The Alamo and the San Antonio Missions is the newest of 23 U.S. sites designated by the United Nations for their 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, American Indians learned new skills, a couple of new languages and a new religion in order to survive.
The battle that made the mission famous but the Alamo was constructed in 1718. As the first Franciscan mission, it offered protection and education to all that converted to Spanish Catholicism.
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 and the Mexican troops, who greatly outnumbered the Texans.
Though the defenders of the Alamo, like David Crockett, were lost in the battle, the legend lives on. The Alamo is now a symbol of heroic struggle against overwhelming odds.
The Alamo, or the Mission San Antonio de Valero as it was originally called, 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.
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 remains the largest and most intact of all the missions. In 1720 Fray Antonio Margil de Jesús, founded Mission San José that grew into the Queen of the Missions and the model for remaining missions.
Visitors walk though the wooden gates and into a walled compound centered around the church. Built in 1768, the limestone Spanish Colonial Baroque church called the missions residents to prayer three times a day.
At the peak of the mission development, 350 residents lived in two-room quarters inside the protective stone walls. The large protected areacontained daily activities, like bread baking and schooling.
Mission San José offers a visitor center and features tours to walk visitors through the mission way of life. I found picnic tables, an interpretive movie and restrooms 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, the mission maintains its white plaster exterior.
Mission San Juan’s success lay 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 remains as important today as 300 years ago.
The oldest East Texas mission formed in 1690 and in 1731 the residents moved to Mission Espada. Constructed of brick where the others missions featured stone, Mission Espada sits last on the Mission Trail.
Brief 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 living in South Texas protection and sustenance.
In this area of Texas, the Coahuiltecan Indians suffered from frequent Apache and Comanche attacks and European diseases. The San Antonio Missions offered protection and the Franciscan friars taught the Indians new vocational skills along with a new religion and a couple of languages, Spanish and Latin.
After the East Texas Spanish missions floundered, the remaining residents moved to San Antonio. Finding wildlife, timber and water in abundance, mission life offered structure. With daily devotions, education for the children and lessons in farming, domestic skills and modern building techniques for the adults, mission life provide a community.
In 1775 the San Antonio Missions were secularized, no longer necessary for survival for the Coahuiltecan Indians. Though the missions remain active churches in the surrounding communities. In 2015, the United Nations recognized the Alamo and the four San Antonio Missions as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The San Antonio Mission Trail
The San Antonio River provided the missions with the necessary water that their crops needed to survive. Though a system of five dams and seven gravity-fed aqueducts, the acequia system brought water to missions from the San Antonio River. The success of the missions depended on this water for crops and livestock.
To reach the San Antonio Missions, I drove down Mission Road and Mission Parkway. Located about two to three miles apart, the missions reside close to the San Antonio River and the Mission Reach of the hike-and-bike trail. The new River Walk Trail features 16 miles of trails and offers adults or older kids an alternative way to reach the missions.
Kids at the San Antonio Missions
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 Battle of the Alamo diorama and the antique weapons thrilled my boys.
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.
Getting Around the San Antonio Missions
A state historic site, The Alamo opens every day from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and closed December 24 and December 25. Free.
The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park’s hours vary from mission to mission but all remain open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The missions are closed on Thanksgiving Day, December 25 and January 1. Free.
Getting to the San Antonio Missions
The San Antonio Mission Trail starts south of the Alamo. Located in downtown San Antonio at 300 Alamo Plaza, the Alamo resides10 miles south of the San Antonio airport and steps from the Riverwalk.
I didn’t find specific parking for the Alamo, though I found lots nearby pay lots. I walked from my River Walk Hoteland I foundsigns pointing to the Alamo on most traffic light poles.
Mission Road connects all four missions, about two to three miles apart. Take the Mission Hike and Bike trail to visit the San Antonio Missions, 16 miles roundtrip. A pleasant trip for adults and older kids riding along the scenic San Antonio River.
Drive, walk, bike or use public bus transportation to reach the missions. Find lodging and food service near the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park though not located within the park boundaries.
Know Before You Go
- The Alamo remains hallowed ground for Texans, please remove hats and photos are not allowed inside of the church, the main building.
- The Missions remains active churches, numerous ceremonies happen during the weekends.
- If limited on time, visit the Alamo first and then Mission San Jose next. Missions San Jose offers a visitor center, interpretive film and park rangers.
- Take a refillable water bottle. All the missions feature water fountains but not all have food service.
- Use caution on Mission Road and River Walk Hike and Bike Trail using rain events as this area floods.
- Watch out for fire ant mounds.
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Part of this trip was provided for review purposes.