California’s Mission Trail

© Clifton E. Hadfield II –

California’s Mission Trail Auto Tour

Over 250 years ago, the Spanish monarchy set out to colonize their claim on the temperate shores and fertile lands that is now known the world over as California.

At that time there were an estimated 350,000 to one million Native American residents whose cultures and spirituality were linked to the land and honored its sacredness.

This was the setting for California’s Mission period from 1769 to 1833. A total of 21 missions were built along the more than 600-mile El Camino Real (“The Royal Road”) from San Diego to Sonoma. Each of the missions were planned to be a one-day walk from one to another.

A road trip vacation along California’s Mission Trail provides visitors with a glimpse into California’s early history while celebrating today’s resilient cultures, delicious cuisine, and thriving art scene.

Let your California’s Mission Trail Auto Tour road trip experience be a journey of discovery!

California's Mission Trail Auto Tour

Soledad mission

Soledad – US 101. The Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad is nestled in the heart of the wine country known as the Santa Lucia Highlands. The mission’s chapel, padres’ quarters, and one wing of the quadrangle have been carefully restored, and the chapel has the original tile floor. The restored wing includes a museum and gift shop. The haunting ruins of the original adobe walls provide a feel for what once was the most isolated of California’s early missions. Today there are also three other historic missions within a 45-minute driving distance (San Juan Bautista, Carmel, and Santa Cruz). Los Padres National Forest is to the southwest of the mission. Soledad is the gateway to the west entrance of Pinnacles National Park to the east. Soledad was recently named as one of the 50 safest cities in California and has been recognized as one of the 15 small towns to visit by Smithsonian Magazine. The Soledad Historical Society, located at 137 Soledad Street, features exhibits of the history and people of the area and is the location for the Soledad Farmers Market every Thursday from April to October. Soledad is also located in one of the prime grape-growing regions in California. There are over twenty wineries within a 30-mile radius, many offering tasting rooms and a wide selection of wines for sale.

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San Juan Bautista Living History days

Photo Credit: Garrik Ramirez

San Benito County – US 101/CA 156. Picturesque San Juan Bautista State Historical Park in San Juan Bautista was the site for the Alfred Hitchcock movie Vertigo starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novack. The park features well-landscaped grounds and several buildings built in the 1800s including a blacksmith shop, a historic jail, and an early American settler’s cabin. Many building interiors feature vignettes and exhibits. Volunteers act out the mission’s past on the first Saturday of each month. A block away, San Juan Bautista offers unique shopping experiences in the National Registry Historic Shopping District. All local-run shops offer unique items to satisfy every interest, Plaza Market Shops and Utopia Mall to name two. A 1799 adobe that is today a National Landmark is the home of Old Adobe Antiques. San Juan Bautista also features several art galleries and antique stores including Fool’s Gold with original prints. Theater performances come alive at the El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista and the San Benito Stage Company in nearby Hollister. The City of Hollister, on California Highway 25, provides a scenic gateway to Pinnacles National Park where visitors can see colorful rock formations and giant California condors soaring overhead. For those looking for outdoor recreation and adventure, Fremont Peak State Park offers camping and hiking trails with breathtaking views of Monterey Bay. The Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area is perfect for ATVs, motorcycles, and camping. Visitors can also hike on a portion of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail outside of San Juan Bautista.

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Santa Cruz Roaring Camp Railroad

