Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse
2 miles loop, 150 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrace fee required

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse rises on a headland above the Pacific along California's Mendocino Coast just miles away from the area's two main towns, Mendocino and Fort Bragg. The lighthouse is accessible via a short and easy hike that crosses coastal prairies, visits headlands with eroded sea caves, and stops by the historic lighthouse that once guided ships along the foggy, treacherous California Coast.

I visited the lighthouse during a trip to the Mendocino Coast with Anna. Point Cabrillo Lighthouse is a 10-15 minute drive from both Mendocino and Fort Bragg. From Fort Bragg, reach the lighthouse by following Highway 1 south for 5 miles and then turning right onto Point Cabrillo Drive; follow Point Cabrillo Drive uphill from Caspar Beach for 1.5 miles and then turn right into the signed parking lot for the Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park. There was a small lot and ample overflow parking. Visitors with disabled parking permits and visitors staying at the overnight rental units here can skip the hike completely and continue driving from the main parking lot to a second parking lot right beside the lightkeepers' houses and the lighthouse.

We left the parking lot on the North Trail, which departed from the northwest corner of the parking lot and headed due west. This wide gravel trail took us across the coastal grasslands between the parking lot and the lighthouse. The trail descended and narrowed as it went along, passing by a few scattered trees but mostly staying out in grasslands; we ignored a trail the branched off to the right and led north to Frolic Cove, instead continuing due west along the North Trail so that we would quickly reach the coast. After three-quarters of a mile of hiking through grassland from the trailhead, we arrived at the coast, where colorful cliffs rose above the foggy Pacific. Far-off views were restricted due to the thick fog along the coast but we were still able to enjoy this scene of Pacific surf crashing onto rocks of Point Cabrillo.

Headlands at Point Cabrillo
After reaching the coast, we followed the coastline south to Point Cabrillo Lighthouse. While there was a well-established road trace that led directly south to the lighthouse over the grasslands, we followed the social paths that hugged the coastline, delivering constant views on the walk over. Walking out to the end of the headland just north of the lighthouse, we found particularly nice views of both the lighthouse itself to the south and a number of deep sea caves carved into the coastal bluffs in the cove to the north. Low, rolling booms resounded when waves washed into the cove and pushed into the caves.

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse
Sea caves at Point Cabrillo
Continuing south, we reached the protruding headland with the lighthouse. The lighthouse is open 11 AM to 4 PM every day but the inside of the lighthouse was closed during our visit due to Covid-19 rules. Instead, we could only admire the outside of this 1909 structure, which had a rotating Fresnel lens that sent a pulse of light across the ocean every few seconds. The lighthouse helped guide maritime traffic here during the early 20th century, when ships carrying passengers and redwood logs from the forests of Mendocino and Humboldt Counties plied the rough waters of the Pacific Coast. Frequent shipwrecks along the coast- which include the wreck of the Frolic just north of this State Historic Park- made lighthouses a necessary and life-saving development at the time. 

The lighthouse and the headland that it sits on are both named after Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo. Cabrillo led the first European reconnaisance of the California coast but somehow managed to miss the Golden Gate and thus did not discover San Francisco Bay, the most notable feature along the entire length of the state's coast. Consigned for centuries to relative obscurity, Cabrillo's reputation was revived during the 20th century push to recognize and remember European explorers of non-British descent. Cabrillo's legacy in California is still celebrated to some extent today, but it's important to also remember how Cabrillo, the man, participated in brutal enslavement of native peoples in Central America for gold mining and how Cabrillo's journey to California ultimately spelled the beginning of the end for native cultures all along the California coast, from the Chumash to the Ohlone and the Pomo.

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse
We walked around the headland that the lighthouse was on and found a secluded, stagnant cove just to the south of the lighthouse, where narrows between cliffs of two different headlands prevented waves from washing into a calm saltwater pool. Looking down, we spotted numerous jellyfish hanging out in the seawater below. Marine life is abundant along the Mendocino Coast due to upwellings of nutrient-rich, cold water from the depths of the ocean, which power a robust food chain here. On clear days in the winter, Point Cabrillo is a good spot to watch for migrating gray whales offshore.

Jellyfish in a cove
From the lighthouse, we returned to the trailhead by following the road that led out to the lighthouse. This road passed by the Head Lightkeeper's and the Assistant Lightkeeper's Houses, both of which were well-built and had large yards that at one point were likely gardens in which the lightkeepers would've grown their food along with their lighthouse-tending duties. These two houses and the cottages behind them are now available to rent as lodging for anyone who wants to stay at the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse; the road leading out here is restricted to guests only.

Lightkeeper's houses
We followed the road for two-thirds of a mile to return to the parking lot. The road picked up about 150 feet of elevation gain along the way, although the ascent was fairly gentle and the hike as a whole was quite easy. There were a number of educational, kid-friendly placards along the road that taught interesting facts about the gray whales that can often be seen along this coast during the winter.

Overall, this was a nice hike; the lighthouse was cute but in our opinion is not among the most scenic of California's lighthouses. If you're spending a few days on the Mendocino Coast this is a worthwhile stop but if time is short you might find it a better use of your time on other coastal hikes.

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