The 21 California Missions
article and images by Carole Terwilliger Meyers
The romantic and interesting mission era in California’s history began in the late 1760s, when King Charles III of Spain gave permission to the Franciscan Order in Mexico to develop missions in Alta–a region that today comprises the entire state. The missions themselves originated in 1697 in Loreto, in Baja California, where the padres walked without shoes because they believed that the more pain you had on earth, the more joy you received in heaven. The missions were intended to repel foreign invasion from Russia and England. Spain hoped to control the surrounding land with just a few padres and soldiers assisted by native Indians who tended the fields and cattle. The most famous of the padres was Junipero Serra, who accompanied Gaspar de Portola’s first land expedition of California and who founded the first nine missions. The string of 21 missions is sometimes called “Father Serra’s Rosary.”
California’s “crown jewels” run the length of the state. They feature a distinct architecture of thick adobe bricks, terra-cotta tile roofs, and enclosed patios and gardens. Many of the mission gardens and fountains still provide visitors with a tranquil retreat, just as they did two centuries ago when the Franciscan padres presided over them. Some of the missions have been almost completely restored, while others are in ruins. A few no longer retain any physical evidence of the graceful church and quadrangle that once existed, replaced now by dusty spaces or even modern buildings. Still, each site provides a sense of what life was like during the mission era. Relics such as artwork, vestments, and utensils are displayed in small museums, making a visit an educational experience for young and old alike. Modern cities have sprouted on most of the formerly serene, undeveloped lands that once surrounded the missions, but in some, located mostly between Santa Barbara and the Monterey Peninsula, the ocean views, quaint coastal communities, and expansive countryside remain relatively unchanged.
California fourth-graders generally tour one of the missions on a field trip as part of their studies, but children of all ages will enjoy a visit because room is available for romping and the sites often are home to farm animals. Most missions schedule Living History Days, when docents dress in period clothing and demonstrate period crafts. Although it took the padres a day’s journey on foot to walk from one mission to the next along the trail then known as the El Camino Real, you can easily visit several in one day by following the Mission Trail from San Diego to Sonoma along Highway 101, which was the former El Camino Real, or “King’s Highway.” Keep an eye open for the bronze mission bells hanging from posts marking the route. You might want to try to visit them all eventually, checking off one at a time as you visit on various trips.
Admission is usually by donation, which is used for restoration and maintenance, and the state parks adjoining many of the mission grounds provide ideal family picnic sites and rest stops for weary travelers.
Note: The missions are listed here in the order they are found going north.
San Diego County
Miles of sandy beaches, secluded coves, and magnificent cliffs greeted the padres and Spaniards who arrived at the beautiful port of San Diego to establish the first permanent settlement. Now one of California’s major cities, San Diego began as a result of the two missions founded here.
San Diego de Alcala (#1)
10818 San Diego Mission Rd., in Mission Valley, in San Diego.
Founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1769 at a site near the mouth of the San Diego River, this was the first California mission. Also known as the San Diego Mission and the “Mother of the Missions,” it was relocated here–6 miles from its original site–in 1774 and has been rebuilt several times, making the current church the fifth on this site. It is now a peaceful island amid a busy shopping area. The mission church was named a minor basilica (a church of very important historical significance) by the Pope in 1976, and is one of only four of the California missions that are basilicas. Two striking features are its impressive bell tower featuring one original bell and the restored church featuring textured plastering typical of Indian craftsmanship. The well-maintained old gardens are also noteworthy. You can rent a taped tour, which kids 7 and older particularly enjoy.
An annual Festival of the Bells that celebrates the mission’s founding takes place each July and includes a carnival and a blessing of both the bells and animals.
More things to do in San Diego.
San Luis Rey de Francia (#18)
4050 Mission Ave., in Oceanside, 5 miles east of San Diego.
Founded in 1798 and one of the most impressive in the chain, this mission was named for the French King Louis IX. Known as Mission San Luis Rey and nick-named the “King of the Missions,” it is the largest California mission and features a graceful cross-shaped church and beautifully restored bell tower. It is a prime example of Spanish Colonial architecture with Moorish influences. The first pepper tree brought to California still grows in the vast fruit orchards here, and a sunken garden and laundry resemble the ruins of a Roman amphitheater. An attractive feature of the mission is the octagon-shaped mortuary chapel. A passageway through the walls of the chapel leads to a balcony once used by mission Indians for viewing their dead from above. The original reredos panel acts as an ornamental screen and backdrop to the main altar and holds religious paintings and sculptures.
