Think kids won’t appreciate the San Antonio Missions, a trip best left for history buffs? On a recent trip to San Antonio TX, my boys’ eyes flashed when they saw a diorama as big as a king-sized bed. In the portrayal of the Battle of the Alamo, real life action figures fought for their freedom against General Santa Ana and the Mexican troops. My boys circled the display and important figures like William Travis and Davy Crockett came to life as they discussed the obstacles and ultimate defeat of the legendary forefathers of Texas.
The Alamo and the San Antonio Missions are the newest of only 23 U.S. sites designated by the United Nations a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its cultural or natural heritage. Nearly 300 years ago, Franciscan friars built compounds along the banks of the present-day San Antonio River to settle and expand Spain’s dominion in the new world. Long before the legendary Battle of the Alamo, the Coahuiltecan Indians, a hunter and gatherer group, learned new trades, a couple of new languages and a new religion in order to survive.
History of San Antonio Missions
Long before Texas became a state or the United States became a nation, a group of Franciscan friars built five missions along the San Antonio River. Starting in 1718 with the Alamo and later the Mission San José in 1720, the Spanish friars offered the Coahuiltecan Indians protection and sustenance from frequent Apache and Comanche attacks and European diseases.
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The earlier East Texas Spanish missions floundered, so the remaining residents were moved to San Antonio, where wildlife, timber and water were abundant. Mission life was highly structured with daily devotions and education for the children and farming, domestic skills and modern building techniques for the adults.
In 1775 the San Antonio Missions were secularized, no longer necessary for the survival of the Coahuiltecan Indians, though the missions remained active churches in the surrounding communities until this day. In 2015, the Alamo and the four San Antonio Missions were officially recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The San Antonio Mission Trail
To reach the San Antonio Missions, I drove down Mission Road and Mission Parkway. The missions are located about two to three miles apart, close to the San Antonio River and the Mission Reach hike and bike trail. The new Mission Reach River Walk Trail is 16-miles roundtrip and popular with adults or older kids who want to bike to the missions.
The San Antonio River provided the missions with the necessary water that their crops needed to survive. Through a system of five dams and seven gravity-fed aqueducts, the acequia system brought water to the missions from the San Antonio River. The success of the missions depended on this water for crops and livestock.
The Alamo, or the Mission San Antonio de Valero, is in the center of downtown San Antonio. It’s not part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park but a good starting point to explore San Antonio’s Mission Trail.
Long before the battle that made the mission famous, the Alamo was constructed in 1718. As the first Franciscan mission, it offered protection and education to all that converted to Spanish Catholicism.
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Secularized in 1793, the original residents continued to live and farm this area. As the Texas Revolution escalated the Alamo became the center of the conflict. On March 6, 1836, after a nearly two-week long siege, the battle broke out between William B. Travis, commander of the Alamo and General Santa Anna of Mexico.
Though the defenders of the Alamo, like Davy Crockett, were lost in the battle, the legend lives on. The Alamo is now a symbol of heroic struggle against overwhelming odds.
The first mission south of the Alamo along Mission Road is Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción, or Mission Concepción. In 1731, an East Texas mission community transferred to Mission Concepción. The church is virtually unchanged since it was constructed and the interior of the church features original murals.
Junior Ranger booklets can be picked up in the office though Mission Concepción doesn’t have a park ranger stationed here at all times. National Park Passport stamps are located inside the office as well.
San José y San Miguel de Aguayo
Mission San José is the largest and most intact of all the missions. In 1720 Fray Antonio Margil de Jesús, founded Mission San José that would grow into the Queen of the Missions and the model for the remaining compounds.
Visitors walk though the gates and into a walled compound centered around the church. Built in 1768, the limestone Spanish Colonial Baroque church called the mission residents to prayer three times a day.
At the peak of the mission development, 350 residents lived in two-room quarters built next to the protective stone wall. The large area protected by the perimeter wall contained daily activities, like bread baking.
Mission San José has a visitor center and offers tours to explain the mission way of life. I found picnic tables and an interpretive movie as well.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
In 1731, the East Texas mission residents moved to Mission San Juan Capistrano, south of Mission San José. Today, it’s the only mission with a white plaster exterior.
Mission San Juan’s success lies in its rich farmland where residents grew many crops including corn, beans, chilies, melons, squash and sugar cane. Surplus produce and cattle were traded with the other missions and Mexico. Agriculture is as important today as it was nearly 300 years ago.
Originally built in 1690, the oldest East Texas Mission community moved to Mission Espada in 1731. It’s the only mission building to be constructed of brick and the last mission on the Mission Trail.
Kids at the San Antonio Missions
My kids toured the San Antonio Missions in half a day, starting with the Alamo and heading south. The Alamo and Mission San Jose require more time, about an hour for most kids. The other missions we walked through and spent about 45 minutes exploring.
Pick up a Junior Ranger booklet at the San Jose Visitor Center and complete the activities for a collectable badge. This booklet takes about an hour to complete and adds to the educational experience.
My boys loved exploring the Alamo and running through the Mission’s grounds where history came alive. The diorama of the Battle of the Alamo and the antique weapons were particular hits for my kids.
Getting to the San Antonio Missions
The Alamo is located in downtown San Antonio at 300 Alamo Plaza, 10 miles south of the San Antonio airport. The San Antonio Mission Trail starts just south of the horseshoe shaped River Walk, at Nueva St.
Parking isn’t available at the Alamo, though nearby pay lots are available. I just walked from my River Walk Hotel; signs pointing to the Alamo are on most traffic light poles. All of the other missions have free parking.
The other four missions are on Mission Road, two to three miles apart, with lots of signs. Mission Hike and Bike trail is a great way to visit the San Antonio Missions. It’s 16-miles roundtrip. This might be a little too far for a young family, though lots of adults and older kids enjoy the scenic ride along the San Antonio River.
Public transportation is available. Lodging and food service is not available at the San Antonio Missions though available close-by.
Getting Around the San Antonio Missions
The Alamo is a state historic site and open every day from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. It’s closed December 24 and December 25.
The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is open every day, hours vary from mission to mission. Though all are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The missions are closed on Thanksgiving Day, December 25 and January 1. The Alamo and the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park are free.
Tips from a TravelingMom:
- The Alamo is hallowed ground for Texans. Please remove hats. Photos are not allowed inside of the church, the main building.
- The Missions are active churches, so please be respectful of ceremonies, especially on the weekends.
- If limited on time, visit the Alamo first and then Mission San Jose next. Mission San Jose has a visitor center, interpretive film and park rangers.
- Take refillable water bottles. All the missions have water fountains but not all have food service.
- Use caution on Mission Road and the River Walk Hike and Bike Trail during rain events as this area is susceptible to flash flooding.
- Be watchful for small dirt mounds, as they could be fire ant mounds.