A New Adventure – The California Missions Trail, July 10-13, 2023,

The California Missions Trail stretches 800+ miles between California’s Spanish missions built (and moved and rebuilt, in many cases, due to fires and floods) over 200 years ago. There is much history, culture, and heartbreak in the unique stories behind all of the missions and their establishment by the Spanish or Franciscan priests and the earliest western contact with the Native American people who built them.

I had the pleasure of walking from Florence to Assisi, Italy last September with Sandy Brown, author of “Pilgrim Route, Hiking and Biking The California Missions Trail From Sonoma to San Diego.” (www.cicerone.co.uk) Sharing from his introduction in that book: “On one hand, this ‘Golden State’ is a scenic wonder, an enormous land bathed in sunlight, sculpted into rugged mountains, and set next to the glistening blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. It is sprinkled with some of America’s most interesting sites: the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay, the redwood forests, vast agricultural lands, wine country, miles of coastline, and a string of historic missions that are the source of California’s unique architecture and Hispanic heritage. On the other hand, it’s the people that make this state what it is. California is the most linguistically, ethnically, and culturally diverse state in the US. It’s a technological powerhouse that includes Silicon Valley, and it’s a cultural juggernaut that hosts America’s film industry. This unforgettable land and these fascinating people make California the most visited state in the US.”

“The epic California Missions Trail takes you on a journey through this amazing land. Over it’s 800-mile span, the colorful and fascinating itinerary between California’s Spanish missions, links scenic, historical and cultural sites on city sidewalks, back country hiking trails, urban bike lanes, and the occasional highway shoulder to reveal some of this astonishing state’s most astounding features. Here is the long-held dream of many – America’s own first-rate pilgrimage trek with more than enough history and beauty to draw walkers and cyclists from around the globe.”

The book is a fastidiously researched guide book yet I highly recommend it as a totally worthwhile read for history’s sake. Sandy does a fantastic job in his introduction of whittling down decades of events and consequences into a digestible scoop of the success and demise of our (now) California indigenous people once the settlers and missionaries came from Europe – as well as the resulting damage to the land when the Native peoples’ lifestyle methods were disallowed, eliminating the previous harmony that they had established and resulting in gradual denuded grasslands and contaminated water sources. Add to that the diseases introduced, and the mistreatment of these long established west coast humans – so sad. I have learned some of this history over the years on my own, still Sandy’s synopsis was a review and taught me more, truly bringing me to tears taking time to ponder. This trek was a fun adventure, yet additionally a time to pause, reflect, and respect those Native people who were here first.

So!! Knowing that I would not be able to go on another Camino in Spain or some other such European trek this year – the first time since 2017 (with the exception of 2020 when the pandemic had international travel on hold), this local trek became a consideration that turned into a reality when a San Francisco friend invited me to join her on a small portion of it! Christine had walked from Petaluma to San Rafael last year and had already researched the Santa Cruz to Santa Clara portion as her next goal – complete with public transportation details to and from as well as overnight accommodations! All I had to do was show up and put one foot in front of the other! OF COURSE I SAID “YES”!!!!

Unlike the well established Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain, there is only a recently emerging (2002) pilgrim infrastructure on this California Mission Trail. Hotels need to be sought for sleep (quite a bit more expensive) and there is considerable highway and asphalt/concrete walking. “Pilgrims” tend to do small portions of the route rather than the whole 800 miles.

On Monday I was up at 4:45 – even took a shower & washed my hair!!! I fueled myself with two eggs, kimchi, creamy Brie & small protein shake. Man, my backpack weighed 23 pounds after adding my hummus, veggies and lunch salad for our transportation journey – plus homemade flax seed crackers, protein powders and some other snacks to all the other “stuff”!!

I left our San Francisco home at 6:20, waited 10 minutes for the 29 bus and met Christine at the Balboa BART station. We waited another 20 minutes for our ride to Milbrae then had a 20 minute wait for the 7:35 CalTrain (the 7:25 was cancelled). We then hopped on the Hwy 17 Express to Santa Cruz, which was a joy and such a great and carefree way to traverse the winding, tree lined highway. Lots of folks on their way to The Beach! It was a little over three hours and oh so smooth!!

