108. California's El Camino Real
A journey through Hispanic American history
Every time I go on one of my history tours, I feel like I'm traveling back in time, following 16-18th centuries maps on 21st century highways. But nowhere is that feeling more real that in California!
It's impressive. California doesn't let you forget you are traveling on El Camino Real.
If you are traveling north or south on some of the state's major coastline highways, you are constantly being reminded that you are on a road with a history that dates back to the Spanish missionaries of the 1700s, the road that still connects the 21 missions, four presidios, and several pueblos they built more than two centuries ago.
And they don't remind you in a subtle way. They have the most impressive roadside makers I have ever seen! These roads are lined with cast metal bells that hang from 11-foot tall poles shaped like a shepherd's crook!
The bells are similar to the ancient bells you see at the Spanish missions. The poles are modeled after the "Franciscan walking stick" used by Father Junípero Serra, founder of the first nine California missions and pioneer traveler on dusty trails that eventually became major highways.
Stretching more than 600 miles (966 kms) - from San Diego in the south to Sonora in the north - El Camino Real, also known as "The Royal Road" and "The King's Highway," is the road traversing the state through the heart of its largest cities, which also happen to be Spanish in origin.
Some of those cities first started as Spanish missions, pueblos or presidios (forts), and the road still connecting them was first established by Franciscan padres, Native Americans and Spanish soldiers who worked together to create a safe passage through California in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Of course, there are other "Royal Roads" connecting Spanish missions in Texas, New Mexico and Baja California, Mexico. Practically every road built under the jurisdiction of Spanish royalty was called Camino Real, even if it also had another name. But in showcasing the historic Hispanic heritage of this road, no one beats California!
If you live in California, you probably take these distinctive bells for granted. But if you are a visitor driving on El Camino Real, "Wow," you see them every few minutes! You want to know more about them and what they represent!
Well, they tell you that these major modern highways were once merely mule, horse and eventually stagecoach trails. But they represent something deeper, much more ironic: They remind you that although Mexico abandoned the missions and stopped calling its roads Camino Real when it won its independence from Spain in 1821, the missions and the roads regained their Spanish heritage after California became part of the United States!
It was the "mission revival movement" of the early 1900s that inspired the idea for the roadside bells.
A portion of El Camino Real, between Missions San Gabriel and Dolores, is also called the "Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail," to commemorate the 1775-76 overland expedition - some 240 soldiers and settlers - men, women and children - that came all the way from Sonora, Mexico, cut across present-day southern Arizona and the Colorado River and went on to establish San Francisco.
Next: The Great Hispanic American History Tour treks north on El Camino Real to