of San Diego Bay, Coronado Island and the city skyline. See the website for hours and other information:
Three hundred years after Cabrillo landed in San Diego Bay, ship traffic along the U.S. western coast had increased to the point that congress approved the funding of eight Pacific lighthouses to guide them to safe harbors. Point Loma’s was built in 1854, stood the highest of any in the country, and its oil-fueled, third-order Fresnel lens was first illuminated on 11/15/1855. In those days, the peninsula was a rugged, isolated place with no source of fresh water - rainwater was funneled into cisterns or hauled in by wagon - and life for a keeper’s family could be a lonely one. Still, one of them, Capt. Robert Israel, his wife and three sons, managed to stick it out for nearly 20 years before throwing in the towel.
That towel was thrown in on the lighthouse itself in 1891. What seemed like a perfect spot for a beacon turned out to be so lofty that it was often shrouded by low clouds and fog so a new one was built on the lower southern tip of the headland, the old tower was closed and gradually went to seed. It was almost torn down by the military (who owned the property) and again by the NPS when its .5 acre lot was set aside as a National Monument by President Wilson in 1913. It was to be the site of a 150-foot likeness of the navigator but WW1 came along and the plan was abandoned. After the war, the dilapidated building was occupied by a widow who ran it as a teashop for tourists before reclamation/restoration by the park service in the 1930's. It was painted camouflage green during WWII and pressed into service as a naval signal tower, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, and final reconstruction work in the 80’s returned the structure to its mid 19th-century appearance.
The living quarters are furnished as they would have been when then the Israels and other families called the lighthouse home. Visiting involves a walk up a hill from the Visitor Center, climbing entry steps and a steep, circular stairwell but the park will issue disabled guests a permit to drive up to the site to see the exterior plus exhibits at the Assistant Keeper’s Cottage.
Footnote: Capt. Israel is buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, just north of the park (section 75, plot 74), and he's rumored to haunt the lighthouse now and again.
Visitor Centers are the hearts of almost every U.S. National Park, and the best places to go for getting acclimated, the scoop on most current information, clean restrooms, and signing up for daily events. Cabrillo’s is especially sweet with big windows for taking in the view, a theater running short flicks about the history, flora and fauna of the park, a bookshop, convenient (free!) parking, educational exhibits and a ranger’s desk for questions about where to go and what to do.
What the park doesn’t have is overnight accommodations or a lunchroom. A couple of vending machines will fill empty tummies in a pinch but bring a picnic if you want to hang out for more than a few hours. What with that killer panorama from high above the bay, you couldn’t ask for a better place to chow down a bag lunch.
Bonus? All the fun stuff to do here can be had for the ridiculous bargain price of $5 per vehicle, and the pass is good for a week - so you can come back if a thundershower chases you off to less soggy pursuits.
For entrance fees and hours:
Another popular thing to do at the park is to drive down the access road to the tide pools and the beaches. This is a decent place to surf, explore the animal life in the tide pools, or just dip your feet in the Pacific Ocean. Beware of the nearby cliffs, however, as they can be dangerous.
Over 25,000 Gray Whales migrate past this point, on their annual 12,000 mile migration. An adult gray whale weighs between 20 and 45 tons and can be up to 50 feet long. When the whale surfaces to breathe, it exhales a plume of air and water 15 feet high. The best times to view them migrating past this point is January and February. There is a nice viewing area, complete with displays about the whales and the ecology of the oceans, in the park.
This bunker was one of the ones constructed on Point Loma, and many other locations along the nation's coastline, as part of the coastal defense system. This bunker was a Coastal Artillery Control Station from 1943 to 1946.
Point Loma was also an ideal location for a number of military applications. There is a small museum with some nice displays in the building constructed on Loma Point in 1918 as a U.S. Army radio station. During World War 2 the building was used as a weather station in support of artillery used for coastal defense.