This crumbling California Mission and adjacent state historic park is only about an hour drive southeast from the Bay Area and has an Old West/Alta California charm that’s all its own.
With uneven floors, low doorways, and ancient adobe peaking through peeling plaster, Old Mission San Juan Bautista feels a little run down and dirty. In other words it feels authentically and awesomely Western. It’s a fun and quick place to explore for anyone traveling through the area.
Here’s the rundown:
The mission was founded on June 24th, 1797. It survived a brief secularization that lasted a decade before and after the Mexican American War. It also survived the great 1906 earthquake that leveled San Francisco. You can see the San Andreas faultline in the jagged drop of land at the edge of its cemetary behind the main chapel. Beyond the drop, pastoral fields lay peacefully in the sunshine.
The mission has been in continuous use since its creation and many of its structures are over 200 years old. As I wandered the large complex, the state of semi deterioration made everything seem even somehow older.
Some of the rooms have been turned into museum like exhibit spaces, showing the history of the land and its people, while others are designed to resemble mission life of the 1800s. There’s even a room devoted to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, because its famous climatic scenes were filmed here.
The rest of the town, which shares the same name as the mission, is also a gem of historic buildings and is fun to wander. It was organized around an old Spanish-styled plaza with the mission on one side and what is now San Juan Bautista State Historic Park on the other. The park consists of more historic buildings from the same era including an old hotel where the surviving members of the Donner Party took refuge and a tiny jailhouse. The plaza is now a large grassy field often filled with fourth grade class field trips, families, and history buffs.
If you go: Admission to the mission when I visited last month was $4 for adults and $2 for kids over five years old. Attending mass is of course free. M–F mass 8am; Sat vigil 5pm; Sun mass 8:30am, 10:00am; Spanish mass on Sun at 1:00pm.
The state park itself is free, however there is a small fee to visit two of the main buildings that have exhibits inside. We opted to just check out the free buildings including the jailhouse and a stable for the Pony Express that now houses a nice collection of wagons.
They have a calendar of fun programs throughout the year including, vertigo day (an outdoor screening of the film on the plaza lawn), dutch cooking demonstrations, living history days (when the park is filled with reenactment actors dress up from different time periods on the first Saturday of each month) and more.
— Laura Rowley