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Imagine California before the sprawling cities, mixing cultures, and futuristic tech that has defined the past few decades. Imagine it before the interstates cut giant scars into the earth, before the Gold Rush brought tens of thousands of pioneers, and before the fields were laid. Imagine California when those who lived there called it Alta California and spoke Spanish – making sense of the many Spanish-named places you find there today. This is the California of the era when Missions were being built up and down the coast of what we now call The Golden State.
Between 1769 and 1823, 21 missions were established between San Diego and the San Francisco area. They were connected by a great road – El Camino Real – the royal road –, and existed to convert the many “savage” Native groups that had called California home before it was colonized by Spain via Mexico.
Today, all 21 of the California missions still exist in some form and function, and you can visit them all on a California missions road trip. For many Catholics, this is one of the great American pilgrimages. Maybe you count yourself among that faithful group, or just love history or theology and want to see these important sites, each of which has survived for 200 years. I am among the latter and have had the pleasure to visit many of California’s missions over the years I’ve called California home.
No matter your reason for wanting to do a road trip to all of the California missions, you might be surprised to learn you are not alone in this desire. Each year, people visit some or all of the missions to learn more about this chapter of California history.
In this post, you’ll learn the optimal itinerary for a California missions road trip that connects all 21 missions in a seven-day route. I can’t lie, it’s an ambitious trip, and you’ll probably need a vacation from this “vacation” once you return home. Nevertheless, for those who have enough interest, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip and this post will help you make it a reality. Read on to plan your own California missions road trip and everything you need to know.
While I normally offer a land acknowledgment at this point in my travel resources, I have instead decided to call out the Indigenous groups on whose land each mission is built in each mission’s section of the post. This is in part to acknowledge the multitude of transgressions done against the native people of California, and to raise awareness that every mission in California is built on Native Land. Please use native-land.ca to learn more about the Indigenous groups affected by the colonization of California.
The Complete List of California Missions
Maybe you’ve noticed the bells (above) marking certain roads while driving around California; maybe you are in search of a pilgrimage at this time in your life. Whatever the reason, California’s old Spanish missions offer a unique way to spend time in the state, connecting some of the deepest roots in history to the modern-day.
Before launching into the details of the road trip I suggest which connects all of the missions in California, I thought it might help to start with a list of said missions. Below you’ll find a table with all 21 California missions, established between 1769 and 1823 and stretching from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north. By knowing this list, you’ll have a better sense of why it takes seven days to see all 21 missions in California!
|Mission Name||Date Established||Nearest California Town|
|San Diego de Alcalá||1769||San Diego|
|San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo||1771||Carmel-by-the-Sea|
|San Antonio de Padua||1771||Jolon|
|San Gabriel Arcángel||1771||San Gabriel|
|San Luis Obispo de Tolosa||1772||San Luis Obispo|
|San Francisco de Asis (Mission Dolores)||1776||San Francisco|
|San Juan Capistrano||1776||San Juan Capistrano|
|Santa Clara de Asis||1777||Santa Clara|
|Santa Bárbara||1786||Santa Barbara|
|La Purísima Concepción||1787||Lompoc|
|Santa Cruz||1791||Santa Cruz|
|Nuestra Señora de la Soledad||1791||Soledad|
|San José||1797||San Jose|
|San Juan Bautista||1797||San Juan Bautista|
|San Miguel Arcángel||1797||San Miguel|
|San Fernando Rey de España||1797||Mission Hills (L.A.)|
|San Luis Rey de Francia||1798||Oceanside|
|San Rafael Arcángel||1817||San Rafel|
|San Francisco Solano||1823||Sonoma|
You might also notice that many of the towns which are home to a mission share the same name – this shows how deeply pervasive the influence of the Spanish Catholic missions was in the history of California. While this part of California history obviously doesn’t predate Native American culture in the area – of which there was plenty before colonization –, it does go back to the very origins of the state.
If you’re ready to learn how you can visit each of these missions in an efficient road trip format that also shows you a beautiful swath of the Golden State, read on for all the details of my suggested California Missions road trip itinerary.
7-Day California Missions Road Trip Itinerary
If you’ve got your heart set on doing a California missions road trip, I recommend reviewing this section before reading further – it covers all of the basics so you can understand how ‘big’ this trip is, and how to do it ‘properly’ so that you both enjoy the trip and visit all 21 missions. As you can see from the map above, my suggested itinerary for this road trip has 27 stops, covers almost 800 miles, and takes seven full days with six overnight stops.
Here are the basics:
- Day 1 – Monday – San Diego to San Juan Capistrano
- Day 2 – Tuesday – San Juan Capistrano to Santa Barbara
- Day 3 – Wednesday –Santa Barbara to Paso Robles
- Day 4 – Thursday – Paso Robles to Carmel-by-the-Sea
- Day 5 – Friday – Carmel-by-the-Sea to San Jose
- Day 6 – Saturday – San Jose to Sonoma
- Day 7 – Sunday – Sonoma to San Francisco
And as you’ll notice, I’ve been very specific on which day of the week this road trip should start (Monday) and end (Sunday). This is very important; I’ve checked the hours of admission and mass times for all of the missions and made this itinerary to ensure you could visit each one. If you start and end on different dates, you might discover that some of the missions are not open or have mass during your planned visit.
