“Where California Began” – Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego, CA
It’s hard to believe that such a small, lonely stretch of shore can contain so much history, but I guess that’s true of so many places. On the map Point Loma Peninsula is a craggy sandstone finger that stretches down and protects San Diego bay. In person it’s a pretty and wonderfully remote spot with stunning cliffs and open ocean views, made all the more beautiful by bright yellow blooms and deep blue skies in spring. But in history it serves as a strategic turning point, the first landing of Spanish explorers in California and a key military and navigation outpost. It’s the Cabrillo National Monument and if you’re in San Diego it is WELL worth the visit.
Of course, as with every story it’s best to start at the beginning and right here that means the indigenous peoples. The ‘Iipay and Tipay (Kumeyaay) tribes inhabited the San Diego coast for thousands of years before anyone else came here. They never quite settled in Point Loma (due to lack of water on the peninsular), but roamed the beaches and harvested seafood. Their lives (and that of the whole of the Americas no less) changed the day the Spanish explorers discovered the “New World”. For San Diego that day was Sept 28th, 1542 and the fleet was led by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who is have thought to have landed on a small finger of land called Ballast Point on the bay side of Point Loma. It was the first landing by a European in present-day California and for many it’s considered the date and the place “where California began”.
Interestingly enough not much happened for ~200 years after that historic landing. The Spanish eventually made their way in-land and established missions in the area, with first settlement ~1769. Lonely Point Loma remained uninhabited but one of its’ bay side beaches (La Playa) served as a handy and protected port during this time. The peninsular was as remote and untouched as ever, but had already established its strategic importance to the Bay.
At this point we forward almost another 100 years to 1854 and the erection of the first lighthouse and inhabited spot on Point Loma. By this time California is a well-established piece of land and already part of the United States. The erection of the Point Loma lighthouse marks a turning point on the peninsular and 36 years of lonely lighthouse keepers who lived a remote and isolated existence on the hilltop in monotonous daily routine with their lenses. During this time only access to the point was 15 miles of treacherous ridge road that took all-day to drive. Eventually roads were improved and a new lighthouse (which is still in service today) was built at a lower elevation, but those early days must have been something else! In the late 1890’s the Point also developed as a military base including the building of several gun batteries which served to protect the Bay through WWII.
Today you can see all of that past with a visit to the monument. These days much of the surrounding land remains dedicated to the military, and in fact the view from the point to San Diego Bay reveals the enormous sprawl of the naval base as well as the home for Submarine Squadron 11 (we got to view a massive Nuclear submarine being guided into port while we were there -> what a sight!) . The point itself contains the beautiful, restored lighthouse, a museum with the history of Cabrillo’s historic landing and remnants of its’ military service.
What’s exceptionally cool is that despite all its’ strategic importance the remote nature of the peninsular has kept much of its natural beauty in-tact. Surrounding the visitors center and the lighthouse are beautiful sandy cliffs, interesting tide-pools and unblemished views of the ocean (it’s a hot whale-watching spot this time of year). People come here to hike the shore, surf the break, enjoy the peace….and of course stand and view the spot where California began.