A strange sensation of history stirred me as I stepped into the original ruts of El Camino Real approaching the mission of San Antonio de Padua in the remote Salinas Valley. The reality swept over me that I was treading in the footsteps of the 18th century Franciscan padres and hundreds of Spanish soldiers and Native Americans who walked from mission to mission along the California coast.
Where else can you find an authentic, undisturbed byway 250 years old on California’s landscape? That’s what I discovered in retracing a portion of the mission trail on the Central Coast on a beautiful spring day.
Some of the nicest California landscape can be found between Santa Barbara and Monterey. A short or extended excursion in the footsteps of the Franciscan padres takes you into some remote byways of unspoiled scenery. The rolling hills dotted with oak trees are rich in bright green grass and orange poppies in full spring bloom.
For those who missed the traditional fifth-grade study of the California mission period, here is a brief glimpse into how the Golden State was colonized long before gold became the attraction.
Jun'pero Serra came from the Spanish island of Majorca and was in the Portolá expedition in 1769 to establish outposts in the far-flung Spanish colony of Alta California. Serra’s passion was converting the American Indians to Christianity by founding a chain of 21 missions. Each one along the California coastline footpath was a day’s walk along El Camino Real (the King’s Road) stretching from San Diego to Sonoma.
This tour will include the popular Santa Barbara and seven of the more isolated missions of the Central Coast not often visited as tourists rush up Highway 101 to the Bay Area. A few days’ layover along the way will open insights into a fascinating page of history.
Santa Barbara is a good place to start the tour. The small-town ambiance with a Spanish colonial flavor gets you relaxed and ready to absorb the rural environment ahead. Patio cafes and boutiques along State Street invite strolling and exploring. A variety of seafood is offered on the pier, with views of the coastline and a backdrop of mountains that contain the harbor and village.
Your first mission visit is the still-active Franciscan friars’ mission, the most recognized with its monumental twin towers on the hillside overlooking the town. A variety of self-guided and guided tours are available to depict mission life 250 years ago on the fringe of civilization. The large sanctuary serves as a parish church for the community and is popular for weddings.
In the same day, check into a friendly Solvang inn to visit the modest Santa Inés Mission after driving over the San Marcos Pass into the Santa Ynez Valley. The picturesque Danish village is full of folksy kitsch and delectable Danish baked goods to take along for snacks on your tour. Visit some of the fine wineries clustered around the village of Los Olivos made famous by the movie “Sideways.” My favorites are Bridlewood and Gainey.
A detour from Solvang down the Santa Margarita River Valley and out to the coast near Lompoc is La Pur'sima Concepción Mission. It is such a rural setting that you walk for the first time in the original wagon tracks of El Camino Real from the parking lot to the buildings. The complete 1934 restoration by the National Park Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps offers a self-guided tour illustrating the productivity of the missions on their vast acres of land. La Pur'sima had 300,000 acres before the mission system was secularized by the Mexican government in 1833.
Moving on to San Luis Obispo, there is another modest mission in the center of this vibrant university town.
Further along Highway 101, which approximates the original padre footpath, is the San Miguel Mission, famous for the creative frescos in the sanctuary painted by the American Indians to simulate marble. You are now in the Salinas Valley, which has kept its rural look with an agricultural preserve and many vineyards in the vacuity of King City.
Before King City, take the cutoff to Jolon to follow the padre trail into the vast Fort Hunter Liggett to reach San Antonio, the most remote and seldom visited mission. Proper identification allows passage at the guard gate, then a drive across incredible open space with the looming Santa Lucia Mountains in the background. Be sure to do this in the spring to see the abundant wildflowers.
San Antonio is another complete restoration of an architectural mission-style design. I should say here that every one of the 21 missions is quite different in layout. There was no standard plan because each site was the creation of the founding padre and his community of convert American Indian workers. The solitude of the undisturbed site with the wagon ruts is almost spiritual.
Continue north again to merge with 101 with a brief stop just off the highway at Soledad Mission, an original adobe ruin that gives you an idea of what most of the missions looked like at the end of the 19th century before restoration. Many were badly damaged by the earthquakes of 1812 and 1925. The only portion rebuilt at Soledad is the chapel.
Your final destination for the mission trail tour is the Monterey Peninsula and the second mission, built in 1771. San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo is situated near the sea in Carmel Valley. This was Serra’s favorite; he spent more time here administrating his ecclesiastical empire and is buried under the altar in the church.
Stay over a few days at one of Carmel’s charming inns, explore Monterey and its colorful Fisherman’s Wharf and the world-famous aquarium. Monterey was the Spanish capital of Alta California. Many of the historic adobe buildings coincide with the mission era and are open for viewing. The Old Customhouse on the bayfront was where the American flag was raised when California was claimed as a U.S. territory.
Your travel route on the mission trail takes you through nearly pristine landscape as seen by the early Spanish soldiers, the Franciscan padres and later the traders who brought civilization to California. Visiting these missions brings to life California’s Hispanic culture.