Looks good though, right? Okay, one last thing. To begin your California missions road trip, you’ll need to arrange two things:
- One way flights to San Diego from your home city, and from San Francisco to your home city. I personally love Kayak for comparing flights and then usually book directly through the airline I choose.
- A one-way car rental with pick-up in San Diego and drop-off in San Francisco. I recommend renting from Fox Rent-A-Car or Sixt. They all offer budget rentals, run regular deals and specials, and have one-way rental options.
Ready to explore each California mission and what you’ll experience on your road trip to all 21? Here are all the details!
Day 1: San Diego to Los Angeles (2 Missions)
To begin your California missions road trip, you’ll need to start in San Diego. This is where you can find California’s oldest mission, Mission San Diego De Alcalá – and is the mission that gives San Diego its name.
Mission San Diego De Alcalá
Mission San Diego de Alcalá is located northwest of downtown San Diego, near the junction of Interstate 8 and I-15. This makes it easy to reach from wherever you stay in San Diego (suggestions below) and also convenient for getting back on the interstate to head north to the next mission after your visit.
Mission San Diego De Alcalá is still an active church, and services are held on every day of the week (7am and 5:30pm weekdays, 5:30pm on Saturdays, and throughout the day on Sundays); plan your trip to avoid a visit on Sundays if you want time to explore without worrying about the mass schedule. Self-guided tours are available whenever the visitor center is open and includes stops at the Archaeological Site, Casa de Los Padres (Father’s House), and Church interior.
From Mission San Diego De Alcalá, it’s a 40-mile, 45-minute drive to Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in Oceanside, California. Along the way, stop for lunch. This is a very easy day so there’s no need to rush.
- The Visitor Center is open from 9am to 4pm daily.
- Admission is $5 per adult.
- Mission San Diego de Alcalá is located on the traditional lands of the Kumeyaay people. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Mission San Luis Rey de Francia
From the oldest mission in California to one of the youngest: San Luis Rey de Francia, which directly translates as “Saint Louis, King of France,” was named for Louis XVIII, who was the younger brother of Louix XVI.
Without digging too much into the details, Louis XVIII should have become king upon his brother’s beheading but was waylaid by the French Revolution, The Directory of the First French Republic, and then by the 10-year rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. Louis XVIII was called “the desired,” and this is reflected in a mission being named after him despite not being “King of France.”
In any case, Mission San Luis Rey still stands today over 200 years later and welcomes guests to take self-guided tours. On the tour, you’ll see the historic church, Madonna chapel, cemetery, and soldiers barracks, among other parts of the compound.
From the mission, head west on Mission San Luis Rey Expressway back toward I-5, then continue north to San Juan Capistrano which is right off the interstate. It’s a 35-minute drive, and you’ll be staying the night in San Juan Capistrano.
- The mission is open for self-guided tours from 10am to 5pm daily.
- Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for children.
- Mission San Luis Rey is located on the traditional lands of the Kumeyaay and Payómkawichum peoples. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Resources for Day 1
Here’s the timeline for Day 1 on your California missions road trip. This day only has two missions due to the timing of when other missions are open, so you have a pretty leisurely day to start your pilgrimage.
- 10:00am – Arrive at San Diego de Alcalá (2 hours to visit)
- 12:00pm – Depart for lunch & San Luis Rey
- 2:00pm – Arrive at San Luis Rey (2 hours to visit)
- 4:00pm – Depart for San Juan Capistrano
- 4:30pm – Arrive in San Juan Capistrano for overnight accommodation.
Day 2: Los Angeles to Santa Barbara (4 Missions)
Day two begins in San Juan Capistrano and ends in Santa Barbara – though you won’t visit the Santa Barbara mission until tomorrow due to the schedules for each mission on today’s itinerary.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan Capistrano is one of the California missions that does not operate as a church anymore; the building and facilities have suffered heavy damage over the centuries. Despite generous restoration efforts, San Juan Capistrano functions more as an event space and museum than a place of religious worship today.
There are two ways to tour Mission San Juan Capistrano: on your own with a self-guided audio tour or as part of a VIP guided tour. The self-guided option is free with admission, making it a good option if you’re budget conscious during this long road trip or want to have complete control over how much time you spend at the mission. (As the VIP group tour lasts 90 minutes, this is a rough estimate for the amount of time you can expect to visit here on your own.) During either tour option, you’ll explore the 10-acre grounds of gardens, fountains, and adobe buildings that remain on the site today.
Once you’ve finished your visit to this mission, there’s still one more to visit today. It’s a 75-minute drive from Mission San Juan Capistrano to Mission San Gabriel where you’ll make a quick stop.
