Cabrillo National Monument

Distance: 30 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1300 ft

For a general discussion of San Diego riding, see the introduction to the Mission Bay to La Jolla ride.

This ride has a lot in common with the other two San Diego rides in Bestrides, Mission Bay to La Jolla and the Bayshore Bikeway (discussed in the Adding Miles section of the Mission Bay to La Jolla ride). It’s mostly along the water, it spends much of its time riding through old-SD beach neighborhoods, and it’s mostly flat. What makes it stand out from the other two is the unique ex-hippy-meets-beach-town of Ocean Beach, the spectacular vistas of San Diego harbor from Cabrillo National Monument, a great cliffside hike, the best tide-pooling in the region, and an actual hill, a rarity in San Diego. The panoramic view of the harbor is one of the best destination vistas in Bestrides, almost as good as Tunnel Road/Claremont Ave. Loop and Grizzly Peak Blvd to Redwood Rd.

Even if you don’t do the hike you’ll want to do some walking around the Cabrillo National Monument, so I encourage you to shove a pair of walking shoes or flip-flops up the back of your jersey. And bring your National Park pass if you have one and ID, to save yourself the entry fee at the Monument, which is $10 (yes, even for cyclists).

RidewithGPS gets twitchy on this route, so I’m going to talk you through it in more than usual detail. Begin at Mission Bay Park, which is the same starting point as the Mission Bay to La Jolla ride—see that ride for parking info. There is nothing spectacular about the first miles of this route, and if you want to start in Ocean Beach I won’t think less of you.

Ocean Beach Pier

Ride south from Mission Bay Park along East Mission Bay Drive, go R onto Sea World Dr., and continue on SWD and through the interchange to the bridge over the San Diego River. The road is big and open, easy riding despite traffic, but if it bothers you there are separated bike paths on your right for much of the route—just keep an eye out for them. The views are of Mission Bay and the marsh surrounding—nothing to write home about. Don’t expect grand views of Sea World—distant tops of a few roller coasters is all. The ride across the bridge is effortless thanks to a separated bike lane. Views of the river are moderately interesting. Fact: the river used to spill into San Diego Bay, but the Army Corps of Engineers didn’t want all that silt filling up the bay, so they rerouted it to flow into Mission Bay, and now straight to the ocean.

On the far side of the bridge keep R onto Sunset Cliffs Blvd. and take the first R onto West Point Loma Blvd. We now follow our San Diego cycling habit of staying as close to the water as possible. Work your way up the shoreline, following our map’s dizzying number of zigzags.

Ocean Beach downtown

My route has you riding only momentarily on Newport Ave., but this is the heart of Ocean Beach and I encourage you to check it out before continuing. It’s a delightful cross between Haight-Ashbury in the 60’s and SoCal Beach Town. Lots of interesting places to eat. Once you’ve experienced the scene, return to our route and ride on.

Eventually our zigzagging bails out on Sunset Cliffs Blvd. Take SCB to the R and ride it to its end. You ride along Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, a long string of picturesque cliffs worth a look or a stroll (it’s not the hike I mentioned earlier, which is at the turn-around for the ride). You’ll have a lot of company—it’s popular.

Rosecrans Cemetery, north Catalina Island, and downtown San Diego

At the end of SCB, turn L, as you must, up Ladera St. and ride it one short block to its end at the intersection of Ladera and Cornish. Now ignore our map. RideGPS refuses to acknowledge what you’re about to do. To the south you see a sign reading “Sunset Cliffs Natural Park.” To its L is a wide, straight, sandy path angling slightly away from the water. Ride it 1/8 mile to its end (it’s signed for bikes), where you’ll see a short flight of stairs. Climb them and emerge on Lomaland Dr. We are now back on our route.

