El Camino Real and the Spanish missions in California
From their humble, thatch-roofed beginnings to the stately adobes we see today, the missions represent a dynamic chapter of California’s past. By the time the last mission was built in 1823, the Golden State had grown from an untamed wilderness to a thriving agricultural frontier on the verge of American statehood.
The 21 missions that comprise California’s historic mission trail are all located on or near Highway 101, which roughly traces El Camino Real (The Royal Road) named in honor of the Spanish monarchy which financed the expeditions into California in the quest for empire. From San Diego to Los Angeles, the historic highway is now known as Interstate 5. From Santa Clarita to San Francisco, the road is called State Highway 82. North of San Francisco, Highway 101 again picks up the trail to the mission at San Rafael. From there, State Highway 37 leads to the last mission at Sonoma.
The first leg of El Camino Real was forged by General Gaspar de Portola on his journey from San Diego to find Monterey Bay. Tracing his path, missionaries, colonists and soldiers all traveled its dusty stretches; it was the only road between the few vilized outposts. The road was later identified with the missions because the padres maintained the roadway and offered hospitable lodging to all. It served as the north-south stagecoach route after California became a state in 1850, and in the 1920s bronze mission bells were placed along the highway to let motorists know they were traveling the historic El Camino Real.
Largely reconstructed after the ravages of time, weather, earthquakes and neglect, most of the missions still operate as active Catholic parishes, with regularly scheduled services. Booklets for self-guided tours are usually available; hours of operation and fees may vary.
Traveling from south to north from San Diego to Sonoma the missions are as follows:
San Diego de Alcala, 1st mission
The mission trail in California began here on July 16, 1769, when Fathers Serra, Palou and Parron dug a hole eight feet into the beachhead near the mouth of the San Diego River and planted a large cross. A bell was suspended from the limb of a nearby tree and the site was dedicated to St. Didacus. Today, the mission’s own priests bless the trio of bells which ring each Sunday before mass. Bougainvillea cascades over adobe walls surrounding the gardens and California’s first historic cemetery. The gardens contain centuries-old hibiscus, succulents, olive trees, citrus and avocado.
10818 San Diego Mission Rd., San Diego, 92108-2429, (619) 281-8449
San Luis Rey de Francia, 18th mission
Known as the King of the Missions, San Luis Rey de Francia lies in a sheltered valley just east of Oceanside on State Highway 76. Named for Louis IX, the crusading King of France, the cross-shaped church was dedicated on the Feast of St. Anthony in 1798 by Father Lasuen. Architecturally the most graceful of California’s missions, it has been restored according to the original plans and designs. Today the mission gardens include a fruit orchard where California’s first pepper tree still grows. The church, which seats 1,000, is adjacent to a six-acre enclosed central square that includes a sunken garden, elaborate stone terrace and octagonal mortuary chapel.
4050 Mission Ave., San Luis Rey, 92068, (760) 757-3651
San Juan Capistrano, 7th mission
Named for Crusader Saint John of Capistrano and designed in the shape of a cross, the great stone church once held seven domes and a bell tower so tall it could be seen from ten miles away. Severely damaged by an 1812 earthquake, the ruins are currently being preserved by archaeologists and engineers. Ivy covers the broken walls, willows sway over the fountain in the quadrangle and orange Birds of Paradise grace the mission gardens. A gilded altarpiece illuminates the Serra Chapel of 1777, the oldest building still in use in California and the only surviving church where Father Serra said mass. Each year on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, the mission celebrates the return of the cliff swallows from Argentina with a traditional Mexican fiesta.
Ortega Hwy. at Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, 92693, (949) 248-2049 www.missionsjc.com
San Gabriel Arcangel, 4th mission
Founded in 1771 by Junipero Serra, this fortress-like structure with five-foot thick walls and narrow windows is a design not found in any other mission. Located nine miles east of downtown Los Angeles, at one time it covered several hundred thousand acres; one fourth of the wealth of California missions in stock and grain was credited to San Gabriel. The original vaulted roof was of a Moorish design patterned after the cathedral at Cordova, Spain, with slender capped buttresses and a six-belled campanario. One bell, which weighs a ton, can be heard eight miles away. The hammered copper baptismal font was a gift of King Carlos III of Spain and the six priceless altar statues were brought around the Horn from Spain in 1791. The winery, kitchen gardens and graveyard are still intact and the museum exhibits old books, Indian paintings and parchments.
537 W. Mission Dr., San Gabriel, 91776, (626) 282-5191
San Buenaventura, 9th mission
The ninth mission in the chain was founded on Easter Sunday in 1782 by Father Serra and dedicated to St. Bonaventure. It was the last mission the humble priest would christen. Restored in 1957, the facade exhibits an unusual triangular design which opens into the gardens. A museum exhibits artifacts that include two old wooden bells, the only ones of their type known in California. Situated three blocks from the ocean, the mission fronts on the main street of Ventura.
