On a hidden bluff overlooking downtown, Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park offers views of Monterey Bay and a stroll through Santa Cruz County's oldest adobe.
Perched on the hilltop overlooking downtown Santa Cruz sit the remnants of an oft-forgotten piece of local history. The Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park, located on the site of the twelfth of 21 Spanish missions, offers more than field-tripping fourth-graders a look back in time. A visit to the scenic grounds is a great history lesson and beautiful place for a picnic.
Two massive trees shade a gracious courtyard outfitted with picnic tables. A revamped concrete patio overlooking downtown Santa Cruz and the Bay makes a charming spot for summer festivals and public events, as well as weddings, family reunions and other private events (call 831.429.1840 for rental information).
The park’s main feature is a low-slung adobe built as a dormitory for Indian acolytes in 1824, making it the oldest building in Santa Cruz County. (Most of the rest of the original Mission Santa Cruz fell victim to one plague or another; scroll down for the history of the "Hard Luck Mission.”)
The original 17-room structure now features eight rooms, six of them open to the public. Entrance to the mission grounds is free. A walking tour of the neophyte dormitory provides a quick refresher course of fourth-grade history and local Spanish influence as well as Native American lifeways. Sweeping views and native plant gardens make Santa Cruz Mission SHP a pleasant place to visit.
LAY IN THE SHADE: The mission features a towering avocado tree as its centerpiece. Planted in the mid-1800s, it is thought to be one of the oldest in California.
PLAN YOUR VISIT: The mission is open five days a week (Thursday through Monday). It’s a popular field-trip destination for fourth-grade students preparing to make their own mission models. Depending on what you like, the laughter and activity might add to the experience.
FEELING CALLED: Holy Cross Catholic Church sits in place of the mission’s original church. Services are offered in the chapel on weekdays and the Church on weekends.
CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN: Two staircases lead from downtown to the Mission Adobe: one on Mission Street near the intersection with Cedar (open only during special events) and one right next to Restaurante Los Pinos on N. Pacific Avenue. Otherwise, access is on School Street, just off Mission Plaza Park.
TASTEFULLY DONE: Held in late September or early October, the Mole and Mariachi Festival draws thousands to hear music, dance and sample mole, the traditional Mexican dish. Check the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks website for dates.
WITH A LITTLE HELP: Saved from closure in 2012, today the park is supported by Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, a non-profit State Parks partner dedicated to sustaining the legacy of state parks and beaches. Friends funds the State Parks staff who conduct free educational programs, including tours, junior rangers, campfire programs and educational programs for thousands of schoolchildren annually. Friends also hosts the annual Mole & Mariachi Festival, which had attendance of 4,000 in 2015, and operates the Mission ParkStore to benefit the park. Read more about Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks.
Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park, 144 School St, Santa Cruz. (831) 425-5849. Open Monday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday 10am-4pm. Sunday 12-4pm. Admission is free.
Earthquakes, Floods and Felons: History of Mission Santa Cruz
Founded on Aug. 28,1791 by Father Fermín Lasuén, the Misíon la Exaltacion de la Santa Cruz endured hardships and disasters from the beginning. Originally built in the lowland flood plains of the San Lorenzo River, it was moved to higher ground and its permanent location after being flooded during its first winter. With fertile soil and views of the ocean, Mission Santa Cruz served as home base for the Franciscan missionaries who recruited the local Ohlone and eventually Yokut Indians to populate the mission.
At its most productive, the mission’s territory extended 28 miles north of the San Lorenzo River and eight miles inland. However, the Hard Luck Mission would never meet expectations, thanks in part to disharmony with the neighboring town of Branciforte. Eventually giving rise to the city of Santa Cruz, Branciforte was founded by Spanish convicts. When called upon, most famously, in 1818 to defend the mission from the Argentine pirate Hippolyte de Bouchard, citizens of Branciforte sacked the mission instead. The commander at Branciforte at one point suggested that the absence of the colonists “for a couple of centuries, at a distance of a million of leagues, would prove most beneficial to the province.” The Branciforteans also lured the natives away from the mission with cash and gambling, helping Mission Santa Cruz earn the dubious distinction of being the least populated (i.e., successful) mission in California.
In a state of decline, the mission was secularized in 1834, meaning its property was distributed to civilians, and would later meet its demise from earthquake damage. The chapel and reliquary on Emmett Street, half a block from Santa Cruz Mission SHP, are reduced scale representations of the original mission and house several original paintings. The grand Holy Cross Church at the head of Mission Plaza was constructed in 1889.
But one building from the original Mission complex, an adobe dormitory, survived. In 1839, during secularization, the Rodriguez family had been given one half of the adobe, and the Armas family shortly purchased the other half from two Indians (like a one-level apartment, the adobe contained several dwellings). Eventually the Armas property passed to the Neary family. The adobe was inhabited continuously for the next 150 years. The State of California purchased the “Neary-Rodriguez Adobe” in 1958 but did not open it to the public since the agreement stipulated that one of the Rodriguez descendants be able to live out her natural life there. She died in 1983, and the parks department opened the adobe to the public as a state historic park in 1991, 200 years after the Mission’s founding.
In 2016, the park—having survived physical earthquakes, pillaging, fires and the fiscal earthquake of 2011 that nearly shut it down along with 69 other state parks—will celebrate its 25th anniversary. Watch the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks website and Hilltromper Events for details on a late summer celebration.
—Christian Yungert with Traci Hukill
In 2013, the first Mole and Mariachi Festival revived a long tradition of autumn festivals in the Mission Adobe courtyard .
The Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park General Plan contains some great historical information on the Mission, including the land-and-livestock grab that was mission secularization.
Read a lively history of Mission Santa Cruz by a somewhat mysterious but seemingly reliable author.