The El Camino Real – California's Royal Road (AKA the 101)
In the heart of Central California, there is a historic road that winds its way through the state, connecting a string of missions. This road is known as the El Camino Real, which translates to "The Royal Road." While some have mistakenly called it "The King's Road," its true name speaks to its regal significance.
The El Camino Real is a part of Highway 101, and it follows the path of this royal route through Central California. Along this road, you'll come across a distinctive sight – the mission bells. These bells are scattered every few miles along the highway, some standing proudly in front of the missions that were once served by this historic route. The famous bells and signs that adorn the Royal Road throughout California have contributed significantly to its notoriety. These guideposts, as we know them today, had their inception in 1906, thanks to the vision of a Mrs. Forbes. The first of these guideposts was placed beside the historic plaza church in Los Angeles, and by 1913, a total of 450 had been erected in front of missions and along the road across the state.
These cast bronze bells bear the inscription "El Camino Real 1769-1906." The year 1769 marks the founding of the first mission in San Diego. The design of the pipe that supports the bell is intriguing, as it resembles a shepherd's crook, a symbol of a bishop's office.
One might wonder why the missions were strategically spaced along the El Camino Real. The Franciscan missionaries had a specific goal in mind when establishing the missions. They wanted each mission to be about one day's journey from the next, a distance of approximately 30 miles on horseback.
This spacing was not arbitrary but practical. Besides the missions, there were limited sources of reliable food and shelter along the way. The Mission San Miguel, sometimes referred to as "The Mission on the Highway" (a nod to El Camino), still retains an intact section of the original El Camino Real. As far as we know, this is one of the few accessible places where the road remains unaltered by modern development.
The El Camino Real, with its mission bells and historical significance, is not just a road but a tangible link to California's past. It weaves a tapestry of heritage and history that continues to captivate travelers along its route. As you drive along Highway 101 in Central California, take a moment to appreciate the legacy of the Royal Road and the enduring spirit of the missions it connects.