Life in the Past Lane
balmy Mediterranean climate. Forty miles of world-famous beaches. Safe neighborhoods, great schools, innumerable parks and open spaces and a slew of strong, diverse cultural offerings. What’s not to love about Orange County?
While some may perceive Southern California as shiny and new, one need only peel back the top layer to unearth the colorful first chapter in Orange County’s history. On and off the beaten track, the region brims with variety, boasting neighborhoods that sprang from this country’s multicultural roots. With the assistance of Dr. Bill Hoffman, a local tour guide with more than 35 years experience, we dug into our community … and discovered the Los Rios Historic District, located in San Juan Capistrano.
The structures, parks, foliage and fountains lining Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano’s main drag, leave no doubt that if this place could talk, oh, the stories it could tell. And yet, stroll just 100 yards down narrow Verdugo Street, and we are sent even further back—more than two centuries—to a time when Franciscan missionaries, accompanied by Spanish soldiers, established the seventh of 21 California missions.
The Los Rios Historic District celebrates life in the past lane and teaches us how one important neighborhood evolved through the decades.
“Los Rios is the oldest continuously occupied neighborhood in the state,” said Hoffman, whose Hoffy Tours leads visitors through virtually all of the county’s historical gems. “We can see architecture from four eras in San Juan Capistrano: early Spanish colonization, the Mexican ‘rancho’ period, California statehood and the turn of the century through today. Those who visit Los Rios can’t help but breathe deeply and smile as they absorb the canopy of green, the peace and quiet of no cars and the awesome sense of history. It never fails to impress.”
The historic district features 31 structures, all on the National Register of Historic Places. Of the town’s original 40 adobe homes, just three remain. Incredibly, the Rios Adobe, built in 1794 for Feliciano Rios, a Spanish soldier based at the mission, has been owned and occupied by the same family since day one.
As the neighborhood expanded to accommodate new settlers, homes were replaced with board-and-batten dwellings, whose distinctive exteriors featured wide boards alternating with narrow wooden strips, or battens. The circa 1881 board-and-batten Ramos House Café, which sits mere feet from the train depot that was constructed in 1894, serves up a tasty assortment of dishes to go with its slice of California history.
“In addition to the houses,” said Hoffman, “many of the neighborhood’s trees and plants are hundreds of years old.” One is indeed struck by the abundant oak, palm, pepper and sycamore trees, as well as the agave, yucca, cactus and bougainvillea lining the streets. A butterfly garden adjacent to the Montañez Adobe explodes with color every spring.
Visitors can refuel at a number of eateries and shop for handcrafted home goods in quaint gift shops that operate out of converted historical homes.
The lovingly restored Mission San Juan Capistrano is just five minutes away and offers an informative walking tour, while youngsters will make a beeline for the petting zoo just off Los Rios Street.
For tours, visit hoffytours.com, or The San Juan Capistrano Historical Society, which offers guided tours ($2 for adults, $1 for kids) every Sunday at 1 pm. 949.493.8444. Visit sanjuancapistrano.net/los_rios/ for a complete list of attractions.