El Camino Real (Spanish for The Royal Road, also known as The King’s Highway), sometimes associated with Calle Real (within the US state of California), usually refers to the 600-mile (965-kilometer) road connecting the 21 Spanish missions in California (formerly Alta California), along with a number of sub-missions, four presidios, and three pueblos, stretching at its southern end from the San Diego area Mission San Diego de Alcalá, all of the way up to the trail’s northern terminus at Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma, just above San Francisco Bay.
For other roads of the same name, see El Camino Real (disambiguation).
Quick facts: Reference no., Highway system …
The meaning of the term “Camino Real” has in fact changed over time. In earlier Spanish colonial times, any road under the direct jurisdiction of the Spanish crown and its viceroys was considered to be a camino real. Examples of such roads ran between principal settlements throughout Spain and its colonies such as New Spain. Most caminos reales had names apart from the appended camino real.
Once Mexico won its independence from Spain, no road in Mexico, including California, was a camino real. The name was rarely used after that and was only revived in the American period in connection with the boosterism associated with the Mission Revival movement of the early 20th century.
The original route begins in Baja California Sur, Mexico, at the site of Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó, present day Loreto, (the first mission successfully established in Las Californias). Today, many streets throughout California that either follow or run parallel to this historic route still bear the “El Camino Real” name. Some of the original route has also been continually upgraded until it is now part of the modern California freeway system. The route is roughly traced by a series of commemorative bell markers.
Spanish and Mexican periods
A map produced in 1920 shows the earliest origination of “El Camino Real in Baja California as it existed in 1769 before its later extension into Alta California.
Between 1683 and 1834, Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries established a series of religious outposts from today’s Baja California and Baja California Sur into present-day California.
In Alta California (now the US state of California), El Camino Real followed two alternate routes, established by the first two Spanish exploratory expeditions of the region. The first was the Portolá Expedition of 1769. The expedition party included Franciscan missionaries, led by Junípero Serra. Starting from Loreto, Serra established the first of the 21 missions at San Diego. Serra stayed at San Diego and Juan Crespí continued the rest of the way with Gaspar de Portolá. Proceeding north, Portolá followed (as much as possible) the coastline (today’s California State Route 1), except where forced inland by coastal cliffs.
Eventually, the expedition was prevented from going farther north by the entrance to San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate. Crespí identified several future mission sites which were not developed until later. On the return trip to San Diego, Gaspar de Portolá found a shorter detour around one stretch of coastal cliffs via Conejo Valley.
Portolá journeyed again from San Diego to Monterey in 1770, where Junipero Serra (who traveled by ship) founded the second mission (later moved a short distance south to Carmel. Carmel became Serra’s Alta California mission headquarters.
The second Juan Bautista de Anza expedition (1775–76), entering Alta California from the southeast (crossing the Colorado River near today’s Yuma, Arizona) picked up Portolá’s trail at Mission San Gabriel. De Anza’s scouts found easier traveling in several inland valleys, rather than staying on the rugged coast. On his journey north, de Anza traveled the San Fernando Valley and Salinas Valley. After detouring to the coast to visit the Presidio of Monterey, de Anza went inland again, following the Santa Clara Valley to the southern end of San Francisco Bay and on up the east side of the San Francisco Peninsula. This became the preferred route (roughly today’s U.S Route 101), and more closely corresponds to the officially recognized El Camino Real.
To facilitate overland travel, mission settlements were approximately 30 miles (48 kilometers) apart, so that they were separated by one long day’s ride on horseback along the 600-mile (966-kilometer) long El Camino Real (Spanish for “The Royal Highway,” though often referred to in the later embellished English translation, “The King’s Highway”), and also known as the California Mission Trail. Heavy freight movement was practical only via water. Tradition has it that the padres sprinkled mustard seeds along the trail to mark the windings of the trail’s northward progress with bright yellow flowers, creating a golden trail stretching from San Diego to Sonoma. The Camino Real provided a vital interconnecting land route between the 21 Spanish missions of Alta-California.
In 1912, California began paving a section of the historic route in San Mateo County. Construction of a two-lane concrete highway began in front of the historic Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an inn in San Bruno that was built in 1849 and demolished exactly 100 years later. There was little traffic initially and children used the pavement for roller skating until traffic increased. By the late 1920s, California began the first of numerous widening projects of what later became part of U.S. Route 101.
History of commemorative bell-markers
A historical marker situated along El Camino Real.
