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Family-friendlyOrange County

Hunt for swallows at Mission San Juan Capistrano

 (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Why: This might be the most-visited of California's missions, and it's surely among the most scenic, with ruins and gardens. It even has a handy Amtrak station.

What: About the time George Washington and his East Coast friends were declaring independence from the British, Franciscan missionaries Junípero Serra (now St. Junípero) and Fermín Lasuén were founding and refounding this mission on behalf of the Catholic Church and Spain. Since then it has been assaulted by earthquakes (including a rough one in 1812), adopted by migrating swallows (which inspired a pop song in the 1940s, but they don't come around as much anymore) and embraced by tourists.

The historic structures and gardens make an easy day trip by train from San Diego, Santa Barbara or any place in between. And the adjacent Los Rios District ("oldest neighborhood in California") includes the Zoomars Petting Zoo and the Ramos House Cafe, which does weekend brunches on its sun-dappled patio.

But the mission is the main attraction. Mass is celebrated daily. Its agricultural operation may have included California's first winery. Its Serra Chapel is the only church in California where Serra is known to have celebrated Mass. And the nonprofit organization that runs the mission is still trying to lure those swallows back.

Where: 26801 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano, Orange County, 63 miles southeast of downtown L.A.

How much: Adult general admission, $9; children (ages 4-11), $6.

Info: Mission San Juan Capistrano

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