History and Stats
The San Antonio Missions are the preserved remains of a series of Catholic Missions built by the Spanish in the 17th through the 19th century. The entire system of Missions throughout the Spanish Empire was designed to convert the local population, including the Pajalat, Nabedache, Coahuiltecan, and Hasanai. The park, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is comprised of four distinct Missions.
The Missions themselves were largely built by the native population with the promise of shelter, medicine, food, and education from the Europeans. In a dramatic twist of irony, it was the Europeans themselves that had brought with them the very instability and disease that would ravage and eventually decimate the natives’ mode of life.
The history of each Mission compound is as unique as its architecture, and each was built at different times:
- Mission Concepcion was founded in 1716 in East Texas but later moved to San Antonio in 1731. The Mission would later be the site of the Battle of Concepcion in 1835, one of the early major engagements of the Texas Revolution. In the early 2000s, an aggressive campaign to rebuild the church’s interior was begun, and by 2010, the interior had been restored.
- Mission San Jose was founded in 1720, but not finished until 1782. It grew into a massive complex that could house over 300 natives within its walls. It would later be given over to its inhabitants, with mission activities ending some decades later in the 1820s. Over a century later, the complex would be restored by the Works Progress Association and Civil Works Administration in the 1930s.
- Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded in 1731, and would gradually evolve in in terms of its architecture and facilities, but became secularized in 1794. Later, in the mid-19th century, largely as a result of the nearby railroad, the neglected structure was again used for religious services. In the 1930s, some structures on the compound, namely the natives’ quarters were unearthed, and they remain in their original condition. Some years later, the church, priest’s quarters, and other rooms would be restored. The church was again restored in 2012.
- Mission San Francisco de la Espada was founded in 1690, though shortly thereafter, a deadly outbreak of smallpox combined with drought soured the Missionaries’ relationship with the natives, and they fled. The mission would be re-established in 1716, but again abandoned, this time due to a conflict between the French and the Spanish. By 1756, the site had both a friary and a church completed, though relations with the natives continued to be difficult.
The Missions played a pivotal role in the region, and there is a great deal more information on the subject. The NPS has a number of resources listed here.
The Visit San Antonio site provides a number of resources as well.
Date Founded: Authorized on November 10, 1978, as a National Historical Park, made official on April 1, 1983. On July 5, 2015, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Size: 948 acres
Visitors: Over 600,000 a year
Open: Year-round, (9-5, though Missions Espada and San Juan open at 10am) with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Years Day
Fees: Entry to the park is free.
“To preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
Cultural, historical and archeological preservation is the focus of the park, with a strong emphasis on education. Many of the structures are restored, giving context to those that have been unearthed and left in their original condition. There is a wealth of information and educational material available at the park to supplement the ranger-led programming. Additionally, there is a great deal of information on local ecology, and flora and fauna.
Running from North to South, the four compounds are Mission Concepción, Mission San Jose, Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada. All four are connected to the San Antonio Riverwalk by a network of trails. Each offers their own exploration of the specific history of the Missions and their inhabitants.
The Visitor’s Center, located adjacent to Mission San Jose, features a theater with a documentary detailing the history of the natives and the impact of the Missions, as well as a museum detailing life in the Missions. There is also a gift shop within the building.
The park is inside the city of San Antonio, and each Mission has its own public transit stop, as well as being on the Riverwalk.
There are RV and KOA campgrounds around the city, and Hill Country is fairly close, which offers a variety of camping opportunities. More information can be found here. San Antonio itself has a wide range of lodging options. As one of the largest cities in the country, there is a vast selection at various price points.
Though there’s no camping within the park itself, outfitting for a Newbie endeavor can’t hurt. If you end up camping outside of the city, you might want to consider a Novice or Intermediate gear list, depending on where you’re headed. Our Newbie Gear Guide can be found here.
Free ranger-guided tours of all four Missions are offered, and more information can be found here. Additional educational events and talks can be found on the park’s calendar, here. There is also a wide variety of Junior Ranger programs offered for children.
We only saw Missions Capistrano and San Jose, and the weather was drizzly and overcast. That being said, the structures and architecture are impressive, to say the least. The tragic history of the region is incredibly compelling and has stuck with us. As a UNESCO Heritage Site, it stands as an important part of human history, warts and all.
Things we’d like to try next time
We would definitely like to see Missions Espada and San Juan, and maybe take a walk along the San Antonio River and hit all four Missions.
- Portions of four of the Missions are still run by the Archdiocese of San Antonio and have regular religious services. We peeked inside the church at Mission San Jose and can indeed verify that it’s very much an active parish.
- If you look closely, the natives’ artistic touches to the structures in the form of frescoes can still be seen in places.
- Each Mission has a brass miniature of itself within its grounds.
- Part of the San Antonio Missions’ programming includes Yoga in the Park.
- There have been over 180 different species of birds seen within the park.
- Though part of the Spanish Empire’s original system of Missions in the region, the Alamo is not technically part of the park and is actually owned by the State of Texas.
Which of the four missions is your favorite? Have you been in the basement of the Alamo? Know any interesting local trivia about the Missions? What did we miss out on?
Read more about our experience at the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park here.