Operating Hours & Seasons
The park is open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. most of the time.
During the weekends, which include Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the park stays open late until sunset in the summer months (usually late May until the beginning of September).
The Tidepool Area closes at 4:30 p.m. or 30 minutes before the extended hours during the summer. Same for the Bayside Trail, which closes at 4 p.m. or one hour before the extended business hours. Check the parks website for more details and the dates from which the park is open late.
It looks like that the gift shop closes around 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. even during the extended business hours. I have been there a few times and that’s when they closed up shop. It varied a little bit, but there were still many people in the park.
You are also asked to be out of the gate by 5 p.m. or sunset hour (see posted signs) as the road to the park cuts through the naval base.
Passes & Fees
There is a $20 entrance fee per vehicle. For motorcycles, it’s a $15 fee. Hikers and bicyclists pay $10 per person but groups of up to four people are capped at a $20 maximum charge. Better make some friends before you head into the park. 😉
It’s best to use an annual pass. There is a Cabrillo National Monument Annual Pass available for $35 or you can use your America the Beautiful aka National Park Annual Pass. The National Park Annual Pass is the way to go, even if you only visit once here but will visit a few other National Parks or Monuments within the 365 day period of your pass.
The Cabrillo National Monument is located at the end of Point Loma. From Downtown San Diego it’s about a 30-minute drive to get to the park.
Limited bus service is available to the park. Bus Route 84 runs to the National Monument and makes two stops inside the park. One near the Visitor Center and another one at Cabrillo Memorial Drive & Cabrillo Road. From here you can hike down to the Tidepools as there is no bus stop in that area.
You can use your favorite rideshare app like Uber or Lyft to get to Cabrillo National Monument. Be aware that there is no cell service at the tidepools. If you use a rideshare to get there, you have to set up a pickup time otherwise you have to hike up a steep hill to the visitor center (about 1 mile) Cell Coverage is no issue near the visitor center and lighthouse. The Visitor Center also has free Wi-Fi.
Your favorite navigation app can get you there without issues. If you travel southbound on I-5 you can also follow the signs to the National Monument.
As you keep driving on Cabrillo Blvd, you will pass a “checkpoint” with gates. This is the entrance to the Naval Base and you don’t need to stop there if not instructed otherwise by an officer on duty. The gates are open during business hours of the park. After the checkpoint, Cabrillo Blvd will become Cabrillo Memorial Drive.
Before you can enter the National Monument you have to pay the park entrance fee. The park is usually pretty busy during the weekend and a Park Ranger is directing traffic. I highly recommend you getting an annual pass. With it, you can use the right lane and bypass the pay station if directed so by the Park Ranger. There are two annual passes available here. The Cabrillo National Monument Annual Pass and the America the Beautiful Annual Pass aka the National Park Annual Pass.
Kelp Forest and Whale Overlook Trail
Access this trail from the lighthouse. It will take you to a great observation point facing west and out towards the ocean. It’s a great spot to watch whales traverse this corridor.
Gray whales are one of the most commonly seen whales along the coast of San Diego and California. They migrate south to give birth and then back up north to the arctic and their feeding grounds.
The best time to watch Gray Whales in San Diego is from Mid-December (migrating south) and again from February to April (migrating north). They travel close to the coast and are closest when traveling south. San Diego is therefore a prime spotting ground for these ocean mammals. The overlook near the Old Point Loma Lighthouse is definitely a prime watching spot.
These mammals feed of the California coast from mid-June through October when krill is abundant. During that time you can find thousands of them off the coast. They are feeding away from shore which makes them harder to be spotted from land and it’s better to take a whale-watching cruise to get up close.
New Point Loma Lighthouse
From the overlook, you get a great view of the New Point Loma Lighthouse which is operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. Another and closer look can be obtained from the Tidepool Parking lot and walking toward the lighthouse. It is all fenced in and the anchor lines of a radio tower are in the way of a clear picture. Unfortunately, this place is not open to the public. It is the only pyramidal skeletal lighthouse remaining on the West Coast.
This trail gives you access to the tidepools or just a great walk along the coast. From here you can also spot whales migrating. See the Kelp Forest and Whale Overlook below for more information.
It is a relatively easy trail but it requires you to overcome some smaller elevation changes and a few sets of stairs. But you will be rewarded with great views of the coastline.
There is parking right at the bottom of the hill but this parking lot is often overfilled. Just follow the road and there are two more parking lots from which you can access the trail on its opposite end. The farthest parking lot is closed right now because of construction.
The main parking lot at the bottom of the hill has some information signs about the tidepools and a ranger often hangs out here to answer questions. You can meet them also thinking along the trail as they make sure people are safe and nobody is violating the rules by picking flowers or mussels and other things. Federal law prohibits removing of plants, animals, rocks, or other natural or historic features. Take nothing, but pictures!
About halfway through the trail, you get to an intersection. A small trail will lead back to the road and the other one goes down the cliff and closer to the tidepools. You can take this trail at every tide level but you get more access during low tide.