- The mission grounds are open from 9am to 4pm Tuesday through Sunday, and closed Mondays.
- Admission is $14 for adults and $9 for children.
- Mission San Juan Capistrano is located on the traditional lands of the Tongva, Acjachemen, and Kizh peoples. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Mission San Gabriel Arcángel
Start by making the short trip to Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. Unfortunately, Mission San Gabriel Arcángel was damaged by a fire in July 2020 and is no longer open to the public. While it is hoped that the mission museum and grounds will reopen in 2022. As such, you don’t need to spend long here, but it’s worth taking a quick stop to admire the mission from the exterior.
Next, it’s a 40-minute drive around the messy heart of Los Angeles to reach Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana.
- Mission San Gabriel Arcángel is not open to the public. I will update this post once it has reopened.
- The mission is located on the traditional lands of the Tongva and Kizh peoples. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana
Located in the San Fernando Valley – yet another place in California named for its mission – Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana (St. Fernando, King of Spain) was the 17th mission established in California, back in 1797. Today the mission is no longer a church in any capacity (though it is still part of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles) and functions only as a museum to educate visitors.
While the mission itself is small, I recommend taking the time to go through the museum and visit Brand Park Memory Garden across the street. This green space is also dedicated to the mission and has a beautiful replica Corobá fountain you can stroll around to stretch your legs before hopping back in the car.
The hour drive from Mission San Fernando Rey to Mission San Buenaventura takes you outside of L.A.’s hustle and bustle and up toward the Central Coast.
- The mission is open to visitors from 9am to 4:30pm daily, however, as the mission does not have a website, I recommend calling to confirm both admission hours and fees.
- Mission San Fernando Rey is located on the traditional lands of the Chumash, Tongva, Fernandeño Tataviam, and Kizh peoples. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Mission San Buenaventura
Mission San Buenaventura is located in Ventura, California, again explaining how this California city was named. The mission was named for St. Bonaventure, a 13th-century Franciscan saint.
This mission holds a special place: while it was only the ninth mission established in California, it was the final mission founded by Father Junipero Serra, who started the mission movement to educate and indoctrinate the Natives of California. It was established in 1782 and still operates as a functioning church with mass times throughout the week.
While the original mission included the church – also called the Mission Basilica – and an adjacent quadrangle with living spaces and workspaces, all that remains today is the church and gardens – lovely as they are. You can take a self-guided tour of the mission during your visit; here’s an example of the route.
From Ventura, your final leg of today’s driving is the 30-minute route up the Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Barbara. There’s no time to visit this city’s namesake mission this evening, so instead settle into your accommodation and enjoy the evening.
- Mission San Buenaventura is open from 10am to 5pm daily, with some exceptions for holidays and during Holy Week.
- Admission is $5 for adults and $2 for children.
- Mission San Buenaventura is located on the traditional lands of the Micqanaqa’n and Chumash peoples. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Resources for Day 2
Here’s a timeline for Day 2 of this California missions road trip:
- 9:00am – Arrive at San Juan Capistrano (90 minutes to visit)
- 10:30am – Depart for San Gabriel Arcángel
- 11:45am – Arrive at San Gabriel Arcángel (15 minutes to visit)
- 12:00pm – Depart for lunch and San Ferndando Rey (20-minute lunch and 40 minutes driving)
- 1:00pm – Arrive at San Fernando Rey (90 minutes to visit)
- 2:30pm – Depart for San Buenaventura
- 3:30pm – Arrive at San Buenaventura (90 minutes to visit)
- 5:00pm – Depart for Santa Barbara
- 5:30pm – Arrive in Santa Barbara for accommodation
For accommodation tonight, I recommend the Hotel Californian (Booking.com or Hotels.com), Eagle Inn (Booking.com or Hotels.com), or Agapios Cottage for a vacation rental. For dinner, check out bouchon, a French-California restaurant with great wine.
Day 3: Santa Barbara to Paso Robles (4 Missions)
On day 3 of your California Missions road trip, you’ll explore four missions along California’s Central Coast. Rise and shine early to fit them all in during the admission hours for each; check out the detailed schedule for the day in the “Resources for Day 3” section.
Mission Santa Bárbara
Mission Santa Barbara is the first mission I ever visited in California, back on my first PCH road trip back in 2014. Apparently, this was a good starting point, as this mission has also earned the nickname “Queen of the Missions.”
Established in 1786, Mission Santa Barbara struggled from the common issues of many California structures: the current buildings are actually part of the fourth version of the compound, built between 1815 and 1820 following the 1812 Santa Barbara earthquake. During your visit, you can explore the church and quadrangle as part of a self-guided tour, which are both excellent examples of how the mission compound used to function.
It’s a 45-minute drive from Mission Santa Barbara to Mission Santa Inés, so head out north on the 101 once you’ve completed your visit.
- Mission Santa Barbara is open from 9am-4:30pm daily, and 11am-4pm on Sundays. There are often closures so I recommend checking the website for the day you plan to visit.
