(a 15 minute read)

Immerse yourself in history on a tour of the Alamo & San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Then elevate your visit with a stroll along the River Walk and a drive out to China Grove.

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The Alamo & San Antonio Missions NHP

Touring the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and the Alamo was one of my most memorable days on the road.

It was the first week of a month-long camper van trip from Florida to explore national parks in Texas and New Mexico.

En route, I made a stopover to collect a few little-known and rare NPS passport stamps in Coastal Mississippi. Arriving in Austin, I spent a couple of rainy, but amazing days camping at McKinney Falls State Park. When the rain cleared I headed west to explore LBJ Ranch and the Texas Hill Country.

Before arriving in San Antonio, I had not done a lot of research. As an incurable completionist, I just knew I wanted to visit all of the missions in one day. My greatest concern was whether there would be any parking issues for a 21-foot Class B RV in the city limits.

Because the San Antonio Missions Trail runs north and south, it made sense to start downtown at the Alamo and work my way south to Mission Espada and then back to my campsite.

That would have been a great plan, but the park visitor center is located at Mission San José, smack-dab in the middle of the trail. And experience has taught me that it is always wise to stop by the visitor center first and make a personalized plan with a park ranger.

San Antonio Missions NHP Visitor Center

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When I arrived at Mission San José, I learned that the visitor center building was temporarily closed to the public, but rangers were set up at tables outside. I was able to plan my day with a ranger and collect my NPS passport stamps without a hitch.

A Brief History of the San Antonio Missions

The chain of missions established along the San Antonio River in the 1700s played a key role in the Spanish conquest of North America. “Gold, Glory, and God,” the alliterative mnemonic device we all learned in world history class as the motive for European expansion comes to mind.

Franciscan friars with expertise in diverse fields founded the missions, serving the Church by evangelizing natives, and the Crown by expanding the Spanish Empire to the north.

The local Coahuiltecans were scattered bands of hunters and gatherers. Threatened by nomadic bands of Apaches and Comanches and weakened by European diseases, they accepted the offer of food and protection from the Franciscans in exchange for labor and conversion to Catholicism.

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As members of a self-sufficient mission, Indians followed a set schedule, receiving religious and vocational training. They became skilled craftsmen, farmers and herders, and citizens of the Spanish Empire.

The San Antonio missions were established as a national historical park in 1983 and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. All four missions are active parishes within the Archdiocese of San Antonio.

Because I was already at the site of Mission San José, I decided to begin my tour there.

Mission San José

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Upon entering the walled presidio, I was mentally transported to picturesque locations I recalled from my teen years living in Latin America.

These stone structures were not unlike the Jesuit Ruins I recalled visiting at Jesús and Trinidad (also UNESCO World Heritage sites) when I returned to Paraguay for a visit in 2001.

Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo was founded in 1720 by Father Antonio Margil as a result of overcrowding at Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo), five miles upriver. It would become the largest colonial mission in Texas.

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Construction of the second and also current mission church began in 1768. The intricately-detailed Spanish colonial Baroque architecture and statuary contributed to Mission San José’s long-standing reputation as “Queen of the Missions.”

The church’s limestone walls were originally plastered and painted. Fragments of the fresco designs still exist near ground level on the bell tower.

Shrouded in mystery, the Rose Window in the church’s side wall is the subject of more than one legend as to its purpose, meaning, and creator.

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The restored church sanctuary is open to the public during non-service times.

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Some the mission’s most beautiful architecture is evident in the arched walkway adjacent to the convento, where missionaries and lay assistants were housed.

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The restored grist mill, originally built in 1794, is the oldest mill in Texas. Diverted through acequias (ditches), water from the San Antonio River powered the mill and was then conducted through a lower ditch to irrigate the fields.

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Eighty-four two-roomed apartments lining the presidio walls served as Indian quarters.

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Spanish soldiers trained Indians in defense strategies against Apache and Comanche raids as evidenced by the firing platform and loopholes in the mission walls.

I got a kick out of the cactus growing on the roof.

Back in the van, I headed uptown to the Alamo, but for organizational purposes, that content is reported at the end of this post.

Mission Concepción

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The ranger at the visitor center had given me a heads-up that they were re-paving the parking lot at Mission Concepción, and she did not lie. I ultimately found a parking space for the van at the western end of Concepción Park near the river and walked a half-mile back to the mission.

Again, I was struck by how much the scene reminded me of locations in South America.

Originally established in 1711 at a site in East Texas, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña was relocated to this site near the San Antonio River in 1731.

A century later, on October 28, 1835, the Battle of Concepción was fought on these grounds. It was the first major engagement of the Texas Revolution, with Mexican troops led by Colonel Domingo de Ugartechea and Texian insurgents led by James Bowie.

