The Coast News Group
The garden at Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in Oceanside is the site of the state’s oldest pepper tree, seen through this archway. The seeds were brought to the mission in 1830 by a Peruvian sailor and planted by Father Antonio Peyri, a Franciscan friar in charge of the mission until 1832. Photo by E’Louise Ondash
ColumnsHit the Road

Hit the Road: Nearby missions worth adding to post-COVID must-see list

One of the perks of being a fourth-grader in California is the chance to visit one of the state’s 21 historic missions. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, most missions are closed to visitors until sometime in 2021. When they do reopen, North County residents won’t have far to go to explore one.

In fact, we are situated near three of the 21 missions. In order of their founding, they are Nos. 1, 7 and 18 — each unique but possessing a commonality of heritage and purpose.

Some missions are working parishes; one is a historic state park and a working farm; many are museums or have a museum; one sits next to a considerable fault, and an earthquake has destroyed more than one.

Each mission has a story to tell — one that mixes colonial expansion and competition; religious fervor and secularism; blood and battle; tenacity and enterprise; demolition and decay; and restoration, rebirth and controversy.

The accomplishments of the Franciscan friars who established the missions are notable. But we can’t ignore their domination of Alta California’s indigenous peoples.

There has been much criticism of the 2015 canonization of Junipero Serra (1713-1784), the priest who founded the first nine missions. Critics charge that he and other priests forced the area’s indigenous people to labor involuntarily and to convert to Catholicism.

Today, our three nearby missions are beautifully restored— two can be reached via public transportation. Take the Amtrak, San Diego Trolley or Metrolink, and you’ll expand your adventure. 

The first of California’s 21 missions, San Diego de Alcala in Mission Valley was established in 1769 to give Spain a foothold in Alta California (Mexico) and prevent the encroachment of Russia, which was gaining territory in the north. Photo by MARELBU

No. 1 — Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala in San Diego’s Mission Valley was founded in 1769. Spain sent Franciscan friars and soldiers from New Spain (Mexico) to establish a foothold in Alta California and slow the Russians’ southward advance.

Some of the buildings’ architectural features are original, and the large, formal garden has hundreds of plantings, many at least a century old. Check reservation policy.

Adventure: Take the Coaster to Old Town, transfer to the Trolley’s Green Line, and exit at the Mission San Diego stop.

Mission San Juan Capistrano features extensive gardens and exhibits that detail the site’s history and what life was like when the mission was a thriving community. In the background stands a portion of the old church wall that remained after the devastating earthquake of December 1812, which killed 40 parishioners. Photo by Jerry Ondash

No. 7 – Mission San Juan Capistrano in the Orange County town of the same name, was established in 1776. Both guided and self-tours are offered, but I’ve found the former (and exhibits throughout) make life on the mission in the early 19th century come alive. Every guide has his/her own focus, so each tour provides a different emphasis and slice of history.

In the spring, the extensive gardens and fountains will have you snapping photos at every turn.

Adventure:  From Oceanside’s Transit Center, take Amtrak or the Metrolink’s Orange County Line to San Juan Capistrano.

Bonus: Just across the railroad tracks — the Los Rios District, California’s oldest neighborhood. Colorful architecture and mature landscaping — massive trees, vines, flowers and succulents.

No. 18 – Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, 4050 Mission Ave., Oceanside, is known as the King of Missions because it’s the largest of the 21. Founded in 1798, historians say it also was the most economically successful mission.

At one time, Mission San Luis Rey owned 22,010 cattle, 23,532 sheep, and more than 8,000 horses. In 1846, Kit Carson and Captain Stephen Kearny visited the mission; the following year, the Mormon Battalion arrived. The army of 550 men had marched 2,100 miles from Iowa to join the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War.

Even though the church is closed, you can look through the open door, see California’s oldest pepper tree, and walk through the peaceful, leafy historic cemetery. Behind-the-scenes tours will eventually resume.

For more photos of California missions, visit