This 160-acre preserve marks the site of the first European visit to San Diego, made by 16th-century explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo when he landed at this spot on September 15, 1542. Today the site, with its rugged cliffs and shores and outstanding overlooks, is one of the most frequently visited of all the national monuments.
The visitor center presents films and lectures about Cabrillo's voyage, the sea-level tide pools, and migrating gray whales. Interpretive stations have been installed along the walkways that edge the cliffs. The moderately steep Bayside Trail, 2½ miles round-trip, winds through coastal sage scrub, curving under the cliff-top lookouts and taking you ever closer to the bay-front scenery. You cannot reach the beach from this trail; you must stick to the path to protect the cliffs from erosion and yourself from thorny plants and snakes—including rattlers. The climb back is long but gradual, leading up to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse.
The restored lighthouse dates to 1855 and is open to visitors. An exhibit in the Assistant Keepers Quarters next door tells the story of the Old Lighthouse and the daily lives of its keepers.
The western and southern cliffs of Cabrillo National Monument are prime whale-watching territory. A sheltered viewing station has wayside exhibits describing the great gray whales' yearly migration from Baja California to Alaska. High-powered telescopes help you focus on the whales' waterspouts. Whales are visible on clear days from late December through early March, with the highest concentration in January and February. More-accessible sea creatures (starfish, crabs, anemones) can be seen in the tide pools at the foot of the monument's western cliffs. Tide pooling is best when the tide is at its lowest, so call ahead or check tide charts online before your visit. Exercise caution on the slippery rocks. Drive north from the visitor center to Cabrillo Road, which winds down to the Coast Guard station and the shore.