A Beginner’s Guide to the California Missions Trail
Born from the ancient footpaths traversing the coast between California’s twenty-one Spanish missions, the California Missions Trail or El Camino Real in California (“The Royal Road”) as it is also known connects historic missions, pueblos, and presidios over an 800-mile long pilgrimage walk. Established between 1769 and 1823, the missions offered refuge and Christian hospitality along the dusty outposts of the Golden State. From their humble, thatch-roofed beginnings to the stately adobes we see today, the missions represent a dynamic chapter in the history of Spanish colonialism, Catholicism, and the birth of California as we know it today.
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THE 21 CALIFORNIA MISSIONS
The 21 missions that comprise the California Missions Trail are located on or near Highway 101, which roughly traces El Camino Real (The Royal Road) named in honor of the Spanish monarchy which financed the expeditions into California. The first leg of El Camino Real – from San Diego to Monterey Bay – was forged by Spanish General Gaspar de Portola. The road was later identified with the missions because the padres maintained the roadway and offered hospitable lodging to all. It served as the north-south stagecoach route after California became a state in 1850, and in the 1920s bronze mission bells were placed along the highway to let motorists know they were traveling the historic El Camino Real.
For more on the history of each mission, please visit the California Missions Resource Center.
CALIFORNIA MISSIONS TRAIL OVERVIEW
This 800-mile pilgrimage can be walked as a continuous through-hike in approximately 55 days or undertaken in segments. Most Mission Walkers begin at Mission San Diego and walk north to walk to finish at Mission San Francisco Solano. Traveling from south to north, the missions are as follows:
- San Diego de Alcala, 1st mission
- San Luis Rey de Francia, 18th mission
- San Juan Capistrano, 7th mission
- San Gabriel Arcangel, 4th mission
- San Fernando Rey de Espana, 17th mission
- San Buenaventura, 9th mission
- Santa Barbara, 10th mission
- Santa Ines, 19th mission
- La Purisima Conception, 11th mission
- San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, 5th mission
- San Miguel Arcangel, 16th mission
- San Antonio de Padua, 3rd mission
- Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, 13th mission
- San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, 2nd mission
- San Juan Bautista, 15th mission
- Santa Cruz, 12th mission
- Santa Clara de Asis, 8th mission
- San Jose, 14th mission
- San Francisco de Asis, Mission Dolores, 6th mission
- San Rafael Arcangel, 20th mission
- San Francisco Solano, 21st mission
For more information on the history of each of California’s Spanish Missions, please visit the California Parks Department’s online archive.
GPS GPX KML GOOGLE EARTH FILES FOR CALIFORNIA MISSION TRAIL
Based upon guidebooks from Butch Brierly and Jim Lutz, I have compiled multiple sets of GPS and Google Earth maps for the California Missions Trail online here.
Groups and Websites:
Books and Guides:
- California Mission Walk: The Original Hiker’s Guide To California’s 21 Spanish Missions Along El Camino Real by Butch Brierly
- El Camino Real de California – A Hiker’s Guide to the California Mission Trail by Jim Lutz
- The Mission Walker by Edie Littlefield Sundby
Husband. Father. Backpacker. Pilgrim. Author.
After years of section hiking the Florida Trail and Appalachian Trail, I set out in 2019 to complete the Camino de Santiago through Portugal and Spain. The experience changed the direction of my life and I’ve been walking in pilgrimage ever since. My recent journeys include the California Mission Walk and England’s Pilgrims’ Way from London to Canterbury. I’m currently walking sections of the Via Francigena through Europe to Rome.
Follow me on social media or walk virtually alongside me on the Sacred Steps Podcast and in my upcoming book, Sacred Steps: A Pilgrimage Journal.