If you enjoy visiting places known as the “biggest” or “highest” or that bear a “most something” distinction, head to Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego — it’s the most southwesterly spot in the contiguous United States! This special longitude and latitude (and cliffside perch) also made it an ideal location for the military facilities established here to provide vital coastal and harbor defense during the World Wars. The park’s leading attraction, however, is that it commemorates the first European, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, setting foot on what is now the West Coast of the United States in 1542. How’s all that for some claims to fame?!
If you’re unfamiliar with Cabrillo’s voyage of discovery, watch the film “In Search of Cabrillo” in the Visitor Center to learn about the explorer’s interesting life. A model of his flagship, the San Salvador, is also on display. Cabrillo’s expedition sailed out of the port of Navidad, near modern day Manzanillo, Mexico on June 24, 1542, and 103 days later landed at Ballast Point in San Diego Bay (visible from the Visitor Center). When he started his trip, the conquistador was seeking the seven fabulously wealthy cities known as Cibola (pronounced see-bow-lah) that some believed were near the Pacific coast beyond New Spain.
After claiming the land and San Diego Bay for Spain, Cabrillo’s expedition continued north to Monterey Bay and is thought to have reached as far north as Point Reyes before storms forced the ships to winter in the Channel Islands. Unfortunately, the brave explorer died in early January 1543 from complications of a bad fall. The expedition continued to sail north after the weather improved, but ultimately the winter winds and spoiled supplies proved too much and the remaining explorers were forced to return to Mexico without discovering Cibola. Even without finding riches, their journey was still important because it provided the first written account of the west coast of North America.
Along the walking paths of Cabrillo National Monument, you will find base-end stations, fire control stations, searchlight bunkers, a radio station that now houses an exhibit, and other remnants of coastal defenses. Although the big guns are long gone, what remains tells an interesting story, and the ocean views in every direction are outstanding!
Also while visiting Cabrillo National Monument, be sure to tour the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, one of the original eight lighthouses on the West Coast, restored and refurnished to reflect what life was like in the 1800s. This light was lit for the first time in November 1855, but was extinguished only 36 years later. It was taken out of service because heavy fog would often obscure the light.
The replacement New Point Loma Lighthouse stands just 100 yards south, which is a much better location as far as fog is concerned. It also serves as Coast Guard housing and is not open to the public. If something looks familiar while you’re here, it’s because the westernmost lightkeeper’s house at this site was used in the filming of the movie Top Gun. It was the home of Viper (Tom Skerrit). In fact, much of that movie was filmed in different spots around San Diego, but we’ll save that for another blog post!
1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive
San Diego, CA 92106-3601
In addition to writing about her travels, Denise Seith is also a treasure hunter and loves a good latté. She and her husband own an online gold prospecting and metal detecting equipment store found at GoldRushTradingPost.com