San Diego: Cabrillo National Monument

I love when a great family day costs only $20. Compared to a trip to Legoland which can easily cost a family of four upwards of $400, a day at Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, CA is a breath of fresh air. Literally, since you’ll be exploring a narrow peninsula that straddles the San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Often overshadowed by the flashier San Diego attractions, Cabrillo National Monument is the perfect way to spend a low-key day in San Diego. This small National Park has sweeping views of San Diego, tide pools for exploring and kid friendly hikes. Only fifteen minutes from the airpot it’s a great option if you have a few hours before your flight home. But make sure to keep an eye on the time, it’s easy to lose track of time when you’re in such a beautiful place!

wildflowers in front of a small white lighthouse in Point Loma, CA
The lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument

Things to Do at Cabrillo National Monument

Hikes: There are two trails in Cabrillo National Monument. The Tide Pool trail connects two parking lots near the tide pools. An easy, mostly flat one mile trail on the edge of a bluff top, you’ll be walking along next to the sparkling Pacific Ocean. If you’re lucky you might even spot a pod of dolphins in the surf below or a whale in the distance. The Bayside trail is 2.5 mile walk that goes along the San Diego Bay near the light house. This trail has a little more elevation change but big views of the San Diego Bay.

Note: If you’re trying primary objective is hiking and you’re trying to decide between Torrey Pines State Reserve or Cabrillo National Monument, I would recommend Torrey Pines. The trails at Cabrillo have fantastic views, but the trails at Torrey Pines have great views too while also having more interesting plants and rock formations. The benefit of hiking at Cabrillo is that there is also the other attractions in the park to check out.

Tidepools: Best visited at a negative low tide, the Cabrillo National Monument tide pools are home to a variety of sea creatures. You’re most likely to find crabs and sea anenenomes but if you’re lucky you might spot a sea star. Remember that these are living creatures and you’re in a national park so tread lightly.

Tips for the tide pools

  • Bring sandals or a change of shoes. The rocks are really slippery and it’s likely that you’ll end up with wet feet!
  • There isn’t any running water or water for sale in the tide pool area. Bring a water bottle.
  • There’s usually a table set up by the bathrooms (vault toilets) with information about the tide pools. Take a laminated guide with you to identify the sea creatures that you encounter.
  • Swimming isn’t allowed but little ones will like splashing in the pools formed by the rocks.

The Lighthouse: This quaint lighthouse is open to visitors. It only takes a few minutes to wander through it but kids will enjoy climbing the old wooden staircase. If you feel like learning more about lighthouses there is the “Lighthouses of Point Loma” exhibit in the building next to the lighthouse.

The Museum: A little musty and dark but full of information, pop in here to learn more about maritime exploration, local history, and Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo. Adjacent to the visitor center this is a good option for a shade break on a hot day.

Become a Junior Ranger: If you have children, start your adventure at the Visitor Center. Check in with a ranger or park volunteer and they will get your kiddos started on being Junior Rangers. Basically, they give your child a paper with questions about the park. As you explore the park you’ll be able to help your child fill in the answers to the questions. At the end you’re child can turn in the completed paper and get a badge. This was the highlight of my kids visit to the park!

sandy trail along the ocean. Cabrillo National Monument has kid friendly hiking trails in San Diego
The trails in Cabrillo National Monument are one of the most kid friendly hiking options in San Diego
little boy standing on rocks in the tide pools in Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma, CA
You can’t swim in any of the beaches in the park but you can dip your feet in the tide pools
Big views of the San Diego Harbor from Cabrillo National Monument
little boys sitting on a bench at Cabrillo National Monument with the San Diego skyline in the background
Super stoked Junior Rangers

Tips For Planning Your Trip

  • Check the tides. If you can plan to visit Cabrillo National Monument during a minus tide you’ll be able to see more of the tide pools. Either way, when you get to the kiosk at the entrance of the park they have a board with information about the tides for the day.
  • It costs $20 to enter the park but your pass is good for 7 days.
  • There isn’t a restaurant in the park so plan on bringing snacks or a picnic with you
  • Cell phones don’t work down in the area by the tide pools and it’s a big hill to walk up to get to an area with coverage. If someone is dropping you off, make sure you tell them when to pick you up!
  • Cabrillo National Monument is extra beautiful in the spring when the wildflowers are blooming
The wildflowers in the spring only add to the beauty of Cabrillo National Monument

What to Bring

  • Hats. There isn’t a lot of shade
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Water bottle
  • Spare shoes/clothes for tide pool mishaps
  • snacks/ picnic
  • binoculars for whale watching

The Bottom Line: If you want a laid-back, affordable family adventure in San Diego, head to Cabrillo National Monument. Looking for even more San Diego vacation inspiration? Check out my article on things to do in San Diego.

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