San Juan Capistrano, CA (SNC)
This is one of Amtrak’s most unique depots, as passenger areas are housed in vintage boxcars. They sit next to the historic, Mission Revival style Santa Fe depot built in 1894.
26701 Verdugo Street
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Annual Station Ridership (FY 2022): 117,526
- Facility Ownership: Manna Station, Inc.
- Parking Lot Ownership: City of San Juan Capistrano
- Platform Ownership: City of San Juan Capistrano
- Track Ownership: Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA)
The San Juan Capistrano station not only serves Amtrak’s famous Pacific Surfliner linking San Luis Obispo to San Diego via Los Angeles, but it is also a stop for commuter rail services. South of San Juan Capistrano, the popular Amtrak route hugs the stunning California coast, affording breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and coastal bluffs, wetlands and beaches. The station is only one block west of the famed Spanish mission for which the town is named.
The facility at San Juan Capistrano is one of Amtrak’s most unique, as it is housed in vintage boxcars. The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad (ATSF) built a station in the small town in 1894, and for generations it was considered the loveliest depot in southern California. It was erected at a time when California’s boosters advanced all things associated with the missions and the Spanish colonial era as effective marketing tools to lure residents from the East Coast and the Midwest to the state. The use of Mission and Spanish revival architecture romanticized California’s past, and the ATSF constructed many of its depots in the Southwest and California in these related styles.
At San Juan Capistrano, the railroad made one of its most overt references to Mission Revival architecture through the use of deep arcades, a corner domed tower, and red Spanish roof tiles. The main structure is a rather basic one storey “L” shaped station; one side faces the tracks and the other onto a small plaza. Constructed of red brick, for many decades it was covered in white plaster which shone brilliantly in the sun. Local legend has it that the ATSF pilfered materials from the crumbling mission and incorporated them into the new depot. In a clever visual trick, the designers added an arcade which followed the two principal facades. Not only did it echo the arcades of the nearby mission, but it also effectively doubled the floor plan of the depot, making it seem much larger. The arcades served a functional role by providing a shady, sheltered spot from which to wait for the train. Inside, the station had ticket and telegraph offices and a small waiting room with a fireplace.
The crowning touch is a 40 foot tall corner tower where the two sides of the “L” meet. The tower clearly draws on Mission precedents in its form. On the ground floor, the square base features broad arches from which a smaller octagonal drum supporting the dome rises from the roof line. The drum displays four arched openings from which hang decorative bells—referencing those of the missions. The octagonal dome is topped by a weather vane. Early images show prodigious flowering vines creeping up the sides of the tower and arcades, adding a touch of age and the picturesque to the depot.
The San Juan Capistrano station was closed by the ATSF in 1966 and the railroad ended service to the town two years later. Newly formed Amtrak reinstated the stop in 1974, and in 1975 two businessmen leased the old depot from the ATSF and remodeled it for use as a restaurant, bar, and train-related store. The restaurateurs built an addition to the north of the building that connected it with the freight house as well as to a collection of vintage rolling stock that included boxcars, Pullman dining cars, and a caboose. The depot and rail cars became dining rooms and lounges, and the red caboose hosted the store selling train-related goods.
In 1995 the complex was sold to a private group of investors and the space was reconfigured. The depot houses one restaurant that has outdoor, trackside patio seating marked by colorful umbrellas; further north in the rail cars there is a second restaurant; and at the far end is the Amtrak ticket office and waiting room located in two boxcars. The red caboose, a favorite backdrop for photos, now hosts a private dining room. The renovated depot received a makeover. Except for on the dome, the white plaster finish was removed from the exterior, therefore exposing the brick.
The California coast was first explored by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who worked for the Kingdom of Castile. In 1542 he claimed the region for Spain, but no settlements were planned; sixty years later the coast was mapped by Sebastián Vizcaíno. Although known by the Spaniards for more than two hundred years, they did not establish settlements in California until the late eighteenth century when the Russian Empire began to take an interest in the area.
To secure the coast, King Carlos III authorized the creation of a chain of forts and missions to protect strategic sites that could be of future use to the Spanish Empire in North America. The first “presidio” or “fort” and mission complex was established at San Diego in 1769. Although the Franciscan friars who administered the missions passed through the area of present-day San Juan Capistrano that same year, they did not return to establish a community until 1775.
