Each March hundreds of thousands of swallows fly into San Juan Capistrano to relax in mud nests and enjoy the warm coastal climate. I don’t visit the city as often, but when I do it’s always a fun and rewarding experience.
Some friends and I began a recent getaway to the town at Mission San Juan Capistrano, the state’s oldest and most famous mission. Originally founded on October 30, 1775, the site was abandoned eight days later after an attack at the San Diego Mission sent shock waves up the coast, causing builders to bury their church bells and flee.
The mission was founded again a year later on November 1, 1776 when father Junipero Serra returned to the site and found the original bells and cross still safe in their hiding place in the ground. Shortly thereafter a little adobe chapel was built, which to this day stands as the oldest church structure in California. After completing the chapel the Spaniards built a magnificent stone church, which was destroyed in the earthquake of 1812.
Today the 10-acre mission grounds feature numerous buildings and spectacular ruins from the early days of California. There are also beautiful gardens, statues, fountains and walkways, as well as a cemetery where former inhabitants are buried in marked and unmarked graves.
After touring the mission, we walked a couple blocks to Los Rios Historic District, one of the oldest continuing neighborhoods in the state. Located across the railroad tracks of the Capistrano Depot, the area resembles a movie set and boasts 31 classic structures lining both sides of Los Rios Street. Among these structures are three adobe homes built in 1794 for Mission families.
Other neighborhood highlights include the O’Neill Museum, a 100-year-old wooden structure with period furniture and guided history tours; the Zoomars Petting Zoo, where children can ride ponies and feed rabbits, goats and llamas. There are also a handful of interesting shops and cafes – all located in historic old homes, shaded by willow, eucalyptus and palm trees, and cactus and bougainvillea plants.
From the Los Rios we got back in the car drove a few miles down Ortega Highway to Caspers Wilderness Park, an 8,000-acre protected wilderness preserve nestled among the river terraces and sandstone canyons of the western coastal Santa Ana Mountains. The park offers picnicking, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and numerous camp sites.
During our visit we found a secluded valley, surrounded by native Live Oak and California Sycamore trees and enjoyed a picnic. While eating we spotted rabbits and squirrels. After lunch we found a hiking trail and followed it over rocks and cactus to a beautiful flowing stream at the base of a verdant hill. We then discovered a horse pen with two playful stallions rolling around the dirt.
For more information on San Juan Capistrano, visit: www.sanjuancapistrano.net. Admission to the mission is $9 for adults and $5 for children. For information, visit www.missionsjc.com. Car admission to Caspers Wilderness Park is $5. For more info visit: www.ocparks.com/caspers.