In August, the Franciscan fathers open the mission to families for a Family Vacation Retreat program. After breakfast, guests can attend an optional Mass, then have the day free. Dinner is served each evening, followed by an optional prayer session and movie. Facilities include a swimming pool plus volleyball, basketball, and tennis courts, and the beach is just 4 miles away. Adobe-making and a tour of the grounds are also available. The modest rates include breakfast and dinner.
●San Antonio De Pala (no number)
3015 Pala Mission Rd., in Pala, 20 miles northeast of Oceanside.
Established in 1816, this is the only surviving asistencia mission. Originally there was a plan to build a second chain of mission more inland but it failed to get approval. These asistencia missions were to act as extensions or sub-missions of the original “mother” missions. Mission Pala was built a day’s ride by horse east of Mission San Luis Rey. Today this mission remains an active Church, with Mass celebrated daily, and it still ministers to the local Indian population. The peaceful cemetery is well cared for and has lovely old headstones. The small chapel is also well maintained and features a ceiling with rustic handmade beams, the original flooring, and original Indian art. Two small rooms feature historical displays with artifacts that include baskets and religious figures. The bell tower is unusual in the mission system in that it is detached. It is modeled after a tower in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and the two bells were cast in Mexico. The cemetery is still in use and holds the remains of hundreds of Indians and early settlers.
When the Franciscan padres got to Orange County, they discovered a fertile place blessed with a mild climate. The fields outside the missions here yielded abundant harvests of grains, vegetables, and fruit, and livestock flourished on the open range.
San Juan Capistrano (#7)
26801 Ortega Hwy./Camino Capistrano, in San Juan Capistrano, a few miles south of town. This “Jewel of the Missions” was founded in 1776 and was once the most elaborate and beautiful in the chain. The domed church existed only 6 years before being flattened by an earthquake in 1812. Said to be the oldest building still in use in California and the biggest stone building west of the Mississippi, the picturesque ruins of the church are covered in ivy. White doves and other birds splash in the quadrangle’s cool fountains situated amid beautiful gardens and graceful weeping willows. A small adobe structure called “Father Serra’s Chapel,” with a 300-year-old baroque reredos (a framed structure behind the altar), is the only surviving mission building where a founding father actually officiated. You can peer into the padres’ quarters, a kitchen, classrooms, and a candle factory. A strikingly painted new church with seven domes, modeled exactly after the one destroyed the 1812 earthquake, is now open.
This mission is also known as the “Mission of the Swallows” because of the legendary return of hundreds of these birds each year on March 19, known as both St. Joseph’s Day and Swallows Day. The swallows fly in all the way from Goya, Argentina, and their arrival is celebrated with a traditional Mexican fiesta. The swallows traditionally leave on October 23. On Living History Days, docents dress is historical costumes and demonstrate crafts. This is the third most popular tourist attraction in Orange County, after Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. Expect crowds.
Download a map of the mission.
Download a map of the town.
Things to do in nearby Laguna Beach.
Greater Los Angeles Area
During the mission era, agricultural development centered in the San Gabriel Valley, a fertile area with timber, pastures, and plenty of water. Just over the hill, the padres discovered another fertile valley–the San Fernando Valley–and established a second mission to close the gap between the Central Coast missions and San Gabriel Arcangel.
San Gabriel Arcangel (#4)
537 W. Mission Dr., in San Gabriel, 9 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
Founded in 1771 (10 years before the city of Los Angeles), this was one of the wealthiest missions in Southern California. It differs architecturally from most of the other missions. An immense, fortress-like structure with 5-foot thick walls, it features narrow windows not found in any other mission. Highlights include a copper baptismal font, museum, kitchen, winery, gardens, and graveyard.
San Fernando Rey de Espana (#17)
15151 San Fernando Mission Blvd., in Mission Hills, 25 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.
Founded in 1797, this is the southernmost of the four inland missions. Its convent is the largest freestanding adobe in the state. A plain, unimposing replica of the original chapel stands here along with a massive gravity-fed fountain. The old mission gardens, known now as Brand Park, features flowers and shrubs from each of the other missions, and a 35-bell carillon rings out on the hour.