Carmel-by-the-Sea – CA 1. Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo is one of the most authentically-restored of California’s historic missions. Tours are available for groups of 10 or more, but self-guided tours can take visitors back to the 18th century. The Carmel mission is a popular location for public events including Taste of Carmel in October and the Mission Classic held in August. Carmel is one of the best art cities in the U.S. Nearly 100 art galleries are located within one square mile in downtown Carmel. Visitors can get to know the artists personally at 21 local artist-owned galleries. Carmel is a shopper’s haven with hundreds of unique shops clustered in the area surrounding Ocean Avenue. Part of the fun is discovering an amazing array of offerings in the many side streets and charming courtyards. Walkable wine tasting is available at nearly 20 wine tasting rooms in the village. Carmel wine producers offer something for every taste. Carmel’s performing arts hub is at the Sunset Cultural Center, considered by many as the finest live music venue on the Monterey Peninsula. The theatre is home to the Monterey Symphony, the Carmel Bach Festival, and hosts contemporary artists as well. The scenic Outdoor Forest Theater has delighted young and old theatergoers since 1910. Carmel Beach, located at the foot of Ocean Avenue, is on the bucket list of beach-lovers everywhere. Visitors can stroll the carpeted soft-white sand beach, catch a few rays and revel at the spectacular sunset. The beach is also canine-friendly. To the south of the beach is a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home, and to the north is the fabled Pebble Beach Golf Links, home to the Annual AT&T Pro-Am Golf Tournament and on the U.S. Open rotation.

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Santa Cruz Roaring Camp Railroad

Photo credit: Garrik Ramirez

Santa Cruz – CA 1, 9 and 17. On California’s Mission Trail. The site of the original historic Mission Santa Cruz is today Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park. The park features a restored adobe building from the 1791 mission when it provided housing for indigenous families who worked at the mission. The park grounds include a patio, gardens, exhibits and excellent views of downtown Santa Cruz. The rebuilt Mission Santa Cruz chapel is located nearby on Mission Plaza and is a popular place for baptisms and small weddings. A small garden features the mission’s original hand-carved baptismal font. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is an admission-free, classic seaside amusement park featuring a wooden roller coaster, a beautiful vintage carousel, and over 40 rides, plus games, food and shopping. The adjacent Santa Cruz Wharf is the longest timber-pile wharf in the U.S. extending over a half- mile into the Monterey Bay. Strolling visitors on the wharf can dine on the freshest seafood and fine local wines. Visitors can get an up-close, behind the scenes look at marine life at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center on the westside of town. Santa Cruz also features an eclectic variety of shopping, dining and art galleries. West Cliff Drive is a scenic, three-and-a- half mile walking and biking path along the Pacific coastline and is home to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, hidden beaches, and Natural Bridges State Park and Beach. Visitors can also see towering redwoods up close while traveling on a 19th century steam train at Roaring Camp Railroads.

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Sonoma vineyard

Sonoma Valley – Take US 101 north of San Rafael to CA 37, east to CA 121 at Sears Point, and north to CA 12. The historic Mission San Francisco Solano is within Sonoma State Historic Park on the picturesque Sonoma Plaza. The park is comprised of multiple buildings in and around the charming Plaza, including the restored General Mariano Vallejo Home/Swiss Chalet built in 1851-52, about a ten-minute walk from the Plaza. The historic home is a museum today furnished with many personal effects and artifacts of the Mexican general and early California historical figure. The park also includes the restored Sonoma Barracks of the Mexican army built in 1835. Sonoma Plaza is the perfect place to start or end a day of touring and features old adobe storefronts, sunlit courtyards, historic landmarks and a pleasing mix of restaurants, boutiques, galleries, tasting rooms and hotels. Just off the plaza is the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art that presents critically acclaimed exhibitions of contemporary art. The Depot Park Museum is the restored historic depot for the old Northwestern Pacific railroad. Sonoma Valley is known as the birthplace of California’s wine industry and today is home to over 100 wineries. Wine tasting tours are offered by group, by trolley, by bike or by Segway. For those who love wine and art, or wine and the outdoors, there are tours available including on bike, walking or even a trolley. The Transcendence Theatre Company offers dazzling Broadway productions with wine, food and fun under the stars. Nearby Jack London State Historic Park is a great place to walk, hike, mountain bike, horseback ride, and tour the historic buildings of the famed adventure writer. The visitor center is in a historic Carnegie Library building on the east edge of the Plaza and is open seven days a week.

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