El Camino Real - The Royal Road of the California Missions


california missions
california mission trail

El Camino Real was pioneered by Spaniards in the late 1700's when they colonized California in the name of their king. 


The road started as a foot trail connecting the chain of missions established between San Diego in the south and Sonoma nearly 600 miles north.. 


As the mission settlements grew, traffic increased, and the narrow trail became a well-traveled road..  After California was acquired as part of the United States on September 9, 1850, the road became the main north-south stage route, and when the Concord coach was replaced by the automobile, the road became the principal highway linking northern and southern California.

In recognition of its historic importance, the modern Highway 101 is also called El Camino Real..  It follows the original path of the padres with only a few deviations. For many years it carried the designation of US 101, and although it still carries this identification for much of its way, portions have been renamed. You can see a sign "El Camino Real", and often a bell on a post in these locations. 


You'll also see a bell at nearly every mission along with a statue of Fr. Junipero Serra, Father of the California Missions. 


The El Camino Real started in San Diego, in what is now Presidio Park, near the current SE corner of Taylor St. and Presidio Drive in San Diego (see California Historic Landmark #67). Over time, the original El Camino Real routing was replaced by modern highways, primarily US 101. US 101, overtime, has also been replaced in portions by I-5, Route 72, Route 82, and I-280. 


The preservation of El Camino Real was first put forward in 1892 by Miss Anna Pitcher, Director of the Pasadena Art Exhibition Association to the Women's Club of Los Angeles. There was no action taken. Ten years later she talked to the Native Daughters of the Golden West, but to no avail. In 1904, a group was formed called the El Camino Real Association and was charged with reestablishing the road. Mrs. Forbes' bell design was accepted as the standard marker to be used outlining the route. The route was established in 1906 and about 400 bells were placed along the route from 1906 to 1915. Eventually, there were as many as 450 bells. As the years went by, many bells began to disappear, but were replaced by Mr. Justin Kramer in 1963. Theft and vandalism continued to take its toll, and the number dwindled to about 75. 


In response, the Legislature appointed Caltrans as guardian of the bells in 1974, responsible for repairing or replacing them. Replacements are made of concrete, rather than cast iron, to discourage theft. Along with Los Angeles County, the bells are located in the counties of Ventura, San Benito, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, San Mateo and Santa Clara. In 1996, Caltrans developed the "Adopt-A-Bell" program (specifically, it was developed by Keith Robinson, who was the Statewide Coordinator of the Caltrans Adopt-A-Highway Program because he had an interest in the El Camino Real and the loss of the mission bell markers; it appeared to him to be a good way to get the bell markers back on the highways for the public to recognize the historic route of the El Camino Real). After the program was conceived, the California Federation of Womens Clubs was offered the opportunity to adopt as many bells as they could until early 1998. The adoption guidelines were written so that after early 1998 anyone could adopt a bell and maintain it under the Adopt-A-Highway Program. 


Some of our favorite vacations near missions include the city of Santa Barbara with the unique mission with the twin towers. Santa Barbara hotels are abundant and located along the waterfront, shopping district, hills and not far from the mission.


Today, the California Federation of Women's Clubs (CFWC) continues to work to place more bells on El Camino Real in California. Also working on the program is the Automobile Clubs of Northern and Southern California, the Knights of Columbus, The California Sister Cities Program and Various sites in Baja California.


New bells are being installed at a rapid rate. In October of 1997, a special bell was erected at Loreto, Baja California Sur, the site of the very first successful mission to be established in the Californias, thus marking the site of the very beginning of El Camino Real. In June of 1998, the California State Dept. of Transportation and the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) [a branch of the government of the United States of Mexico], in conjunction with CFWC and The Knights of Columbus, dedicated a bell on the international border at the San Ysidro/Tiajuana crossing. 

Other El Camino Reals


California cannot lay claim to the only El Camino Real. Some other significant El Camino Reals include:

El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. This 1,800 mile trail goes from Mexico City to Santa Fe, New Mexico. In the United States, this route runs along approximately I-25 between El Paso TX and Taos NM. El Camino Real de los Tejas. El Camino Real de los Tejas and variations in the primary route were used for more than 150 years as the principal route between Mexico City, Saltillo, Monclova, and respective presidios, and the missions near the present Guerrero, Coahuila, Mexico, on the Rio Grande and Los Adaes in what is now northwestern Louisiana. 


California Missions Map with El Camino Real

21 Missions

Father Serra & Mission San Carlos Borreomeo



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