The El Camino Real in California – the chain linking the missions together

Historic El Camino Real road sign

The El Camino Real – The Royal Road

What the El Camino might have looked like 200 years ago


As I started writing this page I thought about putting a map of the El Camino Real here. The problem is that it wouldn’t appear any different from a modern map since some of today’s highways were built on the humble beginnings of that early road.

Much better to show you what it might have looked like back then. Rolling hills, dirt road lined with mustard flowers – that was the El Camino Real.

The name has been slightly mis-interpreted as “The King’s Road”, but actually translates to “The Royal Road”.

There are “El Caminos” in other areas over which the Spanish ruled, but the California El Camino is the best known of them all.

In Central California, the El Camino is easy to find since it follows the course of US Highway 101 with a few exceptions.

(The exceptions are the short roads off the 101 to Mission La Purisima and Mission Santa Ines and a longer detour to Mission San Antonio.)

Camino Real bell and marker

The famous bell and sign which appears along the Royal Road throughout California may well be the reason for the notoriety of our road.

The placement of the guideposts began in 1906 and were the idea of a Mrs. Forbes and the first was placed beside the historic plaza church in Los Angeles. By 1913 450 of them had been placed in front of the missions and along the road throughout the state.

The bells are cast bronze and carry the words “El Camino Real 1769-1906”, 1769 being the year of the founding of the first mission in San Diego.

The pipe which supports the bell is fashioned in the shape of a shepherd’s crook which is a bishop’s insignia of office.

Mission San Miguel in the 19th century

The goal that the Franciscan missionaries had with the establishment of the missions was that each be about one day’s journey from the next. In those days that would be approximately 30 miles on horseback.

The reason for this spacing was that other than the missions, there was no other source reliable source of food or shelter. The sketch to the right is of the Mission San Miguel which is sometimes called “The Mission on the Highway” (meaning of course the El Camino).

Camino Real bell and marker


There is an intact section of the original El Camino Real along side Mission San Juan Bautista. As far as I know, this is the only accessible place where the road has not been altered by development.


Interesting El Camino News

There are two items of note that have to do with the Royal Road –

The first is that there is a group (Walking El Camino Real de California) which has as their stated goal:

The goal of our band of pilgrims is to further the development of a walking, cycling and horseback trail connecting the missions and other sites along the route, similar to the Camino de Santiago in Spain and the Via Francigena that leads to Rome, Italy.

(The Camino de Santiago is a venerable pilgrimage route in Europe which has been in use for more than 1000 years. Pilgrims from all over Europe have followed the route to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.)

El Camino plaque in San Francisco

The Royal Road is a California Registered Historical Landmark with plaques at either end.

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