San Juan Bautista State Historic Park is a state park of California, United States, preserving the historic center of town as it existed in 1877. The main attractions are the buildings housing the old Mission and later adobe houses, which have been restored to their original condition. The focal point of the park is the Plaza Hotel, built in 1874. This building has been fully renovated into an elegant hotel with sixty-nine rooms and suites. It includes public areas including gardens, fountains, sidewalks, and shops. A large number of bougainvillea plants line the walkway leading up to the hotel entrance. In front of the hotel is a statue commemorating the founding of SJB by Father Junpero Serra in 1769.
On weekends from May through October, living history demonstrations take place in front of the plaza hotel during regular business hours, where visitors can interact with costumed actors who portray mid-19th century life at its leisurely pace.
The park features a visitor center open year round, with exhibits and a gift shop. There are more than 7 miles (11km) of trails open to hiking, mountain biking, horses, and all-terrain vehicles. Dogs and bikes are prohibited on certain trails. Horses allowed only on designated trails. The park has campsites ranging from modern RV hookups to tent camping. Toilets and showers are provided in campgrounds, with hot running water available seasonally. No flush toilets exist in any campground. Camping costs range from $10 per night for a regular site, to $20 per night for a yurt, and $30 per night for a tepee. Prices do not include 13% sales tax.
The park contains numerous sites related to the dramatic events of Father Junpero Serra’s life, including statues, memorials, and replicas of key locations. Visitors can see the actual cross used to mark the grave site of Peter Lebeck, one of the first Christian martyrs in North America, which was discovered in the 1950s. The park grounds feature a museum run by the local Historical Society, displaying items found at various archaeological sites around town, plus a scale model showing how San Juan Bautista looked in the late 1870s. Exhibits focus on the cultural, political, and natural history of the period, as well as presenting highlights of the town’s history, beginning with the arrival of the first Europeans in 1542. Highlights include the missions, the presidio, the pueblos, the Alta California province, and the MexicanAmerican War.
The park hosts a variety of special events, including daily cannon firing exercises, holiday light displays, outdoor movies, and interpretive presentations. Interpretive talks occur twice weekly in the summer, and monthly in the fall and winter. Volunteers in Parks is another program hosted by the park, allowing citizens to assist in maintaining parks and recreation facilities. Construction projects completed by VIPP volunteers include beach erosion control, trail clearing, playground installation, picnic table assembly, and rock wall placement. Over 300 different species of birds reside in, pass through, or stop during their migration along the coastal bluffs between the Pacific Ocean and the inland mountains.
There are several plaques around town with information about the lives of some of the notable people associated with San Juan Bautista, such as John P. Rush, founder of the Presidio Real de Santa Brbzntsca (Royal Presidio of St. Brice’s Church), and George Washington de la Pena, a prominent Californio landowner and miner.
The park was one of the first parcels secured for park purposes by the Save Our Heritage Organization, and was given high priority in the preservation effort due to its outstanding quality as historical architecture. The area surrounding the park was originally homesteaded by Juan Bautista de Anza in 1542. He established a presidio there, along with two other presidios, after traveling north from New Mexico.
The presidios were small outposts intended primarily to guard against attacks by Spanish or Mexican forces, and supply the soldiers with food, water, shelter and supplies. They were not successful; within four months all three had fallen to Native Americans. After this setback, de Anza retreated back to New Mexico. However, he left behind his third son Juan Bautista, born in 1549, who went on to become known as “Father Junpero” or “Juan Perdido”, because he lost his compass while sailing home from Spain and ended up in San Francisco Bay, where he was taken captive by the Portuguese and eventually made his way back to San Juan Bautista, arriving in 1552, aged 11 years.
He entered the Franciscan Order and became priest, teacher, and confessor to the children of the presidio. His reputation as a preacher and educator spread throughout the region, and soon afterward he founded the nearby Mission San Fernando Rey de Espaa, also known as Mission Redwood, which still stands today. He died at age 72 in 1603, having spent most of his adult life in the priesthood. Under his guidance, San Juan Bautista grew rapidly, and became the largest settlement in northern California.
By 1776 it had grown sufficiently populous to warrant separation from the mother mission, whose site is now occupied by Old Town Sacramento. Thus, on December 8, 1776, the new independent city received its charter, becoming the second oldest European settlement in what would become the United States. Called the City of S. J. B., it was incorporated under the same name as the present day city, but with a lower case “s”. Because of its early date, proximity to the coast, and strategic location atop a hill, the town was heavily fortified with walls and bastions designed to resist bombardment by ships. As many as 10,000 troops may have been garrisoned there during the summer of 1778, when the siege of Fort Dalles took place across the river. At least one major battle, the Battle of San Juan Capistrano, was fought just outside the walls. Although no longer containing a military facility, the old fortifications have been turned into hotels, restaurants, museums, and private residences. Among the famous residents of the old town are artists, musicians, and writers.
During the gold rush that followed the discovery of gold near Sutter’s Mill, San Juan Bautista saw a flood of immigration, mostly male. With so much single male labor, there was great demand for entertainment, and saloons, bowling alleys, billiard halls, and concert venues sprang up all over town. One such establishment, the Union Hall, featured music concerts almost nightly during the week, and even had a dance floor. Another popular spot was the Chinese Theatre, located right beside the church. Actors, comedians, magicians, and storytellers performed melodramas, plays, skits, and magic shows for audiences both inside and outside the hall.
Following the 1850 American conquest of California, the need for defense decreased, and most of the former army installations were abandoned. What remains of the fortifications consist mainly of huge concrete water tanks, called reservoirs, which provide drinking water for the town. These structures are managed by the Pacific Water Company, and operated by the non-profit organization Friends of Reservoir 12.
Common types of wildlife observed at the park include:
- black bears
- gray foxes