Lomaland climbs very steeply to the R (you can see the pitch) and only steeply to the L, so go L unless you want the challenge. This short pitch touches 11% and is quite a shock after all that flat riding. You’re now riding through the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University—hence the unusual architecture. Turn R on Savoy St. when the hill ends and follow it to Catalina Blvd. The navigating is over—you stay straight on Catalina (which becomes Cabrillo Memorial Dr.) to the turn-around point of the ride.

Cabrillo National Monument Visitor Center viewpoint—click to enlarge

Catalina is a very big street, but there’s plenty of room, and for the first while there’s a separated side road just for you. Soon you leave the neighborhoods behind, but you’re not in backcountry—rather you pass an intimidating set of gates and enter Point Loma Naval Base. You stay on military land until the National Monument. So expect lots of guard stations, security gates, and an enormous military cemetery (Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery). The road is wide two-lane with plenty of room for you, and the cars are well used to cyclists.

Soon on your L you’ll begin to see why you’ve come—amazing views of Coronado Island’s North Island Naval Air Station, the community of Coronado, the Silver Strand spit running south from Coronado, the entirety of San Diego Bay, and all of mainland San Diego behind. Framed behind the National Cemetery’s rows of headstones, it’s quite moving.

Road to the tide pools and Coast Trail, with Mexico’s Los Coronados Islands

Continue on the Cabrillo National Monument, which consists of a Visitor Center, a lighthouse you can walk through when it’s open, some historical stuff about World War II installations, and a road down to famous tide pools. Come prepared to visit all of it. Walking shoes aren’t absolutely necessary but will make your visit a lot easier. The gatehouse charges cyclists $10 to enter (boo), so bring your lifetime National Park pass and ID if you have one. When I rode in the ranger waved me through for nothing (yay).

The Visitor Center has the official vista point overlooking San Diego, with a nice placard identifying the highlights of what you’re looking at. You’re at a mere 400 ft elevation, but still this is one of the finest vistas and one of the most satisfying destinations in all of Bestrides. The Center also has bathrooms, water, a nice little museum about Cabrillo and Spanish California, a gift shop, and a movie theatre that shows a great little free film about Cabrillo’s voyage. There’s a drinking fountain but the Center has no food other than snacks out of a vending machine.

Coast Trail

The lighthouse isn’t always open, but don’t miss it if it is. Inside you can see two floors of furnished rooms and climb the wonderful circular staircase up to the fresnel lens.

A small radio shack near the lighthouse (easy to miss) has an interesting exhibit of the 16-inch guns, the biggest guns the Navy ever had, that once defended the bay.

Our route isn’t over. Take the side road toward the ocean just inside the entrance gate, indicated by a sign reading “Tidepools” but marked less obviously by a road sign reading “Cabrillo Rd.” Take the spiffy little drop down to the tide pools and, if you have shoes and the time, walk the Coast Trail along the grandly eroded cliffs. Near the north end of the trail there’s a rock jutting from the cliff face that’s packed with cormorants and pelicans, and they’ll fly right by your face when they take off. If you’re there at low tide, the tide pooling is apparently outstanding—so outstanding that a couple of miles from the Monument entrance gate you pass a sign reading on one side “20-Minute Wait From Here” and on the other “Tidepool Parking Full.” I was there on a Monday in February and the place was crawling with people.

Turn around and enjoy the .7-mile, 8-10% climb out—just long enough and hard enough to make you say, “Oh yeah, I remember hills” if you’ve been in San Diego for a while.

Lighthouse stairwell

You can ride home the way you came, but for me the zigzag through the neighborhoods is something I only need to do once a day, so I take the straight route home: Catalina > Point Loma Ave. > Sunset Cliffs Blvd. It’s all fast and surprisingly mellow for city riding.

Shortening the route: Lop off as much of the start of the ride as you want. Most extremely, you could start on Catalina Blvd. and do a 6.5-mile ride.

Adding miles: Since you’re starting where the Mission Bay to La Jolla ride starts, you can add on that ride effortlessly. The Adding Miles section of the Mission Bay to La Jolla ride discusses how you can add on the Bayshore Bikeway ride as well.

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