California Tower Tour

A short video of the view from the California Tower Observation Deck in May of 2015

Background on the California Building and Tower. One of the most iconic buildings in San Diego is the California Building, otherwise known as the Museum of Man. Whether one is walking or driving into Balboa Park over the Cabrillo Bridge, or flying into San Diego from foreign or domestic destinations, the California Building is hard to miss with its signature blue dome, stone ornamentation and soaring tower. Although many locals and tourists alike assume that the California Building was originally a church, especially because of the chimes in the California Tower, the building was specifically designed by noted architect Bertram Goodhue to serve as the entryway for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915. After the exposition ended, a group of prominent San Diego citizens formed the San Diego Museum Association to retain the exhibits from the exposition, and from that point on, the building became the home of the San Diego Museum of Man, a museum of anthropology and science.

North facing view, California Tower, May 2015

While the museum has had and does have some amazing exhibits, one of the most striking features of the museum is and has been the California Tower, which is attached to the California Building. Topped with a weather vane featuring the ship of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the Tower itself is 198 feet tall, and 462 feet above sea level. But, for a majority of the last hundred years, despite its readily visible stairs ascending upward, the California Tower has been closed to members of the general public. However, the story of the California Tower is one with a happy ending: as of January 1, 2015, the California Tower has been reopened to the public, and now features some of the best views in all of San Diego.

West facing view, California Tower, May 2015

Tour Information. In order to ascend the California Tower, visitors are required to participate in a guided tour that is run by the Museum of Man. These tours, which operate every forty minutes, can be reserved online through the Museum of Man, and are limited to twelve participants per group. The tours are run by museum guides which provide visitors with information about the Museum, Balboa Park, the Panama-California Exposition, and San Diego. The tour ascends 125 steps from the entryway of the Museum to the first viewing deck at 357 feet above sea level. (Due to safety concerns, the tour does not ascend to the top of the California Tower).

Tour Review. While I am not a San Diego native, I have spent most of my life in San Diego. Ever since I was a small child, I wanted to climb the tower in order to experience what was inside. Since I was also a fan of the museum, I think I assumed that the tower held some long lost secret artifacts. When the Museum announced that tours would begin on January 1, 2015, I was excited to see what I had missed. Unfortunately, there were other people in the city who felt the same way I did, and for the first four months the tower was open for tours, I was not able to get tickets; but finally, over Memorial Day weekend, I was able to get tickets. The day of my tour dawned cloudy and rainy, but even the damp weather could not put a damper on my enthusiasm for the tower tour. Despite the weather, the tour did not disappoint. My guide was knowledgeable about the history of the building, the park, and the city, and provided me with more facts than I could remember – or recount here about all of these things and more.

In terms of being inside the tower, while there were no long-lost artifacts, there was a fresh, modern staircase, partially funded by private donors, and an interesting perspective looking from the inside out of the tower. While much is made of the 125 step ascent to the viewing platform by the Museum, in my opinion, the steps were not a challenge (a view that was shared by my tour group). While it is worth noting that there are that many steps, and there is no elevator, it appears to me that people of moderate levels of fitness would be able to ascend the tower easily, especially given the timeframe provided by the museum. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not talk about the views from the observation platform. Even though I did not have the best weather (as one can see from the photos), it was still amazing to see the three hundred and sixty degree views of the city, the coast, and the county that the tower provided, and it made me feel a little bit like a bird. The museum touts the tower’s viewing range as twenty-three miles on a clear day, and based on what I saw on a cloudy day, I would say that is entirely accurate. The only downside I found to the tour was length of time on the viewing platform – I would have preferred to go and come as I wanted – but, given that the time constraints also limited the amount of people on the platform to a small amount, I found the constraints reasonable.

Overall, I’d say that the California Tower Tour is the best new tourist attraction in San Diego of 2015; and will be so for many years to come, as it provides great views of the city, and a great experience. It is truly something that one could return to many times without seeing – or experiencing the same thing, and provides great insight and perspective into San Diego’s modern history.

Tips. As I mentioned above, the tour is quite popular, so potential visitors should book tickets in advance in order to ensure that they will be able to climb the tower. Also, while San Diego generally has great weather, in order to avoid cloudy days, visitors would want to visit the tower from mid-June through mid-April.