225 E. Main St., Ventura, 93001, (805) 648-4496
San Fernando Rey de Espana, 17th mission
Father Lasuen named this mission in honor of King Ferdinand III of Spain in 1797. Located 25 miles north of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley, the convento is the largest freestanding adobe in California, and was originally used as a hospice for travelers. Today, the church, school, convento and workshops have all been restored to their original purposes and are open for viewing. Above the church alter is a statue of Saint Ferdinand brought from Spain 300 years ago. In the old mission plaza sits the original flower-shaped fountain.
15151 San Fernando Mission Blvd., Mission Hills, 91345, (818) 361-0186
Santa Barbara, 10th mission
Founded in 1786, the “Queen of the Missions” was the first to be christened by Father Lasuen, and has continuously served as a parish church for the local population since its founding. The church was destroyed in 1925 by earthquake; however, restorations have returned it to its original grandeur of wrought iron, terrra cotta and carved wood. Patterned after an ancient Latin chapel in pre-Christian Rome, its twin bell towers and Doric facade present an imposing impression of strength. Located on a hilltop overlooking the city, the mission provides a spectacular view of the ocean. The museum contains a vast store of historical material and displays many original items.
2201 Laguna St., Santa Barbara, 93105, (805) 682-4713
Santa Ines, 19th mission
Named for a 13 year-old Roman martyr, St. Agnes, who refused to sacrafice to the pagan gods in 304 AD, Santa Ines was dedicated in 1804 by Father Estevan Tapis. Amazingly, it survived the numerous earthquakes. The museum contains a notable collection of vestments, church records and missals, and the church displays some of the original decorations on a wall behind the alter. A historic grape arbor shelters a walkway that transports the visitor back in time, emerging in the lovely gardens that appear today much as they did nearly 200 years ago.
1760 Mission Dr., Solvang, CA 93463, Solvang, 93464, (805) 688-4815
La Purisima Conception, 11th mission
Founded in 1787 by Father Lasuen the mission is located 50 miles west of Santa Barbara. Considered to be the best example of mission architecture, it has 37 rooms that have been completely restored and furnished. Volunteers perform living history demonstrations of mission life such as candle making and weaving. In the garden area, water flows through a series of pools and a fountain before passing through the lavandareas where the mission women washed clothes. Plants were brought from the 20 other mission gardens to form one of the finest collections of early California flora in existence. Horses, cattle, burros and the four-horned Churro sheep graze in the quiet pastures.
2295 Purisima Rd., Lompoc, 93436, (805) 733-3713
San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, 5th mission
The humble chapel built of logs was dedicated to St. Louis, Bishop of Tolosa in 1772, and was the first mission to use tiles extensively on the roof due to repeated attacks by Indians who used flaming arrows to ignite the original thatched roof. Situated in the fertile, well-watered Valley of the Bears, the mission produced an abundance of crops, and two water-powered grist mills processed foods normally ground by hand. The mission underwent an extensive restoration program in the 1930’s and today welcomes visitors to its nearly-original condition. The museum features a rare collection of early California photographs, authentic Serra relics and specimens of Chumash Indian craftsmanship.
782 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo, 93401, (805) 543-6850
San Miguel Archangel, 16th mission
Founded in 1797 by Father Lasuen to complete the mission chain from San Luis Obispo to Mission Dolores in San Francisco, San Miguel was located in the Salinas Valley as a mid point between the San Luis Obispo and San Antonio Missions. Under the direction of Esteban Munros, the Indians painted the walls and ceilings with ornate designs; the original murals are today the best preserved in California. San Miguel had no bell tower, its 2,000 lb. bell rang out from a wooden platform in front of the mission and now sits in its own campanario behind the church. The mission has an annual fiesta on the third Sunday in September to celebrate the Feast Day of its patron, Saint Michael, chief of the Archangels and Prince of the Heavenly Armies.
801 Mission St., San Miguel, 93451, (805) 467-3256
San Antonia de Padua, 3rd mission
Located 40 miles north of Paso Robles this picturesque mission is nestled in the grasslands and oak trees of the San Antonio Valley. Named for a saint known as the ‘miracle worker’, it was dedicated in 1771 by Father Serra. The church is known for its campanario and archway bells, and is today largely restored to its original condition. The fertile soil, water and climate produced excellent wheat and pasture for herds of cattle and horses. The valley comes alive with wildflowers each spring when poppies, lupines and the Golden Blazing Star begin to bloom.
Mission Creek Rd., Jolon, 93928, (831) 385-4478
Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, 13th mission
The padres named this mission for Our Lady of Solitude in 1791, which fits the isolated location of Soledad. Settled next to the Salinas River in the pastures and rolling hills 45 miles south of Monterrey, this lonely outpost was cold, damp and frequently whipped by winds. The soil was rich and the water plentiful however, and by 1805 Soledad was producing more than 100,000 bushels of wheat per year, owned nearly 17,000 head of livestock, and had become well-known for its hospitality. The chapel and one wing of the quadrangle have been completely restored and the church still has the original title floor. A small museum is housed is the quadrangle.
