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Anyone done a trip of the missions in California?

I’ve been reading a lot of history during lockdown. An idea came to me (which I haven’t even begun to investigate yet) of perhaps visiting some of the missions established in Southern California. Anyone done a trip like this? Is there enough history at the various missions to make it worthwhile?

I’m just kicking around ideas, obviously no serious plans will be made until domestic travel is safe. Plus, I’ll have to think if I really want a trip where I’ll have to drive, especially in the heavy traffic of California.

I wouldn’t be going just for the mission history, I’d do my usual museum visits as well that I always do.

Posted by
4104 posts

I've thought a missions trip would be a lovely way to see a lot of California. Since I live in the state, I visit each mission when I'm in the area. Many of the missions have small museums and self-guided tours, often with audio available at the displays. One of the museums (nearer the Bay Area) is in a state park that has some of the old buildings that surround the mission, and are also available to tour, for a separate fee.

Some of the missions are better preserved than others. Many still hold masses.

There is a small Missions Museum at the Cline Winery (north of the Bay Area) that displays models of "all 21 California missions, built to scale in 1939 for the California Pacific Exhibition. The building was designed and constructed specifically to house these models." Worth an hour to visit.

With 21 missions, stretching from San Diego to Sonoma, north of San Francisco, the missions could easily be their own itinerary. Or pick a cluster of missions and visit the nearby towns while you're in the area.

Posted by
4104 posts

Plus, I’ll have to think if I really want a trip where I’ll have to drive, especially in the heavy traffic of California.
There's not much heavy traffic now! Road projects are being completed in record time, while traffic is low and roads can be closed. But, of course, the missions are also closed.

Many of the missions are in bucolic, rural areas, not subject to the traffic you're envisioning near the big cities. Though, of course, there are also urban missions, such as the one in San Francisco.

The traffic you are likely to encounter (outside times of a pandemic) at many of the missions is swarms of California 4th graders, studying the missions as part of California history and in preparation for their "mission projects." I didn't attend 4th grade in California, but I gather these projects can be quite competitive! At those missions popular with 4th grade classes, you'll have a quieter experience early in the morning, toward the end of the school day, and during school breaks.

Posted by
2677 posts

Many years ago when we moved to California this seemed like a good idea. We visited several missions and our impression was huh, this is it? Spanish mission architecture, some displays, a small shop, Junipero Serra chotchkas, that was it. Years later the history of Spaniards using the mission movement to colonize and convert Native Americans became widely published. I’m not sure I’d craft a vacation around the California missions but some with more recent experience might think otherwise.

Posted by
1932 posts

Having lived in various areas of California and having to help with the yearly 4th grade Mission project with my kids
x 3, I'd say visiting a few would probably be sufficient depending on the area of California you might want to visit. Each Mission is about a days ride by donkey from the next one. Mission San Juan Capistrano and the Santa Barbara Missions are my favorites, but there are others worth visiting as well. Traffic should not be a problem in rural areas. No school kids at Missions in the summer except for tourists. I doubt any will be going on field trips during the next school year.

Posted by
1361 posts

We did our Honeymoon in December driving south on the 101. It was a lot of fun going through all the smaller towns, visiting the Missions, Antique Stores and Wineries, the Beaches, etc. Go over to Hwy One and visit Hearst Castle. Go over the Golden Gate and visit San Francisco. Visit Santa Barbara. Visit Mission Carmel and San Juan Capistrano. On to San Diego. Don't worry about the traffic...try following the El Camino Real for fun. We drove back North on the I-5 to make time. We did do Highway One all the way North from the Bay Area. It takes a very long windy time. We were thankful when we finally reached Crescent City.

Posted by
7038 posts

I lived in California for 20+ years so I saw many, if not most, of the missions. They are very spread out from north to south and also compete with so many other California attractions that it would be difficult to craft a trip just around the missions. They are worth seeing and comparing though, and make nice side trips - my favorites are San Juan Capistrano and Carmel, although they are all beautiful in their own way.

If you are are interested is a much more compact and doable way of seeing missions that wouldn't involve a car, check out the 4 missions in San Antonio since they are very similar in terms of architecture and history to the California missions. They are all accessible via the Riverwalk trail extension. My friend and I made a day of walking 8-10 miles from the furthest one to the next (furthest), etc, and then eventually back to the hotel...all along a very nice trail. They were more modest than some I've seen in California though, but that's OK. Still interesting and enjoyable.

