Along the El Camino Real: Exploring California's 21 Missions
If you've spent enough time in California it's hard not to notice those familiar roadside markers with the state's symbol, the golden bear. Many of those markers point the way to mission churches all of which are historical monuments that were originally established by Spain. Not surprising they are mostly found along California's original highway, the El Camino Real, built to supply this string of missions long before the time of the car or railroad.
The first mission was established in 1769 in what is now San Diego and another twenty were built within the next fifty years. The last one was completed in 1823 at which time the Spanish were ousted from the newly independent Mexico. Originally, their function was two-fold: to settle and civilize this sparsely populated corner of New Spain by converting the Native Americans, often under extreme duress, and to supply a small string of presidios used as a bulwark to secure Spanish claims to the region. The missions are also closely associated with one priest, Father Junipero Serra, originally from the Balearic Islands in Spain. His actions in establishing many of the churches point to his singular focus. Today all of the missions are extant, some rebuilt from nothing but the remains of adobe ruins and many brought down by California's frequent earthquakes. All still function as active Catholic parishes except three which are state historical parks run by the State of California.
It's easy to see all of them and most are along well traveled routes. Admittedly, it's tempting to say if you've seen one you've seen them all. The most popular and impressive, or "must-see" missions are arguably the following, from south to north: Mission San Juan Capistrano in Orange County, Mission Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara, and Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo in Carmel. If you want to visit only a couple, these are probably the best ones to start with.
If you have more time or the occasion to travel frequently across California each mission offers something unique or unexpected. Most of them have museums attached and each offers a glimpse of what life was like at the time with artifacts, relics, archaeological foundations, maps and interactive media. Some things to keep in mind is the price of admission. It differs per mission and prices are subject to change. Check the missions' individual websites. The more frequently visited ones, such as Missions San Juan Capistrano, famed for its swallows, runs $9 per adult at the time of this writing. That's high end. Others, such as Mission Santa Clara de Asis, on the campus Santa Clara University, are free of charge. Keep in mind the mass schedules too, especially on Sundays.
The original mission was founded in San Diego but there's some nuance to its establishment. Founded in 1769 it was originally located where Old Town San Diego is now. An unreliable supply of fresh water resulted in its relocation and in 1774 it was moved to its present location in MissionValley. Today it's a beautiful white-washed building and the centerpiece of a large Roman Catholic parish. The other mission in San DiegoCounty is located in Oceanside, the grand Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, founded in 1798. Easily recognized by its long white-washed walls, it's no surprise that it got the nickname "King of the Missions". It remains an active Roman Catholic parish. Farther north is Orange County's only mission, San Juan Capistrano, founded in 1776. It's recognized by its huge vaulted ceiling, half in ruins, which remains from the 1812 earthquake. Known as the Great Stone Church, it was one of the few built in stone most as of the missions used adobe brick, mortar, and timber. The ornate Serra Chapel still adorns this sprawling mission, dates to 1782 and has two unique distinctions: it is the oldest building in California still in use and the only structure that has a documented claim of Father Serra's activity of saying mass. The bonus feature of this popular mission are the beautiful gardens often crowded with local painters.
The Los Angeles region is home to two missions, Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, in San Gabriel, California and Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana, in Los Angeles, both founded in 1797. The former is well known for its unique Moorish architectural mix and the latter, completely rebuilt as of 1974, is curiously the site of Bob Hope's grave.
Ventura and Santa Barbara counties have a total of four mission churches. Mission San Buenaventura, in Ventura, was founded in 1782. It sits opposite a park beautifully framed by the water fountain at it's main entrance. Founded in 1786 Mission Santa Barbara, in the eponymous city, is one of the most beautiful and frequently visited and also known by its nickname "Queen of the Missions". The fig tree in its walled cemetery overlooks the graves of mostly Chumash Indian neophytes. Among those buried here is Juana Maria, the lost woman of SanNicolasIsland. On the north side of the Santa Ynez Mountains in Solvang is the Santa Ines Mission founded in 1804. It's been rebuilt quite a few times but the present structure remains faithful to its original roots. A few miles to the west is Mission La Purisima Concepcion (c. 1787). Mission La Purisima is another mission that does not stand on its original ground the result of an 1812 earthquake which caused it to be moved to its present location. It is also one of three missions that is now a California state historic site.
