California Day Trip: On Swallows, The Surfliner & San Juan Capistrano
That saying about life being as much about the journey as the destination must have been created by a passenger on the Pacific Surfliner. The Southern California Amtrak train travels a route between San Diego and San Luis Obispo, weaving its way along the coastline as it offers miles of stunning panoramic ocean views. At some places, the Surfliner gets so close to the Pacific that you can almost feel the sand between your toes.
This was my second trip on the Surfliner. I was meeting my friend Jennifer in San Juan Capistrano to tour the Mission and do some swallow spotting – or at least attempt to see the famous birds. The swallows have been a fixture at the Mission San Juan Capistrano since the 1920s, arriving like clockwork in March after spending the winter in Argentina. But in the past years, the birds haven’t returned to build their nests at the Mission, presumably driven away by lack of food and urban development.
It’s a five-minute walk from the train station in San Juan Capistrano to the Mission. Everything in the city’s Historic Downtown is within walking distance of the train, making it an easy day trip destination from San Diego or Los Angeles. I met Jennifer at the Mission’s entrance, and after getting our tickets and maps, we began a walking tour on our own. The Mission also offers complimentary audio tours with a ticket purchase and various guided tours ($3 per adult) at specified times.
Mission San Juan Capistrano is the seventh of twenty-one Spanish missions that were established between San Diego and San Francisco by Father Junipero Serra and Catholic priests of the Franciscan order. Founded in 1776, it was seriously damaged by an earthquake in 1812 – including its Great Stone Church – and was only partially rebuilt. The Serra Chapel, built in 1782, was rebuilt and is recognized as the oldest building in California still is use.
In addition to the Serra Chapel and the ruins of the Great Stone Church, the tranquil 10 acres include a classic mission-style quadrangle of buildings that surround a large open patio. Gardens filled with vegetables, flowers and succulents and exhibits that recreate mission life – from the padres’ kitchen and food preparation to Native American basketry and music – are spread throughout the property. But the biggest attraction, and what people seemed to be talking about when we were there, are the swallows.
As the legend is told, the swallows took refuge in the Mission after their nests were destroyed by a shopkeeper in town who didn’t want the muddy nests under the eaves of his shop. The little cliff-dwelling birds found a welcome home at the Mission, building their nests under the high eaves and thriving on the abundance of insects they needed for food. Since that time, large groups of swallows have annually returned to the mission, often to the same nests. March 19th was declared Swallows Day in San Juan Capistrano, with a parade and festival held around that time every year for the past 58 years.
The celebration will go on as planned this year, but the only evidence of swallows that we could see was a mobile artificial nest wall called “Swallows Experiment Phase II.” Created by Dr. Charles R. Brown, Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Tulsa and the Mission’s consulting expert on cliff swallows, the wall will contain 40 plaster nests aimed at attracting the birds, with the hope that they will begin building nests on the Mission’s walls, as they once did. This project follows Phase I, in which the sounds of swallows singing were broadcast from behind a statue of Father Serra.
It is clear that San Juan Capistrano is pulling out all stops to lure back the swallows that gave the Mission its legendary story. It must have been a spectacular sight to see so many birds winging their way over the town as they returned from their winter in South America. And equally impressive must have been their day of departure from the area – October 23 – which also took place like magical clockwork.
But even without the swallows, Mission San Juan Capistrano is a lovely place to visit. And with the added bonus of Pacific Ocean views from the Surfliner, getting there and coming back home are as much fun as the destination itself.