36641 Ft. Romie Rd., Soledad, 93960, (831) 678-2586
San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, 2nd mission
Founded by Father Serra in 1770 on Pentecost Sunday, this m ission was considered to be his favorite, and both he and Father Lasuen are buried here. It served as the ecclesiastical capital of California and also as Father Serra’s headquarters for administrative duties as presidente of the missions. Set against the sea and mountains 115 miles south of San Francisco, this beautiful mission presents the complete quadrangle courtyard typical of mission architecture. The architecture is Moorish in design and the facade holds a star-shaped window directly above the main entrance. The gardens include culinary and medicinal herbs, citrus and olive trees, roses, Mexican sage and bougainvillea.
3080 Rio Rd., Carmel, 93923, (831) 624-3600
San Juan Bautista, 15th mission
Founded by Father Lasuen in 1797 this mission was unwittingly located directly above the San Andreas fault. Much of the original structure remains and has been restored to once again be the largest California mission church and the only one with three aisles. It was named for John the Baptist. Musical arts were taught here and the mission owned many instruments, which the Indians readily took to. Father Tapis developed a colored musical notation system and taught the Indians to read music as well as play it. Some of the parchments with colored notations still survive and the reredos behind the alter is so well-preserved that the paint is still brilliant.
Second and Mariposa Sts. in San Juan Bautista, 95045, (831) 623-4528
Santa Cruz, 12th mission
Although the soil was excellent and the location ideal, this mission never reached its potential. The dedication of Mission la Exaltacion de la Santa Cruz was made in 1791 by Father Lasuen at a site that was unfortunately located next to Branciforte pueblo, a community of ex-convicts and thieves. Shaken by earthquakes and frustrated by the influence and behavior of the colonists, the padres abandoned the mission. The chapel was eventually rebuilt to service the town that had grown up around the mission plaza, and today a half-scale replica of the 1794 Santa Cruz Mission Church sits about seventy-five yards from the original site.
126 High St., Santa Cruz, 95060, (831) 426-5686
Santa Clara de Asis, 8th mission
Located on the Guadeloupe River, the log chapel was founded in 1777 by Father Serra in honor of St. Clare only three months before his death. In 1851 the work began which ultimately produced Santa Clara University as we know it today. Located about 40 miles south of San Francisco, the main garden is devoted to tree roses, a mission tradition, and the string of willows planted along the miles between the mission and the pueblo of San Jose is today a well-traveled San Jose street known as The Alameda. Some initial mission walls exist and the bell tower holds the original bells sent from Spain. The University is rich in relics of the mission with a library of notable archival material.
500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, 95953, (408) 554-4023
San Jose, 14th mission
The most recent mission to have its church restored, the work truly captures the look and feel of its 1830’s prosperity. Founded in 1797 by Father Lasuen, the fertile site was chosen because of its view of Mission Dolores and Yerba Buena Island. At one time the mission lands reached north almost to Oakland and east to include the Sacramento Delta. The mission was named after Joseph, spouse of Mary and while nothing remains of the original church, the $5 million remodel has closely reproduced the 1809 structure. A parish church now stands on the site with relics including a hammered baptismal font, altar bells and vestiments
43300 Mission Blvd., Fremont, 94539, (510) 657-1797
San Francisco de Asis, Mission Dolores, 6th mission
On a site selected by Juan Bautista de Anza, the first mission church was a 50-foot long log and mud structure that was eventually moved to higher ground, adjacent to Lake Dolores which gives it its second name, Mission Dolores. Dedicated to Saint Francis by Father Serra in 1776, today the mission sits in the heart of San Francisco and is the oldest building in the city. Much of the original church interior is intact and the guilded reredos and colorful wall paintings are good examples of early California art.
3321 16th St., San Francisco, 94114, (415) 621-8203
San Rafael Arcangel, 20th mission
This mission is located 20 miles north of San Francisco at the foot of Mount Tamalpais. It was established as a sanitarium and hospital for San Francisco neophytes suffering from depression and disease. The one padre in California who had medical training, Luis Gil y Taboado was so successful that other missions soon began sending their sick Indians. Within five years it was raised to full mission status and dedicated to the patron of health in 1817. The small church with star windows was modeled after Carmel, however the structure was torn down in 1870 to be used for firewood. Today a chapel at the site duplicates most of the original mission church.
1104 Fifth Ave., San Rafael, 94901, (415) 454-8141
San Francisco Solano, 21st mission
Founded in 1823 on July 4 by Father Jose Altimira, this historic mission is the site of the Bear Flag Revolt and the effort to establish the Republic of California in 1846. The church seen today is a parish church built in 1840; the original was mostly washed away by a tremendous thunderstorm. A small portion of the original quadrangle exists, and the world-famous Sebastiani Vineyards include much of the original mission vineyard. The annual Vintage Festival is the oldest in the state, and each year the blessing of the grapes is performed by a Franciscan priest in front of the mission. A small museum is housed in the former padres wing with a display of California mission paintings.
20 E. Spain St., Sonoma, 95476, (707) 938-1519
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Photo: Mission San Luis Rey, the King of the Missions in Oceanside, California