Mission San Juan Capistrano, with its delightful gardens, well-preserved buildings, and ruins of the Great Stone Church, certainly lives up to its nickname as the “jewel” of California’s 21 Spanish missions.
Several things struck me as I entered the grounds of the mission. First, the size of the compound was much larger than I expected; second, the buildings were not white-washed as so many mission structures are; and, last, the gardens were simply eye-popping with their colorful blooms.
The mission was founded on All Saints Day, 1 November 1776 by our friend, Father Junipero Serra, as the seventh of what would become 21 missions in Alta California. By 1806, thirty years after its founding, there were over 1,000 people at the mission. That population growth warranted the building of a larger church, and between 1797 and 1806, mission residents built the Great Stone Church. Sadly, in 1812, an earthquake caused the structure to collapse, killing forty parishioners attending an early morning mass. No effort was made to rebuild the church; the ruins served as a memorial to those buried in the rubble.
Of course, San Juan Capistrano is renowned for the return of the Cliff Swallows every 19 March on their migration north from South America. Of course, Nature really dictates when the swallows return and, with urbanization, other sites are now better nesting locations than the mission. Still, you can see swallow nests under the eaves of some of the mission’s buildings.
The museum rooms throughout the compound are very well done, with informative and interesting displays that tell the story of the mission and its people. I opted not to take advantage of the free audio guide, and I’m sure I missed out on a more full story of the mission’s history. But I don’t think it’s necessary—I still learned plenty on my own.
I’ve only been to two of the California missions, and I will admit that I found San Diego’s mission to be a quieter, more serene setting than that of San Juan Capistrano. Because San Juan Capistrano is so large and so well-known, it draws a larger crowd, so it was a little noisier and had more bustle. Two wedding photographers were using the beautiful setting as the backdrop for their wedding portraits. They weren’t necessarily intrusive, but they were noticeable. If you’re looking for serenity in a peaceful garden, perhaps a weekday visit might be more appropriate.
Mission San Juan Capistrano certainly exceeded my preconceived expectations, and it’s someplace that I would explore again.
What You Need To Know
Location: 26801 Ortega Hwy, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Hours: 9 a.m–5 p.m. daily
Adults: $9 (includes free audio tour)
Seniors (60+): $8 (includes free audio tour)
Children (4 to 11 years): $6 (includes free audio tour)
Children under 3 years: Free
Phone: (949) 234-1300
Tips: There are free municipal parking lots within a few blocks of the mission, but they had 5 hour time limits on them. Both Metrolink commuter trains out of L.A. and AMTRAK trains out of San Diego and L.A. stop at the station just a block from the mission’s entrance.
Click to see full-sized photos.