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Dedicated in 1755, the Mission Concepción church is the oldest unrestored stone church in the US. Although the structure is stable, the exterior geometric frescoes have faded with the passage of time.

Unlike its sister mission churches, the doors to the front portal are locked.

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Access to the church sanctuary is through a side entrance instead.

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The path to the sanctuary passes the stairwell to the office of the former Father President, elected by his peers to be the administrator of all Queretaro missions along the San Antonio River.

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Entering the sacristy, guests can view one of several interior fresco remnants.

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More frescoes were exposed when the Archdiocese completed a restoration of the sanctuary and nave in 2010.

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A stone grotto occupies a special place in a shady grove on the mission grounds.

I trekked back to the van and headed south to Mission San Juan.

Mission San Juan

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First established in 1716, Mission San Juan Capistrano was relocated to this site along the east bank of the San Antonio River in 1731.

The present day church constructed c. 1772 is the second to be built at this location. The foundations of an earlier church built in the 1750s and an unfinished church started in 1775 also inhabit the grounds.

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The Archdiocese completed a $2.2 million renovation of the mission church in 2012. Craftsmen stabilized the foundation and plastered the front and sides of the building.

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In 2000, thieves stole three 18th-Century statues valued as high as $100,000 from the church altar, including the original statue of the saint for whom the mission was named.

During restoration of the church sanctuary new furnishings were added and a replica of the stolen statue of San Juan Capistrano was installed.

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A structure known as the Tufa House was built in the 1850s atop the foundations of mission Indian quarters, originally constructed one hundred years earlier.

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Pack trains traveling El Camino Real de los Tejas between Mexico and Louisiana passed through San Antonio.

A portero, or gatekeeper, monitored the comings and goings of residents and outsiders through the mission’s main gate.

The walled compound was the center of mission life, but farmlands beyond the walls produced a bounty of crops in the rich soil of the San Antonio River floodplain.

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Before heading to the fourth mission site, I followed a series of interpretive panels that led from the mission to ruins of a 19th-century community known as Berg’s Mill, near the river’s edge.

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When I glanced back at the bridge, I was treated to an unexpected show from Mother Nature.

Mission Espada

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Mission San Francisco de los Tejas was the first mission in Texas, established near present-day Weches in 1690. Not unlike its sister missions, it was relocated to the bank of the San Antonio River and renamed Mission San Francisco de la Espada in 1731.

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The mission church was completed in 1756, and the bell tower was added in the 1780s.

Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the church is its portal. For years, historians have debated whether the broken stones in the archway may have been reversed during construction, as opposed to the architect’s original intent.

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The sanctuary was locked at the time of my visit, so I captured a view of the altar through a crack between the doors.

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A campo santo (holy ground) cemetery with unmarked graves parallels the north wall of the stone church.

Espada Aqueduct

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I passed the roadside Espada Aqueduct while driving to the mission and returned later for a closer look.

Franciscans constructed the aqueduct over Piedras Creek in 1745 as part of the mission’s extensive irrigation system of dams and acequias.

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Learning that the only remaining Spanish aqueduct in the United States is still in use by neighboring farms today simply blew my mind.

Rancho de las Cabras

I did not visit, but I later learned that Mission Espada herded livestock at a satellite location called Rancho de las Cabras between 1731 and 1794.

The ruins and pastures near modern-day Floresville in Wilson County are part of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

The ranch is only accessible by monthly ranger-guided tours. To make reservations, interested guests should email saan_interpretation@nps.gov with their contact information and number in party.

The Alamo

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I arrived at the Alamo (Mission San Antonio de Valero) late morning after touring Mission San José, but the next available free timed-entry of the church was not until 1:00 PM. Because there were still three more missions to visit, I decided to forego the church tour.

Although the Alamo is historically connected to the other San Antonio River missions, it is not a unit of the national historical park. It is owned and operated by the State of Texas.

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My disappointment at not being able to tour the church quickly faded when I realized how much there was to see and do within the courtyards and gardens surrounding the church.

An 18th-century 16-pound cannon displayed in front of the church has an intriguing story, so take a deep breath. It was rescued by Spanish soldiers from a Matagorda Bay shipwreck in 1817, captured by Texian forces at the Battle of Bexar in 1835, used by Texians at the Battle of the Alamo the following year, captured and disabled by Mexican forces, and unearthed near the intersection of Houston and Alamo Streets.

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Most visitors to the Alamo know that it was a Spanish mission, and that a pivotal battle in the Texas Revolution was fought there. But the history is more broad and rich than you would imagine.

It is best illustrated by a Wall of History composed of six huge interpretive panels that detail six key periods in the Alamo’s 300-year history.

The Convento Courtyard fronts the long barrack. Nearly 300 years old, the stone structure is the oldest building at the Alamo site. The original two-story building served as quarters and offices for Spanish missionaries. It is also the site of the last stand where members of the Alamo garrison retreated during the battle in 1836.