Posted by
850 posts

I have visited most of them over the past 50 years. Never did it as a road trip, but started out with family trips and school projects and would up being just something we did as we explored California and learned a bit about the history. My favorites are the ones almost nobody visits. Mission San Antonio De Padua is fantastic, and the area around it is even better. You could be the only visitor in a week easy. It sits on a Federal Military Installation, Ft Hunter Leggett, about a hour from King City. And, as if that's not enough, the Fort is part (just a part) of William Rndolph Hearst's private hunting preserve, and his old hunting lodge is still there to visit also. (You used to be able to stay the night there, but I don't know if that's still an option.) And, adding to the greatness of the area, there's a section of the Palisades there too, and almost nobody but locals and hunters ever hike it. I always see elk, sometimes antelope, and I've seen more bobcat and Puma there than anywhere else in CA. And it's a nice mission, still running, with a nice garden. Makes for a really good day when I visit.

Mission San Miguel Arcángel is the next closest mission, and it's right next to hwy 101. You can look into the mission grounds from the road if you know where to look. It's not a good as Mission San Antonio De Padua, but it's right there, about halfway between King City and Paso Robles.

The Mission Santa Inez is in Solvang, and I'm pretty sure that's the only reason it gets the number of visitors it does. When I was a kid we would drive up and have a picnic on the grounds after church services. It always brings back memories of hitting the deli in town and then sitting on the lawn looking out over the valley when I visit (which I probably won't ever do again). Solvang wasn't a tourist place back then. It is now. Things change.

If you want to do them as a road trip, do it right. Travel the route of the El Camino Real, almost all of which is paved over now and can be driven. It's a more interesting drive than 66 ever was. And a lot less well known.

Posted by
1277 posts

Daley, et all, as an alternative, know that you can do similar things from san Antonio Texas, w the Alamo being on the string. I have done it as a day drive, would like to do it more in depth.

Posted by
3494 posts

My parents took a California mission tour trip many years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. Theirs was managed by the church they attended and it covered quite a few of the more isolated missions. They had 3 bus loads of people, but done in the RS style of only halfway filling each bus. They also did a tour of the Texas missions. I have always wanted to do a similar tour just because of the history involved with the expansion of the missions through the area.

Posted by
2070 posts

I did the mission trail in San Antonio a couple of years ago. I usually get a transit pass when I’m there. You can take the city bus to the farthest mission and walk the trail connecting the missions back to town or you can choose to take the bus between some of them. I felt pretty safe walking the trail as a single woman.

Posted by
1153 posts

I’ve been to a number of them, certainly not all. Some are better than others. If memory serves San Juan Capistrano and Mission Santa Barbara are among the more interesting. I think using the missions as sort of the backbone of a California road trip could be a good planning tool.

Posted by
2314 posts

Lots of good advice above (except about the TX missions being comparable to those in CA, ha) and my initial instinct would be to point out more explicitly that the northern CA missions are better than the SoCal ones, but I have to be honest and say that some of the SoCal spots are pretty good, too. Even LoCal -- the San Diego area ones have interesting exhibits and you can get a lot out of a deep dive in Balboa Park, and the nefarious history of the LDS expansionism efforts are also easier to dig up in SoCal.
Still, time your trip for when cool festivals and activities are happening, like the annual chalk art at Mission San Rafael
or the nifty blessing of the animals day to honor St. Francis that is done nicely at several Missions
As long as you tune your b.s. detector well ahead of time, you can gain a lot from the guides and exhibits at these spots.

Posted by
15448 posts

If you want to spend a week seeing mostly just the missions, it could be overload. The history is mostly the same. I visited many of them over the years I lived in the state. Taken one or two at a time was enjoyable. I'm not so sure I'd think that way seeing a dozen in a few days.

The beauty of coastal California is the variety. Scenic drives, wineries (don't combine them!!), wildlife viewing (sea otters, birds, elephant seals, monarch butterflies. . . ), lighthouses (really interesting and no two are similar), state and national parks to hike in, while staying on or very near the coast.

You could find lots to see and do, say, between San Jose and Santa Barbara - no big cities, not much traffic.

