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Poking anemones at Cabrillo National Monument

I always google the National Park units I visit before I actually visit them. I don’t need a ton of information, usually, just some basic history and a rough idea of what it is that makes the park special. When I did this for Cabrillo National Monument, in San Diego, the internet was all, TIDE POOLING, and I was all, what the fuck is tide pooling?

Turns out, tide pools are found on rocky sea shores. They’re covered with water during high tide, but when the tide goes out, separate little pools are created. The real draw here is the sea critters who live in these pools. There’s all sorts of things, crabs and anemones, snails and barnacles, even lobsters and the occasional octopus. With the tide low, you get little glimpses into their usually hidden sea creature worlds.
You’ve got two options when you head down the tide pooling path at Cabrillo – left or right.

First, we went left and the area was mobbed with screaming children and their parents, who had already annoyed us nearly to the point of confrontation in the parking lot. They could not understand the concept of car pooling, and it was soccer mom mayhem as they blocked the road in an attempt to take the parking lot by force. But still, we went down to the water and said hello to some crabs and poked at a few anemones. After the 34th child screamed in terror or exhilaration or whatever the fuck it is that makes eight year olds scream so damn much, we went back up the trail and headed to the right.

The right side of the trail is definitely more of an adventure. It winds up the hill and around some cliffs and then heads back down to the cliff-ridden seashore. It was, however, blissfully, majestically free of screaming children. In fact, seeing as it’s a bit of circuitous journey to get over there, we were mostly alone.

We did not see any lobster or any octopuses, but we did meet a lot of crabs and we poked at 50 anemones, give or take, plus a bunch of barnacles and some snails, too. We were also easily distracted by the amazing views. As much as I wanted to meet sea creatures, watching the water smash into the cliffs and admiring the Pacific Ocean proved to be equally enjoyable.

While tide pooling is one of the coolest things to do at Cabrillo, that’s not why it’s a National Monument. It’s a National Monument because, in 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo led the first European expedition to explore the western coast of what is now the United States. He’s believed to have landed at Point Loma’s east shore, near where the park is located today.

Cabrillo died on the expedition, after he shattered a limb in a skirmish with some Native Americans, but his crew kept going. They made it as far north as Oregon, maybe, before they returned to Mexico.

In addition to the tide pools, there’s also a visitor’s center, where nerds like me can get their National Park passport stamps. There’s a gift shop and a series of displays explaining the history of the area and the types of critters found in and around the park. There’s information on the Kumeyaay, the native inhabitants of the area who Cabrillo and his men encountered during their exploration.

The National Monument also includes parts of Fort Rosecrans, built to protect the harbor from enemy warships. Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery is near Cabrillo – we passed it on the drive up – and it’s probably the most beautiful military cemetery I’ve ever seen, with an incredible view of the San Diego Bay.

From Cabrillo, you can see the skyline of San Diego, Coronado, the Naval Air Station and on clear days, Tijuana. Even if you hate sea creatures and history, it’s worth the drive just for the incredible panoramic views.


+ Use the charts on this page to check out the tide schedule. You really want a .7 or lower, but negative tides are the best.

+ Late fall and early winter are the best times to visit. In the summer, low tides happen at night, when the park is closed.

+ You get about a four hour window to visit during low tide – two hours before and two hours after. That’s approximate though. It’s the ocean. It does what it wants.

+ Wear waterproof shoes. You’ll be in parts of the ocean exploring and dry feet are happy feet.

+ Visit the Cabrillo National Monument page for any alerts or closures. If something is closed, it’s closed. Don’t be a dick and don’t disregard park guidance. Seriously. If part of the park is closed, it’s for a reason. Probably for your safety, but also for the safety of the environment the park protects.

Cabrillo National Monument is open from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m daily, tide pool access closes at 4:30 p.m. Admission is $10 per vehicle. 

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