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California's Historic "El Camino Real" - The Royal Road - The King's Highway

Reyes Adobe 2

If we glance at a map of California whereon is set down the "El Camino Real",  we behold a series of black dots, set apart at  more or less regular intervals, but following, in their general trend, the coastline from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north, a distance, altogether,  of about 700 miles....

J.W. Wood, Pasadena, Historical and Personal, 1917

Every day, tens of thousands of people traverse US Highway 101.  This  roadway runs north and south, and is one of the busiest highways in California.  It's also one of the most historic roads in America.   Posted at regular intervals along the southern half of the highway, are signposts that read, Historic El Camino Real.  Each marker is topped with a rustic looking bell.   These humble markers only hint at the rich and dramatic history of the heavily-traveled roadway.

For more than 200 years, El Camino Real has traversed the southern half of the state, and has been witness to California's  history, as well. 

Today, it is marked by signposts and El Camino Real Mission Bells, a nod to the  Franciscans monks  who founded the original road.  El Camino Real connected all  21 California Missions by a single route.  In the early days of the Camino, travelers could leave one mission in the morning, and by nightfall, arrive at the next. 

Map of El Camino Real

Here, in Santa Barbara County, the highway skirts small cities and towns.  It winds around undulating hills that are, in places, covered with avocado and lemon orchards, or miles of vineyards. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of grassland dotted with cattle and horses.   The highway runs parallel to the California coastline for many miles, and dips into rich, agricultural valleys, as well.  The scenery is as varied as the colorful events that occurred on or near El Camino Real.

On this portion of the road,  you might spy heavy, slate-colored winter clouds that scutter above white-caps on the Pacific Ocean.   Far-away fishing boats look tiny and toy-like.  Most days of the year, the wind flays the coastline near Gaviota Pass.


Scattered alongside the road in Santa Barbara County are occasional remnants of old abandoned buildings,  faded wooden barns or crumbling adobe homes.  Slowly, they have become skeletonized by decades of sun and wind and rain.   In most cases,  more of the building has disappeared than what remains.  Sun and moonlight shine through bleached slats and deep-set windows. 

El Camino Real traverses canyons and winding passes made of sandstone walls with land that is carpeted with sage and chaparral.  The meadows and hillsides are shaded by enormous old oaks that have stood sentinal since the earliest days of this road.  The land is thick with wildlife - deer, coyote, foxes, possums, raccoons, hawks, turtles, tarantulas, and hundreds of other creatures call this area their home. 

Still-water vernal pools appear in winter; they mirror skies and the surrounding hillsides.  The pools are inhabited by "Fairy Shrimp", tiny, translucent, almost invisible crustaceans that swim upside down in their little ethereal water worlds.  Eventually, the pools evaporate with the summer sun, and only return with the next winter's rain.

Clouds of airborne monarch butterflies course above the highway in the fall, and later  in springtime.   They scamper in and out of tall eucalyptus trees, and migrate more than 2,000 miles in a season along their own invisible highway.  They, too, travel north and south.  

Reyes Adobe Eucalyptus

There are white strips of old cement road that are visible between patches of earth, parallel to Highway 101.  They are all that remains of the old highway, the earliest paved version of  El Camino Real.  Each year, it crumbles and recedes a bit more into history, while sycamores, wild oats, castor plants, grasses, and bindweed reclaim the land.

Highway 101 Near El Capitan

Most spectacular of all is the oldest, original path that has been renewed, every year, by nature.  The Franciscans literally "blazed" a trail when they sowed  mustard seeds along 700 miles of the  primitive trail, before El Camino Real was even a road, to mark the path from mission to mission.  Even now, after the winter rains have begun, mustard plants grow and flower  with neon-yellow blossoms along the lower hills and valleys.  It has become a living map - north and south.