If you're up for a road trip along the coast, think about California/Oregon from San Francisco to Portland. The only problem traffic would be getting from the airport through the city. No missions but tons of other stuff. And the Oregon coast is at least as amazing.

Posted by
337 posts

Having lived in California 60 years, and having done enough Calif. road trips to visit every county at least twice, and some dozens of times, I have visited all but one mission, San Rafael just north of San Francisco. You can't really say one is "better" than another without saying what it is you find better. Some missions are merely a footprint of the original (e.g. Soledad), some have become state parks (La Purissima and Sonoma), some are still (or again) operating Catholic churches, and some are merely historical sites. As CWsocial says, the replicas at the Cline Winery in Sonoma county are very interesting and well-done. And the winery is lovely, with good wines, lovely picnic spots, and reasonable prices. We almost always stop there if we are in Sonoma valley wine-tasting.
Mission San Juan Capistrano, Mission Santa Barbara and Mission Dolores in San Francisco have artistic and architectural beauty. Mission San Antonio de Padua and Mission San Miguel Arcangel are notable for their original frescoes and preserved churches, and for the devotion of their parishioners. Las Purissima (near Lompoc) is operated by Calif. State Parks agriculturally as in mission days, so it does great in recreating mission life. So does San Juan Capistrano. Visiting all 21 missions is my goal, so one day I will get to San Rafael. By the way Junipero Serra's tomb is in the mission in Carmel.
Whatever your feelings about the Franciscan friars or the Spanish government in early California, the mission system is part of Calif. history. As others have said, I wouldn't do a trip to see all the missions at once. Visit the San Diego area and see three missions on that trip: San Diego de Alcala, San Luis Rey, and San Juan Capistrano. From Los Angeles you can visit San Gabriel and San Fernando missions in L.A. and San Buenaventura in Ventura. On a central California/Santa Barbara trip, visit Santa Barbara mission, La Purissima Concepcion, San Luis Obispo and Santa Inez. Next up Hwy 101 is San Juan Bautista, San Miguel Arcangel, San Antonio de Padua and Soledad. Not too far apart near Silicon Valley are San Carlos Borromeo (Carmel), Santa Clara de Asis, San Jose and Santa Cruz. From the San Francisco area you have San Rafael, San Francisco de Asis (Mission Dolores) and San Francisco Solano (Sonoma).

So you see, many road trips are needed here to cover all the missions, but they are as good an excuse as any to have at least one.( I LOVE Calif. road trips!) But along the way to and between the missions, there are lots of other things to see and do. My hubby and I often follow the odd road and find fascinating things here in the Golden State.
We have mountains, desert, ocean and golden rolling hills dotted with California Live Oak trees. Also, active volcanoes and surprisingly, a handful of covered bridges!
Oh yes, if you have heard of Huell Howser (RIP), he did a fantastic tv series on the missions. See if you can find it and it will inspire you. Hope you can get to California and relish its variety. (And yes, Hwy 1 north of San Francisco is a beautiful road trip. I can't begin to tell you of all the wonders you can see on Hwy. 1 in Calif. and Oregon!
Come visit us when you can!

Posted by
3653 posts

To me, the key word of your question is to visit some of the Missions as there are so many it may be too much to try and visit them all. I think you'll find value in visiting some of the Missions if combined with a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. We've visited several of the Missions over the years and find about an hour is enough in each. Our most recent was the Mission in Carmel in September which has a very good museum. In my opinion, the Pacific Coast Highway drive from around Half Moon Bay to Ventura makes an outstanding week-long drive and I rank it along with Lake Louise to Jasper in Alberta and the Amalfi Coast in Italy as my three favourite drives.

Posted by
4272 posts

We visited several missions and our impression was huh, this is it

I’ve seen 3 and am of the same feeling. Fine to see if I’m the area for other things, but not as a destination in themselves.

As to walking the San Antonio ones, that’s dedication for not very well preserved sites, and they can be a bit off the river. Maybe worth biking on a nice day.

between San Jose and Santa Barbara - no big cities, not much traffic

Monterey, Carmel, and points east have bad rush hour traffic on Hwy 1. Rush hour traffic can also be heavy around SLO and Santa Maria on 101.

Posted by
5192 posts

We've never done a trip just focusing on Missions, but on our travels, we've hit quite a few of them. I still enjoy seeing them. I think I've hit all of what people consider the "top missions" in California, except Santa Barbara.