Located seven miles inland, the original mission site was abandoned soon after it was established; an attack on the settlement at San Diego required the soldiers and friars to head back south. A year later, the priests returned and decided to move the mission three miles west where there was a better water supply. The site was named after Saint John of Capestrano, a fifteenth century Catholic saint from the Abruzzi region of central Italy. The Franciscans worked toward the conversion of the region’s American Indians to Christianity, a stated goal of Spanish colonization. Each mission was supported by large tracts of land for agriculture and grazing that were worked by the friars and the converts.
The Acjachemen American Indians who willingly or sometimes were forcibly settled at the mission were called “Juaneño” (“of Juan”) by the Spaniards, indicating that they were considered to be under San Juan Capistrano’s sphere of influence. The Acjachemen descended from the Shoshonean Nation and for centuries had inhabited the area from the coast to the mountains. They were known for baskets woven from wild grasses, as well as for their carved stone bowls. Early visitors to the region recalled that the Acjachemen lived in “ki-chas,” dome-shaped dwellings made from willow and tule, a type of sedge. They gathered acorns, seeds, and wild berries, and hunted for various animals depending on their geographic location.
San Juan Capistrano grew into one of the largest and wealthiest missions, and recorded a population of 1,000 within two decades of its founding. Apart from growing grains and beans and raising livestock, the friars at San Juan Capistrano planted the “Criolla” or “Mission grape” in 1779, which was harvested to produce California’s first wine in 1783. The mission was also known for its large church constructed between 1797 and 1806. It was the only major stone structure in all of the California missions. Due to a lack of resources and persons with technical masonry or engineering skills, adobe was the usual building material of choice.
The sandstone structure included a 120 foot tall bell tower, and rather than the flat or gabled roofs of the other mission churches, it boasted domes. When completed, the community held a two day festival in celebration. For all the vision and labor that went into its creation, the church could not withstand the forces of nature. An 1812 earthquake violently shook the building, sending the bell tower and much of the nave to the ground; numerous converts died. Though the great stone church was not rebuilt, the mission did recover from the disaster and continued to prosper.
Following Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, the missions were secularized and many of the buildings and land holdings were sold off to private owners who created large “ranchos” or ranches. In 1844, Don Juan Forster, an English shipping magnate who had made his fortune in Mexico in the 1830s, purchased the mission buildings with a business partner for $710. The bargain price—the mission was valued at $54,000—was probably achieved since Forster was the brother-in-law of a two-time Mexican governor of California. Forster eventually owned more than 200,000 acres in the region, making him one of the largest landowners.
Many of the ranchos survived into the American period after California and a sizeable portion of the Southwest were ceded to the United States by Mexico as a result of the American victory in the Mexican-American War of 1845-1848. Twenty years later most of the mission buildings and their immediate grounds were returned to the Catholic Church at the insistence of Abraham Lincoln.
By the 1870s Los Angeles and San Francisco dominated Californian shipping and railroading. The foremost railroad in the state was the Southern Pacific (SP), which overlooked requests for a rail line from the communities of the far southern corner of the state. Therefore, civic boosters in San Diego made a deal with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad (ATSF), which through its subsidiary California Southern Railroad (CS) began to build a line from San Diego that was intended to reach Barstow, California to link with the SP line that ran to the Arizona border.
From 1880-1882, the CS line drove northward through coastal swamps and bogs and inland gullies and canyons, requiring numerous trestles and other infrastructure built by Chinese laborers. After years of building and lawsuits with the SP, the line reached Barstow in 1885. The original route of the CS proved treacherous, as the portion through Temecula Canyon washed out in 1882 within a year of its opening. Rebuilt, the line was soon replaced by the ATSF’s “Surf Line” which was laid through Orange County, including San Juan Capistrano, to meet the CS at Oceanside in 1888. It allowed a safer coastal link between San Diego and Los Angeles that avoided Temecula Canyon which washed out again in 1891 and was abandoned.
The Surf Line entered San Juan Capistrano in 1887 on its way south to Oceanside. One of the greatest advocates for the route through Orange County was Judge Richard Egan, an Irish immigrant who made his way west and became a prominent landowner, farmer, surveyor, and scholar, as well as Justice of the Peace. To get the ATSF line to pass near his land, he worked his way onto the board of directors and became the right-of-way agent for the route down to San Diego.
For most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, San Juan Capistrano remained a quiet agriculture town. The railroad transported farmers’ wheat, citrus, and walnut crops to distant markets and California gained a world-wide reputation for its natural bounty. Hot springs east of town attracted visitors seeking improved health, and a resort hotel was constructed on site. The initial depot erected by the ATSF was a one storey wooden structure with gables and cross gables that appealed to then-popular Queen Anne tastes. It was covered in decorative wood paneling, millwork, bargeboard, and shingles which added visual interest and texture to the basic rectangular structure.
