Stretching more than 600 miles from San Diego, California up to Sonoma, California (just north of San Francisco), the Royal Road is an iconic California road trip. Known in Spanish as El Camino Real, this road connects all 21 of the California missions. Founded in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s it provided a way to connect the missions. Visiting all 21 of the California missions is perfect for history buffs, 4th grade Californian students, or anyone wanting to learn more about the history of California.
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In 2018 I decided that I wanted to do more travel in my home state of California. And so the California Challenges were born. In 2018 I decided to visit all 21 of the California missions. I headed south to San Diego and as far north as Sonoma to cross all 21 off my list. So let’s hit the road and go visiting the California missions. If you want a sneak peek without reading the whole post, you can see the highlights on my Instagram story.
San Diego De Alcala
Located in San Diego this became the first mission when it opened on July 16, 1769. The gardens are beautiful and the grounds are peaceful. Since this was the first mission you are able to learn more about the origins of the missions while visiting San Diego De Alcala.
San Luis Rey De Francia
Mission San Luis Rey De Francia was founded on June 13, 1798 as the 18th mission. Named after King Louis IX of France, this remains an active parish. Not only can the church and cemetery be explored but also the grounds beyond the church to see what life would have been like in the early 1800’s.
San Juan Capistrano
This mission is located just a bit north of the last one, in San Juan Capistrano. It was the 7th mission and it was founded on November 1, 1776. (History lovers will appreciate the timing as it provides context for what was happening several thousand miles away when the Declaration of Independence was being signed) This mission is considered the birth place of Orange County and is known as The Jewel of the Missions. This was the largest structure built by the Spanish during their 65 years in the west and offers many interactive exhibits today.
San Gabriel Arcangel
Home of the first orange and tangerine trees in California, the San Gabriel Arcangel mission was founded on September 8, 1771. This makes it the 4th mission and was the first to produce wine grapes in Southern California.
San Fernando Rey De Espana
Founded in 1797, San Fernando Rey De Espana is located in the Mission Hills community of Los Angeles. It was the 17th mission and is the final resting place of Bob Hope.
Located in downtown Ventura San Buenaventura was founded on March 31, 1782 making it the 9th mission. It is not a very big mission, but it has an absolutely gorgeous courtyard. This was the last mission founded during Fray Serra’s lifetime.
Mission Santa Barbara
Mission Santa Barbara is said to be founded on December 16, 1786 as the 10th mission. However this is the only mission that has potentially two founding dates because Father Serra died before being able to confirm the founding date. This is also the only mission with twin bell towers.
Mission Santa Ines
I spent 24 hours in Solvang when I visited the mission, which was founded on September 15, 1804. It was the 19th mission and is located within walking distance of downtown Solvang.
La Purisima Concepcion
La Purisima is probably the most well visited of the missions as it is incredibly visitor friendly. The mission was founded on December 8, 1787 and is the 11th mission. There are quite a few interactive exhibits available at the mission and you can see various animals and workshops in action.
San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was the 5th of the missions and founded on September 1, 1772. It is worth visiting if you would like to see all 21 of the missions, but due to its location in downtown San Luis Obispo there is less to see than many of the other missions.
Mission San Miguel Arcangel
San Miguel Arcangel was founded on July 25, 1797 as the 16th mission. After being closed for nearly three decades in the mid-1800’s it was reopened in 1878. Today the mission is known for it its well preserved murals.
Mission San Antonio de Padua
Most of the missions are located along Highway 101 but this one will take you off the beaten path…and on to a military base. This was the 3rd mission and was founded on July 14, 1771. It is located in Jolon and be warned that because of its location, if you go in the summer it will likely be quite hot! You are able to book overnight stays if you would like to experience more of what mission life was like in the late 1700’s/early 1800’s.
Nuestra Senora de la Soledad
In its present-day surroundings Nuestra Senora de la Soledad gives you one of the best visuals of what the missions would have been liked when they were founded. It is out in the middle of rolling vineyards so you get an idea of what it would have been like when it was founded on October 9, 1791 as the 13th mission.
San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo
Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo is located in Carmel and was just the 2nd mission, founded on June 3, 1770. This was said to be Father Serra’s favorite mission and it is where he passed away.
San Juan Bautista
Mission San Juan Bautista was the 15th mission and has been serving daily mass since June 24, 1797. This mission is uniquely positioned right on the San Andreas fault so it is quite a feat that this mission has never been abandoned.
Mission Santa Cruz
In its present day form there is a church located where Mission Santa Cruz was founded on September 28, 1791 as the 12th mission. Across the street there is a historical site where some of the mission activities would have taken place but very little is left of the original mission.
Santa Clara de Asis
Of all the missions I had the most difficult time finding this one because it is located on the campus of Santa Clara University. So it’s not as easy to plug into Google Maps. The mission was founded on January 12, 1777 as the 8th mission.
Mission San Jose
Mission San Jose is located in present-day Fremont and was the 14th of the missions, founded on June 11, 1797. It became known as the “Queen of the Missions.”
San Francisco de Asis
San Francisco de Asis was founded on June 29,1776 as the 6th mission. Located in the heart of San Francisco none of the surrounding land remains, but it is still a gorgeous church.
San Rafael Arcangel
Mission San Rafael was founded for different reasons than many of the other missions. Located further inland from San Francisco it was founded on December 14, 1817 as the 20th mission. Since it was located further inland it had much less fog and so was founded to be a place of medical respite.
San Francisco Solano
San Francisco Solano is located in Sonoma and is the furthest north of all the missions. The mission was founded on July 4, 1823 making it the last of the missions to be founded.