South of Gilroy, east of US-101, located near the mouth of San Juan Canyon on CA-156, lies the city of San Juan Bautista. Founded on June 24, 1797 with the establishment of Mission San Juan Bautista by Fermin Lasuen; the site for what would become California’s fifteenth mission was chosen due its proximity to a large population of the indigenous Mutsun people. Soon after the mission’s founding over 1,000 Mutsun were living, working, and worshiping at the mission. As with most of the missions, a Spanish settlement developed and the town of San Juan Bautista was born.
By 1803, the congregation had outgrown the original adobe church and construction began on the present mission which was completed in 1812. This construction and expansion made it the largest of the twenty one missions. Mission San Juan Bautista remained an active church after secularization in 1835. In 1859, the mission buildings and fifty five acres of land were returned to the Catholic Church. Today, the mission remains an active parish church in the Diocese of Monterey. Besides being an active house of worship for 226 years, the mission also was a location in Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Vertigo”, starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. It sits on the western edge of the last remaining intact Spanish plaza in California and on the northern edge of the plaza is a remaining section of the original El Camino Real which linked all of the missions in California.
The mission has a gift shop and a museum which has displays of Indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, and American era artifacts including handwritten choir books by Padre Esteban Tapis using the system of colored notation he developed and the Breen family bible. The Breens temporarily lived in a storeroom of the mission, which is now the gift shop, after surviving the ordeal of the Donner Party and before moving into, and eventually purchasing an adobe from General Jose Antonio Castro. The Breen family lived in the adobe until 1933 when it was donated to the state. It is now known as the Castro-Breen Adobe. It houses exhibits on the Breen family and life during the early American Era.
The Castro-Breen Adobe is but one of several buildings preserved or restored in the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park. Also included are the Plaza Hotel, the ground floor of which was originally constructed in 1792 as a barracks for indigenous converts and laborers. It became the barracks for Spanish soldiers in 1813. It was also a private residence and a commercial building before being remodeled into the current hotel in 1853 by Angelo Zanetta. It currently serves as the park entrance and museum. Several rooms are furnished as they would have been in the 1860’s.
On the plaza is the Plaza Hall/Zanetta House, originally built in 1815 as a home for the unmarried indigenous girls of the mission, purchased, torn down and rebuilt as a home and community hall in 1868 by Angelo Zanetta. It has exhibits of period furnishings and early children’s toys. Next to it is the Plaza Stable with exhibits of stages, wagons, and fire wagons. Behind the stable is the blacksmith’s shop. Across the street are the original town jail and a restored settler’s cabin.
The downtown area of San Juan Bautista has been designated a National Historic District and the San Juan Historical Society, along with other organizations, has designated 49 buildings and sites on a historic walking tour. Many of the buildings date from the late 1700’s through the 1920’s and are still in use. Examples are the Anza Adobe, the Texas Masonic Lodge, the San Juan Bautista Cemetery and the Carl Luck Museum. Most of the historic buildings are clustered along Third Street, a block south from the mission.
During the Gold Rush, San Juan Bautista benefited from a boom as it was along the route from Los Angeles to San Francisco and then to the gold fields. Notables like William T. Sherman visited the town. When the Southern Pacific railroad bypassed San Juan Bautista in favor of Hollister the town’s fortunes declined. The building of the San Juan Pacific Railway and the San Juan Cement Company plant, beginning in 1906, revived the local economy. When the cement plant closed in 1973 due to increasingly tighter environmental regulations, the city turned to agriculture and tourism. San Juan Bautista calls itself, “The City of History”, and not without some justification.
GETTING THERE: From 414 Mason Street: Take US 101 South to Exit 345 to CA-156 East. Follow CA-156 East to The Alameda. Turn left onto The Alameda. Turn right onto Franklin St. Turn left onto 2nd St. The park entrance is in the Plaza Hotel on you left. The Mission is on your right. The entrance fee for the park is $3.00 per person. The Mission charges a $10.00 entrance fee. ($7.00 for Seniors over 60) It is a 1 hour and 40 minute, 94 mile, drive from 414 Mason Street.
San Juan Bautista SHP is open every day from 10am to 4:30pm. Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day.
The Mission Gift Shop, Museum and Garden are open from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM on Wednesday through Sunday.
Admission: Self-Guided Tour
$7.00 seniors – 60 years and over
$5.00 – vets
Under 5 years of age – FREE
Mission San Juan Bautista admission is separate from the State Park admission.
For the walking tour, please visit: https://historicwalkingtrail.com/