Mission San Juan Bautista, Mission San Antonio bookend majestic Pinnacles National Park


Mission San Antonio interior is a wonder of color and light.

Arches form a breezeway for Mission San Antonio.
The Plaza Hall and Plaza Stables stand across the green plaza at Mission San Juan Bautista.
Arches of Mission San Juan Bautista run for length of a football field!
Machete Ridge forms the backbone of volcanic Pinnacles National Park (photo courtesy National Park Service)
Author Tim Viall stands outside entrance to talus cave in Pinnacles National Park; take your flashlights!

Explore two early California missions, sandwiched around stunning Pinnacles National Park!

Pinnacles National Park, jutting up from the Gabilan Mountains south of Hollister, CA, offers the rugged remains of an ancient volcano – a volcano located 160 miles south, near Los Angeles!  Pinnacles lies on the San Andreas Fault and is moving a few inches north each year, distancing itself from its mother volcano!

Pinnacles offers a stunning landscape of rugged spines, deep canyons, eerie talus caves, verdant foliage, streams and wildlife from deer, wild turkeys  and bob cats, to the majestic California Condor with wingspans up to seven feet.   If you want your kids to appreciate the power of nature, this park offers particularly dramatic evidence of the effects of heat, water and wind constantly wearing away at this alien landscape. 

What makes this trip especially interesting is that two old Spanish missions bookend the park.  Mission San Antonio is one of two historic prizes of this trip; founded by Padre Junipero Serra in 1771, when he hung a bell in an ancient oak tree. Needing a better water supply, the mission was later moved ¼ mile to its current site. The Native Americans of the mission were the Salinan Tribe, part of the Hokan family.

They would move into the mission’s buildings and build a productive mission town, home to hundreds of Salinan members who set to work to further expand the mission and its infrastructure. Today, remnants of the first mission buildings, its water-powered mill, ovens and more have been uncovered, the old water system remains evident; the current mission sanctuary is part of the Monterey Diocese.

The old El Camino Real (Spanish for The Royal Road) connected the two missions (an unpaved, undeveloped portion of the original road is preserved just behind/east of Mission San Juan Bautista).  The historic road ran 600 miles through California, connecting Alta California’s 21 missions and four presidios. 

Mission San Antonio is 55 miles south of the park, past the historic remnants of Jolon on the old El Camino Real, through Fort Hunter Liggett to the historic mission.  We journeyed from Pinnacles south on Highway 25, to the intersection of Bitterwater, followed G 13 to King City, then G 14, passing Jolon, then west on G 18 to Mission San Antonio.

The old town of Jolon was established in the 1860s to meet the needs of miners traveling to the Los Burros Mining District.  When the railroad came to King City, that town prospered and Jolon slowly faded away.  Today, you can find the ruins of the Dutton House, Jolon’s old general store, St. Luke’s Church and faded dreams!

Jolon was acquired by William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s, and sold to its current owner, the US Army, in 1940. Ft. Hunger Liggett (http://www.liggett.army.mil) would then become an active Army training base for World War II, and continues today as headquarters for the U.S. Army Combat Support Training Center, encompassing 165,000 very wild acres!

Mission San Juan Bautista is 38 miles and an hour northwest of Pinnacles.  It was founded in 1797 by Padre Fermin Lasuén of the Franciscan order, the fifteenth of the 21 missions.  It would be built to contain a nunnery, quarters for soldiers, the Jose Castro House and other buildings around a large, grassy plaza in front of the church.  The Ohlone, original Native American residents of the Valley, were baptized and converted, followed by the Yokuts of the Central Valley. Today, it functions as a parish church of the Monterey Diocese.

We made Pinnacles National Park the center for our mission exploration.  This is a lightly visited national park with a dry and temperate climate.  We entered through the East Entrance, just 33 miles south on Hwy 25 of a very pleasant Hollister, CA (with a number of comfy motels, restaurants and food stores). Though the park also has a West Entrance, from Hwy 146 out of Soledad, it offers no major visitor conveniences (and, no road crosses this out-of-the-way national park).

We camped for three days in the Pinnacles Campground, the park’s only developed campground. With store, visitor center, swimming pool (in season) and showers, if offers both trailer and tent sites, many with full electric hookups. A shuttle bus runs regularly, taking you to the two park main trailheads, about three miles away.

You cannot really get the flavor of Pinnacles without some hiking, so bring comfortable walking shoes, headlamp or flashlight (for cave exploration) and a water bottle. From the Bear Gulch Trailhead, a moderately strenuous one-mile hike takes you to the spooky Bear Gulch Cave (bring headlamps or flashlights) and Bear Gulch Reservoir; one can return on the Rim Trail for a change of scenery.  Plenty of other hikes make for several days of potential exploration!

How to get there: Head south on Interstate 5 to Santa Nella, south on Hwy 33, then west on Hwy 152 and south on Hwy 156 to Hollister (to reach Mission San Juan Bautista, continue on Hwy 156); Pinnacles East entrance is 30 miles south of Hollister on Hwy 25.  Mission San Antonio is 58 miles south of Pinnacles.  From Stockton to Pinnacles, it’s about 135 miles and 2.5 hours.

What to take: Camera and binoculars, good walking shoes or boots and water bottles or a canteen for hiking the park’s spectacular trails.  For exploring the park’s talus caves, take a headlamp or flashlight.

Where to stay: Pinnacles has a fine campground for both tents and RVs, and back-country camping is another option.  Motels are found in Hollister and San Juan Bautista, to the north, and King City, south of the park.

For more information: Pinnacles Park: www.nps.gov/pinn.  The park headquarters is at 5000 Hwy 146, Paicines, CA 95043; phone: 831.389.4486.  Camping can be booked through www.recreation.gov, or by calling 877.444.6777.  For Mission San Antonio, www.missionsanantonio.net; for Mission San Juan Bautista, http://www.oldmissionsjb.org/.

Next week, a report on visiting California’s desert parks, like Anza Borrego and Death Valley.  For other inspirational destinations in CA, see my Record blog: blogs.esanjoaquin.com/valleytravel!

Happy travels in the West!

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