Another idea is the missions in Texas. A few years back, we went to South Padre Islands for a few days and then drove thru the missions and up to San Antonio. The missions were lovely and the traffic was less of an issue than in CA.

Posted by
5828 posts

“Its the not the Destination, It's the journey.”

El Camino Real (The Royal Road) is a historic road linking the 21 Spanish missions of California. Stretching over 600 miles (1000 km) from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north, the route traverses much of the state and has been a popular traveler itinerary for California motorists for nearly a century. A trip along El Camino Real offers a fascinating look into California's history and takes you past scenic coastline, picturesque countryside, and through the heart of the state's largest cities.

Posted by
2157 posts

I have visited San Juan Capistrano and San Luis Rey Missions many times. Both are worth a visit. For something a little different, visit the Asistencia Mission in Redlands. When I was a kid, I used to walk out to visit it - after stopping at a nearby market to buy baseball cards!

Posted by
5828 posts

The history of the mission is sad but the modern day backroads connecting the missions is a great road trip.

KQED, the Ban area PBS television story of the real California El Camino Real chain of missions:

In America, there’s a rich tradition of just-got-here-yesterday people
concocting romantic origin myths, and a number of influential Southern
Californians wanted one of their own. They looked around and saw
crumbling Spanish missions: 21 of them, from the Mexican border all
the way north to Sonoma.

"The mission past that they construct was a fantasy past: heroic
missionaries, happy, contented Indians, fandangos all over the place,"
Senkewicz says.

Of course, what was really going on here was the enslavement of local
tribespeople, who were reeling under the impact of European diseases,
forced religious conversion and the destruction of their entire way of

Then of course the story about the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.

Posted by
1316 posts

What’s your opinion of Santa Barbara as a city to visit? I went as a college student and loved it, but I was staying with a friend who was an UCSB student, still can’t believe he managed to study with such a beautiful campus.

But, I’m older now and a bit too old for the college bar scene. I’d still take a tour of that campus again though.

Posted by
1153 posts

Yes to Santa Barbara! We stayed at the Simpson House. Lovely location, walking distance to the “downtown”, boardwalk and mission. Unfortunately chose to cut the trip short due to the Thomas Fire. But kudos to Simpson House for refunding the remainder of our stay. We had asked for a voucher but the owner said he’d rather refund the difference.

Posted by
4272 posts

Santa Barbara: I did not have expectations met, but it is a beautiful setting and there are things to do. The courthouse is quite a bit more interesting than the Mission, and no charge. Homeless problem is really sad and will effect your visit, but to be fair the whole West Coast has the same problem. If driving the street signs are done in an indecipherable font. Avoid the famous taco truck NE of downtown, La Super-Rica Taqueria, long waits, grotty seating, pedestrian food. The Belmond El Encanto has a breathtaking setting and I thought the very, very expensive meal was worth it. Wine can be fabulous in the area and wish I had set aside more time for that.

General SB advice: you may want to avoid busy weekends and cruise ship days.

Posted by
3800 posts

@Tom As a 34 year resident of Santa Barbara I’ve kind of kept quiet on this thread because I have such a strong opinion of the Mission (the best IMO). But it’s funny that you noticed our unique street signs and had issue with Julia Child’s favorite Mexican hole in the wall taqueria. Our weekly paper had an article on street signs a few years back. The font is Mission which makes sense.

As for La Super Rica, I’ve only been there a couple of times as I found other restaurants I more appealing on a variety of fronts too.

To the OP, I like the idea of a cluster of visits focusing on the southern or northern Missions but please don’t skip Santa Barbara.

Posted by
4272 posts

“to help older drivers and tourists better navigate Santa Barbara’s roads.”

They have got to kidding, these are the most illegible street signs for drivers, can’t read them until it’s too late to turn.

Posted by
3800 posts

@Tom. Welcome to SB and the Architectural Review Board. I didn’t mind the font but I personally hate when I’m traveling in an unfamiliar city and the block’s 100s or 1000s number isn’t included on the street sign. Also when there are Ave, Rd, Pl, Ct, etc it can be confusing to omit those on street signs. I did find it humorous that the ARB said they omitted those details in order to increase font size in order to help elderly and tourists. The ARB loves their font, sorry.