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Explore California’s Missions from San Diego to Paso Robles

California’s chain of 21 Franciscan missions covering 525 miles from San Diego to Sonoma provide a look at the beginnings of European expansion into Alta California in the New World. Built from south to north between 1769 and 1823, these frontier outposts were intended to join soldiers and friars by expanding the boundaries of Spain while also spreading Christianity. Here’s our suggested itinerary for several days of exploration anchored by these historic landmarks.

Mission San Diego de Alcalá

In 1769, Father Junípero Serra and two other Spanish friars planted a cross at the spot that would become the “Mother of the Alta California Missions.” But before construction began, the site was shifted six miles east. Soon after the mission’s completion, angry natives burnt it to the ground. Today, the fourth rebuild of the original mission stands as a National Historic Landmark, located near the intersection of I-8 and I-15. The five signature bells, including one original, resound together once a year for the white-washed mission’s mid-July anniversary, Festival of the Bells.

From the mission’s basilica to the center of San Diego is a 15-minute drive, where the Gothic Revival-style Sofia Hotel is equidistance to the Gaslamp Quarter and Balboa Park. With an emphasis on comfort, the 1926 hotel has an attractive brasserie, a spa, a 24-hour fitness center and the Harkishan Yoga Studio.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Considered the “Jewel of the Missions,” the seventh mission built in Alta California is the most evocative. Partly in ruins and undergoing ongoing preservation, visitors can tour its 10 acres, where three streams converge within sight of the Pacific Ocean. The Great Stone Church, which crumpled in an earthquake in 1812, was spared its four bells, which hang in the garden, a well-known icon of Southern California. Mid-March brings the annual return of American cliff swallows from their wintering ground 6,000 miles away in Argentina, kicking off the weeklong Fiesta de las Golondrinas.

Midway between San Diego and San Juan Capistrano, about a half hour’s drive from either, Omni La Costa Resort & Spa near Carlsbad offers pure California luxury with its picturesque Spanish Colonial Revival architecture echoing that of the missions. Blessed by an underground mineral spring, the property, encompassing 400 acres, has been a top-rated resort since the exceptional hotel spa opened here in 1965.

Old Mission Santa Barbara

Situated on a hilltop affording wide ocean views, the “Queen of the Missions” was the tenth mission built in Alta California, dating from 1786. Christened by Father Lasuen following the death of Father Junípero Serra, who founded the first nine missions, it is still an active congregation. Felled by a 1925 earthquake, the 20th century rebuild is true to its original design modeled after an ancient pre-Christian Roman chapel. Today, the ornate, imposing church, which has twin bell towers and is surrounded by 10 acres of gardens, is also home to a Franciscan order, a historic cemetery and a museum that offers both docent-led and self-guided tours.

One of Southern California’s preferred getaways since 1923, Ojai Valley Inn & Spa is the crown jewel of a region of natural beauty. Chosen as the location for Shangri-La in the 1939 film, “The Lost Horizon,” guests at the Spanish Colonial retreat can look forward to “the pink moment,” when the sunset colors the coastal mountain peaks. Superb golf, midnight yoga under the stars, art lessons, gorgeous grounds, hiking and biking and relaxation in the spa are just a sampling of the ways to spend the days, just 33 miles from Santa Barbara.

La Purísima Concepción

A remote but active outpost, this mission was part of the Spanish plan to expand its territory into the land of the native Chumash people. Currently located in a state park two miles from Lompoc and 50 miles west of Santa Barbara, Alta California’s eleventh mission was rebuilt near the original, which was destroyed in the earthquake of 1812. It operates as a living educational center with costumed volunteer guides who recreate period arts and crafts for visitors at the restored site tucked into a small canyon. The unusual linear layout of this mission’s buildings also includes a visitor center and museum.

Mission San Miguel Arcángel

Founded in 1797, this “Mission on the Highway” just off Route 101 near Paso Robles was the 16th mission built in Alta California and the only one whose original interior survives — its wall frescoes were completed by natives under Spanish direction in 1821. Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and 35 miles inland from the Pacific, ample water by way of springs supported agriculture and thousands of heads of cattle and sheep.

Ask for a hot spring spa guest room to have therapeutic waters pumped right into your bath. On the site of the original 1891 property, the mission-style Paso Robles Inn enjoys an enviable location in the historic downtown, which is chock-a-block with acclaimed restaurants, noted chefs and very special local wines. Paso Robles Inn is 31 miles from San Luis Obispo, tipped as the nation’s happiest town by popular media.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

A statue of Father Junípero Serra looks out from this rebuilt mission, the fifth built in Alta California, which bears the date 1772 and was named after Saint Louis, Bishop of Toulouse, France, who passed away at age 23 after being trained by Franciscan friars in Spain during the 13th century. Located on a plaza in the center of town, this pretty church and peaceful gardens with grape arbors and a pond also has an interesting interpretive museum that includes period room interiors and historical Native American and Spanish clothing. The museum is open seven days a week and a very active congregation holds services in English and in Spanish.

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