California’s first Spanish mission in San Diego.

Facade of old Mission San Diego seen from parking lot.
Facade of old Mission San Diego seen from parking lot below.

A month or so ago I finally visited the famous Mission San Diego de Alcala. I’ve lived in San Diego for many years, and have driven past this important historical landmark many times, but I’d never stepped inside. Writing this blog compels me to check out cool new sights!

Built in 1774 by the Franciscan priest Junipero Serra, the building you see was the first of 21 Spanish missions in California. It was constructed several miles inland of the Pacific Ocean near the San Diego River. (The very first mission was actually built in 1769 at the old Presidio, but later relocated to this more fertile location.)

In 1775, just one year after it was built, the mission was burned to the ground by native Indians. Father Junipero Serra returned the next year to rebuild the church and mission buildings.

Over the years the San Diego Mission became very prosperous, with vineyards, orchards and thousands of cattle in its possession. Hundreds of baptized Native American Kumeyaay, whom the friars named Dieguenos, did most of the work.

History is rich here. The mission was claimed by Mexico in 1821, then used by the United States Cavalry after the US-Mexican War. Today its unique facade is one of the most iconic sights in San Diego. Unfortunately, it’s a slightly out-of-the-way place that relatively few tourists visit.

In case you can’t stop by, I took a few photos!

El Camino Real bell near California's first mission.
El Camino Real bell just outside California’s first mission.

These bells on posts mark the primitive road, the King’s Highway, that connected the Spanish missions in California.

La Playa Trail ran along San Diego River from the bay.
La Playa Trail ran along parts of San Diego Bay and the San Diego River.

Without realizing it, you might have read about the La Playa Trail in Two Years Before the Mast. Richard Henry Dana, Jr. would ride horseback down the trail to Old Town. With his friend, he also rode farther east to the old mission to enjoy a meal. The west end, La Playa, located just inside San Diego Bay, is the place where Dana worked for several months in 1835 drying cattle hides.

Sculpture of friar with cross in front of mission bells.
Sculpture of Padre Serra with cross in front of the campanario, containing the mission bells.
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala holds Catholic Mass.
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala holds regular Catholic Mass.

The historic church has remained active for many centuries.

Corridor in front of mission has plaques and statues of saints.
Corridor in front of mission has plaques and statues of saints.

Small statues of saints in the small nooks along the wall represent the nine missions that Father Junipero Serra founded.

Petra de Mallorca, Spain linked to Father Junipero Serra.
Petra de Mallorca, Spain linked to Father Junipero Serra.
Padres' living quarters with adobe walls and wooden beams.
Padres’ living quarters with adobe walls and wooden beams.

Now we’re inside one of the various mission buildings. The self-guided tour proceeds clockwise around the central square.

Beautiful radiant altar inside the quiet church sanctuary.
Beautiful radiant altar inside the quiet church sanctuary.

The church inside is beautiful and invites reflection.

Garden courtyard by sanctuary contains sunlit statues.
Garden courtyard by sanctuary contains sunlit statues.
Flowers and peaceful walkways lead to holy figures.
Flowers and peaceful walkways lead to holy figures.

Many birds were about and almost no weekend visitors.

Rear view of the Mission San Diego bell tower.
Rear view of the Mission San Diego bell tower, or campanario.
Small tile-roofed shine with Christ on the cross.
Small tile-roofed shine with Christ on the cross.
Modern abstract mural lines wall above wood bench.
Modern abstract mural lines wall above wood bench.

This and the following photo were taken in a space between the garden and a small one-room museum.

Sculpted Pieta with Virgin Mary and Jesus.
Sculpted Pieta with Virgin Mary and Jesus.
Inside the small mission chapel.
Inside the small mission chapel.

This small chapel can be found at one corner of the central square.

Fountain at center of San Diego mission's central square.
Fountain at center of San Diego mission’s central square.
Moving sculpture of Christ after the crucifixion.
Moving sculpture of Christ after the crucifixion.
Native American Kumeyaay hut built of willow branches.
Native American Kumeyaay hut built of willow branches.