- Admission is $15 for adults and $10 for youth (5-17)
- Mission Santa Bárbara is located on the traditional lands of the Chumash-Barbareño and Shmuwich peoples. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Mission Santa Inés
Originally established in 1804, Mission Santa Inés (sometimes called Santa Ynes) was one of the last missions created – making it among the youngest missions despite its 200+ year age. It is also considered one of the best-preserved missions in the entire system, in part because it too was rebuilt following the 1812 earthquake that also damaged Mission Santa Barbara.
Mission Santa Inés is located in the picturesque town of Solvang, which will undoubtedly beg for more time to explore – but if your focus is on visiting California missions during this road trip, you’ll need to stick to that and plan a return trip. While visiting Mission Santa Inés, you can explore the church and remaining structures; there’s also a neighboring grist mill that was built to accompany the mission in 1819 about a half-mile away and well worth a visit too. Note that this mission is an active church so you should consult the mass schedule online to plan your visit.
From Solvang and Mission Santa Inés, it’s a 30-minute drive to the next mission. I recommend stopping in Solvang or neighboring Buellton for a quick lunch before heading north on the 101 again.
- As Mission Santa Inés is an active parish, there are no set hours or admission fees for visitation published on their website. I recommend calling to confirm before you visit.
- Mission Santa Inés is located on the traditional lands of the Chumash, Ineseño, and Shmuwich peoples. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Mission La Purísima Concepción de Maria Santisima
Mission La Purísima Concepción de Maria Santisima, often just called La Purísima Mission, is actually operated a bit differently than most of the other missions on this list. While the majority of California missions are either operating parishes and/or offering museum access La Purísima Mission is today part of the California State Parks system. The park and its old mission buildings are preserved with the support of a non-profit, Prelado de los Tesoros de La Purísima.
To visit La Purísima Mission, you can explore the park during open hours (9am to 5pm daily) but the real experience comes at the Visitor Center, which is only open from 10am to 4pm. From there you’ll learn about the history of La Purísima Mission and can set out to explore the historic buildings and trails of the state park.
Once you’ve visited the mission buildings and stretched your legs, it’s time for one more long drive – the 65 minute stretch to the next mission.
- As mentioned, La Purísima Mission is open at varying times depending on what you visit (see above).
- Admission is $6 per vehicle to the state park, which includes access to all mission buildings and the Visitor Center.
- La Purísima Mission is located on the traditional lands of the Chumash and ‘Amuwu peoples. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
The final mission you’ll visit this day is Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Established in 1772 by Father Junipero Serra, it was the fifth California mission and is unique in a number of ways. First, it has a combination of belfry and vestibule; no other missions have these two structures combined. It also has a second nave to the right of the altar, making the church L-shaped – again unlike all other missions in California.
Unfortunately, due to the schedule of this day’s itinerary, you will have a shorter time to visit than at other missions. To make the most of it, I recommend aiming to arrive right at 4:00pm per the schedule below and spending the first 30 minutes in the museum (which closes at 4:30pm). You can then move on to visit other parts of the church and grounds once the museum has closed.
Once you’ve seen what you can at Mission San Luis Obispo, you’ll hop back in the car one more time to make the 30-minute drive to Paso Robles for the night.
- The Museum and Gift Shop at Mission San Luis Obispo are open from 11am-4:30pm Wednesday through Sunday.
- Mission San Luis Obispo is located on the traditional lands of the Chumash and Obispeño peoples. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Resources for Day 3
Here’s the schedule for day 3 of your road trip – it’s another busy one!
- 9:30am – Arrive at Santa Barbara (90 minutes to visit)
- 11:00am – Depart for Santa Inés
- 11:45am – Arrive at Santa Inés (90 minutes to visit)
- 1:15pm – Depart for lunch and La Purísima Mission (15-minute lunch/30 minutes driving)
- 2:00pm – Arrive at La Purísima (1 hour to visit)
- 3:00pm – Depart for San Luis Obispo
- 4:00pm – Arrive in San Luis Obispo (30+ minutes to visit)
- 4:30pm or later – Depart for Paso Robles
- 5:00pm or later – Arrive in Paso Robles for accommodation
In terms of accommodation in Paso Robles, there are countless great choices. Consider the Geneseo Inn (Booking.com or Hotels.com) or the Paso Robles Inn (Booking.com or Hotels.com), or splurge at the Hotel Cheval. For dinner, try a lobster roll and local craft beer at The Backyard on Thirteenth.
Day 4: Paso Robles to Carmel (3 Missions)
This day – the fourth of seven days – you cross the halfway point of your road trip – both in days and in the number of missions you will have seen (13 of 21 by the end of the day). Most of today’s itinerary is spent in the agricultural Monterey Valley, away from the rugged coastline of Big Sur along the Pacific (if you want to see that part of California, you’ll need to do a Pacific Coast Highway road trip instead); the route follows US 101 north until you reach Monterey Bay and nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Mission San Miguel Arcángel
The first mission of the day, Mission San Miguel Arcángel, is located just north of Paso Robles, which is why I recommended that final drive yesterday to start your morning closer to the first mission stop. Mission San Miguel was established in 1797, specifically to create a mission near the Salinan Native American village of Vahca.
