"There is a history and personality peculiar to each mission, a charm not yet lost in its own day, and strangely stirring to life again along the Camino Real."
--Cardinal Timothy Manning
It was in Baja, in 1768, that Father Junipero Serra, a 5-foot-2 Franciscan padre known as "the little giant," and Gen. Joseph de Galvez, a high-ranking representative of the Spanish Crown, made plans for a chain of missions to stretch along the California coastland, from San Diego to San Francisco.
Father Serra, whose motto was "always go forward and never look back," personally supervised the establishment of nine of the planned missions before his death in 1784. His perseverance in the face of difficult and primitive conditions set the example for the Franciscans who created the remaining mission chain.
Your mission: To travel along historic El Camino Real, the King's Highway, and give your family or friends a day trip to remember at one or more of the 10 missions (out of 21) that cluster closest to Los Angeles.
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala, 10818 San Diego Mission Road, San Diego, (619) 283-7319. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Cost: Adults $1, seniors and children 50 cents. Mission Basilica San Diego was the first mission in the chain, founded by Father Serra in 1769. Recognized by its impressive bell tower surmounted by a cross, this "Mother Mission" stands above the highway on a pepper-tree shaded hill. Highlights: 1) The mission grounds have been designated a "professional historic site" because of the archeological dig along the monastery and workshop foundations. A collection of artifacts recovered by University of San Diego students is displayed in the mission museum. 2) Stand at the top of the mission's wide brick stairway, and six miles across Mission Valley you can see the white tower of the Junipero Serra Museum. 3) The first irrigation system to be built in the West is in Mission Gorge to the northeast of the mission.
San Luis Rey de Francia, 4050 Mission Ave., San Luis Rey, (619) 757-3651. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily and 12:15-4 p.m. Sunday. Cost: Adults $1 and children 50 cents. Named a National Landmark in 1970, Mission San Luis Rey was the most extensive of the Spanish missions in the New World. Its buildings covered nearly six acres and were arranged around a patio 500 feet square. The elaborate sunken garden and lavanderia (laundry area) in front of the mission are now being restored. The "King of the Missions" was founded in 1798 and is 18th in the chain. Highlights: 1) The kitchen contains pots, pans, stoneware, utensils and glassware typical of the mission period. The rack hanging from the ceiling was used to protect food from rodents. 2) Be sure to see the oldest pepper tree in California, brought by a sailor from Peru and planted by Father Antonio Peyri in 1831. The venerable tree is in the Friary Garden. 3) The Robe Room here has the largest collection of old Spanish vestments anywhere in the United States, although only part of the collection is displayed at any one time.
San Juan Capistrano, 31882 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (714) 493-1424. Open 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, except Good Friday, noon-3 p.m. Cost: Adults $2 and children 50 cents. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Capistrano is its birds, the tame white pigeons that eat from a visitor's hand, and the famous swallows, which make a 6,000-mile migratory journey from Argentina each year to nest at the mission. The "Jewel of the Missions" was founded in 1776, seventh in the chain. Visitors can stroll through 10 acres of grounds, observing the life style of the friars, Indians and soldiers who once lived here. Highlights: 1) The Great Stone Church. When intact it had seven domes rising from an arched roof, and a bell tower was visible for miles around. 2) Serra Chapel, the oldest building still in use in California, contains antiques (including the 300-year-old gilded altar from Barcelona) saved from the earliest days of the mission. 3) The work shops, including the vats where tallow was made, and the old olive and grain crusher where the olive oil was manufactured for kitchen use, sanctuary lamps and for trade.
San Gabriel Archangel, 537 W. Mission Drive, San Gabriel, (818) 282-5191. Open 9:30 a.m.-4:15 p.m. daily. Cost: Adults $1 and children 50 cents. It was from San Gabriel Mission, 4th in the chain and founded in 1771, that 11 families set out to establish the Pueblo of Los Angeles nine miles away. Highlights: 1) The mission's long picturesque side wall, which is really the facade, is modeled after the Cathedral of Cordova in Spain. 2) The church here is the original, and it has been restored with a colorful interior done in red, gold and green. Note the original altar and pulpit and the hand-carved statues from Mexico. 3) The most unusual sacred paintings done by California Indians are here, these depicting the 14 Stations of the Cross.