Words and pictures by Fred Mays
The Alamo is undoubtedly the most famous of San Antonio’s old Spanish missions. But the four missions of the National Park Service Mission Trail are a highlight of a historic tour of the city. Today they are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. All nearly 300 years old or more, they were once the center of Spanish governance of the San Antonio region. Today, under an agreement with the Archdiocese, all the missions remain active churches.
The missions are located along the San Antonio river, south of downtown. The trail is officially designated the El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail. Take St. Mary’s Street south out of the city, and it will turn into Roosevelt Avenue. Several miles on your right Mission Road leads you to the first complex, Mission Concepcion.
This mission, formally known as the mission of Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion,was established in 1731. Spanish Catholic missionaries worked here with Native Americans to convert them to Christianity.
In addition to being in the National Park, the mission is also listed on the National Historic Landmark register. The unrestored stone church is the oldest in America.
The next stop heading south is Mission San Jose. With a stone walled perimeter, the mission is the largest of those in the National Park.
Mission San Jose was more than a church. It served as a defensive village for Spanish and Native American residents. The walls were for protection from frequent Comanche and Apache raids. Much of the mission was restored in the 1930’s by the WPA program during the Great Depression. The park’s Visitor Center is located at Mission San Jose.
The third mission along the trail is Mission San Juan. The mission has an acequia (irrigation ditches) watering system that is over 300 years old. It kept the residents provided with drinking water, and was a source of irrigation for their gardens.
Some of the mission property today is set aside for farming, where the San Antonio Food Bank plants and harvests historical crops.
The Yanaguana Trail is tree lined and follows along the San Antonio River.
The next stop is Mission Espada, which was the first Spanish mission in Texas, founded in 1690. Much of the mission is built of adobe brick, compared to stone work in other locations. The acequia canals on the mission property are the most advanced and complete within the park area.
Franciscan missionaries worked to make life in the missions as close as possible to old Spain. Native Americans were taught vocations such as blacksmithing and weaving. A loom, where sheep wool was spun and woven, is still present today.
The Mission Trail runs about eight miles, and can be driven, hiked or biked, although traffic can be an issue on Roosevelt Avenue. San Antonio’s Viva tour bus #40 takes you to all the missions, and run every half hour. The fare is $2.75 and exact change is needed. You can catch the bus right across the street from the Alamo. Plan to spend at least a half-day on the trail in order to take full advantage of the sights of the historical buildings and churches. A good time well spent is the Ranger-led tour at Mission San Jose.
Admission to the National Park is free, and there is plenty of free parking at all the missions.
The Alamo, located in downtown San Antonio, is not part of the National Park trail. It is operated by the State of Texas, and admission is also free. It is located along the San Antonio River, in the vicinity of the Riverwalk, with hotels and restaurants plentiful in the area.