Today, you can do a self-guided tour of the on-site museum and remaining buildings and grounds to learn more about this specific mission and the Salinan people. Of particular interest is the Mission Arcade, which has 12 arches and is original to the site; the church, which dates to a rebuild between 1816-1818 and contains paintings by Salinan artists; and the cemetery, where 2,249 Native Americans are buried.
After spending time at Mission San Miguel, it’s a 35-minute drive to the next mission, San Antonio de Padua. This takes you off US 101 on a more scenic route to the small town of Jolon, California, population 402.
- The Mission San Miguel museum is open from 10am to 4pm, Thursday through Monday.
- No admission information is given on the mission website, though donations are likely appreciated in the (likely) event admission is free.
- Mission San Miguel Arcángel is located on the traditional lands of the Salinan people. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Mission San Antonio de Padua
Named for St. Anthony of Padua, Mission San Antonio de Padua is perhaps the most off-the-beaten path of all the California missions. Unlike like neighboring missions of San Miguel and Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, San Antonio de Padua is not along US 101, instead set in a valley of the Santa Lucia Range. This makes it both a scenic detour and one of the lesser-visited missions in California – you have to be planning to reach this one, rather than passing it as part of another journey.
In any case, Mission San Antonio is well worth the extra driving, as it was the third mission established in California, in 1771. Perhaps Father Junipero Serra thought that the route that leads through Jolon would develop more in the future – today it is secluded and provides a special opportunity to peek into the past. Indeed, the Mission has adopted the moniker of “The Mission That Time Forgot.”
On your visit to Mission San Antonio, you can explore the 86-acre property, including the church and buildings, grounds, and an on-site museum. There is a suggested self-guided tour available to help you make the most of your time; there are also docent-led tours available by appointment, which may be possible if you visit on a Thursday afternoon as I suggest in this itinerary. (Call to inquire.)
From Mission San Antonio, it is a scenic 40-minute drive to the next mission, Nuestra Señora de la Soledad.
- Generally, the Mission San Antonio, museum, and grounds are open from 10am to 4pm daily though hours vary each week so it’s best to check the Mission website.
- There is no admission fee, per the mission website, but donations are accepted and the gift shop proceeds (which should be paid by check or cash due to internet unreliability) also support this mission.
- Mission San Antonio de Padua is located on the traditional lands of the Salinan peoples. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad
Also set back from US 101 – though much easier and quicker to access – Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (Our Lady of Solitude) is literally surrounded by farmland and vineyards. Usually just called Soledad Mission, this mission was established in 1791 as the 13th of California’s 21 missions. Today it is mostly used as a historic site, though mass is offered monthly and on Christmas and Easter each year.
During your visit, you can explore the remaining buildings of the Soledad Mission including the chapel and the museum in other rooms of the remaining building. There is also an archaeological site and several ruins that give you a sense of this mission’s original structure and what life was like here. There’s a self-guided tour option, as usual for the missions, and a nice gift shop staffed by volunteers.
From Mission Soledad, make the hour drive to Carmel-by-the-Sea for the night; you’ll arrive too late to visit the mission in this town, but it’s where you’ll start out bright and early tomorrow morning.
- Mission Soledad is open from 10am to 4pm Tuesday through Sunday, and is closed on Mondays as well as select holidays throughout the year. When closed, the entire grounds are inaccessible behind a gate, so be sure to check that the mission is open during your planned visit.
- Admission is free to the Mission, though donations are welcome.
- Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad is located on the traditional lands of the Esselen peoples. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Resources for Day 4
Here’s your daily itinerary for this day on your mission road trip:
- 10:00am – Arrive at San Miguel Arcángel (90 minutes to visit)
- 11:30am – Depart for lunch and San Antonio de Padua (20-minute lunch/40 minutes driving)
- 12:30pm – Arrive at San Antonio de Padua
- 2:00pm – Depart for Nuestra Señora de la Soledad
- 3:00pm – Arrive at Nuestra Señora de la Soledad
- 4:00pm – Depart for Carmel-by-the-Sea
- 5:00pm – Arrive in Carmel for accommodation
For accommodation in Carmel, I recommend La Playa Carmel (Booking.com or Hotels.com), Hofsas House Hotel (Booking.com or Hotels.com), or this Adorable House for a vacation rental. I have an entire guide to Carmel-by-the-Sea and what to do with your evening; for dinner, I recommend Cultura Comida y Bebida with their tableside-made queso fundido.
Day 5: Carmel to San Jose (3* Missions)
We’re past the halfway point on this lovely meandering California missions road trip; are you excited for what’s to come? The meandering continues today as you work yourself from the coast inland to the San Francisco Bay area by way of several missions – and an optional cathedral.
Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo
First up, start your day at Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. As that’s quite a mouthful, I’m just going to call it the Carmel Mission for the remainder of this section! Originally built in 1771, the Carmel Mission has been painstakingly preserved and restored to be counted among one of the best examples of Roman Catholic mission churches on the list – this is the place where you get a real sense for what life in the mission was like.
The Carmel Mission is #2 on the list of California missions – that means it is the second mission in California. Since the early 1770s when it was established, not much has changed; the church is still a fully-functioning parish with masses offered on Saturdays, Sundays, and other times throughout the week. This is why it’s a good idea to visit the Carmel Mission to avoid any conflict with parish schedules. During your visit, you can explore the museum, grounds, and chapel as part of a self-guided tour.
From Carmel, it’s a short 15-minute drive to Monterey for the optional stop I recommend there, or a 45-minute drive to the next mission in San Juan Bautista.
- The Carmel Mission is open to visitors from 10am-4pm Wednesday and Thursday, 10am-5pm Friday and Saturday, and from 11:30am-5pm on Sundays. It is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. If you follow my suggested itinerary, you’ll be visiting on a Friday.
- Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children
- Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo is located on the traditional lands of the Rumsen and Ohlone peoples. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Optional: Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo
If you choose to make my suggested stop at the Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo in Monterrey, you won’t be disappointed. Though it shares a similar formal name to the Carmel Mission, the San Carlos Cathedral is a completely different church with an entirely different function. San Carlos Cathedral was not a mission; it was just a cathedral.
Don’t let that dissuade you from visiting; as it was built between 1791-1799, it is one of the oldest cathedrals in the United States (tied for that title with St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans), and is the oldest continuously operating parish and the oldest stone building in California.
You don’t need long to visit here; a 15-minute stop is enough to admire the building from the outside – and enter if the church is open for visitors. (It probably won’t be at this point on a Friday morning, but you can try the doors anyway!)
If you made this optional stop on my suggested California missions road trip itinerary, continue on making the 45-minute drive to Mission San Juan Bautista in the town that shares its name.
- The San Carlos Cathedral is usually open before mass, which occurs on Saturdays and Sundays.
- It is free to visit the San Carlos Cathedral.
- San Carlos Cathedral is located on the traditional lands of the Rumsen and Ohlone peoples. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Mission San Juan Bautista
Another California mission that lent its name to the town that now surrounds it, Mission San Juan Bautista dates back to 1797 when there was no town at all. The Mission originally comprised soldiers barracks, a nunnery, living and working quarters, and a church around a grassy plaza; today you can explore many of those same structures as well as a museum and gift shop during your visit. There’s a self-guided walking tour available too.
One interesting note is that Mission San Juan Bautista has offered daily mass since it was established 225 years ago; it’s an active parish today and you may see parishioners or other events happening during your visit.
From Mission San Juan Bautista, it’s a 45-minute drive to Mission Santa Cruz along California Highway 1.
- The Museum and Garden at Mission San Juan Bautista are open from 9am to 4pm Thursday through Sunday.
- Admission is $7 for adults and $4 for children.
- Mission San Juan Bautista is located on the traditional lands of the Popeloutchom (Amah Mutsun) and Ohlone peoples. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Mission Santa Cruz
The final Mission for today’s mission (pun intended) is Mission Santa Cruz, located in – surprise, surprise – Santa Cruz. The formal name of this mission is actually La Misión de la Exaltación de la Santa Cruz (“Mission of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross”) though everyone just calls in Mission Santa Cruz. Founded in 1791, it sits right in the middle of the pack among California’s 21 missions.
Mission Santa Cruz is today an urban mission; the mission itself is preserved as the chapel and nave, and a neighboring Mission Plaza includes some of the original mission grounds, as well as the nearby Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park where other mission-era buildings can be found.
Mass is offered daily in the mornings and weekend afternoons; if you’re following my recommended dates, you’ll be visiting on a Friday so I don’t expect there will be any masses or other services offered to interrupt your visit.
After visiting Mission Santa Cruz, it’s a 45-minute drive to San Jose; this is your overnight stop.
- The Mission Santa Cruz website is not clear about admission hours so I recommend calling or emailing the Misión Galería Manager to inquire.
- Similarly, I’m not sure about admission costs, if any apply.
- Mission Santa Cruz is located on the traditional lands of the Popeloutchom (Amah Mutsun), Ohlone, and Awaswas peoples. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Resources for Day 5
Today is a long day of driving but fewer missions, making the daily schedule a bit more manageable:
- 10:00am – Arrive at San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo (90 minutes to visit)
- 11:30am – Depart for San Carlos Cathedral (15 minutes to visit)
- 11:45am – Arrive at San Carlos Cathedral
- 12:00pm – Depart for lunch and San Juan Bautista (30-minute lunch/30 minutes driving)
- 1:00pm – Arrive at San Juan Bautista (75 minutes to visit)
- 2:15pm – Depart for Santa Cruz
- 3:00pm – Arrive at Santa Cruz (1 hour to visit)
- 4:00pm – Depart for San Jose
- 5:00pm – Arrive in San Jose for accommodation
For accommodation in San Jose, I recommend the downtown Hotel de Anza (Booking.com or Hotels.com) or the Hotel Valencia (Booking.com or Hotels.com), which is right near the Winchester Mystery House. Be sure to check my San Jose guide for more ideas of how to spend your evening. For dinner, check out Olla Cocina.
