Visiting the Historic California Missions Trail
Beginning in the 18th century, twenty-one missions were established in California by the Spanish, along what became known as El Camino Real (The “King’s Highway,” or “The Royal Road”). Every one of these 21 missions can be visited today.
The purpose of the mission system was simply to convert the native populations to Christianity. What actually occurred was a creation of civilization that has evolved over the centuries into the leading-edge modern state of California we know today.
The building of each mission complex brought the need for farming, ranching, and industry. Previously unknown livestock, fruits, flowers, and grains were introduced, and by the time the final mission was built in 1823 California had changed from a wild, untamed land to a thriving territory of agriculture and industry.
The missions were built one day’s travel from each other along El Camino Real which was built and maintained by the priests and missionaries. Today El Camino Real has been designated a California Historical Site, and in reality is covered by several state highways as well as city streets. However, you’ll know when you are on it as it is marked along its entire length by 555 historic bell markers. (see photo)
The first mission built in California was at the very southern tip of the state – San Diego de Alcala (see photo below). The site was dedicated by Father Junipero Serra in July of 1769. Although an active Catholic parish in the Diocese of San Diego, the beautiful white adobe mission covered in brilliant bougainvillea can be toured by visitors. Here you even see gardens where flowering hibiscus trees, as well as olive, citrus and avocado trees date back two centuries.
The 21st and last mission – San Francisco Solano – was founded 54 years later, in 1823 by Father Jose Altimira. It is the only mission not founded by the Spanish, but instead by the Mexican government which had by then won its independence from Spain.
In 1846 this mission became the site of the Bear Flag Revolt. Unaware that the Mexican-American War had started because of the U.S. annexation of Texas, American settlers in the Mexican territory of northern California revolted against the Mexican government.
With Mission San Francisco Solano as its central headquarters, the settlers established the Republic of California which lasted 26 days until the U.S. Army arrived to claim the area.
This last mission is located in present-day Sonoma, in California’s Wine Country. In the late 19th century the mission began a slow decline, and was eventually abandoned as a parish church. The remaining crumbling buildings were variously used as a barn, a winery, a blacksmith shop, and a chicken coop.
The mission property was eventually bought and restored by the California Historic
Landmarks League, and is now officially known as the Sonoma Mission State Historic Park.
Much of the original mission vineyard is now incorporated in the world-famous Sebastiani Vineyards.
On your way along the California Missions Trail from the first mission to the last, you might want to stop at Mission San Carlos Borromeode Carmelo, the secondmission that was built –near modern day Carmel, an easy hour’s drive from San Francisco. It is the only one of California’s missions to still have its original bell tower dome. Established by Father Junipero Serra in 1770, this mission was Father Serra’s favorite, and is where he is buried.
Other missions that are particularly beautiful and warrant a visit include:
1. San Juan Capistrano, the 7th mission. Each year on March 19, St. Joseph’s Day, the return of the swallows from Argentina is celebrated with a traditional Mexican fiesta.
2. Santa Barbara, (see photo below) the 10th mission. So beautiful that it’s called the “Queen of the Missions,” this mission has continuously served as a parish church since being founded in 1786.
Alice Perkins is a timeshare travel blogger for RedWeek.com, the largest online market place for timeshare rentals, where vacationers can find luxury accommodations for less than the cost of a typical hotel room.