Cabrillo National Monument worth taking trip to California


Cabrillo National Monument

Drive time and distance: 838.8 miles; 12 hours, 8 minutes

Hiking time and distance: Bayside Trail; 2.5 miles round trip (300-foot descent)

Difficulty: Easy. It’s paved and close to sea level. Real close.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo never set foot in Loma, Colorado, but he certainly left his mark on Point Loma, at the mouth of San Diego Bay in Southern California. Cabrillo, a Spanish adventurer/explorer/conquistador/ship builder, along with his crew and flotilla, apparently were the first Europeans to set foot on the West Coast of what is now the United States.

That was back in 1542, 50 years after Chris Columbus landed on the East Coast of the Americas.

Today, San Diego is one big, honkin’ town. Now home to Padres and Chargers, there are about three million people living in San Diego County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and nearly that many cars.

That’s 735.8 people per square mile, for those who keep count of such things.

Cabrillo National Monument was established in 1913 to commemorate the life and exploration of this wild and crazy Spaniard who was born on the Iberian Peninsula and “claimed” this land for Spanish King Carlos the First. Of course, maybe he was Portuguese. Who really knows, since his background is pretty sketchy.

At any rate, this is also the place where, in 1852, or 310 years after Cabrillo first landed, the U.S. Government recognized this important landmark and designated the area as a military reserve. In 1899, the War Department dedicated Fort Rosecrans and, over the years, built a series of gun batteries.

During the first two world wars, military facilities on the point provided vital coast and harbor defense systems. Between 1918 and 1943, the Defense Department built a series of “searchlight bunkers” and gun batteries. The largest guns were two 16-inch guns that could fire 2,300-pound shells nearly 30 miles out to sea. I can’t even hit the side of a barn at 20 feet with a rock.

According to the great displays here, “hitting a moving target at 25 miles requires precision, coordination and a practical application of trigonometry.” Good point.

“Soldiers at base end stations used azimuth instruments to establish the target’s course and speed. Gunners measured propellant temperature and humidity to estimate the muzzle velocity of the projectile.”

“Atmospheric wind conditions, humidity, air pressure, the arc of the projectile’s trajectory, along with the effects of the earth’s rotation, all had to be calculated before the gun could be aimed and fired.”

Happily, soldiers never fired those guns at an enemy. That didn’t mean people along this coast weren’t jittery. On the evening of Feb. 23, 1942, a Japanese submarine snuck close enough to fire shells at an oil installation near Santa Barbara, 200 miles north of here. While little damage was incurred, pandemonium reigned supreme.

“...the next night, jittery troops, imagining Japanese aircraft over Los Angeles fired 1,440 rounds at nonexistent planes and the morning newspapers reported civilian sightings of Japanese tanks in Malibu Canyon.”

Well before those scares, mariners were long scared of entering the bay at night without a little help. So, builders completed the Old Point Loma Lighthouse in 1854, and installed a Fresnel lens, the best technology of the day, in 1855.

But what seemed like the right location had a serious flaw. Fog and low clouds often obscured the light, so a new light station was built at the bottom of the hill, not far from the terminus of the Bayside Trail on one side, and the parking area for Tidepool access along the rugged Pacific Coast on the other.

The sandstone cliffs along this coast are very dangerous — they can give way and fall into the ocean. Tidepool rocks are slippery and barnacles are sharp, so wear sturdy non-slip shoes if you hike here.

Those tidepools are way cool, however, and Cabrillo National Monument has one of the best-preserved rocky intertidal areas open to the public on southern California’s coast.

“Plant communities on Point Loma — coastal sage succulent scrub, southern maritime chaparral, southern coastal bluff scrub and southern foredune scrub,” according to the National Park Service, “are among the few remaining protected stands of this ecotype. This blend or aromatic sages, low-growing shrubs, succulents, flowers and grasses were home for abundant native mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles.”

Since development has swallowed more than 70 percent of this ecotype in Southern California, the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency, U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Veterans Affairs, and City of San Diego work to preserve these rare, sensitive communities.

Considering the three million people who now live here, that’s quite a challenge. While the tide continues to control the rhythm of life along the ocean’s shore, “Marine plants and animals living here in the rocky intertidal zone have adapted to harsh conditions of pounding surf, intermittent exposure to sun and drying wind, and sharp changes in temperature, oxygen and salinity.”

It’s man these plants and animals really need protection from — and for.


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