South of San Clemente, the northwest corner of San Diego County is taken up by the U.S. Marines Corps’s massive Camp Pendleton training base, which fills 125,000 acres, running for 17 miles along the coast and about 15 miles inland. (The base motto is “No Beach out of Reach”). Camp Pendleton is the largest undeveloped section of the Southern California coast.
In the sun-bleached hills above the blue Pacific, four miles east of the ocean off I-5 along Hwy-76, Old Mission San Luis Rey de Francia (daily, $7 adults) was the largest and among the most successful of the California missions. Its lands have been taken over by Camp Pendleton, and most of the outbuildings have disappeared, but the stately church at the heart of the complex survives in fine condition, worth a look for the blue-tinted dome atop the bell tower and for the haunting carved stone skull that looks down from the cemetery gate.
A long but worthwhile detour inland from San Luis Rey brings you to one of the least visited but perhaps most evocative of all the California missions, Mission San Antonio de Pala (760/742-3317, Wed.-Sun., $2 adults). Located on the Pala Indian Reservation, 20 miles east of San Luis Rey along Hwy-76, then another 100 yards north along a well-marked side road, Mission San Antonio de Pala is the only California mission still serving its original role of ministering to indigenous people, and it gives an unforgettable impression of what California’s mission era might have been like.