A Tour of 5 California Missions

Follow along on our personal journey to visit five of California's missions:

Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, San Miguel, Carmel, San Juan Bautista


Points of Interest:

  • On this road trip we chose 5 out of the 21 missions to visit.  We loved them all!

My Favorite Literature Pick for California Missions:


Zia by Scott O'Dell


Journal Idea:


Try making a "map journal" since your trip will likely lead you along a path from one mission to another.  Pick up a piece of white poster board and draw a large outline of the state of California before you leave on your trip.  As you travel along, show your path on the map.  Include lots of color and illustrations to make it come alive.  You can even attach memorabilia you collect along the way.



We started off on a weekday between Christmas and New Years.  In some ways it was the perfect time to go... less school responsibilities and maybe we would see the missions all lit up for the holidays... but in other ways it felt like we were trying to cram something in while we still could - AND WE WERE!  



Our beloved dog, Sugar-Belle was about 3 weeks away from delivering a litter of pups and we knew that this would be our last chance of freedom for at least 3 months.  And to make things more interesting, Sugar was going with us!  Not an original choice, but with a last minute dog-sitting cancellation, we found ourselves changing our hotel reservations to "pet friendly" establishments. In addition to the wonderful California history we were about to embark on, we now also considered this trip a puppy-moon.  And we were off... A dad, a mom, two boys (one being a 4th grader) and a pregnant dog.


Did you know there are 21 California missions that dot the coastline from San Diego to just north of San Francisco?  And that each mission is approximately 30 miles from the one before it, the distance it would take a traveler to get there in one day's time?  The California Mission website contains maps, timelines and key facts to help plan your visit.  



Mission #1 - Santa Barbara

Our first stop was the beautiful Santa Barbara Mission.  The chapel and gardens were absolutely beautiful!  But the real highlight for us was the tombstone of Karana from the book  Island of the Blue Dolphins.  Having recently read this book, we were all excited to see a piece of her legacy.  Whether all accounts of Scott O'Dell's book are accurate, it is not disputed that a woman came from one of the nearby Channel Islands and found a new home at the Santa Barbara mission.  Sadly, she didn't live long after her arrival.  


In all, we spent about 2 hours at this mission and then we hit the road again to drive the 1.5 hours North to San Luis Obispo. 


Mission #2 - San Luis Obispo

We spend the night at a little B&B in downtown SLO called the Petit Soleil.  Not only were they welcoming to Sugar, but they had a wine tasting reception featuring local wines that pleased mom and a delicious hot breakfast in the morning that pleased the boys.  The next morning we headed over to the SLO mission and enjoyed the beautiful gardens and tribute to the local natives from this area.  Our SLO experience was complete once we had a tri tip sandwich and stuck a piece of chewed gum in the famed "bubble gum alley" before heading north.


She sure doesn't look pregnant!
Mission #3 - San Miguel

Our next stop was Paso Robles.  The mission in this area is called San Miguel and was one of our favorites.  Unlike many of the other missions on our mission trail, this one has had very few updates to it and so you really get the sense that you are seeing it in the same way it was when it was established in 1797.  In fact, the inside of the church has never been repainted and the frescos are still original.  Paso Robles had a few other family-friendly stops for us as well.  We enjoyed the coastline, Morro Bay Rock and Cayucos State Beach.  We also enjoyed a 2 hour visit at the Estrella Warbird Museum, then gourmet soda tasting at the Pithy Little Wine Company in town.


Mission #4 - Carmel

Now it was time to head to Carmel... the jewel of the Missions and home to Junipero Serra's remains.  We checked in at the Carmel Mission Inn (sounded appropriate), got a pizza delivered to our room and called it a night!  The next morning we ventured out to the Carmel Mission and took the tour.  It is by far the most picture-perfect mission we have seen.  It is stunning from every vantage point.  It is a perfect combination of the old California architecture with the newly manicured gardens and walkways. 


Mission #5 - San Juan Bautista

Next we hit the road and made our way to our fifth and final mission on our mission trail - San Juan Bautista.  Located less than an hour away and just outside of Hollister.  It reminded us again of what life was like during these early California days of natives and Spanish friars living and working together.  This famous has been made famous from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo movie, but for our boys that didn't have much importance to them.  Instead they were very interested in finding an old cat door in the chapel that served as a way for cats to get in and help keep the mouse population in check.  It certainly is fun to read about something and then have the opportunity to go and find it in person. 


And that concluded our tour... we began the LONG drive home to So Cal.  When our second boy is in 4th grade, we might have him pick another 5 so we can make another mission trail tour.  There are 21 total so he'll have plenty to choose from!


My Favorite Literature books for California History/Missions:


Island of the Blue Dolphins

by Scott O'Dell



by Scott O'Dell


Song of the Swallows

by Leo Politi

The History Curriculum we used for California History:

Beautiful Feet - History of California










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