Santa Cruz is located on the north end of Monterey Bay, on the lands of the Awaswas Ohlone people and is a gorgeous Pacific Ocean beach community. Since it was only 10:30 with check in unlikely, we decided beach first vs. hotel which was the opposite direction. We walked a mile and a half from the bus stop and enjoyed our packed lunches on The Boardwalk. It was heavenly with wave crashing views and we were Off With The Coats – it was no longer the 52° and cloudy conditions of San Francisco but 69° and sunny California Beach bliss!!

From Sandy’s guidebook“Established in 1907, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk is one of the oldest seaside amusement parks on the West Coast (www.beachboardwalk.com).

Eventually we made our way a circuitous 3 miles to the Best Western Inn and were successful in checking in even though we were still quite early. We appreciated being able to drop off our backpacks for our Santa Cruz mission field trip.

After a 15 minute rest we slowly strolled our way in sun exposed, car filled streets to the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park. Unfortunately, the actual mission is only open on the weekend yet we were able to visit the State Historic Park.

Mission Santa Cruz was founded in 1791 as the 12th mission along the El Camino Real. There’s only one remaining original building, an adobe built between 1822 and 1824 that originally consisted of 17 rooms which housed the same number of “neophyte” families (Native people who had joined the mission). From the state park brochure, “Despite the tenacity of early Franciscan missionaries to make the mission system successful, Santa Cruz mission residents experienced many difficulties. Their stories are interpreted here.” Also, “Founded on August 28, 1791, by Father Fermín Lasuén, the mission was first built near the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. The mission flooded the first winter, and Father Lasuén had to relocate to higher ground. The new location had a commanding view of the surrounding area, good climate, fertile soil, and – from nearby mission San José – Native people familiar with Christianity. Construction began on the mission complex in 1793. The church and mission quadrangle, complete with grist mill, two-story, granary, and workshops, were completed in 1795.”

“The second Santa Cruz mission faced numerous challenges, earning it the nickname of ‘The Hard Luck Mission’. Diseases swept through the mission’s neophyte population; many ran away or rebelled at hard labor and unfamiliar diet.” There’s so much more to the story of the Santa Cruz mission’s demise, which of course includes politics, corruption, and even a French pirate. If you’re interested, I suggest you look it up as you are probably now snoozing from the details I have already provided! Just two more tidbits – in 1840, an earthquake destroyed the mission bell tower and a second earthquake on January 9, 1857 toppled the front wall of the church and crumbled most remaining buildings. In 1889 the present Gothic-Revival style brick Holy Cross Church was constructed on the spot of the original Mission.

Basically the remaining adobe building houses a bit of a museum with some half-scale replicas, as well as relics, reflecting the changes that occurred in the Native people’s lives when they came to the mission. Both Spanish and California Indian culture are represented. Also on premises is a giant avocado tree, possibly one of the oldest living avocado trees in California.

We stopped in at Ike’s Love & Sandwiches for a bite (me a turkey with cranberry & Sriracha on French bread!) for our early (4:00) dinner. Now what??!?! we weren’t super tired, but knowing that on Wednesday we had a 17 mile day, we wanted to keep our extra walking to a minimum. So we relaxed and I tuned in the MLB Home Run Derby on television, which was being held in Seattle and at which I knew our son would be in attendance. I knew where he was sitting, so I looked for him and sure enough, not only was he shown on the screen several times, I actually saw him catch one of the home runs hit by Julio Rodriguez, hometown hero, during his 40+ home run round!

I was so excited I felt like I was there myself! It was hard to wind down after that, but Christine and I are both early risers, so it was early to bed. Today we walked 7.3 miles. It’s a little less than I actually tend to walk on a daily basis, but close.

4 responses to “A New Adventure – The California Missions Trail, July 10-13, 2023,”

  1. Cindy Brewer McKitrick Avatar
    Cindy Brewer McKitrick

    Love this!!!

    1. Aww thanks!!!!

  2. Connie Fermstad Avatar
    Connie Fermstad

    You are amazing!!! LOVE all the historical information you have shared with your journey. Thanks for sending!!!

    1. Well, I appreciate you saying that, because I feel like I’m pretty boring and including too much. But I’ve been astounded how much detail Sandy Brown has in his book, and though I knew the Native Americans were poorly treated, I just really felt it added information that others might value. So thanks very much for sharing your opinion and taking the time to comment!

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