Visiting San Juan Capistrano (CA)

Having grown up in California, one of my favorite memories is of our 4th grade Mission Project. Each student was given a mission to research and then a model and report were completed. My parents also took each of us to the mission we were studying so we got to have a first hand experience there. It was such a wonderful experience!

On a recent trip to California I found myself close to the San Juan Capistrano Mission and could not help but visit and relive a little bit of my childhood. I can't wait to take our kids to more of the missions throughout California as they each are so unique and beautiful.

If you would like to visit, here is the address:

26801 Ortega Hwy.
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

Open Daily: 9a - 5p (weather permitting)

Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Closed at noon Good Friday and Christmas Eve.

Adults: $9
Seniors (60+): $8
Children (4 to 11 years): $6
Children under 3 years: Free
(admission includes free audio tour)


The mission was founded by Father Lasuen in 1775, but was quickly abandoned because of a nearby revolt. Then in 1776 Father Serra reopened the mission, making it the 7th of 21 missions in Alta California. The mission were established in an effort convert native people to Christianity and expand the territorial boundaries of Spain. Instead of bringing in settlers (like the British colonies) the Spaniards wanted the native people to become Spanish citizens. The missions served as a place to teach them about the Spanish/European lifestyle, with the intention of establishing towns in the future.


Converting the native people of California was not an easy task. Many of the native people were drawn to the mission out of curiosity because the missions contained animals, technologies, and foods that were new to them.

Mission San Juan Capistrano grew for the next 30 years, and by 1806 had a population of over 1,000 people, 10,000 cattle, and had constructed The Great Stone Church. But by 1812, the mission had begun to decline. The earthquake of 1812 destroyed The Great Stone Church. Low birth rates, and higher mortality rates due to disease were significant factors in the decline. The Spanish government also struggled to maintain and protect the missions' supplies.

In 1821, when Alta California because a territory of Mexico, the mission declined further. Then in 1834, the Mexican government decided to end the uses of the missions entirely, resulting in the sale of the mission lands. In 1845, the mission itself was sold and was used as a private ranch for 20 years.


In 1848, California became part of the United States after the Mexican American War. The Gold Rush brought tons of Americans to California and in 1850, California became a state. After this numerous petitions asking for the missions to be returned to the church were submitted and President Lincoln granted those requests.

The early 1900s saw great interest in restoring the abandoned missions and wealthy people fought to have them preserved. The Landmarks Club was key in the preservation of Mission San Juan Capistrano from 1910-1940.

There are special weekend activities that you can participate in for a nominal fee. These include gold panning, adobe brick making, and making an arrowhead necklace. They only are offered on the weekends so plan accordingly if you are interested (Saturday and Sunday 11a-3p; subject to change).


Things to See

There are lots of things to see at this mission. You can also join some of the tours, if your timing is right. Be sure to call ahead to see if there are any tours available during your visit.

Every year on March 19th (St. Joseph's Day) the cliff swallows arrive at the mission, having migrated more than 6,000 miles from Goya, Argentina! The arrival of the cliff swallows to the Mission every March 19th is world renowned. People come from all over the world to welcome the swallows as they settle in and begin building their mud nests.

These amazing little birds spend the summer nesting, protected inside the walls of the mission. Then depart on October 23rd to make their long journey back to Argentina. I purchased a beautiful ceramic swallow to hang on my wall from the gift shop. It was one of numerous swallow gifts found in the gift shop along with many other items to help remember your visit.


The Great Stone Church

Prior to the roof collapse in the earthquake of 1812, the Great Stone Church was said to be the most ornate and largest church at any of the missions.

Vineyards and Wine Vats

The wine industry in California actually began at the San Juan Capistrano Mission. Eventually many of the California missions had vineyards. There are a number of large sunken brick wine vats that can be seen here. Wine making occurred at the mission until 1842.


Olive Millstone

Olive trees on the grounds provided olives that were used to make olive oil. Olive millstones, like the one in the photo, were used to process the olives.

Native American Grinding Stone

Years of use, have left deep holes in this grinding stone. These stones were used to grind grains into meal.

Bell Wall

The two large bells are recast and the two small bells are from 1804. The bells still ring from inside the walls of the mission. Many residents have fond memories of hearing the bells in the morning and in the evening. They would also be rung to announce the deaths of people in town, tolling differently based on the person's gender and would be rung for each year of their age.

This is a photo of the backside of the bell wall, seen through the gates of the Sacred Garden.


From 1781-1933 approximately 2,000 people are buried in the mission cemetery, many of them were indigenous people. This includes Father O' Sullivan, who has a large memorial stone featured here.

Fountain and Koi

Located near the main entrance, this huge fountain contains tons of lily pads and koi. For a small fee you can purchase food to feed the koi. It is also just fun to watch them. :)


The gardens here are full of amazing native desert plants, some of gargantuan size! One plant even has flowers that look like shrimp!

Serra Chapel

Named after Father Serra, this chapel is full of beautiful tile work and religious artwork. Whether you are Catholic or not, you are sure to enjoy looking around this marvelous chapel.

Other Cool Stuff

It felt like everywhere that I turned there was a hidden treasure. Even the hinges and locks on the doors are amazing. I love the chunky tile roofs and the small paintings tucked away high up in the walls. When you enter into the various buildings, notice how worn the thresholds are. So much history was passed through these doorways.

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December 18, 2013

Taken at the Mission San Juan Capistrano in the summer of 2012, the water was peaceful and quite beautiful in sunny California.

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