Skyrocketing airfares and money-guzzling gas prices might make you think about skipping a vacation this year. But a nearby national park might just fit your budget while whetting your wanderlust and giving your family some lessons in history.
Several of the parks provide ideal settings to relive Spanish history and understand the Hispanic influence on U.S. exploration and settlement, from the conquistadores and explorers to the missionary friars. And all offer activities just for kids.
Admission is often free or just a few dollars and, better still, some hotels and travel websites are easing the price at the pump with gas cards and rebates. (See box below for details.) So hit the road, but keep a light foot on the accelerator—driving the speed limit or a bit slower saves gas!
Texas: San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
Ever wonder why so many people in the Southwest speak Spanish and practice Catholicism? The role of the Spanish missions provides part of the answer.
Franciscan friars recruited native people into mission settlements by offering food and protection from rivals in exchange for labor. The missions not only introduced the Spanish language, religion, and culture, but they also brought agriculture and industries such as ranching, carpentry, blacksmithing, masonry, and weaving to Texas.
“They recognized that the mission life was one key to survival. But the old ways—the native culture, religion, and language—were virtually eradicated,” says Tom Castaños, education coordinator, who leads interpretive tours throughout the park. “As children were born within the mission walls, the old ways were quickly forgotten. They could not go back.”
Retrace the Indians’ and friars’ footsteps at San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. “We preserve the largest collection of Spanish-colonial resources in the United States,” says supervisory park ranger Al Remley. “We tell the story of Spanish-colonial life. Our programs, demonstrations, tours, and exhibits are bilingual and free.” A film, Gente de razón, tells the story of how the native people gave up so much for survival.
In addition to four 18th-century mission churches—active Catholic parishes that hold Mass and welcome visitors—you’ll find a grist (flour) mill, a 270-year-old working irrigation system and aqueduct, and nature trails that are a bird watcher’s paradise with herons, egrets, owls, and woodpeckers.
Open daily. Free admission. Information: 210-932-1001; www.nps.gov/saan
California: John Muir National Historic Site
This national park’s name belies its Hispanic heritage. Located in Martinez, northeast of Oakland, the historic site preserves the Victorian home of John Muir, the conservationist and naturalist known as the “Father of the National Park Service.”
Yes, baseball great Joe DiMaggio was born in the city, and the martini—originally called the “Martinez Special”—was invented there in 1849 during the Gold Rush. But present-day Martinez exists because of Don Ygnacio Martinez. The Mexico City-born officer of Spain’s colonial army commanded the Presidio of San Francisco and became that city’s third mayor. In 1836 he settled on a large ranch, part of a land grant given to him for his military service. Martinez the city sprung from that land.
So when you visit John Muir’s home, 500 yards away you’ll find the Vicente Martinez Adobe, a two-story ranch house built in 1849 by Don Ygnacio’s son. Early California exhibits and Martinez family memorabilia are displayed there. The site is also on the route that explorer Juan Bautista de Anza took from San Francisco in 1775. “A major bilingual exhibit on de Anza is in the works. That will be a draw for anyone interested in California’s Hispanic history,” says head park ranger Thaddeus Shay.
Rangers lead wildflower, bird watching, and full-moon walks in the surrounding woodlands and fruit orchards, and you can also stroll on your own. Help yourself to fresh-picked fruit in wooden boxes around the park.
Open Wednesday through Sunday. Admission: $3 (includes same-day entrance to Muir Woods National Monument, about an hour’s drive west of the historic site). Information: 925-228-8860; www.nps.gov/jomu