I’d guess that the most well-known of the 21 California Missions is San Juan Capistrano — and it’s all because of the birds. Legend has it that the famous swallows of San Juan Capistrano return here every St. Joseph’s Day, March 19th, and remain until St. John’s Day, October 23, when they return to Argentina for the winter.
The birds really do live here during the summer months, but I was visiting on February 28th, just a little more than two weeks before they were scheduled to return (assuming they were on time — the truth is, birds don’t have calendars). Even so, the mission’s fame was enough to convince me to turn off Interstate 5 and visit the mission, as one of my last stops on this trip.
If you’re planning a drive-by visit to Mission San Juan Capistrano, you’ll be disappointed. There isn’t much to see from the street, except this entryway. That works out well for the Mission, since it charges a $9 admission fee.
After passing through the entrance, you arrive in this beautiful courtyard. Since it was included with my admission fee, I picked up an audio device that provided a guided tour of the grounds.
Stop number one was that plaque (a recreation of the mission’s founding document)…
…number two was the Olive Millstone…
… followed by the Soldiers Barracks…
… and the Kiicha, a reconstruction of a traditional hut used by the area’s Native Americans.
After the fourth stop on the audio tour, I decided I was tired of juggling the audio player and my camera, so I stopped listening, and instead decided to wander around towards whatever caught my interest.
After you pass through the first courtyard, and slip around the side of the South Wing, you enter a much larger space, known as the Central Courtyard. This is an absolutely beautiful area, perfectly maintained by groundskeepers, with countless flowers in bloom. The only problem is, it was quite crowded during my visit — with the kind of slow-moving tourists who never seem to realize they are stopping to gawkright in the middle of the picture you want to take. Fortunately, I found a moment where most of them were out of the way.
This is one of the newest bells you’ll find at Mission San Juan Capistrano, placed here to commemorate the Riders of El Viaje de Portola, a group that raises funds annually to support the mission. Elsewhere at the mission, there’s also a similar bell, used to mark the path of El Camino Real (bells like these can be found all along US 101).
If you’re familiar with the legend of the San Juan Capistrano Swallows, it’s probably because of Leon Rene’s song, “When the Swallows Come Back To Capistrano”. The mission has preserved Rene’s piano, along with some other items donated by his family.
Off the northwest side of the central courtyard, you can check out the ruins of the mission’s tallow stoves. (Tallow is a material rendered from the fat of cows and sheep, used in candles and soap). The tallow stoves, or Catalan forges, were unearthed during excavations in 1935. The mission brags that this is part of Orange County’s first industrial complex.
You’ll find the mission’s most notable building cater-corner to the forges, in the central courtyard’s southeastern corner. Father Serra’s Chapel is the oldest building in California still in use. It was built in 1782, and is the only surviving structure where Blessed Fray Junipero Serra performed mass (Serra founded the chain of missions in California).
The chapel is a beautifully decorated building that’s still used to celebrate Mass on a daily basis. (You can check the mission’s schedule here.) If you’re just a casual visitor, you don’t have to say a prayer or light a candle, just be sure you show respect to the other visitors.
Outside the chapel, you can visit the mission’s cemetery, where burials date back to 1781. There are approximately 2,000 people buried here.
From the cemetery, pass through this archway…
… into the Sacred Garden. Those historic bells hanging in the Bell Wall are rung only on special occasions, like the returning of the swallows.
Okay, so at this point I have to admit something. After seeing the bells, I walked through the gift shop, then exited the Mission and got back on the road. Clearly, I’m an idiot, because somehow I missed one of the most impressive sites at Mission San Juan Capistrano: the Great Stone Church. In this picture, on the left, you can see one of the walls of the Great Stone Church, and if you scroll back up to the third picture on this page, you can see more of it, behind the arches, in the distance.
For some reason, I never walked over to the Great Stone Church ruins. I wonder if other visitors have made the same mistake. They are off to the side (as you enter after paying your admission, turn right!), and somewhat outside the flow of pedestrian traffic. The unfortunate truth is, I will probably never pay another $9 just to go in and see them, even if I am in the area again.