#TravelTuesday: 5 Historic Missions on San Antonio’s River Mission Trail

by Fred Mays on July 22, 2019 in Living Texas, San Antonio, Travel,

Although the Alamo is the most famous, San Antonio has several other must-see old Spanish missions that are surrounded by mystery and intrigue.

The four missions of the National Park Service Mission Trail are highlights of a historic tour of the city. Today, they are a UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 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. 

Taking 20 years to build, the Mission Concepción in San Antonio remains the oldest, best-preserved stone church in the United States and is an iconic example of Mexican Baroque style architecture. Photo Fred Mays

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 1930s by the WPA program during the Great Depression. The park’s Visitor Center is located at Mission San Jose.

Known as the “Queen of Missions,” Mission San Jose was founded in 1720 by Father Antonio Margil de Jesús. The Rose Window located on the mission’s south side, holds many mysteries including who the creator was of this exquisite example of colonial ornamentation. Photo Fred Mays

The third mission along the trail is Mission San Juan. This mission has an acequia (irrigation ditch) watering system that is over 300 years old. It provided residents with drinking water, and was a source of irrigation for their gardens. Some of the mission property today is set aside for farming, and the San Antonio Food Bank plants and harvests historical crops here. The Yanaguana Trail is tree-lined and follows along the San Antonio River from the mission.

Mission San Juan was founded in 1716 and moved to its current location in 1732. It was a self-sustaining community and was home to Indian farmers who produced items such as iron tools
to sugar cane and sweet potatoes. Photo courtesy Fred Mays

The final 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. 

Mission Espada, considered the first mission in Texas, was built in 1690 and relocated
to San Antonio from Weches, Texas. Photo Fred Mays

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. 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. 

Built in 1718, the Alamo was originally called Mission San Antonio de Valero. The mission stood under cottonwood trees, so after the Spanish soldiers  took over the mission, they renamed it “El Alamo” for the Spanish word for cottonwood and in honor of their Mexican hometown of Alamo de Parras. Photo Fred Mays

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. 

Right next to the Alamo is the historic Menger Hotel, where Teddy Roosevelt recruited Rough Riders in the bar. The hotel has been around for 150 years and has been beautifully restored. It claims to the longest continuously operated hotel west of the Mississippi River.

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Cover: Mission Concepcion, photo courtesy Fred Mays

Fred Mays is a retired television journalist. Mays lives in Allen, Texas, and works as a freelance travel writer/photographer.
His articles cover Texas and the Southwest.