El Camino Real Near Gaviota

In the early part of the 20th century, most Californians embraced their "modern" American culture, and  the Chumash, mission, and rancho days began to fade from our collective memory.  A  number of  prominent Californians of a romantic and sentimental sort,  were compelled to act, determined to preserve the origins of this spectacular route.   They envisioned an homage to the El Camino Real.  They created these daily reminders, markers placed at every mile along the highway, to commemorate the history of California.

El Camino Real Casitas Pass

Lively Progress for El Camino Real

The placing of mission bells along El Camino Real, Spanish for the Road Royal or King's Highway, established by the Franciscan friars to connect their twenty one California missions,  has gone forward with such enthusiasm during the past year that by 1915 the entire route - so rich in scenic and historic interest - will probably be marked by these important sign posts.

At the annual meeting of El Camino Real Association held in Los Angeles,  the following report was made by Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes,  former president,  now a member of the executive board and a tireless worker for the perpetuation of the picturesque trail: 

The tens of thousands of visitors who will then be traveling the old roads which Father Junipero Serra first marked,  will be able to do so without bothering to ask questions.  They may be sure of correct direction by simply following the bells.   These bells will guide the traveler not alone along the main highway and to the principal cities and towns of the coast counties,  but the bells will lead them to each of the famous old missions. 

~ Sunset, Volume 31 - 1913

And interspersed along the trail between the missions, were ranchos, and adobe homes.  Old California hospitality is founded in the warmth and gracious welcome offered by California's earliest residents, the Chumash, who welcomed the European explorers who made forays on land along California's southern coast.   The Chumash were genial hosts who were generous with their friendship, resources, and knowledge.

The Spanish and Mexican people who became early residents of  Southern California were affable hosts who welcomed pilgrims and travelers.  They would offer their guests food and drink, and entertain them with  song and dancing,  and amazing feats of horsemanship.  They  and their hospitable climate ensured travelers an easy respite from the road, and a peaceful sleep under star-laden skies, most nights of the year.

Reyes Adobe 3

But El Camino Real was also laced with shadows. 

This road has been witness to intrigue, violence, and drama.  This was a land where religion plundered the same shores that pirates later terrorized, where Spanish soldiers, then Mexican, then Americans, fought against each other at great human cost.  Armies of miners and fortune-seekers arrived like a flood and swarmed northward.    Bandits, who robbed Wells Fargo stagecoaches, the ranchos and haciendas, were prevalent.  They had  their hideouts in the winding canyons surrounding the area.

El Camino Real carried Hollywood royalty - movie stars - up and down the coast to their own glamorous  hideouts, and sometimes, up to William Randolph Hearst's "Castle".   Zebras, elephants, giraffes and other imported wildlife roamed the property, while at the Castle, wild parties ensued.

In the 1920s, bootleggers distilled alcohol out at the Santa Barbara Channel Islands, then smuggled it ashore.  They used El Camino Real to transport their product, and supplied  both San Francisco and Los Angeles - north and south - with libation during Prohibition.  

This road has carried presidents and kings, saints and soldiers, boys and girls, somebodies and nobodies - beauty and light, and darkness, as well.  

El Camino Real - the actual highway, and the symbolic path through history - are richly laden with people and  events that built - and changed - the State of California, and the history of the United States.  

El Camino Real Pico Home

...that historic highway has been traveled, in turn,  by Don Vasquez del Coronado and his train of steel-clad men at arms;  by Father Serra in his sandals and woolen robe;  by Jedediah Smith,  the first American to find his way across the ranges;  by Fremont,  the Pathfinder;  by the Argonauts;  by Spanish caballeros,  and Mexican vaqiteros and American pioneers; by priests afoot and soldiers on horseback and peasants on the backs of burros; by lumbering ox carts and white topped prairie schooners and six- horsed Concord stages  - and now by automobiles.

 In El Camino Real is epitomized the history and romance of the West. It is to western America what the Via Appia was to Rome,  the Great North Road to England.   It has been in turn a trail of torture,  a course of conquest, a road of religion,  a route to riches,  a path of progress,  a highway to happiness.

~ Sunset, Autobirds of Passage, Alexander Powell, 1914

El Camino Real Marker


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