Highlights of the California Mission Trail

Before surfers, gold miners, or even B movie stars made the scene, spiritual seekers were drawn to California - but for 18th century California dreamers, it was no relaxing yoga retreat. To reach higher ground in California, first they had to survive trans-Atlantic pirate traffic that would make today's LA freeways seem kind. Overland journeys through Mexico's mountains and jungles required strong faith, not to mention strong stomachs. But in 1769, Franciscan Fray (father) Junípero Serra was a man on a mission: establish communities of faith in the California wilderness, to be run by Native converts within ten years.

California history didn't exactly work out according to Serra's plans. After surviving tribulations that seem almost Biblical - earthquakes, famines, measles and mutinies, for starters – California's 21 Spanish missions are monuments to the restless soul of the Golden State. For haunting beauty and riveting history, don't miss these five highlights of California's Mission Trail.

1. Mission San Juan Capistrano

Reality television stars tanned its namesake hue may compete for the role, but Orange County's original mascot remains the cliff swallow, returning in droves each March to the mission at San Juan Capistrano. The tiny birds flock here from as far away as Argentina - and after wandering through the mission's red-roofed Spanish cloisters into its serene Moorish courtyard, you'll understand the attraction.

The mission was one of California's most prosperous since its founding in 1775-6, despite earthquakes, international politics and the odd Argentine pirate attack. Miraculously, the mission's ornate cherry-wood retablo (altarpiece) coated in real gold escaped the pirates' attention. Even after Mexico officially appropriated Spanish mission property in 1833, looters left the altar's 52 golden angels largely intact.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Archways at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Photo by S. Grace.

The church wasn't abandoned long: not long before his assassination in 1865, Abraham Lincoln personally signed the papers returning the mission to the Catholic Church. The mission's neo-classical Great Stone Church was reduced to a stately ruin by an earthquake not long after its completion, but the smaller original church where Fray Serra himself once held mass has been lovingly restored to service.

2. Mission San Antonio de Padua

No wonder it's dedicated to the patron saint of the lost: San Antonio de Padua Mission is tricky to find, even with a detailed Central California map. This haven of peace and contemplation is exactly where you'd least expect it, smack in the middle of a military reserve, wedged between prized vineyards of the Santa Lucia Highlands. Yet this remote spot has served as a spiritual retreat ever since July 14, 1771, when Fray Serra held mass beneath the valley's stately oak trees.

Mission San Antonio de Padua, chapel entrance and statue of Father Junipero Serra in remote Monterey County, CA - sanantonio004x

Mission San Antonio de Padua. Photo by Matthew High.

Today the mission looks much as it has for two hundred years, when native Salinan conscripts completed the simple whitewashed ladrillo (burned brick) church. Poppies and lupine still carpet the valley in spring, and the original statue of St Anthony remains a spiritual homing beacon above the altar. His influence seems to be working: after nearly being lost to earthquakes, neglect, and military campaigns, this secluded mission is now being rediscovered by meditators, nature photographers, and destination wedding planners.

3. Mission Carmel (San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo)

Walt Disney and William Randolph Hearst built fairy-tale California castles, but the state's most magical architecture is at Carmel Mission. The ribbed walls curve inward, so that entering the church feels like stepping inside the belly of a mighty whale.

Daylight yields to the soft light within the mission

Inside Mission Carmel. Photo by Justin Kern.

This mesmerizing effect is a credit to local Ohlone Costanoan people, who had little experience with stone architecture before soldiers from the nearby Monterey presidio (military base) put them to work on the Carmel mission from 1773-1779. The mission's Spanish stonemasons should have consulted their Ohlone builders about the local terrain first: earthquakes ruined the sandstone church three times.

The current mission was reconstructed in the 1930s along with a mission museum, which features a recreation of Fray Serra's modest cell (once you've seen his board bed, his urge to roam makes perfect sense). Today Mission Carmel's founders and native converts are outside in the garden, their graves marked by driftwood crosses and Ohlone abalone shell mounds.

4. Mission San Juan Bautista

Gregorian chants echo through the cloisters, where leather-bound volumes of heavenly music are displayed in Spanish marquetry cabinets. Today the music is an MP3 soundtrack, but otherwise not much has changed since church choirs first raised praise to the wooden rafters of Mission San Juan Bautista. Intrepid padres are credited with founding California missions, but the historic convent of Franciscan sisters still adjoining this mission bears testimony to the spiritual leadership of Californian women.

Mission San Juan Bautista-153

Mission San Juan Bautista. Photo by Rachel Titiriga.

The high belltower that inspired Hitchcock to film scenes from Vertigo at Mission San Juan Bautista was leveled by an earthquake just before the director filmed here - the bell-tower had to be painted into backdrops. But the unusually lofty adobe church is remarkably well preserved, down to the cat paw-prints in the terra-cotta floors made when the tiles were still wet in 1812.

Outside these adobe walls, the 1840s Western town of San Juan gives an idea of life in California before the Gold Rush. Ringing the town plaza are the original stagecoach stop, blacksmith's, saloon, pioneer cabin, and the rooming house where Donner Party survivors recuperated after winter stranded in the Sierras forced them to resort to cannibalism.

5. Mission Dolores (San Francisco de Asís)

Fleas, measles, creeping damp and plentiful cow manure: from its start in 1776, San Francisco de Asís earned its 'Mission of the Sorrows' nickname. While building the mission from 36,000 adobe bricks and attempting to grow crops on sandy mission grounds, 4000-5000 native Miwok and Ohlone conscripts died, mostly from measles and other introduced diseases. Today the mission-builders' hardships are commemorated in a Miwok memorial hut in the mission graveyard, and in a mural recently uncovered behind the adobe mission altar: a sacred heart pierced by a curved sword, dripping blood.

San Francisco - Mission District: El Camino Real Mission Bell and Mission Dolores Basilica

El Camino Real bell and Mission Dolores. Photo by Wally Gobetz.

Of all the California missions, Mission Dolores has defied the greatest odds. The Gold Rush brought such inflation that mission padres had to sell most of its property to saloon-owners just to cover expenses. The original adobe survived San Francisco's devastating 1906 earthquake and fire, and surviving San Franciscans showed their eternal gratitude with an elaborate churrigueresque (Spanish rococo) basilica.

But the standout feature of the 1919 basilica are its 21 Art Deco stained-glass windows, dedicated to each of California's original Franciscan missions. Through boom, bust, crisis and relative calm, California's spiritual quest continues.

Between road trips in California, Italy and Morocco, Alison reports finds at www.twitter.com/AlisonBing, collects old history books, and frequently craves cheese.