El Camino Real

The Royal Road, aka The King’s Highway

El Camino Real – “the Royal Road” – is inextricably linked to the history of California’s missions. The 600-mile trail, stretching from Mission San Diego de Alcalá in San Diego to Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma, was created by the Spanish to link the 21 California missions and the associated settlements and presidios. Missions were located approximately 30 miles apart – a long day’s ride on horseback.

Dirt road passing by Mission San Juan  Bautista was part of the original  El Camino Real
Dirt road passing by Mission San Juan Bautista was part of the original El Camino Real.
Map showing the route of El Camino Real in 1820 (the map was produced in 1920) Walk the California Mission Trail

Map showing the route of El Camino Real in 1820 (the map was produced in 1920)
Walk the California Mission Trail

The route was a continuation of the Baja California mission trail, and expanded Northward as the Spanish colonized California (or as it was then known, Alta California).

The “royal road” was in fact a modest dirt footpath.  As the mission system grew and traffic increased, the simple trail became a dirt road wide enough to accommodate carts and wagons.

The first portion was not paved until 1912, when a small section in the San Francisco Bay Area became the first paved highway in California.

Technically, any road that came under the jurisdiction of the Spanish viceroys was designated a “Camino Real,” and so today there are roads throughout Mexico and the southwestern United States, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, known as El Camino Real.

However, in 1959 the California State Assembly recognized the historic importance of the mission trail, and designated several sections of state highway and connecting roads as the official route of El Camino Real.

In 2001, the State Assembly modified the officially recognized route (Assembly Bill 1707, Chapter 739).  The official definition, from the California Streets and Highways Code,  Chapter 2, Article 3, Section 635, states:

el-camino-real-bell-san-fernandoState highway routes embracing portions of Routes 280, 82, 238, 101, 5, 72, 12, 37, 121, 87, 162, 185, 92, and 123 and connecting city streets and county roads thereto, and extending in a continuous route from Sonoma southerly to the international border and near the route historically known as El Camino Real shall be known and designated as “El Camino Real.”

Long before its official recognition, the road was unofficially commemorated by a private group, El Camino Real Association, with a series of bronze bells placed along the route.  The cast bells we suspended from 11-foot high posts designed to resemble a shepherd’s crook. The first of the bells was unveiled August 15, 1906 at the Plaza Church in the Pueblo near Olvera Street in Los Angeles.

Without official support, and only sporadic maintenance, the bells fell in disrepair; many were vandalized or stolen.

In 2000, a federal grant was obtained for the restoration of the bell markers.  Between 2000 and 2006 (the 100th anniversary of the original marker bell), 555 bells were installed.  The new bells are cast from a mold of the original marker bells, and are officially maintained by the California Department of Transportation, Caltrans.

Walk El Camino Real

The California Mission Walkers are a group of people who have walked (or plan to walk) El Camino Real – the route connecting the 21 California missions.

California Mission Walkers

El Camino Real de los Tejas

“The Royal Road” actually referred to many routes that were used for official Spanish government business. Even before California’s El Camino Real was established, there was a route that connected Mexico with missions and presidios in Texas and Louisiana. The trail, El Camino Real de Los Tejas, was designated a National Historic Trail in 2004.