On September 28, 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed in what is now San Diego Harbor at Point Loma. Today, more than 450 years later, the place is a bit different than he would have seen it. However, the strategic importance of this point overlooking the harbor and the deep blue Pacific Ocean remains the same, and the significance of Cabrillo, one of the forgotten Spanish explorers, is rediscovered.

The hills of Point Loma, jutting out into the Pacific north of San Diego International Airport are a mix of brown and olive green in the summer. The native plants that cling to them seem to be asleep, if not on their way to the land of the dead, belying the life that exists all around. Here and there a lizard runs across the path, birds chirp, and butterflies and insects buzz around. There is beauty here, but it doesn’t compare to the sight of the ocean, a blue so deep as to give meaning to the color, dotted with the white of sailboats.

The blue of the Pacific Ocean is brilliant and deep

Cabrillo National Monument celebrates this view, each bend of the path from the visitors center down to the rocky cliffs below bringing a new take on ocean and harbor, and the city below. Coronado sits just across the mouth of the harbor, its military airport busy, and luxury condos and hotels just beyond.

What would Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the famed Spanish (also claimed by Portugal) explorer and navigator, have seen when he first made landfall on this coastline so many years ago? The truth is we don’t really know.

This view of Coronado would certainly not have been here

Like much around this man, even his birth is a source of debate. Towns in both Spain and Portugal claim to be the place of his birth, an argument that still rages today. What is known is that he was born in 1499, and came to the New World as a young man. Originally part of the expeditions of Hernán Cortés, Cabrillo found success in gold ventures in Guatemala, making him immensely wealthy. He became a significant landowner, and participated actively in the slave trade that forever stained the legacy of the conquistadors.

When the Gulf of California was discovered by Francisco de Ulloa in 1539, Cabrillo was commissioned to lead an expedition up the coast into previously uncharted waters, to open trade routes, search for treasure, and see what lay beyond. He embarked from Navidad (just north of what is now Manzanillo, Mexico) in June of 1542 with three ships. Over the next six months, Cabrillo would become the first European to map the coast of California, and would claim the entire region for Spain. He would befriend some native tribes, and fight others. And he would die before reaching home, buried in a grave only recently discovered in the Channel Islands of California, on January 3, 1543.

Today, a monument to the man stands gleaming white atop the hills where he first set foot on the coast of California, but in his own time, Cabrillo’s voyage was considered a failure. He hadn’t opened trade routes, and no treasures were plundered. No route to China was discovered, nor the famed Northwest Passage. So disappointing was his endeavor that the names he gave to the places he found were all – ALL – changed. San Miguel became San Diego; San Salvador Island was renamed Santa Catalina by those who came after.

The monument to Cabrillo

Cabrillo National Monument not only celebrates the voyage of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, it also promotes the strategic history of the area. The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, built in 1855 and operated until a new beacon was constructed closer to the water in 1891, is open to groups of visitors for tours. Small exhibits also tell some of the history of the coastal artillery batteries that have existed here since the First World War, and camouflaged outposts can be seen dotting the hills.

The old lighthouse is fun to tour

There is a downside to visiting here. For those for whom mobility is an issue, there is a lack of things to do. The main hike down to the water is short but steep, and while one can drive to the tide pools on the ocean side, parking is extremely limited. The views from the visitors center are stunning, and some of my favorite in San Diego, but can also be seen from other vistas that offer more activities on flat ground, like La Jolla or Coronado.

However, if you have a couple hours and want to appreciate the natural beauty of San Diego while celebrating the history of its first European discoverer, Cabrillo National Monument is well worth the visit!

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