There are many facets to California’s history that make it an interesting place to explore. One of the most well known historical features that the land has to offer are the Missions, born from its historical connection to Mexico and the royalty of Spain. They were built as a way to proselytize the natives of the land to Catholicism, as part of Spain’s conquest of the new world. 21 of them were built along what is known as El Camino Real, today what runs along most of what is Highway 101. In present time, they are open for touring for the public to discover more about the history of our state, our nation, and the world, and to enjoy the beautiful treasures of gardens and architecture.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
The mission in San Juan Capistrano is the 7th of the 21 missions, founded November 1st, 1776, and is considered the “jewel of the missions”. It is located in the downtown historic district of the city of San Juan Capistrano, which is referred to as the birthplace of Orange County. The mission has large grounds to be explored, with both beautiful Spanish architectural features and gardens. You can join a group tour, available daily, held at various intervals, or do a self guided tour. A hand held audio device is available for free to listen to historical accounts of specific sites throughout the property. To use the device, simply enter the number that is posted on the site, or on the map to hear a brief description of the location. Activities are held at the mission on a regular basis, keeping this mission at the center of the community, and include concerts, crafts, and even sleepovers!
The grounds- The front gardens
Upon entering the Mission from the Gate House entrance, you will be mesmerized instantly by the overwhelming beauty of the architecture and gardens. An El Camino Real bell is located near the entrance, reminding us of the signature symbol that marks the historic pathway of the 21 California Missions. These bells are visible along various highways, especially 101, to mark the route. To the left of the bell, symbolic orange trees are a reminder that this very site is considered the “birthplace of Orange County”, reminding us that Orange County was once filled with farmlands and orange trees. The small building to the left, just past the orange trees, was the soldiers barracks, and has a movie theater to watch a short educational movie about the mission.
To the right of the front courtyard are the Ruins of the Great Stone Church. This is one of the reasons that Mission San Juan Capistrano is referred to as the “jewel of the missions”. For its time, it was considered an architectural accomplishment, unlike anything that was built before. It is a fascinating display of ruins, and will feel like it is transporting you to an ancient archeological site somewhere in the world, although it is only a little more than a couple centuries old. It once was a grand, tall structure, however, a large earthquake in 1812 caused the structure to collapse, only 6 years after the completion of its 9 year construction process. 40 people lost their lives in the collapse. The Basilica that is located behind the mission is a replica of what the Great Stone Church would have looked like, although it was built to a slightly larger scale.
On the left side of the Great Stone Church is the Bell Wall. The two smaller bells are originals, however, the 2 larger ones are replicas. The original large bells are in a special display in the exact location where the bell tower of the Great Stone Church was. You can spend a long time exploring just the front gardens, with so much still left to explore! In the center of the back colonnade is a doorway to the Central Courtyard.
The Central Courtyard
Just when you think you have seen so much, you pass through the doorway to the Central Courtyard and are greeted with more astounding beauty. Surrounded by Spanish style archway colonnades, the grass area and gardens in the center are full of foliage, flowers, and a few trees. Because of all the vegetation, it is a sanctuary for butterflies and birds. Monarch butterflies are fluttering everywhere. In the center of the courtyard is a fountain and pond stocked with lilies and some of the largest koi I have ever seen. They are certainly well taken care of! Daily feedings are held at 12:45. There are lots of interior rooms to see within the different wings. Beyond the courtyard towards the back left side, lies the Mission Industrial Center and gardens.
On the other side of the courtyard is The Serra Chapel, named for Fray Junipero Serra, founder of the California Missions. It is the original church of Mission San Juan Capistrano, that was outgrown from the large population of natives who had converted, thus creating the need for the building of the Great Stone Church. This is the only church still standing within the state of California that Serra himself officiated in. This chapel still holds mass for Catholics on a regular basis, although the neighboring Basilica is considered the main place of worship for present time. Within the chapel is a small side room, a prayer room dedicated to Saint Peregrine, the patron saint of cancer patients, and all forms of serious illness. Beyond the Serra Chapel on the outside lies several small courtyards. One small courtyard, called the Sacred Garden is the backside of the bell wall. You can get a close view of the bells from this backside in this charming little garden. Also on the outside of Serra Chapel is the cemetery. This cemetery isn’t adorned with headstones, as I would have imagined, but rather has a more gardenlike feel to it.
Visiting Mission San Juan Capistrano
The mission is located on a 10 acre site in the heart of historic downtown San Juan Capistrano. The entrance is on the corner of Ortega Highway and Camino Capistrano. You can park on the streets surrounding the mission, or you can park in the parking structure near historic Los Rios District, near the train depot. The benefit to parking close to the train station is that there is a visitor kiosk that provides a daily calendar and map of the mission, that includes a $1 off coupon on the back, for up to 4 adult admissions (check for current flyer and expiration date). You can also request a coupon online at the mission website. Admission prices are $9 for adults, $8 for seniors, $6 children 4 to 11, and free for ages 3 and under. The stated prices above does not include the $1 off coupon that I mentioned. Another great way to get to the mission is by way of train. Both Metrolink and Amtrak stop at the train depot, making it even more of a fun adventure. Trains stop regularly, generally once ot twice and hour. It is a very close walk to the mission by walking up Verdugo, then turning left on Camino Capistrano The Amtrak Surfliner tickets and schedule can be found here. For Metrolink, click here for schedule and ticket information. On Saturdays, Metrolink tickets are just $10 to any destination, making for a great deal. Also, if you show your Metrolink ticket or OCTA pass, children enter free with each paid adult admission. If you are arriving by car, take the Ortega Highway exit of Interstate 5, and head west. There are signs directing to the mission.
Onsite, there are clean bathrooms if needed. Food is not for sale at the mission, however there are a multitude of quaint restaurants surrounding the site. The mission provides a list of restaurants that support the mission for convenience. For coffee, I recommend visiting Hidden House Coffee, just on the other side of the railroad tracks by the depot. They are a local, home roasted coffee with a delicious mild flavor, and you would support a local business, that also supports the mission. If you prefer Starbucks, there is one directly across the street from the mission entrance. At the exit of the mission, there is a gift shop that is loaded with fun California souveniers and mission items. Entrance to the gift shop does not require paid entrance to the mission.
For an updated calendar, and to watch a beautiful introduction video, you can visit the mission website here.
See below for more photos.