The best time to access the tidepools is from November until the end of May when the tides are lowest during the opening hours of the park. Check the tide chart to get a better idea.
This trail is about 2 miles long (roundtrip). It is also moderately steep. While the beginning of the trail, near the lighthouse, is a paved road, this trail turns into a gravel trail just a little bit down the hill. It is an easy stroll all the way down to another viewpoint of the San Diego Bay and North Coronado Island. You pass through native coastal sage scrub and see some of the remnants of the coaster defense system which included a gigantic searchlight and its generator house. There are information signs along the way about these installations and nature.
Unfortunately, at the trail end, there is only one bench but there are a few others along the way. It’s a huge area and a few more benches would be great to get some energy for the hike back up. It looks like the trail used to go a little bit further but it is now roped off. Please respect the sign and don’t trespass. There are no bathrooms or drinking water along the trail. Neither will you find beach access from here. Stay on the trail at all times.
It’s a great spot to watch all the different ships and watercraft going in and out of San Diego Bay. Fishing vessels, a Dole Container ship and Navy ships are frequently traversing this passageway.
Old Point Loma Lighthouse
The lighthouse was first lit on November 15, 1855, by lighthouse keeper James P. Keating. He lit an oil lamp that powered a Third Order Fresnel lens, the best technology available to that day. The light of the lighthouse was visible from 26 to 28 miles out at sea. Guarding the entrance to the San Diego Bay. In the coming 36 years, eleven keepers and 22 assistant keepers tender the light. Sailors were welcomed by the light on top of the crest, standing 422 feet above sea level. A serious flaw ended the life of the lighthouse on top of the crest on March 23, 1891. Fog and low clouds often obscured the light. One day during my visit I experienced the same low clouds and the lighthouse was barely visible from the visitor center.
The last keeper, Robert Israel, and his family moved to a new light station at the bottom of the hill. This light station is still there today but not open to the public.
Today you can visit the Old Point Loma Lighthouse and the assistant keepers quarters. Exhibits show you what it meant to be a lighthouse keeper. Take a peek inside the lighthouse itself and climb up the stairs to see the different rooms and how the people lived here.
Unfortunately, the very top of the lighthouse is closed to the public and you cant step outside on the walkway around the lighthouse. However, you can get some amazing photos of the fresnel lens in the tower.
The stamp for your U.S. Lighthouse Society Passport is available at the visitor center. There is a table outside the main entrance and a ranger is usually around to watch over the precious stamps as well as to answer any questions. If there is no park ranger present, you can call the number on the desk and they will swing by to bring out the box with the stamps which also includes the stamps for the National Park Passport.
Visitor Center & Cabrillo Statue
The visitor center and Cabrillo statue are super easy to reach from the parking lot. Both of them are ADA compliant and wheelchair accessible. While you still can get up to the lighthouse and to the short overlook trail. The rest of the trails is no fun in wheelchairs.
During my visit, the auditorium was still closed. It usually plays a movie about the history of this location every full hour which lasts about 25 minutes. Next to the auditorium, also on the left side is an exhibit about the arrival of Cabrillo in this area. Straight ahead is the main visitor center, which is more of a gift shop. The staff inside didn’t look like park rangers but you usually can find them right outside the visitor center before you enter through the main entrance. There is a table with the National Park Passport stamps as well the stamps for the U.S. Lighthouse Society Passport. As mentioned earlier, if nobody is there just call the number, which I did. A ranger was there in mere minutes. During the weekends the rangers set up an extra outside and across from the auditorium. Behind the building you passed on your left, are the restrooms.
Around the main visitor building/gift shop you have a wonderful observation area from where you get a great look at the San Diego Bay and North Coronado Island Navy Base. This is a great spot to watch ships going in and out as well many aircraft landing and taking off from the Navy Base.
Just a short walk away from the visitor center is the Cabrillo statue. Another great spot for amazing views of the entrance to the San Diego Bay, Coronado Island and you get a good view of the lighthouse here as well. The statue and views from here are another good selfie spot.
Military History Exhibit
This is a little hidden exhibit near the Ocean View Parking Lot. It is the first parking lot on your right in front of a hill. This is the closest parking lot but the walk from the main parking lot near the visitor center is not bad as well. This exhibit shows how Point Loma was used during World War I and II to secure San Diego and the bay. Heavy artillery gun batteries were places all over Point Loma and bunkers for the soldiers working here. If you walk up the stairs next to the Military History Exhibit you can see the gun placements and an entrance to a bunker. You can walk down the steps but the door is locked.
Inside the exhibit building, you can watch a movie about how one of these monstrous guns got loaded. next to the screen is a full-size shell that was used at these guns. Get a look at how ships and submarines were tracked back then with visual aids.
Peter has a passion for Traveling, Photography, and Geocaching. These are the best ingredients for amazing adventures all over the globe. “Traveling is fun, no matter if you stay in a luxury hotel or travel like a backpacker.” Peter shares his experiences on his Blog www.gatetoadventures.com
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