Gorgeous coastline? Check. Cool tide pools? Check. Kid-friendly hiking paths? Check. When we’re surrounded by such amazing scenery on the daily, it’s easy to forget that not everyone is this lucky enough to live in such an idyllic city. Take advantage of our region’s picturesque setting at Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego’s only national park. Here’s our guide to making the most out of your visit.

Take a Hike

Perhaps the best part of Cabrillo with young kids in tow is the hiking path situated on the bluffs above the rhythmically crashing ocean waves. This is an easy, out-and-back hike making it a great entry-level hike for your kiddos. While you breathe in the fresh, salty ocean air, watch the migratory birds fly over your path and become lulled into a nice (and possibly rare) state of peacefulness by the rhythmic waves crashing as the kiddies enjoy a fun walk along the cliffs jumping over sandy mounds, bouldering up small hills, and clambering up steps and paths.

Cabrillo - kids playingIn the areas more buffered from the edge, your little explorers can play king of the hill, watch little lizards skittering about and check out the Dudleya plants–those Dr. Seuss looking plants which were in fact an inspiration for Dr. Seuss’ writing. You too may just possibly hear your kids utter how this is the best day ever as they soak in the beauty of it all and enjoy the outdoors. Or your baby in your carrier, who seemingly hasn’t slept in days, might just finally fall asleep from the ocean’s white noise.

Cabrillo - coastal trail

A word of caution: This is a coastal hike. Above the ocean. On cliffs. If your little one is more of a wild one, you will want to keep him close while near said edges. Generally, you have plenty of berth to steer clear of any rocky ledges, but we all know how fast junior can run when he’s on a mission. Do be aware and keep your kids close.

Cabrillo - cliff hike

To get to this coastal hike, upon entering Cabrillo and paying the vehicle entrance fee, head down the hill to your right and park in the first parking lot at the bottom of the hill on your left.

Parking for the hike can be tricky during peak hours, summer weekends especially. Be patient and a space will usually open. Or if you are willing to do the hike in reverse, skip that first parking lot at the bottom of the hill and head to the second one and start your hike at the turn-around point.

Tide Pools

Teeming with aquatic life, the tide pools are a perfect complement to your hiking adventure. Instead of continuing along the cliffs for the hike when you come to the bottom of the stairs, head on down to the left toward the small beach inlet. You will need to climb down some rocks (so you and your brood may want to wear shoes other than the standard Southern California issue flip-flops), but they are generally easy to step down. If the tide is rising or receding causing spray onto the rocks, be aware that the dark green rocks are slippery.

Cabrillo - tidepools 2You can explore the rocky ledges where little hermit crabs peek in and out when they think you aren’t looking. Sea anemones inhabit the little tide pools created from the ocean spray and close up to little fingers poking them. Barnacles, mussels and chitons dot the rocky ledges. Down on the beach is a rock and shell lovers delight. Your little ones will have a blast exploring and ogling over abandoned shells discarded from sea. If it’s not crowded, your budding pitcher can test his stone skipping skills. Despite many children’s pleas, removing any ocean life, shells, rocks or plants is not permitted. There’s a nice big sign about this as you walk in so you won’t have to be the only ‘bad guy’ telling your kids “no”.

Cabrillo - tidepools stone skipping

Good to know:

Be aware of the timing of high tide. You won’t be able to get very far into or see very much of the tide pools when it’s high tide. For the record, October is a great time to visit the tide pools since low tide coincides with open hours at Cabrillo.

You will want to make sure you are wearing appropriate shoes for walking and climbing about wet, rocky areas. It can be slippery.

You very well may get wet. Even if you don’t, your kids will, so be prepared.

Cabrillo - busy tidepools

Visitor’s Center and Exhibits

And now the important historical facts for your budding history buffs. Established in 1913 by Woodrow Wilson, Cabrillo National Monument honors the 1542 landing of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo on San Diego Bay. Learn all this and more at the Visitor’s Center – a great place to start if your kid enjoys an educational tour. There are films offered: “In Search of Cabrillo” at 10am, 2pm and 4pm; “On the Edge of Land and Sea” at 11am and 1pm; and “Whales” at noon and 3pm to educate about all things Cabrillo. After your lesson, make sure to step outside and enjoy the view of Ballast Point, downtown San Diego, Coronado and Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery from here.

Cabrillo - view

From the Visitor Center and Cabrillo Monument, walk up the hill and check out the old Lighthouse and Keeper’s quarters. This is a stunning slice of history in itself. Built in 1855, the Lighthouse was one of the first eight lighthouses built on the Pacific Coast. It hasn’t been in service since 1891 due to it being over 400 feet above sea level and thus often eclipsed by fog. A new one, which is still in operation today by the US Coast Guard, was built lower to actually help guide the ships to shore. Even in fog. Check out the displays on how a lighthouse works for a great science lesson for the older kiddos.

Make sure to walk next door to see how the Keeper, notably Captain Israel and his family, lived back in the day. If our parent’s stories of how they walked to school uphill in the rain both ways don’t make your kids appreciate their walk to school, just tell them how the Keeper’s children would row across the bay to Old Town to go to school. Yes, row. To Old Town. That wins hands down.

Cabrillo - Lighthouse Yelp Kelly J photo

Photo courtesy of Kelly J. via Yelp

Head up the path to the whale watching point to catch a glimpse of the Pacific Gray Whale’s winter migration from mid-December through March. Even if you’ve missed the great whale migration, relishing in the stunning beauty and the whale inspired displays will provide a moment of serenity for parents and kids alike.

Finally, check out the military history exhibits and bunkers that detail San Diego’s involvement in WWI and WWII as you head back toward the main parking lot outside the Visitor Center.

1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive
San Diego, Ca 92106
619-557-5450
online: nps.gov/cabr

Hours: Cabrillo is open 364 days per year (closed on Christmas), barring any government shut-downs.

Visitor Center, Park, Lighthouse and Exhibits: Open 9am – 5pm.
Tide pools: Open 9am -4:30pm
Bayside Trail: Open 9am-4pm

Cost to enter Cabrillo is $5 per vehicle. Bikers are $3. Annual passes are a great deal at $15 and can work for both cars and bikers.

Good (great) to know

Despite the fact that you are still in Point Loma, San Diego, California, USA, your phone will go into roaming mode and operate on a Mexican network down on the coastal trail and in the tide pool areas. So if you don’t want to run up your bill without trying, check your roaming settings.

What did your kids enjoy most at Cabrillo?

— Kathleen Berkson

all photos from Kathleen Berkson unless otherwise noted.