History Hidden in Plain View: Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park

Overlooking downtown Santa Cruz from a quiet redwood-shaded bluff lies a hidden historical treasure and an enchanting starting point for a journey back in time. Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park is a one-acre island of tranquility with a spectacular view and a colorful story that begins more than 200 years ago. Its main feature, a long adobe building constructed in 1822 and 1824 as housing is all that remains of the Mission Santa Cruz, the 12th in a string of 21 Spanish missions established in California.

Like all the other missions, Mission Santa Cruz was founded by Franciscan priests eager to establish a presence in California. The location for their 12th mission was chosen because it would allow them access to the coastal tribes that had remained out of the reach of the prosperous Mission Santa Clara, isolated as they were by the steep, thickly forested Santa Cruz Mountains.  On August 28, 1791, Father Fermin Lasuén founded Misión la Exaltacion de la Santa Cruz near the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. It flooded the first winter, and in 1793 the mission was reestablished on a bluff overlooking the river. The new site had a stream (it ran down what is now School Street, right in front of the park) and a pleasant view of Monterey Bay.

The young mission experienced great success for a few years. By 1796 it was home to 523 neophytes (the term for baptized indigenous people) and a church made out of adobe measuring 112 feet long by 29 feet wide—the widest of any original mission, thanks to the availability of huge redwood timbers to serve as reinforcing beams. It was producing wheat, barley, corn and even chickpeas and lentils. Even the modest gifts of livestock donated by neighboring missions at its founding—Santa Clara had sent 40 cows, Carmel had given seven mules and San Francisco had dispatched 60 sheep and 10 rams—were flourishing as if divinely favored: in 1797 Mission Santa Cruz recorded 710 head of cattle, 1,500 sheep, 500 mares with foals and 50 mules.

Mission Santa Cruz was eventually home to 32 buildings, including the Mission Adobe that stands today. Inside the Mission Adobe’s cool, dark interior, insulated by walls three feet thick, rooms interpret the lifeways of the Ohlone and Yokuts people who lived at the mission, and a diorama shows the mission complex as it was in 1830, when a cathedral, convent, soldiers’ barracks and twin dormitories were spread across the bluff and the Mission gardens grew plenty of watermelons, squashes, walnuts, olives and peaches.

In 1834 Mission Santa Cruz was secularized and the last natives to inhabit the Mission Adobe, Isidro Labrodo and Petra Mifro, sold their shares in 1848. From that point on the Mission Adobe was inhabited continuously by the Rodriguez family (on the eastern side) and the Armas and then Neary families (on the west side). The Mission Adobe is one of just four historic adobes left in Santa Cruz County; the others are the Castro Adobe, the Bolcoff Adobe at Wilder Ranch State Park, and the privately owned (and still inhabited) Branciforte Adobe in East Santa Cruz.

The dense neighborhood atop the present-day bluff has erased nearly every sign of the mission complex that once thrived there. The Holy Cross Catholic Church stands on the site of the original adobe church, which collapsed in an earthquake in 1857 despite its five-foot-thick walls and stone foundation. On the corner of School and Emmett streets, just steps from the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park, stands the Reliquary, built as a half-scale replica of the original mission church. Many visitors mistakenly believe this is the original mission, but it’s not. It is interesting, though:  among other things, it contains Father Junipero Serra’s vestments.  

Today the Mission Adobe is open five days a week (Thursday-Monday) year-round for self-guided tours and picnicking under the massive avocado tree (possibly the second-oldest in California!) or on the sunny patio. Grab a sack lunch downtown and climb the beautiful mosaic staircase leading up from Mission Street (the entrance is found between Center and Emmett streets; staircase is closed on weekdays during the school year). Don’t forget to stop by the gift shop to see old photos of the adobe through the years.  On weekends the park offers living history demonstrations and family activities, and on special summer evenings everyone can gather around an Old Fashioned Campfire for music and fresh tortillas made the traditional way, on the comal.

The adobe’s courtyard bursts into life each September with the wildly popular Mole and Mariachi Festival, a riot of colorful costumes, music, food and dancing. The one-day festival, hosted by Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, raises money for the park’s year-round educational programs, which are available to all at no cost.

Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park, 144 School St, Santa Cruz. (831) 425-5849.  Open Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday 10am-4pm and Sunday noon-4pm. Entrance is free.