Take a Grand Tour of the California Spanish Missions

Anyone visiting California by automobile or if you happen to have a rental car and some time while in California, a visit to the California missions on the El Camino Real is one of the most interesting California trips you can take. They make a great addition to your California vacation planner.

The Spanish missions are California. The California Spanish missions represent California’s, then called Alta California, very beginnings. It represents the very firs settlement of California by a European power. When visiting several of these historically restored missions you also can learn about the method in which the Spaniards sought to civilize the region and you might wish to contrast it with how the United States tried to settle the old American West over a century later. This is why the tour of the California missions offer a unique learning experience in addition to a great photo taking opportunity.

mission san juan bautista
Mission San Juan Bautista

The missions in California were built south to north. The first mission established was in present day San Diego.  The San Diego mission was built by Father Junipero Serra. Many historians contend that Father Serra was the first genuine Californian. At that time the region north of Baja California was called Alta California. There were a total of twenty-one missions constructed in California from 1769 to 1823. The last mission built was the Sonoma Mission in the now Sonoma California wine country. Interestingly so, this last mission was built under Mexican rule after the Spaniards were driven out by the Mexican Revolution. This was out of character for the new Mexican government since they secularized the missions after the revolution. Many facts point out that the Sonoma Mission was actually built for military reasons since just to the north was Russian occupation and further north was British occupation.

The missions today are in various states of condition. Some have been beautifully restored and many are current active houses of worship. Mission work back in the 18th century had many elements. The primary goal of the Franciscans were to convert the Indians to Christianity. The Spanish government felt that the first step in civilizing the Indians was for them to be converted to Christianity. It was believed that when the Natives were converted they would be more capable of assimilating to European ways and that would help make them loyal subjects of the King of Spain. The Spanish rulers also felt that the expense of building a mission system would be a fraction of what the cost would be to pay an army to go to war. At the same time, an established mission system spanning most of Alta California would give notice to other European powers of their presence.

carmel mission
Carmel Mission

There are three missions among the total number that make a good trip up the coast of California. I point out these three missions because each had a very pivotal role in California history.

The first of course is the first mission built in San Diego. This was the first attempt at missions in Alta California although missions had been established decades earlier in present day New Mexico. Information on the San Diego Mission is on the following link  San Diego Mission.

There is also a listing of all twenty-one missions on the San Diego story.

The second mission I would recommend is the beautiful Carmel Mission. This mission was established in Carmel California somewhat near to the old Monterey Presidio which served as the military and sometime capitol of the province. Prior to the Carmel Mission there was a mission next to the monterey Presidio but Father Serra wanted a new one further away from the military and a bit closer to the Indians. This is how the carmel Mission came into being. Information for the Carmel Mission is at this link. Carmel Mission

The third mission which is quite significant is the Sonoma Mission. This mission also housed a number of mexican military troops under the leadership of a General Vallejo. This was the last mission built and is located in the heart of Sonoma California just north of the San Francisco Bay. The city of Sonoma now is a historic district and there’s plenty to see there. In addition, it’s right in the middle of the Sonoma and Napa County wine region. California’s very first commercial winery, Buena Vista Winery, was built just east of Sonoma and is a must stop when in the area. Information on the Sonoma Mission is at  Sonoma Mission.

Every mission on the list of twenty-one were important to the early Spanish settling of Alta California. Any you are able to visit is a treat. There are several  missions I’ve visited that are quite interesting as well as the three highlighted. These would include the Santa Barbara Mission, the Mission San Jose and Mission San Gabriel outside of Los Angeles.

I hope you are able to visit the Spanish Missions of California on your next visit to the West Coast. They are definitely worth adding to your California vacation planner.