Many are the families that, with the best of intentions, have gassed up the car and set out on one of the great American road trips—following the California mission trail, the legendary Camino Real—only to burn out halfway through, victims of adobe overload.
There are 21 missions, after all, and they’re spread over 600.2 miles. It’s one thing for your fourth graders to get excited about assembling a model of Mission San Francisco Solano out of sugar cubes, but it’s quite another to get them to sit in the back seat while you work your way up to Sonoma to see the real thing.
So, as an alternative for road-trippers who live in Orange County and want to immerse themselves in mission culture for a weekend, here’s a traveler’s take on the southernmost five missions in the state—all within easy reach.
Mission San Diego
The first Franciscan mission established by Father Junipero Serra in Alta California, San Diego de Alcala is known as the “Mother of the Alta California Missions.” Founded on July 16, 1769, the mission was dedicated to the Spanish Saint Didacus, more commonly known as San Diego. The current mission church was originally built in 1813 and was rebuilt and fully restored in 1931. The 46-foot campanario (bell wall) rises above the mission gardens and contains five bells, the largest of which is called Mater Dolorosa and weighs 1,200 pounds.
10818 San Diego Mission Road, San Diego. (619) 281-8449.
Mission San Luis Rey
Named for King Louis IX of France, the 18th mission to be established (dedicated in 1798) is located in a sheltered valley just east of Oceanside on State Highway 76. The mission gardens include a fruit orchard where California’s first pepper tree still grows. The church, completed in 1815, is the only surviving mission church laid out in a cruciform plan. Considered to be the most graceful of the missions architecturally, San Luis Rey features a sunken garden and lavanderia (laundry) located in a hollow that may be reached by descending 46 fire tiled steps.
4050 Mission Ave., San Luis Rey. (760) 757-3651.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
Orange County’s own, this seventh mission founded in 1776 is the best-known of all the missions in popular culture because of the yearly return each year of the familiar cliff swallows from Argentina on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19. The Old Stone Church, severely damaged by an earthquake in 1812, was replicated in the architecture of the present Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, adjacent to the original mission grounds. A magnificent gilded altarpiece fronts the Serra Chapel, where Father Serra celebrated Mass, and Masses continue to be celebrated regularly. The chapel, built in 1782, is the oldest building still in use in California.
Ortega Highway at Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. (949) 234-1300.
Mission San Gabriel Arcangel
Predating Mission San Juan Capistrano by five years, this fourth mission founded by Father Serra, located none miles east of downtown Los Angeles, is a fortress-like structure with five-foot-thick walls and narrow windows—a design found in no other mission. The largest vineyard in Spanish California was once part of the mission property and was the botanical source of many of the vines planed in other missions. One of the bells in the campanario weighs a ton and can be heard eight miles away. The hammered copper baptismal font was a gift of King Carlos III of Spain and the six rare altar statues were brought around Cape Horn from Spain in 1791.
428 S. Mission Drive, San Gabriel. (626) 457-3035.
Mission San Fernando
Named in honor of King Ferdinand III of Spain in 1797, the 17th mission features a convent, or long building, that is the largest free-standing adobe in California. The simple church is an exact replica of the mission’s third church, completed in 1806 and destroyed by the Sylmar earthquake of 1971. In 1842, an overseer on one of the mission’s ranches discovered gold particles clinging to the roots of wild onion bulbs growing in the area—the earliest gold strike in California. For years after, treasure seekers dug up the mission’s adobe walls and floors in search of the gold they mistakenly thought the padres had hidden.
15151 San Fernando Mission Blvd., Mission Hills. (818) 361-0186.