If you travel north along U.S. 101 it's just a matter of time before you come across more missions. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in the charming college town of the same name was founded in 1772, the fifth mission of the twenty-one. Located in the downtown section of this small city, the mission is best known for its unique L-shaped nave. One of two missions in San Luis Obispo county, Mission San Miguel has some beautiful original walls on its west side and remains the centerpiece of this otherwise sleepy town along U.S. 101. Off the beaten path and in a mountain valley you'll come to Mission San Antonio de Padua (c. 1771), the third mission founded in California. Near the town of Jolon the mission is actually on the army base of Fort Hunter-Liggett. It's distinguishing features include a totally enclosed inner courtyard and a beautiful brick campanario. Because of its remoteness it is one of the most overlooked missions. Assuming you've made the detour to see this beautiful mission getting back onto U.S. 101 and heading north will take you next to Mission Soledad, which was finally rebuilt from a pile of adobe ruins in 1955. It serves as an active parish church today.
Monterey County is home to one of the three most famous missions, the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, founded in 1770 as the second mission. It was also the home base of Father Junipero Serra who was interred here in 1784. His crypt can be found in the main church. This is the only California mission to have its original bell tower intact. Mission San Juan Bautista in the town of the same name would be the next mission if you were to follow them from south to north. It bears a close relationship with the San Andreas fault. It sits at the top of a low ridge. At the bottom of this slope is a brush-covered ravine which obscures the trench through which runs the notorious fault. This mission, founded in 1797, is also well known in popular culture as forming the backdrop of one of the scenes in the Alfred Hitchcock class "Vertigo". Mission Santa Cruz (c. 1791) is one of three that is a state-owned historic park. Located in Santa Cruz's historic district, the mission is a half-size replica of the original building. However, the successor mission church across the street is an active parish today.
The Bay Area holds a number of missions in its greater environs the first of which you will reach is Mission Santa Clara (c. 1777). Much rebuilt, this mission is an integral part of Santa Clara University, the state's oldest institution of higher learning founded in 1851. It also doubles as a parish church. Not to be confused with the city of the same name, Mission San Jose (c. 1797) is actually located in neighboring Fremont. A squat white-washed church with original walls protruding from those rebuilt, the current building was rededicated in 1985. The original mission had over 100 adobe structures. It's not surprising to learn that San Francisco also has one the missions, Mission Dolores (c. 1776). What is surprising is that is it the oldest structure in the city dating to 1791. A newer basilica dedicated in 1918 is also part of the mission. On the north side of the Bay in San Rafael is the namesake mission founded in 1817. The rather nondescript structure is perhaps a legacy of the many reconstructions; a fact that typifies many of the missions. The last mission is the one in Sonoma, now a state historic park. Mission San Francisco Solano founded in 1823 was actually established under Mexican authority and is technically not Spanish. It took an act of state to restore this mission as shortly after Mexican rule was established what was not claimed by earthquakes was claimed by neglect.
Spending time in California without visiting any of the missions is the same as visiting Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower or going to Switzerland without seeing the Alps. Whether you visit them all or just one the missions of California represent a thick thread in the state's cultural and historic fabric. They have played an enormous role in the California that we experience today. Few know that the state's first pepper tree was planted in Mission San Luis Rey now in Oceanside or that California's first public execution took place on the grounds of Mission San Diego de Alcala in 1778.
It was among these buildings along the El Camino Real where the roots of modern California were set. The history of these missions was not always colorful and admittedly abuse of the natives, many of whom toiled to build these fine buildings and their successor churches, was rife, but it would be remiss to deny them the proper role they played in the culture and history of California.