The local Kumeyaay provided the labor that enriched the mission. This hut near an excavation site is an example of where they lived while the friars enjoyed greater comforts.

Mission's old foundation investigated by archaeologists.
Mission’s old foundation investigated by archaeologists.
The distinctive facade of California's first Spanish mission.
The distinctive facade of California’s first Spanish mission.

In San Diego, those who hunger for colorful sights and local history should remember to swing by California’s very first Spanish mission in–you guessed it–Mission Valley!

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Rescued art in Balboa Park’s Casa del Prado.

Original staff plaster memorial to Fray Junipero Serra, founder of the Franciscan missions in Alta California.  Was part of the 1915 Exposition's Food Products Building.
Original staff plaster memorial to Fray Junipero Serra, founder of the Franciscan missions in Alta California. Was part of the 1915 Exposition’s Food Products Building.

In the outdoor Panama-California Sculpture Court at Balboa Park’s Casa del Prado you’ll discover a small collection of rescued art. Most of these sculptures and decorative motifs are made of staff, which is gypsum plaster mixed with hide glue, reinforced with fibers. They were found in 1975 dumped in an unused corner of the nearby Casa de Balboa.  Many are remnants of the old Food and Beverage Building from Balboa Park’s 1915 Panama-California Exposition and were designed by architect Carleton Monroe Winslow. Visitors today can admire these beautiful historical pieces up close.

Castle, on left side of the base of Serra Memorial, depicts the heraldic emblem of the former Spanish Kingdom of Castile.
Castle, which was located on the left side of the Serra Memorial, depicts the heraldic emblem of the former Spanish Kingdom of Castile.
One of four identical heads created in 1914 for the Panama-California Exposition. It was located on the Varied Industries Building facade.
One of four identical heads created in 1914 for the Panama-California Exposition. It was located on the Varied Industries Building facade.
Plaster models of famous 17th century Spanish painters Velazquez, Murillo and Zurbaran.  Used to cast sculptures above what is now the San Diego Museum of Art.
Plaster models designed in 1924 of famous 17th century Spanish painters Velazquez, Murillo and Zurbaran. Used to cast sculptures above what is now the San Diego Museum of Art.
This round staff plaster Spanish Conquistador vignette, dated 1914, formed a pendant beneath sculptural groups on the Varied Industries Building.
This round staff plaster Spanish Conquistador vignette, dated 1914, formed a pendant beneath sculptural groups on the Varied Industries Building.
Freestanding figure of a woman in flowing robes titled Religion.  It stood atop the 1914 retablo of the Varied Industries Building.
Freestanding figure of a woman in flowing robes titled Religion. It stood atop the 1914 retablo of the Varied Industries Building.
Unused cast concrete replica of an original 1914 angel head finial.  Cast for the 1971 reconstruction of the Casa del Prado.
Unused cast concrete replica of an original 1914 angel head finial. Created for the 1971 reconstruction of the Casa del Prado.
Beautiful works of art in Panama-California Sculpture Court at the Casa del Prado.
Beautiful works of art in Panama-California Sculpture Court at the Casa del Prado.
Plaster column seen through arch of Casa del Prado.
Angelic column seen through arch of Casa del Prado.

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Walk from Old Town to the San Diego Presidio.

Old Presidio Historic Trail leads up hill from Old Town.
The Old Presidio Trail leads up a steep hill from San Diego’s historic Old Town.

Please join me as I walk from San Diego’s Old Town up a short but very steep trail to Presidio Park. We’ll see all sorts of interesting monuments, views, and of course, the location of the old Spanish presidio, whose ruins are no longer visible. The top of Presidio Hill is now home to the Junipero Serra Museum. Follow me!

We begin near the trailhead, beside the small Presidio Hills Golf Course, on the east edge of historic Old Town.