The mission celebrates an annual fiesta during the third week in July.
The Central Coast
A diverse landscape of sculptured cliffs, rugged seascapes, and lush wine valleys provides the backdrop for the ten missions founded along the central coast.
San Buenaventura (#9)
211 E Main St., in Ventura.
Located approximately 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles, this mission, built in 1782, was the last founded by Father Serra. It was restored in 1957 to look as it did originally. It features an unusual triangular design on its front façade and is known for its beautiful gardens and archaeological museum housing artifacts from an area excavation. The mission church remains an active Catholic parish.
Santa Barbara (#10)
2201 Laguna St., in Santa Barbara.
Founded in 1786, this gem was known as the “Queen of the Missions” and has served as a parish church continuously since then. Two towers grace the stately façade, and a restored padres’ kitchen is part of an impressive museum. Lush green gardens cover the grounds, and an especially beautiful cloister garden, with palm trees and a fountain, is situated in the enclosed quadrangle.
Santa Ines (#19)
1760 Mission Dr., in Solvang.
Founded in 1804 and located in a rustic setting about 40 miles north of Santa Barbara, this mission is referred to as the “hidden gem.” Fully restored, it has hand-painted murals and lovely gardens where you can rest for a while and enjoy the sounds of chirping birds. It has a bell tower and a museum with a notable collection of vestments, church records, and missals. You can activate a recording that explains the artifacts you are viewing in each exhibit room. My favorite room is the Madonna Chapel, where depictions of the Black Madonna and the Virgin of Guadalupe are among the artworks. The mission has always been an active Catholic Church and holds public Mass in the tiny church.
More things to do in Solvang.
La Purisima Concepcion (#11)
2295 Purisima Rd., in La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, 20 miles west of Solvang via Hwy. 246, near Lompoc.
If you can only visit one mission, this is your best choice. Founded in 1787 and located about 50 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, it was demolished by an earthquake in 1812 and has been reconstructed and completely restored and is now a state historic park. Its design is drastically different from the other missions. Rather than square, cloistered patterns, the mission is laid out in a straight line, with heavily supported walls that made escape routes more accessible in case of earthquakes. Set on 1,000 acres, the park has nine buildings and the original aqueduct as well as 25 miles of hiking and riding trails. Rooms are furnished in 1820s style, and you’ll see how the Indians practiced mission crafts such as processing hides and making candles. Challenge your kids to spot the rare four-horn churro sheep.
Swallows swarm from March through October, and you’ll see more here than at San Juan Capistrano. An annual fiesta in May recreates the mission’s early days. More special events include a candle-light tour and, in December, a celebration of its founding.
Things to do in nearby Solvang.
San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (#5)
782 Monterey St., in downtown San Luis Obispo.
Founded in 1772, this was the first mission to introduce the red clay roof tile–which successfully repelled the flaming arrows used in attacks by Native Americans. This complex has been extensively restored and includes a fragrant rose garden and a museum that displays rare early California photos and . Found to the right of the gift shop, its charming chapel has a simple façade with a belfry and vestibule–unique among the state’s missions–and is still used for services. Many of the statues and paintings date to the early 1800s.
An adjacent plaza and park with mature shady trees provides large grassy areas, stream-hugging paths, and inviting open-air cafes.
More things to do in San Luis Obispo.
San Miguel Arcangel (#16)
775 Mission St., in San Miguel, a few miles north of Paso Robles..
Founded in 1797, this mission’s present building was constructed in 1816. Though the outside architecture is simple, the original, unretouched neoclassical frescoes inside–done by parish Indians under the direction of professional artist Esteban Munras–are especially noteworthy. The reredos features marble pillars with intricate geometric patterns displaying a dazzling array of colors, and original sheepskin window coverings are also still in use. Beehive ovens and olive presses are displayed in the gardens, and shaded picnic tables are provided. A fiesta is held each September on the third Sunday.
The 1846 Rios Caledonia Adobe is located nearby. Once part of the mission estate, this 2-story adobe has served as a hotel, stagecoach office, school, and family home. It is restored and furnished to reflect the past.
San Antonio de Padua (#3)
In Jolon, 23 miles southwest of King City/Hwy. 101 via Jolon Rd.