In 1892, Anna Pitcher of Pasadena, California initiated an effort to preserve the as-yet uncommemorated route of Alta California’s Camino Real, an effort adopted by the California Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1902. Modern El Camino Real was one of the first state highways in California. Given the lack of standardized road signs at the time, it was decided to place distinctive bells along the route, hung on supports in the form of an 11-foot (3.4 m) high shepherd’s crook, also described as “a Franciscan walking stick.” The first of 450 bells were unveiled on August 15, 1906, at the Plaza Church in the Pueblo near Olvera Street in Los Angeles.
The original organization which installed the bells fragmented, and the Automobile Club of Southern California and associated groups cared for the bells from the mid-1920s through 1931. The State took over bell maintenance in 1933. Most of the bells eventually disappeared due to vandalism, theft or simple loss due to the relocation or rerouting of highways and roads. After a reduction in the number of bells to around 80, the State began replacing them, at first with concrete, and later with iron. A design first produced in 1960 by Justin Kramer of Los Angeles was the standard until the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) began a restoration effort in 1996.
Keith Robinson, Principal Landscape Architect at Caltrans developed an El Camino Real restoration program which resulted in the installation of 555 El Camino Real Bell Markers in 2005. The Bell Marker consists of a 460 mm diameter cast metal bell set atop a 75 mm diameter Schedule 40 pipe column that is attached to a concrete foundation using anchor rods. The original 1906 bell molds were used to fabricate the replacement bells. The replacement and original bells were produced by the California Bell Company, and are most typically marked 1769 & 1906, and include a designer’s copyright notice. The two dates represent the date of the founding of the first Alta-California mission in San Diego, and the date of the setting of the first commemorative bell-marker, respectively.
Commemorative trail routing
The most visible mission as seen from the road while driving the current “commemorative route” of the Camino Real, the Mission San Miguel.
Today, several modern highways cover parts of the historic route, though large sections are on city streets (for instance, most of the stretch between San Jose and San Francisco). Its full modern route, as defined by the California State Legislature, is as follows:
Interstate 5, U.S.-Mexico border to Anaheim
Anaheim Boulevard, Harbor Boulevard, State Route 72 and Whittier Boulevard, Anaheim to Los Angeles
U.S. Route 101, Los Angeles to San Jose
State Route 87, within Santa Clara County
State Route 82, San Jose to San Francisco
Interstate 280, San Francisco
U.S. Route 101, San Francisco to Novato
State Route 37, Novato to Sears Point
State Route 121, Sears Point to Sonoma
State Route 12, Sonoma
East Bay route
State Route 87, within Santa Clara County
State Route 92
State Route 238
State Route 185, Hayward to Oakland
State Route 123, Oakland to San Pablo (continued to Martinez)
Some older local roads that parallel these routes also have the name. Many streets throughout California now bear the name of this famous road, often with little factual relation to the original; but Mission Street in San Francisco does correspond to the historical route. A surviving, unpaved stretch of the old road has been preserved next to Mission San Juan Bautista; this section of road actually runs parallel to the line of the San Andreas Fault, which can be clearly seen because the ground drops several feet. An unpaved portion of the original El Camino Real has been preserved just east of Mission San Juan Bautista in San Juan Bautista, California.
Today the route through San Mateo and Santa Clara counties is designated as State Route 82, and some stretches of it are named El Camino Real. The old road is part of the de Anza route, located a few miles east of Route 101.
Note that the official California El Camino Real route misses most of the original 21 missions. While driving along the official “commemorative route” of the Camino Real, the most visible Mission today would probably be the Mission San Miguel, located in the unincorporated village of San Miguel, just off Highway 101 on the Salinas River.
El Camino Real is designated as California Historical Landmark #784. There are two state historical markers honoring the road: one located near Mission San Diego de Alcalá in San Diego and the other one near Mission San Francisco de Asís in San Francisco.
California Roads portal
El Camino Real de los Tejas
El Camino Real (disambiguation)
El Camino Viejo
History of California
Spanish missions in California
Spanish missions in Baja California
More information: Tap to expand …
“California Historical Landmark: San Diego County”. Office of Historic Preservation. California State Parks. Retrieved 2012-10-13.
“California Historical Landmark: San Francisco County”. Office of Historic Preservation. California State Parks. Retrieved 2012-10-13.
Kurillo, M.; Tuttle, E. (200 Belfry of Mission San Miguel Arcángel. San Miguel, California, USA 0).
California’s El Camino Real and Its Historic Bells. Sunbelt Publications, San Diego, CA. pp. 53–57. ISBN 0-932653-37-5.
“Mission Bells”. Caltrans. Retrieved 24 March 2016.
Pool, Bob (August 16, 2006). “Saga of the Bells Comes Full Circle”. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 4 September 2016.
California Streets and Highways Code, Chapter 2, Article 3, Section 635
California Highways: El Camino Real
San Mateo County Historical Society, San Bruno Herald