Unfortunately, the townspeople were not pleased with their new depot, for it was not in keeping with the desire for a more romantic Mission style structure. Surprisingly, the railroad agreed to build the Mission Revival depot that still stands. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a group of civic and business leaders in southern California started a club that worked to promote the history of the missions and to preserve and restore them. This helped fuel the interest in Mission Revival architecture and design, and Judge Egan supervised the work at San Juan Capistrano which since its restoration to the Catholic Church had only hosted a resident priest and therefore continued to decay.
By the end of the 19th century, painters and photographers began to make pilgrimages to San Juan Capistrano, praising the site for its wonderful light and ambience. The romantic ruins became the subject of numerous works of art and appeared in leading publications of the day. In 1910, Fr. St. John O’Sullivan was appointed to the mission mainly because the climate promised to help his chronic tuberculosis. The priest went about a long program of restoration and preservation of the complex, and his work drew the attention of outsiders. That same year, the mission served as a backdrop for The Two Brothers, an early film starring Mary Pickford. O’Sullivan presided over her 1911 marriage to actor Owen Moore at the mission chapel.
O’Sullivan popularized the story of the mission’s swallows that annually migrated between southern California and Argentina. The birds enjoyed building their mud and straw nests amid the ruins of the great stone church which was near two streams and ample food supplies. In 1939, a live radio broadcast noted the swallows’ regular return on March 19th, St. Joseph’s Day. The event inspired lyricist Leon Rene to write a song that associated the comings and goings of the birds with an on-and-off again relationship; recorded over the years by Gene Autry, Xavier Cugat, and others, it shed light on the mission and helped make it a popular tourist destination.
The swallows remain a favorite attraction, and in anticipation of their spring arrival, the town throws a big welcome party. The “Fiesta de las Golondrinas” started as a school carnival in the 1930s but is now a multi-week celebration hosted by a volunteer group. The events include a food festival, ball, pancake breakfast, and the Swallows Day Parade. Visitors to the mission can see the adobe barracks, friars’ quarters, ruins of the old stone church, and the charming gardens which were long tended by Fr. O’Sullivan. The Serra Chapel, named after the Franciscan who guided the founding of the mission chain, was restored by Fr. O’Sullivan. In the 1920s a seventeenth century Spanish Baroque retablo composed of 396 pieces of gilded cherry wood was installed in the space behind the altar. Restoration and archaeological work has continued over the decades at this National and California Historic Landmark; in 2004 a series of seismic retrofits were completed.
Many are also drawn to the Los Rios Historic District across the tracks from the depot. Named after the Rios family, the street developed as a neighborhood of adobe houses for the Acjachemen converts in the late 18th century. Although many of those homes were later replaced with board and batten structures, the street still has three adobes dating to about 1794. The Rios adobe remains in family hands and can be viewed from the street. Further down the road is the O’Neill Museum which is open to visitors and provides an idea of life in the area a century ago.
The Pacific Surfliner service is primarily financed through funds made available by the State of California, Department of Transportation, and is managed by the LOSSAN Joint Powers Authority.
Station Building (with waiting room)
- ATM not available
- No elevator
- No payphones
- Quik-Trak kiosks
- No Restrooms
- Unaccompanied child travel not allowed
- No vending machines
- No WiFi
- Arrive at least 45 minutes prior to departure if you're checking baggage or need ticketing/passenger assistance
- Arrive at least 30 minutes prior to departure if you're not checking baggage or don't need assistance
- Amtrak Express shipping not available
- No checked baggage service
- No checked baggage storage
- Bike boxes not available
- No baggage carts
- Ski bags not available
- Bag storage
- Shipping boxes not available
- No baggage assistance
- Same-day parking is available; fees may apply
- Overnight parking is available; fees may apply
- No payphones
- Accessible platform
- Accessible restrooms
- Accessible ticket office
- Accessible waiting room
- Accessible water fountain
- Same-day, accessible parking is available; fees may apply
- Overnight, accessible parking is available; fees may apply
- No high platform
- Wheelchair available
- Wheelchair lift available
Station Waiting Room Hours
Ticket Office Hours
Passenger Assistance Hours
Checked Baggage Service
Quik-Track Kiosk Hours