Founded in 1771 by Father Serra and known as the “Jewel of the Santa Lucias,” this is one of the largest restored and rebuilt missions. Original remains at the remote, picturesque site include the well, grist mill, tannery, and parts of the aqueduct system. The imposing façade of its church is known for both the campanile located in front and its archway bells. Both the church and the quadrangle are restored. A museum exhibits Native American artifacts. The site is especially beautiful in the spring, when the surrounding grasslands are abloom with wildflowers.
An annual fiesta is held the second weekend in June. Retreat rooms are available.
Nuestra Senora de la Soledad (#13)
36641 Fort Romie Rd., off Paraiso Springs Rd., in Soledad, 3 miles west of Hwy. 101.
Named for the Spanish word for solitude, this isolated mission sits next to the Salinas River among peaceful green pastures and rolling hills. Built in 1791, it was abandoned in 1835 and crumbled into ruin. In 1935, volunteers rebuilt the living quarters and the chapel, which retains its original tile floor.
San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo (#2)
3080 Rio Rd., in Carmel, 1 mile south of town off Hwy. 1.
Father Junipero Serra, who established this mission in 1770 and used it as his headquarters for managing the entire chain of missions, is buried here at the foot of the altar. It is also referred to as the Carmel Mission. An intriguing star window graces the rough sandstone walls and Moorish bell tower of the façade, and a museum displays Native American artifacts, mission tools, and re-creations of both the original mission kitchen and California’s first library. The quadrangle courtyard garden features a peaceful fountain, and close by is a cemetery where more than 3,000 mission Indians are buried. Because the development of the Carmel area came later, after Monterey, this is one of only two historic adobes in Carmel (the other is now a private home).
An annual fiesta is held on the last Sunday in September.
More things to do in Carmel.
San Juan Bautista (#15)
402 S. Second St., in San Juan Bautista.
Founded in 1797 and now owned by the Catholic Church, this site has the largest church of all the missions. Though it sits right on top the San Andreas Fault and was almost destroyed by the 1906 earthquake, it retains its bright red and blue reredos and altar painted by Thomas Doak–the first American settler in California. Things here might looks familiar, especially if you’re a movie buff, as this was a major location in the Alfred Hitchcock-directed movie Vertigo.
The mission is part of San Juan Bautista State Historic Park, whose assortment of restored buildings allows you to see what life was like in this area in the early 1800s. One, the Castro-Breen Adobe, sits on the plaza in a picturesque area perfect for picnicking. In another, the restored Plaza Hotel, you can view a video introduction to the mission complex. Annually on Father’s Day weekend, the Early Days program presents re-enactments of 19th-century townspeople performing everyday tasks, such as tortilla-making and baking bread in a hornito oven, and the Plaza Hotel’s famous bar is opened for business. Living History days occur on the first Saturday of each month.
San Francisco Bay Area
The five missions built in this scenic area are often shrouded in thick fog in the winter and warmed by sunny, moderate temperatures in the spring.
Mission Santa Cruz (#12)
Built in 1794 and destroyed in an earthquake in 1857, the mission was rebuilt in 1931 as this half-size replica. It houses a small museum displaying original statues, candlesticks, and paintings, as well as ornate vestments and a baptismal font.
Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park
144 School St., in Santa Cruz.
A block away, this historic park exhibits a furnished living quarters used by Native American families. Tours are available. A large Victorian garden gone wild, with several tall redwoods and a giant avocado tree that is one of the oldest in the state, invites leisurely picnicking.
Living History Day, when docents in period dress oversee a variety of crafts activities, occurs each month.
More things to do in Santa Cruz.
Santa Clara de Asis (#8)
500 El Camino Real, in Santa Clara.
The original Santa Clara mission, founded in 1777 by Father Thomas de la Pena, was built on a site beside the Guadalupe River and destroyed by a flood. Rebuilt in 1928, this replica is on the immaculately groomed grounds of Santa Clara University–California’s first institution of higher learning and the state’s first coeducational Catholic university. Now a State Historical Landmark, the mission holds some interesting relics, including three bells that were a gift from the king of Spain and original artwork by professional artist Agustin Davila, who painted the original mission’s interior. Extensive lush gardens showcase hundreds of roses–several are classified as antique varieties–and a wide variety of trees and plants. Some of the oldest cultivated plants in California are found here: olive trees planted by Franciscan friars in 1822, a giant 123-year-old Jacaranda tree, and the oldest wisteria in Northern California. Full bloom occurs April through May.
