Editor’s note: after a brief absence (law school is apparently time consuming), our resident national parks expert Christian is back with his take on Cabrillo National Monument. For my own take, click here. If you love national parks, make sure to visit Christian’s index page.
Cabrillo National Monument is named after Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo – a Spanish explorer from a long line of explorers who “discovered” land that was already inhabited by a native population. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo discovered the San Diego Bay around 1542. I discovered Cabrillo National Monument in 2008. My best friends got married here on the sandstone cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The first time I went to Cabrillo National Monument I did so as a best man; every time that I’ve been to Cabrillo since then I’ve done so as a tourist.
I end up in San Diego once or twice every year, and make a special effort to find my way to Cabrillo each time. Cabrillo National Monument is on a quiet peninsula that has borne witness to more than its share of history. The Kumeyaay Native Americans inhabited this land prior to the arrival of Westerners. The Kumeyaay were described as “prosperous” by Cabrillo, and the locals lived well on the plants and animals local to the Southern California coast and the abundant food made available from the sea, like mollusks and fish.
Cabrillo’s intent was to claim the land in the name of the king of Spain. Though Cabrillo initially took harbor in San Diego, he also sailed northward. When Cabrillo happened upon San Pedro Bay, the current site of the Port of Los Angeles, he called it “La Baya de Los Fumos” or The Bay of Smoke. He called it that because he observed that Los Angeles was really smoky – some things don’t change.
California was a Spanish colony, and then when Mexico gained independence in 1821, California became part of Mexico. California eventually gained American statehood, but not until 1850. After 1850, the population of San Diego continued to grow steadily, but slowly. By 1940, there were only 200,000 people in San Diego. When WWII came to American shores, people flooded to the West Coast to fill manufacturing jobs. By 1945 the population almost doubled to 362,000. The San Diego Harbor created a powerfully strategic place for warships, and industry sprang up to support the new military presence. Even today, there are an estimated 100,000 military members on active duty in San Diego.
The San Diego Bay, on which Cabrillo National Monument rests, is the homesite to the majority of the USA’s Pacific Naval fleet. There’s an aircraft carrier permanently docked near Cabrillo NM that tourists can visit; you can even eat lunch at the aircraft carrier’s outdoor restaurant. Politicians give speeches from the aircraft carrier’s rear deck every now and again when they’re feeling especially patriotic.
Cabrillo NM itself pays quiet homage to the fighting that almost broke out on American shores by preserving some of the bunkers and gun turrets built between 1918 and 1943. Military personnel were positioned here ready to track enemy targets, and if necessary, send enemy targets to the bottom of the San Diego Bay. Fortunately, the only shots fired at the American mainland during WWII were a mere 17 rounds fired at a fort near the Columbia River in Oregon.
During wartime, the ships in the San Diego Harbor stayed completely dark at night in order to avoid the potential of being seen, and subsequently bombed, by Japanese aircraft. During better days in the San Diego Harbor, the lighthouse at Cabrillo helped guide ships into the harbor. The lighthouse has been standing sentinel here on the coast since 1854. You can take a little stroll through the lighthouse and see the home where the lighthouse keeper used to live, and walk up to the top of the lighthouse to see the machinery that used to guide ships to safe harbor.
History aside, I think the best thing to do at Cabrillo is to visit the tide pools. It’s a ton of fun to scramble around on the rocky coast, watch the tide come and go, and look at starfish and crabs. There’s really nothing like the California coastline on a warm summer day – luckily summer is about half of the year here in San Diego.
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