We saved the best for last! While we loved everything we did in San Diego, our last stop was definitely the favorite for at least part of the tribe! We spent a day at Cabrillo National Monument (pronounced cub RIO)… one day was NOT enough; so don’t wait until right before you leave the area to visit Cabrillo, like we did!
Cabrillo National Monument is the southwestern-most mainland US National Park, and it is a little bit of everything wrapped up in one beautiful peninsula! Located on the coast of southwest San Diego, California, the park is an engaging experience in coastal nature and local history. The potential for everyone finding something they like about this park is higher than average, even if there are 10 of you! 😉
Cabrillo has a great historical and military story, offers a super Jr. Ranger program, and is educational (we learned tons about lighthouses here, which are pretty new to us!). There are gorgeous views, fabulous whale watching opportunities, scenic hiking paths, and you can even tide pool on Cabrillo’s beaches!
Admission into the park is $5 a carload, unless you have an America the Beautiful Pass (then it’s free), but is good for 7 days, so you can return if that first day isn’t quite long enough to enjoy Cabrillo’s beauty!
There are so many things to do at Cabrillo! There are several different short films to watch: one that teaches you about Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who was the first European to step foot on the east coast (1542), one about whale migration, and another about the tide pools at Cabrillo. We watched the whale footage because it was the one playing when we were ready to watch the film; it was fine, but we wished we would have explored and just come back for the one about Juan Cabrillo, so the littler kids would have had a better overview of the park and why it’s here.
Outside of the theater, there are 2 penny presses, so my souvenir collectors were tickled – there are not that many parks with penny squishers, so that was a bonus! Caleb was pretty tickled with his ship embossed penny, and was quite adamant it was a pirate ship!
Next stop was the visitor’s center, which has a great gift shop – there were items both for adults, and for kids, including an extensive collection of Jr. Ranger paraphernalia, which is not always easy to find.
Also in the visitor’s center was this small area with armor that you could try on!
The kids spent quite a bit of time here trying on different combinations of armor…
Even the little ones…
Tho Caleb wasn’t really into it since they were really heavy – just like the real thing!
And yes, of course we picked up Jr. Ranger booklets!!! Only here they are more of a newspaper than a workbook; the kids had to do the same number of activities as their grade in school (except Kindergarten and down, they just had a back page to do in theirs). There is quite a skill gap between the two levels, so I let Savanna do the pages for the younger group.
There is a small, but nicely done museum next to the visitor’s center, which is where the kids found many of their Jr. Ranger answers. We worked on getting the bulk of their JR program done first so we would be free to explore afterwards!
One of the displays in the museum room is a cutaway of a ship in Cabrillo’s time. On the exhibit, you can find out where each part of the ship is by pressing a labeled button below, and a light illuminates in the corresponding part of the ship above.
After we had watched the movie, visited the visitor’s center, and toured the concise museum, we headed across the parking lot to the point. Located on the peninsula, is a 19th century lighthouse. The lighthouse is a smaller one, but it was an interesting tour since it was our first!
The lower 2 stories of the building are living quarters for the light keeper…
The little girls loved the spiral staircase that led up to the final assent to the light…
And while you cannot go onto the top story, where the light is located, you can climb up the 3rd ascent – a ladder leading up to the light, and peer through the plexi-glass covering at the top of the ladder…
In a small building next to the lighthouse is a small lighthouse educational center. It had educational displays covering lighthouses from the very first one in ancient Egypt, to current day.
The kids completed a section of their Jr. Ranger programs in each the lighthouse, and the lighthouse center.
And right next to the lighthouse center, is a fabulous place to watch whales from!
Because this section of the ocean is part of the annual Pacific Grey Whale migration, during the winter months it is an excellent location to spot whales from! Bring your binos (or check them out from the visitor’s center where they will hold your driver’s license) then watch the whales surface and blow.
The park has 2 decks just for whale watching!
Cabrillo National Monument’s 160 acres are home to extensive walking paths which take you along the coast and offer great views all directions.
One of the biggest draws, for families visiting Cabrillo, is the park’s extensive tide pool area! If there is one thing that we LOVE, it is tide pooling!!! And Cabrillo is all about helping you to have a great tide pooling experience! They even have trained docents to help you know how have great tide pool etiquette, AND they have a page on their website that has pictures, correct names for, and descriptions of, the sea life you are likely to encounter during your tide pooling excursion (I love this, I wish every park did this…). If you visit, be sure to check out their Tide Pool Animal guide, and they even have a Common Native Plants of Cabrillo NM guide! On the west side of the peninsula are parking areas just for accessing either the walking paths or the tide pools that are found along the intertidal zone (of course you are free to walk down from above also).
*you can learn more about intertidal zones, including tips for tide pooling with kids, on our Family Guide to Tide Pooling post.
Unfortunate for us, we had waited until the end of our visit to San Diego, to check out Cabrillo, and we were only able to spend one day there! Had we been staying in the area longer, we definitely would have spent at least one more, if not two more, days at the park (your paid admission is good for 7 days, so keep your receipt!).
We had a hard time leaving Cabrillo! Between the fact that we didn’t have time to explore everything like we wanted to, and the gorgeous scenery and sunset, we ended up turning our Jr. Ranger pages in at the last possible minute (as in, the staff deserves kudos for being so nice to us since it was after 5 by the time we were badges in hand and out the door!).
Cabrillo draws us back to San Diego because we didn’t get to explore it like we found out we wanted to once we arrived! So, learn from our first visit (hopefully next time we will be better prepared!), and plan to spend at least one ENTIRE day there. If you like to explore outdoors, a few hours are not going to satisfy your desire to check this extensive park out.
Here are our recs for a day at Cabrillo:
*Stop in at the visitor’s center first thing! If your kids are going to do the Jr. Ranger program, get the pages, and look them over.
*Check out the schedule for the films if those interest you, the schedule is located on the first building that you come to on your way to the visitor’s center.
*Don’t forget your quarters and shiny pennies if you collect pressed pennies like we do! We were surprised to see the pressing machines there, so were glad we carry extra quarters and pennies in my wallet just for times like these!
*If you want to go whale watching, either bring your own binos, or check some out from the visitor’s center while you are there. The front deck of the visitor’s center offers great views of San Diego, including several Navy ships in the harbor.
*Check out the park brochure (given at the entrance gate, or you can get another at the visitor’s center) and prioritize your visit. If you do not have a tide table, ask one of the rangers when low tide is for that day (it changes daily) – the best time to tide pool is the time from one hour before, to one hour after, low tide. If you have not tide pooled before, this is a must!
*For tide pooling, wear close toed sandals. You will be walking over rocks, some of which are slippery, and may brush up against mussels, which can be very sharp. It is possible to tide pool in flip flops, but it’s not recommended. 😉
*Wear comfortable shoes for walking the paths, and exploring the high ground (including a WWII exhibit and bunker!). Take your own water bottles as the grounds are extensive and you won’t want to walk back to the v.c. often (tho there are soda machines and water fountains there).
*Bring a lunch! While you admission gives you in and out privileges with your receipt, the nearest restaurant is quite a ways out of the park. Once you get there, you won’t want to leave.
*Plan for the weather – sunscreen and jacket (it’s generally a few degrees cooler on the coast than inland) for sure.
*Your camera… because you will want to take this home with you…
So, have we convinced you yet that you need to visit Cabrillo?
We’ve convinced ourselves that we need to go back! lol.
You can learn more about Cabrillo National Monument, including information on hours and exact location, on their webpage at nps.gov/cabr.