California: San Juan Capistrano

Beginning in 1492 with the voyages of Christopher Columbus, Spain sought to establish missions in the Southwestern United States in an effort to convert the natives dwelling there to Roman Catholicism and to facilitate the colonization of these lands.  California represents the “high-water mark” of Spanish expansion in North America, being the last and northernmost colony on the continent.

The Spanish missions in California comprise a series of religious and military outposts established by Spanish Catholics of the Franciscan Order between 1769 and 1833. Today, the missions are among the state’s oldest structures and the most-visited historic monuments. There are 21 missions in total.

Mission San Juan Capistrano, the most beautiful mission in the world and renowned for the return of the swallows, was the birthplace of Orange County. Founded on All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1776, San Juan Capistrano has the distinction of being home to the oldest building in California still in use, a chapel built in 1782. Known alternately as “Serra’s Chapel” and “Father Serra’s Church,” it is the only existing structure where it has been documented that the Padre Junipero Serra celebrated mass.


More than 2,000 former inhabitants (mostly Juaneño Indians) are buried in unmarked graves in the Mission’s cemetery. The remains of Father St. John O’Sullivan, who recognized the property’s historic value and worked tirelessly to conserve and rebuild its structures, are buried at the entrance to the cemetery on the west side of the property, and a statue raised in his honor stands at the head of the crypt.

Today, the mission compound serves as a museum, with the Serra Chapel being used as a chapel for the mission parish.














The city of San Juan Capistrano was created around Mission San Juan Capistrano, and many of the homes and strip malls resemble the Spanish architecture that compose the building. It is home to the widest variety of homes in Orange County, including those built prior to 1900 in its central district, a number of 10-million-dollar homes in the gated communities of the hills, and working ranches in its foothills. San Juan Capistrano formerly hosted a population of cliff swallows that reputedly migrate each year from Argentina to the Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Some points of interest worth visiting include the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano,  Trabuco Creek,  El Adobe de Capistrano,  The Depot and the Los Rios District.

Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano was established in 1986 and is located just northwest of Mission San Juan Capistrano. The church’s design is patterned after the Mission’s original stone church, which was destroyed in an 1812 earthquake. The prominent feature of the basilica is the Grand Retablo, a 42-foot-high, 30-foot-wide, 16-ton altar-backing carved in cedar and covered in gold leaf which is stylistically reminiscent of 17th- and 18th-century Spanish colonial and Mexican colonial retablos.

Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano

Trabuco Creek is a 22-mile stream which rises in the rugged canyon of the Santa Ana Mountains of Orange County.  The creek flows west and southwest before emptying into San Juan Creek in the city of San Juan Capistrano. The area is popular for off-roading, hiking, fishing and camping.

Trabuco Creek

El Adobe de Capistrano is a restaurant located in San Juan Capistrano. It has been in operation since 1948 and is located in a building composed of two historic adobes.  The adobe which comprises the northern portion of the restaurant was built as the home of Miguel Yorba in 1797. The southern portion, from 1812, was the Juzgado (court and jails). The Juzgado’s jail cell now serves as the restaurant’s wine cellar and is rumored to harbor a ghost.

While in office, former President Richard Nixon whose nearby San Clemente home was known as the Western White House, visited the restaurant many times. The restaurant was originally continental cuisine, but after comments by Nixon, it gained attention for its Mexican fare and changed the menu.

El Adobe de Capistrano

The San Juan Capistrano station (The Depot) was originally opened in 1894. It was one of the earliest examples of Mission Revival Style architecture used in railway stations. In 1966, the station was closed, two years ahead of the end of Santa Fe passenger service to the city. However, rail service was restored to the station in 1974, under the auspices of Amtrak.  A year later the depot was converted into a restaurant, with vintage rolling stock used to expand the space.

The Depot

The Los Rios Historic District is home to buildings dating back to 1794, and is the oldest continually occupied neighborhood in the state. The neighborhood originally had 40 adobe structures but most were replaced in the 19th century by wooden structures. Three adobes still remain in the Los Rios neighborhood itself, although there are a number of others close by outside of it which were part of what was once a larger neighborhood. Thirty-one of the buildings in Los Rios and the surrounding area are on the national register of historic places.

Visiting San Juan Capistrano and the Mission make for a great day trip.  I love visiting historic places and would highly recommend this to those of you who enjoy history as much as I do. Try out one of the many restaurants nearby and do take in some shopping, you can find some great deals on native American merchandise here.


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