Day 6: San Jose to Sonoma (3 Missions)
Your penultimate day of visiting California’s missions brings you to the “East Bay” of the San Francisco Bay Area. Starting the morning in San Jose, you’ll visit three missions en route to the “North Bay” and wine country. Today’s route actually deviates from US 101, El Camino Real; instead the Camino runs north on the Peninsula side of the bay toward the mission in San Francisco – but we’ll get back to that one tomorrow.
Mission Santa Clara de Asis
Starting the morning in the city of San Jose, it’s a 15-minute drive to the first mission of the day, Mission Santa Clara de Asis, in the community of Santa Clara. Mission Santa Clara is actually located on the campus of Santa Clara University (another namesake), which was established in 1851 – 74 years after the mission (1777). As the mission is now university-supported, it’s one of the best-preserved on El Camino Real and a departure from some of the missions you visited yesterday.
During a stop here, you can explore the chapel and mission grounds; there is a self-guided walking tour pamphlet available in the Visitor’s Corner of the church when you enter. Given that this is an active church that offers daily mass, you may encounter parishioners and should accord them respect and quiet during your visit. (I know this is obvious since you’re passionate about these missions and what they represent, but it never hurts to be reminded!)
After strolling through the grounds to stretch your legs, hop back in the car and make the 25-minute drive to Mission San José which is not located in the city of San Jose (shocker!).
- Mission Santa Clara is open from 7am to 7pm daily.
- Admission is free to the church and grounds.
- Mission Santa Clara is located on the traditional lands of the Ohlone and Muwekma peoples, and those of the Tamien Nation. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Mission San José
Mission San José is actually located in Fremont, California, another community in the East Bay. It too was founded in 1797 along with three other missions (San Juan Bautista, San Miguel, and San Francisco Rey) after a six-year break.
The original mission fell into disrepair and ruin over the past 225 years, though has since been restored and the church now serves as an active chapel within the Archdiocese of Oakland. A self-guided tour will take you through the Mission museum (formerly the living quarters in the mission), the restored adobe Church, the cemetery, and a patio garden that was part of the mission grounds. If you happen to be visiting on the second Saturday of the month, you’re in luck – docent-led tours are offered at 11am on these days (perfect timing for my suggested itinerary!).
After exploring on your own or with a docent guiding you, it’s time for another drive. This scenic drive will take you up out of the East Bay and into the heart of California wine country.
- The Mission San José is open from 10am to 3pm Wednesday through Sunday.
- Admission is $10 for adults and $7 for children; docent tours are $15 for adults and $10 for children.
- Mission San José is located on the traditional lands of the Ohlone and Muwekma peoples, and those of the Tamien Nation and Confederated Villages of Lisjan. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Mission San Francisco Solano
The final mission of the day is located in the heart of Sonoma; you might recognize the name for that great bottle of wine you once enjoyed from this area. While wine tasting is an option later, I recommend starting with a visit to Mission San Francisco Solano then enjoying the other offerings in town.
Mission San Francisco Solano was the final mission built in California – number 21 of 21! – established in 1823, some 54 years after the first mission (San Diego Alcalá). It is also the northernmost – again opposed to Mission San Diego Alcalá which is the southernmost.
This mission was established for a slightly different reason than other California missions; it was in part to provide a robust Mexican presence in the North Bay to deter Russians from settling in the area. There were also many Native American groups in the area, of course, who served as a potential base of converts to the Catholic church. Today, it is part of the Sonoma State Historic Park, within the California Parks system.
During your visit to Mission San Francisco Solano, you can visit the chapel and explore the grounds of the Sonoma State Historic Park, a living history museum across the street. After you finish your visit here, it’s time to relax and unwind – perhaps with a glass of wine – since you’re spending the evening in Sonoma.
- Sonoma State Historic Park is open from 10am to 5pm daily, including Mission San Francisco Solano.
- Admission to Sonoma SHP is $3 for adults and $2 for children.
- Mission San Francisco Solano is located on the traditional lands of the Graton Rancheria and Me-Wuk (Coast Miwok) peoples. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Resources for Day 6
Here is the daily schedule for today’s route on this California missions road trip:
- 9:00am – Arrive at Santa Clara de Asis (90 minutes to visit)
- 10:30am – Depart for Mission San José
- 11:00am – Arrive at Mission San José (90 minutes to visit)
- 12:30pm – Depart for lunch and San Francisco Solano (60-minute lunch/90 minutes driving)
- 3:00pm – Arrive at San Francisco Solano (90 minutes to visit)
- 4:30pm – Depart for/Arrive in Sonoma for accommodation
Stay near town to keep things easier; the Sonoma Hotel (Booking.com or Hotels.com) is a lovely choice, as is El Pueblo Inn. The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn (Booking.com or Hotels.com) is definitely worth the splurge if you have it in your budget. To be honest, I don’t know Sonoma as well as I know Napa, so I’m just going to provide vague dinner recommendations: the girl & the fig is fantastic though spendy, and there are a dozen other restaurants around the main square in town which I’m sure are great too.
