Mission San Juan Capistrano & the Pirate Tower.

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California is positively rich with shit to do. Truth is, one could do an entire travel blog on this state alone. You can hit major cities/areas like San Diego, Los Angeles, Hollywood, San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, Palm Springs, or Catalina Island; go to cool hot spots like the Watts Towers, Winchester Mystery Mansion, the Whaley House, or Cabazon Dinosaurs; visit geographical wonders like Yosemite, Sequoia National Park, Redwood National Park, Death Valley (hottest temp ever recorded on the entire planet was there), and the Mojave Desert; or just find minor, more local things that make a fantastic day trip.

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Two local things I did this past December was visit Mission San Juan Capistrano and the Pirate Tower in Laguna Beach (yes, from THAT show). I went with my little brother Travis (aka “Don’t Be A Travis”) when he was home visiting for Christmas from graduate school. He enjoys historical things and makes a great mini-roadie partner, so off we went.

Mission San Juan Capistrano 

Considered the “Jewel of the California Missions”, its slogan is “worth a visit” (I want to throat- punch whoever was in charge of picking that). It is 1 of 21 missions located all the way up and down the coastal region of the state. I went to elementary school in California, where the history of these missions is heavily taught; however, I’m not sure how much other states focus on it, so I’ll explain a little. These missions were all Catholic religious institutions, established by the Spanish between 1769 through 1833. They were miniature communities, where Spanish Catholic priests would work to “help” the indigenous folk “reach God”, as well as learn new tools and ways of life. Now they stand– quite well preserved, I must say– as historical reminders.

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Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded in 1776, the same year America declared itself free of English rule, but since it was in the California territory, it was not yet part of the United States. This portion of the U.S. was still heavily dominated by Spanish explorers and conquerors; hence why the missions started going up. Spanish Catholic priests made it their “mission” to “rehabilitate” and convert the Native Americans, leading them away from their “savage” ways and into a God-fearing, civilized life.

This mission is in the city of the same name, about 1 hour and 15 minutes south of Los Angeles, give or take with traffic. Located at 26801 Ortega Hwy, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675, it’s open daily from 9am to 5pm, closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and closes at noon on Good Friday, Romance of the Mission, and Christmas Eve. Tickets cost $10 per adult, $9 for seniors (60+), $7 for children age 4-11, and children under 3 are free. They offer a wide variety of tours; however, the only one that comes with the cost of admission is the audio tour, which is like a giant remote that you carry around yourself and punch in the number of the exhibit you want to learn about.

The area with the Catalan Furnaces. According to one of the plaques, “Excavations carried out in 1935 unearthed the ruins and foundations of the Industrial Area where Mission products were made. These furnaces were used to smelt iron ore into metal. Mission blacksmith’s used the metal to make tools, hardware, and farm implements. The circular terracotta tile pipe extending from the top of each furnace would have had a large bellows attached for forcing fresh air into the furnaces to promote a hotter fire. The unearthed rectangular tiled section, directly to the right of the furnaces is the remains of the smithy storage area for raw materials such as charcoal.”
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There are many things to do and see at this mission, but some of the main highlights are: the Great Stone Church ruins (destroyed in the earthquake of 1812), two original bells that once hung in the Great Stone Church, the swallows nest and legend, the Serra Chapel (the only standing chapel where Father Serra gave mass), a 400-year-old golden retablo (painting or image behind or above an alter), beautiful gardens and fountains, areas where the Native Americans used to make food and wine, the “Mission Treasures: Historical Collection Revealed” (which has historical clothing, documents, paintings, and other artifacts like horse saddles and religious relics), a room with an educational video, and children’s craft areas. 

I enjoyed this mission because 1) it was so well preserved, and 2) it was educational and easy to walk around. We stayed for about 3 hours and were able to easily see all the rooms and exhibits. We did go at the end of December, so many students had already headed back to school. I’m not sure how pleasant it would be smack-dab in the middle of summer (however, I’ll probably find out since I’m planning a mission trip to all the southern California missions).

The Pirates Tower

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On Victoria Beach in the infamous city of Laguna Beach, right off the equally infamous PCH (Pacific Coast Highway), stands a lone “pirate tower”, pushed up against the cliff and directly below homes costing an average of $4 million. Sadly, it’s not a real pirate’s tower, but was constructed in 1926 by California senator William E. Brown to be his own little private richy- rich access to the beach below. The tower, along with the property that goes with it, has changed ownership throughout the years, but the tower sits on a public beach, so no one can stop the public from going to it. Of course, the door to the tower is kept locked, so nobody can meander up to the current homeowner’s million dollar home, but you can walk up to it, touch it, and take pics next to it.

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Located at 2713 Victoria Dr, Laguna Beach, CA 92651, it’s supposedly open 24 hours (I’m pretty sure the beach closes, however). This place is a known go-to spot for local photography lovers — those who just enjoy snapping pictures, and full-time photographers, who snap pics of landscape or of models — and we saw a handful doing just that. Not only is the tower there, but it’s right next to the ocean, and waves endlessly hammer the rocks, causing a spectacular splash. Numerous tide pools act like mini- portals into the ocean, and you can see crabs and tons of sea urchins. This specific part of the beach isn’t great to swim in, due to all the rocks and extremely rough waves, but it sure makes for incredible pictures.

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To get to the tower — good luck, and may the odds forever be in your favor. Parking is super limited and if you follow the GPS like we did, you’re taken right into the expensive beachside neighborhood, where parking is nonexistent, and you cannot park on the side of the street. These are mega-pricey homes, so naturally their streets get to remain parking free (although to be fair, many streets in beachside neighborhoods are so narrow that it would be a hazard if cars lined the side). The owners of the house that sits right next to the path that leads down to the beach and tower were kind enough to designate a small section in front of their (fenced-off) home and driveway for parking for the beach; however, the sign says it’s only for 30 minutes, and good luck being there when it’s available.

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My brother and I ended up having to park on the far side of PCH, right across one entrance to the neighborhood. It’s free, but beware, you WILL have to play frogger if you park here. It’s the section of the PCH that runs through Laguna Beach, so you can imagine that traffic is pretty heavy. Since I was the driver, I was next to the traffic zooming by, and I had to wait a good 3 minutes inside my car before I could safely open the door and jump out. Then we had to wait and wait until the traffic was clear enough to sprint across the 5 lanes. It’s not impossible to make it across alive (obvi), but if you can’t run fast enough, then I suggest finding a different place to park. You can park at any of the beach parking lots, but you’ll have to pay and walk some ways (either way, you’ll have to walk a bit; we had to walk all the way through the neighborhood to the entrance to the beach).

The beautiful tide pools.
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Once you make it to the entrance, there is some more walking. You head down some stairs and then onto a steep, paved path. At the end, you hit more stairs and finally onto the sand. Once on the sand, you must walk around the cliffside which can be a bit painful if you’re walking barefoot or in sandals. You must walk over rocky terrain to make it to the tower; there is no other way to go. Once you make it around the cliffside and over the rocky terrain, the area around the tower is sandy (unless you venture forward near the tide pools, but then you might get a face full of ocean water).

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I realize that these two things will probably never be anyone’s sole vacation destination, or something they drive hours to see, but if you live nearby or are visiting, I suggest you go. Bonus- these two places are only about 15 to 20 minutes apart from one another, so doing both in one day is extremely doable (we did). If you like to do things on the beach, then the Pirate Tower and Victoria Beach are perfect for you, and if you like history and/or religion, then head on over to Mission San Juan Capistrano — it’s worth a visit.

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