Exploring What Is Old and Discovering What’s New along San Antonio Missions Trail

One Park. Four Missions.

As one of the largest cities in Texas, San Antonio carries with it a lot of history and beauty. The city is known for the Alamo and the beautiful San Antonio River running through downtown. No matter the time of year, San Antonio is a stunning destination for an RV road trip—and it brings with it a naturally warm climate year-round.

Mission San Juan © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the early 1800s, the city grew around the missions along the San Antonio River. San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is located just 10 minutes south of downtown San Antonio. San Antonio is a diverse and culturally rich city best known for the time honored battle cry “Remember the Alamo!” Most visitors are surprised to discover that the Alamo is one of five missions established by Spanish priests in the eighteenth century and the other four missions are well worth experiencing. The missions are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and can be explored via bicycle on a winding trail by the river. You might find you won’t just be remembering the Alamo after a day on mission trail.

Mission San Juan © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the missions—walled compounds encompassing a church and buildings where the priests and local Native Americans lived—represent the largest concentration of Spanish colonial missions in North America. All four of the mission sites at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park still contain active Catholic parishes. The churches hold regular services in these historic buildings. They are open to park visitors during park hours except for during special services such as weddings and funerals.

Plan Your Visit

Explore the Missions along the River Walk’s Mission Reach, an eight-mile stretch with recreational trails, pedestrian bridges, pavilions, and portals to four Spanish colonial missions—Concepción, San José, San Juan, and Espada.

Mission San José © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission San José

Established in 1720, San José y San Miguel de Aguayo is the largest mission in San Antonio. Spanish designers built the mission using Texas limestone and brightly colored stucco. At its height, it provided sanctuary and a social and cultural community for about 350 Indians sustained by extensive fields and herds of livestock. Spanish missions were not churches but communities with the church the focus. Mission San José captures a transitional moment in history, frozen in time.

Mission San José © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Viewed as the model among the Texas missions, San José gained a reputation as a major social and cultural center. It became known as the “Queen of the Missions.” Its imposing complex of stone walls, bastions, granary, and magnificent church was completed by 1782.

In 2011, it underwent a $2.2 million renovation to refinish interior domes, walls, and the altar backdrop. When visiting the church, be sure to look for flying buttresses, carvings, quatrefoil patterns, polychromatic plaster, and the famed “Rose Window,” a superb example of Spanish Colonial ornamentation.

Mission Concepción © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission Concepción

Dedicated in 1755, the church at Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña appears very much as it did over two centuries ago. It stands proudly as the oldest unrestored stone church in America. In its heyday, colorful geometric designs covered its surface, but the patterns have long since faded or been worn away. However, there are several rooms in which to see remaining frescos with all their detail and creativity.

Mission Concepción © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Originally founded in 1716 in what is now eastern Texas, the mission was one of six authorized by the Spanish government to serve as a buffer against the threat of French incursion into Spanish territory from Louisiana. Developed by Franciscans and after a tenuous existence and several moves, the mission was transferred to its present site in 1731.

This handsome stone church took about 15 years to build and was dedicated in 1755. Due to the fact that it was built directly on bedrock, it never lost its roof or its integrity. It remains the least restored of the colonial structures within the Park.

Mission San Juan © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission San Juan

Originally founded in 1716 in eastern Texas, Mission San Juan was transferred in 1731 to its present location. In 1756, the stone church, a friary, and a granary were completed. A larger church was begun but was abandoned when half complete, the result of population decline.

San Juan was a self-sustaining community. Within the compound, Indian artisans produced iron tools, cloth, and prepared hides. Orchards and gardens outside the walls provided melons, pumpkins, grapes, and peppers. Beyond the mission complex Indian farmers cultivated maize (corn), beans, squash, sweet potatoes, and sugar cane in irrigated fields.

Mission San Juan © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over 20 miles southeast of Mission San Juan was Rancho de Pataguilla, which, in 1762, reported 3,500 sheep and nearly as many cattle. These products helped support not only the San Antonio missions but also the local settlements and presidial garrisons in the area. By the mid 1700s, San Juan, with its rich farm and pasture lands was a regional supplier of agricultural produce. With its surplus, San Juan established a trade network stretching east to Louisiana and south to Coahuila, Mexico. This thriving economy helped the mission to survive epidemics and Indian attacks in its final years.

Today, the chapel and bell tower are still in use. When visiting, don’t miss the typical Romanesque archway at the entrance gate. For outdoor fun, take a self-guided tour on the nature trail that begins at this Mission and leads to the river.

Mission Espada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission Espada

This was the first mission in Texas, founded in 1690 as San Francisco de los Tejas near present-day Weches, Texas. In 1731, the mission was transferred to the San Antonio River area and renamed Mission San Francisco de la Espada. A friary was built in 1745 and the church was completed in 1756.

Following government policy, Franciscan missionaries sought to make life within mission communities closely resemble that of Spanish villages and Spanish culture. In order to become Spanish citizens and productive inhabitants, Native Americans learned vocational skills. As plows, farm implements, and gear for horses, oxen, and mules fell into disrepair, blacksmithing skills soon became indispensable. Weaving skills were needed to help clothe the inhabitants. As buildings became more elaborate, mission occupants learned masonry and carpentry skills under the direction of craftsmen contracted by the missionaries. After secularization, these vocational skills proved beneficial to post-colonial growth of San Antonio. The legacy of these Native American artisans is still evident throughout the city of San Antonio today.

Mission Espada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The southernmost mission in the park, Mission Espada boasts the best-preserved segment of the area’s original irrigation system that was used to bring water to the fields. In 1826, a fire destroyed most of the mission buildings at Espada with only the chapel, granary, and two of the compound walls remaining. Today, part of the original irrigation system still operates the Espada aqueduct and dam. Self-guided walking tours are available during park hours. Don’t miss the newest installation near Espada, the massive Arbol de Vida or Tree of Life that displays the personal stories and tales of San Antonio locals.

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo)

The Alamo, founded in 1718, was the first mission in San Antonio serving as a way station between east Texas and Mexico. In 1836, decades after the mission had closed the Alamo became an inspiration and a motivation for liberty during the Texas Revolution. The Alamo houses exhibits on the Texas Revolution and Texas History. Visitors are invited to experience interactive history lessons, guided tours, and stroll through the beautiful Alamo Gardens. Just a short distance from the River Walk, the Alamo is a “must-see” for all who visit the Alamo City. And, once you’ve been there, it’s impossible to forget.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.

—David Crockett