Just across from the mission, the university’s de Saissat Museum hosts rotating exhibits from a permanent collection featuring the work of artists such as Goya, Bonnard, and Hogarth, and of photographers such as Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and Annie Leibovitz. It also features an extensive California history collection related to the area.
San Jose De Guadalupe (#14)
43300 Mission Blvd./Washington Blvd., in Fremont.
Marking the center of the oldest community in the East Bay, this mission was founded in 1797. It is also known as Old Mission San Jose and was the only mission built in the East Bay. Though little remains of the original structure, part of the original adobe monastery wing now holds exhibits. Of particular note are the peaceful graveyard and the beautiful interior of the 1809 New England Gothic-style St. Joseph’s Church.
More things to do in Fremont.
San Francisco de Asis (#6)
3321 16th St./Dolores St., Mission District, in San Francisco.
Known commonly as Mission Dolores, this relatively small mission’s chapel was completed in 1791 and is the oldest intact building in San Francisco. It is still used for services. Its cool adobe and redwood interior offers pleasant respite from the occasional hot San Francisco day. Of special interest is the chapel ceiling painted in Ohlone Indian tribal patterns and colors originally produced by vegetable dyes. Also, a picturesque enclosed cemetery garden is landscaped to period correctness. It contains an Ohlone tule-reed house, and all the plants growing here were once used in some way by the resident Native Americans. The mission’s cemetery is one of only two remaining in San Francisco (the other is at the Presido), and, although only 200 tombstones are visible, 5,000 people are actually buried on the mission site. A tiny museum completes the complex.
More things to do in San Francisco’s Mission District.
San Rafael Arcangel (#20)
1104 5th Ave./A St., in downtown San Rafael.
Founded in 1817 and named for the angel of healing, this mission was abandoned in 1842, razed in 1870, and rebuilt as a replica in 1949 on the approximate site of the original mission. It embodies some of the characteristics of the original mission church–star windows modeled after those at the Carmel Mission and a bell hung from cross beams. It now serves as the St. Raphael Church, and visitors can take a self-guided audio tape tour. A tiny adjoining museum displays vintage photos of its reconstruction and original furniture.
More things to do in San Rafael.
The Wine Country
The final mission was established amid the lush, fertile valley that today is one of the state’s richest wine regions.
San Francisco Solano de Sonoma (#21)
Sonoma State Historic Park
On the plaza, along Spain St., in Sonoma. No dogs. This extensive park preserves structures dating from the early 1800s, when General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, founder of Sonoma, was Mexico’s administrator of Northern California. The mission is now part of this park.
●Barracks This 2-story, whitewashed adobe building once housed Vallejo’s soldiers. It now displays historical exhibits. Vallejo drilled his soldiers across the street in what is now the town square.
●San Francisco Solano de Sonoma This re-created mission is next door and across the street from the Barracks. Founded in 1823 and the most northerly and last in the chain of California missions, this historic site has been through a lot. It burned to the ground twice, was the victim of a Native American uprising, and sustained serious damage in the area’s infamous 1906 earthquake. Then it went through a period as a saloon, a winery, and even a hennery. It now houses a museum and an 1840s parish church. A collection of watercolors depicting each of California’s 21 missions is on permanent display. The paintings were done in 1903 by Chris Jorgensen, who traveled from mission to mission by horse and buggy. An adobe section of the mission’s original quadrangle is located near the church, which is said to host a ghost, and an impressive old prickly pear cactus forest graces the courtyard.
●Toscano Hotel and Kitchen This beautifully restored mining-era hotel was built in 1858.
●General Vallejo’s Home Located at the end of a long, tree-shaded lane ½-mile west of the plaza, this classic 2-story Victorian Gothic has its original furnishings. Shaded picnic tables are here along with a Victorian garden and another giant prickly pear cactus garden.
More things to do in the Wine Country.
Also in the Sonoma area is the California Missions Museum at Cline Cellars. It showcases intricate handmade models of the 21 missions made for display at the 1939 World’s Fair at Treasure Island. The collection took 30 German cabinetmakers 4 years to build.
More things to do in Sonoma.
(Carole Terwilliger Meyers blogs at Travels With Carole.
Copyright 2023 Carole Terwilliger Meyers,)