In 1913, arborist Walter Whall transplanted a 40-year old live oak tree in the courtyard, a feat not believed possible at the time. More than a century later, the grandfather oak dominates the outdoor space. The well is of dubious origin.

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A stone feature in the Cavalry Courtyard displays the six flags that have flown over Texas: United States, Republic of Texas, Confederate States, Mexico, France, and Spain.

In 2019, the Alamo installed six bronze statues of legendary figures from the Texas Revolution: Juan Nepomuceno Seguin, William Barret Travis, John William Smith, Susanna & Angelina Dickinson, David Crockett, and James Bowie.

The statues are part of the Alamo Sculpture Trail, a series of fourteen statues installed at locations between the Alamo and the Briscoe Western Art Museum.

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The Alamo’s living history encampment portrays the daily life of soldiers in the 1830s. Living historians dressed in period costumes give talks and demonstrations of essential skills, medical practices, and weaponry.

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The footprint of the 1836 Alamo extends beyond the walls of the museum grounds, encompassing the Cenotaph, a tomblike monument to heroes of the revolution.

In recent years, the marble and granite memorial has been the centerpiece of a political struggle.

Conservatives want future Alamo restorations to focus solely on the revolutionary battle, excluding inconvenient truths such as the fact that Travis and Crockett were slavers. Minority voices argue for a broad interpretation of the historical site to include roles played by slaves, Mexicans, indigenous people, and other groups.

I say, when it comes to history, just tell the truth . . . .

The San Antonio River Walk

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When touring the Alamo, you are just steps away from the world-famous San Antonio River Walk. Five miles of the 15-mile pedestrian street wind through downtown on dual sidewalks lined with shops and restaurants.

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The River Walk is beautifully designed with wooded landscapes and connecting bridges.

A statue of Anthony of Padua holding the Child Jesus is situated along the subterranean public walk, honoring the saint who lent his name to the river, the mission, and the city itself.

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Narrated excursions, river shuttle service, and dining cruises are available from Go Rio Cruises.

Touring Tips

It is possible to tour all four missions in San Antonio National Historical Park, plus the Alamo in one day. That said, I recommend at least a 2 to 3-day stay to fully immerse yourself in all the city has to offer. I would have enjoyed more time to fully explore the River Walk, especially at night.

The distance between the Alamo downtown and Mission Espada to the south is 10 miles. It is easily navigable by car or RV, and free parking is available at all of the NPS sites. The Alamo does not have dedicated parking, but there are plenty of public parking lots nearby.

Admission is free to all of the mission sites and the Alamo. A variety of fee-based tours and experiences are also available at the Alamo.

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The San Antonio Mission Trail is another touring option for hiking and biking between the Alamo and national park missions. San Antonio Bike Share offers short-term rentals that allow customers to “rent, ride, return, and repeat” when ready to ride again.

Click here for San Antonio lodging options on TripAdvisor!

Click here for San Antonio dining options!

China Grove

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“When the sun comes up on a sleepy little town down around San Antone . . . .”

As a long-time Doobie Brothers fan, I had to do it. I got up early before touring the missions and drove to the outskirts of town to snap an iconic picture.

And that was all.

On the drive, I noticed the packed parking lot of Bill Miller BBQ, a South Texas fast food chain. Let me go on record and say the oversized breakfast tacos were freaking incredible! My mouth is watering just thinking about them.

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An Additional Resource

A North Texas Road Trip

For more itinerary options, check out my North Texas Road Trip, a wild ride through the Lone Star state from Amarillo to Lubbock, Grapevine, Waco, and Granbury.

I Would Love to Hear From You

I enjoy dialogue with Backroad Planet readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever toured the Alamo and the San Antonio missions? If so, I would love to hear about your experience. I invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and I always respond!

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Howard Blount is founder and editor of the travel website Backroad Planet. He has traveled internationally since boyhood and lived abroad in Mexico, Chile, and Paraguay. Now his passion is navigating the roads-less-traveled of this amazing planet in search of anything rare and remote. On the stuffy side, “Mr. Blount” has been a writer, consultant, and published author with houses including Simon & Schuster and McGraw-Hill.

Retired from a 35-year career as a middle school teacher, Howard enjoys spending his time on anything that includes mountains, waterfalls, dachshunds, gospel choirs, books, classic movies, autumn, sandhill cranes, Florida springs, rain, gloomy days, log cabins, abandoned sites, unearthed history, genealogy, documentaries, To Kill a Mockingbird, castles, cathedrals, Civil Rights history, cold sheets, National Park Passports, quotes, Reba Rambo, Dionne Warwick, most things Apple, all things British, Jesus, and lists.

And on a random note, Howard is a fourth cousin once removed to Truman Capote.