Day 7: Sonoma to San Francisco (2 Missions)
I’ve specifically timed this entire itinerary to end on a Sunday and have that day with the fewest missions to visit – in part because it made sense for travel time and overnight stops, and in part, because most of the California missions on this list are still operating churches and access is much harder on Sundays due to mass. Today you’re visiting two missions in the San Francisco Bay Area, and then the road trip is done.
Mission San Rafael Arcángel
To begin your final day of my California missions road trip, start by enjoying breakfast in Sonoma and making the 35-minute drive to the town of San Rafael and its namesake mission. During this drive, you’ll re-join US 101 and see the northernmost bells of El Camino Real.
As a reminder, if you follow this itinerary to a tee, you’ll be visiting on a Sunday – this means we need to keep mass schedules in mind unless you’d like to attend mass and then visit the rest of the mission. Sunday mass at Mission San Rafael is offered at 10am and 12pm; I suggest arriving at 11am for your visit and entering the chapel after mass lets out. You can then stay for 12pm mass should you choose and adjust the rest of your daily itinerary accordingly. In addition to the chapel, there’s a small museum/gift shop.
After exploring the Mission San Rafael to your heart’s content, hop in the car and head south on the 101. Just before the Golden Gate Bridge, take the exit for Sausalito to enjoy lunch. I have an entire site dedicated to Sausalito and things to do in Sausalito; for lunch, check out my guide to the best lunch spots for every style. Then drive the 30 minutes south across the Golden Gate Bridge to the final mission on this road trip.
- With regard to visiting Mission San Rafael, there are no set hours – instead I’d time your visit to coincide with the end of mass. The church website has all the details.
- Admission is free to Mission San Rafael.
- Mission San Rafael is located on the traditional lands of the Graton Rancheria and Me-Wuk (Coast Miwok) peoples. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Mission San Francisco de Asis (Mission Dolores)
Last, but certainly not least, Mission San Francisco de Asis – also called Mission Dolores – is San Francisco’s own mission, and is located in the heart of the city. The original adobe church dates to 1776, when the United States of America was just coming into being, while the Basilica Mission Dolores was built in 1918 to accompany it. (The photo above right shows the Mission Dolores while the left photo shows inside the original chapel.) Father Junipero Serra actually oversaw this church directly, giving it extra importance during its early years.
On Sundays, mass is offered at 8am, 10am, and 12pm, so it should be over by the time of your visit if following my schedule for the day. However the basilica and chapel are usually open to visitors, as well as the gardens and cemetery. You can spend as long as you’d like here, as it’s the final mission and I suggest staying the night here in San Francisco.
- The Mission Dolores (and San Francisco) is open from 10am to 4pm daily.
- Admission is free to the buildings and grounds whenever they are open.
- Mission San Francisco/Mission Dolores is located on the traditional lands of the Muwekma, Ohlone, and Ramaytush peoples. Learn more on native-land.ca.
Resources for Day 7
Here’s the final schedule for your road trip to all 21 California missions:
- 11:00am – Arrive at San Rafael Arcángel (90 minutes to visit)
- 12:30am – Depart for Sausalito
- 1:00pm – Lunch in Sausalito (60-minute lunch)
- 2:00pm – Depart for San Francisco de Asis
- 2:30pm – Arrive at San Francisco de Asis (90 minutes to visit)
- 4:00pm – Depart for/arrive in San Francisco for accommodation
San Francisco has tons of accommodation choices, but my favorites include the Fairmont San Francisco (Booking.com or Hotels.com), the Hotel Triton (Booking.com or Hotels.com), and this Mission Condo for a vacation rental option. I have a complete guide for things to do in San Francisco should you choose to stay a day or two after your road trip (which I highly recommend!).
Have any questions about how to plan your own California missions road trip, even after all this info? No worries – let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to help!
Photo credits: El Camino Bell, San Luis Rey, and San Gabriel Arcángel by Ken Lund; San Fernando Rey by Konrad Summers; Santa Inés by Brian; La Purísima Concepción by Doc Searls; San Luis Obispo (R) by flick off; Mission San Miguel by Sharon Mollerus; San Juan Bautista by Ken Lund (L) and Dan K (R); Santa Cruz by Elaine with Grey Cats (L), Ed Bierman (UR), and Don DeBold (LR); Santa Clara and San Jose by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner; San Francisco Solano by Rennett Stowe; and Mission Dolores (L) by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner.