We’re adventure early birds. Getting up early and arriving at our destination in the morning before things get busy and crowded has repeatedly proven to be a smart decision. This was especially true on our recent hike to Balconies Cave in Pinnacles National Park.
We reached the park at 8:00 am, got a great parking spot, and enjoyed a fantastic hike through a talus cave. Back at the car around 1:30 in the afternoon, we still had the rest of the day ahead of us and were looking for something else fun to do around our hotel in Hollister, California.
Just ten miles up the road is the City of San Juan Bautista and Old Mission San Juan Bautista. Carter is currently learning about the California missions in his fourth grade class, so we decided to head over there and take a tour.
Touring Old Mission San Juan Bautista
We arrived at in the late afternoon just after mass let out. Old Mission San Juan Bautista is the only mission church that has been in continuous use throughout it’s entire history. It has had an unbroken succession of pastors since its founding on June 24,1797. Even during the construction of the church, a small onsite chapel was used for mass.
We paid our museum fee and gained entrance to tour the mission. We were able to:
- Browse the mission museum with artifacts, historic stories, bibles and song books, and a scale model of the mission. The present museum rooms were the padre’s living quarters and the work areas for the Native Americans.
- Visit the mission gift shop. The present Gift Shop was a mission storeroom and also a temporary home for the Breen family who survived the Donner Party tragedy.
- Tour the grounds and gardens — the center of the mission’s activity — boasting beautiful flowers, cacti, benches, and arbors.
- Visit the original chapel and operating church. With three naves or aisles, it became the widest of all the mission churches. It also has a gorgeous reredos behind the altar with six large statues that was painted by Thomas Doak, an American sailor who painted the reredos in exchange for room and board.
- The church cemetery contains over 4,000 Christian Native Americans and Europeans, as well as Ascencion Solorzano, the last pure blooded Native American of this mission.
- See the San Andreas Fault line running along the base of the hill below the cemetery.
It was fun to tour the mission and get facts throughout our visit from Carter about the creation of the California mission trail, the founders of the missions, and the history.
Old Mission San Juan Bautista History
In June 1803, the cornerstone was laid for the mission church. It was dedicated on June 23, 1812 and replaced the adobe chapel of 1797 built by Ygnacio Barrera, Second Carpenter of the frigate Concepción. Construction continued through 1817 when the floor was tiled and the main altar and reredos was finished.
During the famous 1906 California earthquake, the side walls of the mission collapsed, and then in 1976 they were restored. The convento wing is all that remains of missing portion of the mission that enclosed the gardens.
Many of the books and art in the museum are older than the mission. Some featured items are from China, Russia and Venice, and were used at the mission as recently as the 1930’s.
The church was secularized in 1835, when much of the mission property was seized by the Mexican government. In 1895, the present mission buildings and 55 acres were given back to the Church by Federal decree of the United States government.
San Juan Bautista State Historic Park
Adjacent to Old Mission San Juan Bautista is the only original Spanish Plaza remaining in California. Both a National Historic Landmark and a California State Historic Park, the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park buildings are original and restored their their 1870s appearance represent the old town square of what was once the largest town in central California.
The Plaza includes the Plaza Hotel, the Zanetta House/Plaza Hall, the Stables, the Blacksmith Shop, the Castro-Breen Adobe, a historic jail, and an early American settler’s cabin.
- The Stables display a variety of historic items, as well as stages, carriages, and wagons, including a beer wagon and a fire department wagon that was pulled by 16 people.
- The Blacksmith Shop displays all different types of tools used in the trade.
- The Castro-Breen House is a museum showcasing period furnishings and decor. The courtyard behind the Castro/Breen Adobe has a gristmill, an horno and a tallow display.
- The Plaza Hotel showcases Victorian furnishings. It is the entrance to State Park and before becoming a hotel it served as barracks for the Spanish soldiers who protected the mission.
- Plaza Hall/Zanetta House shows off period furnishings and has rooms made up similar to those guests of all ages, including a child’s room with old toys.
The park’s interpretive displays are open daily for self guided visits and also offers guided walking tours by advanced reservation.
Main Street San Juan Bautista
After touring the Old Mission and the State Historic Park, we walked down to Main Street, a cute historic street filled with shops and stores, restaurants and bars, and a great ice cream shop. Brian and Natalie got ice cream cones, Carter got some fresh baked cookies from a bakery, and we checked out the shops until dark.
If you’re visiting, or even driving through areas of Hollister or Gilroy, I definitely recommend you plan a half-day family detour to San Juan Bautista to visit the Old Mission and the State Historic Park, and then grab lunch or ice cream on Main Street. If you can, visit on the first Saturday of the month for the state park living history days.