A Summer Road Trip To See The California Missions

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Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

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This summer I took two weeks and took off on a road trip to see the California missions. I grew up in San Diego and know so much about the first mission Father Serra built, The San Diego de Alcala, that I wanted to see the rest of them.

From their humble, thatch-roofed beginnings to the stately adobes we see today, the missions represent a dynamic chapter of California’s past. By the time the last mission was built in 1823, the Golden State had grown from an untamed wilderness to a thriving agricultural frontier on the verge of American statehood.

The 21 missions that comprise California’s Historic Mission Trail are all located on or near Highway 101, which roughly traces El Camino Real (The Royal Road) named in honor of the Spanish monarchy which financed the expeditions into California in the quest for empire. From San Diego to Los Angeles, the historic highway is now known as Interstate 5. From Santa Clara to San Francisco, the road is called State Highway 82. North of San Francisco, Highway 101 again picks up the trail to the mission at San Rafael. From there, State Highway 37 leads to the last mission at Sonoma.

The first leg of El Camino Real was forged by General Gaspar de Portola on his journey from San Diego to find Monterey Bay. Tracing his path, missionaries, colonists and soldiers all traveled its dusty stretches; it was the only road between the few civilized outposts. The road was later identified with the missions because the padres maintained the roadway and offered hospitable lodging to all. It served as the north-south stagecoach route after California became a state in 1850, and in the 1920s bronze mission bells were placed along the highway to let motorists know they were traveling the historic El Camino Real.

Largely reconstructed after the ravages of time, weather, earthquakes and neglect, most of the missions still operate as active Catholic parishes, with regularly scheduled services. Booklets for self-guided tours are usually available; hours of operation and fees may vary.

This was a wonderful Road Trip and I’m happy that Chevron gives me a chance to tell you about it this Summer.

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