One of several signs along the Old Presidio Historic Trail. This one explains that soldiers and families used to walk down from the Spanish presidio to tend gardens and livestock near the Casa de Carrillo, around the location of the present-day Presidio Hills Golf Course.
One of several signs along the Old Presidio Historic Trail. This one explains that soldiers and families used to walk down from the Spanish presidio to tend gardens and livestock near the Casa de Carrillo, which is now the pro shop at Presidio Hills Golf Course.
The Indian sculpture by Arthur Putnam in Presidio Park.
The Indian sculpture by Arthur Putnam in Presidio Park.

The first interesting thing we see is this sculpture, titled The Indian.  It was created by famous American artist Arthur Putnam in 1905 and placed at the site of an ancient Indian village.  The small village was discovered and named San Miguel by the explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542.

Cross marks where Junipero Serra established California's first mission.
The Padre Cross was erected near the spot where Junipero Serra established California’s first mission.

Up the hill from The Indian stands the Padre Cross. It was raised in 1913 by the Order of Panama and is made up of tiles from the Presidio ruins.  The cross marks the strategic location overlooking San Diego Bay where Franciscan friar Junipero Serra chose to establish a Spanish Catholic mission in 1769. (The mission was moved several miles up the San Diego River 5 years later.)

Bronze statue titled The Padre by Arthur Putnam.
Bronze statue titled The Padre by Arthur Putnam.

Nearby among some trees we find a memorial to the mission’s friars. It’s a bronze statue titled The Padre, completed in 1908 by renowned sculptor Arthur Putnam.

The old presidio rises beyond billowing Spanish flag.
The Serra Museum rises beyond billowing Spanish flag.

Our legs are starting to feel the climb as we reach three flagpoles overlooking Mission Valley.

Looking down at a red trolley in Mission Valley.
Looking down at a red trolley in Mission Valley.

Turning north for a moment, we see the trolley!

View of the old Spanish presidio in San Diego.
View of the Serra Museum on Presidio Hill in San Diego.

Now we’re getting close to the Serra Museum, which was built in 1928 on this historically very important hill. The museum was built, and the land containing Presidio Park was purchased and preserved for posterity, by philanthropist George Marston.

San Diego was born in 1769 at the old Presidio, a Spanish fort in a desert-like wilderness very far from European civilization.  It was located just below the Serra Museum.

Serra Museum employee watches as I approach old presidio.
Serra Museum employee looks down the grassy hill.

Not many people are about at the moment.  Most tourists never venture up this way.

The Serra Museum is packed with numerous historical exhibits.  You can climb the tower for views of San Diego Bay, the San Diego River and Mission Valley.

Row of Spanish Colonial style arches.
Row of Mission Revival style arches.
Large wine press outside the old San Diego presidio.
Large wine press outside San Diego’s fascinating Junipero Serra Museum.
Looking downhill from atop grassy Presidio Park.
Looking downhill from atop grassy Presidio Park.

Now we’ll wander along the hilltop to nearby Fort Stockton, the short-lived camp of the famous Mormon Battalion.

Where a cannon once overlooked Old Town at Fort Stockton.
Where a cannon once overlooked Old Town at Fort Stockton.

Decades ago, when I was a young man, I remember seeing a cannon set in this concrete overlooking Old Town.  I believe that same cannon is now on display in the nearby Serra Museum. Given the name El Jupiter, it was one of ten cannons that originally protected the old Spanish Fort Guijarros on San Diego Bay at Ballast Point.

(A second surviving cannon from the fort is named El Capitan. Today it can be found near the center of Old Town San Diego’s Plaza de las Armas.)

Mural at Fort Stockton of the Mormon Battalion.
Mural at Fort Stockton of the Mormon Battalion.

In 1846, President James K. Polk asked Brigham Young of the Mormons to send a few hundred men to San Diego to help in the Mexican-American war effort.  On January 29, 1847 five hundred men and about eighty women and children arrived at Fort Stockton after a very difficult 2,000-mile march from Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Mormon Battalion Monument by Edward J. Fraughton.
Mormon Battalion Monument by Edward J. Fraughton.

I hope you enjoyed our walk!