Key Differences between the California Missions Trail and Camino de Santiago

Key Differences between the California Missions Trail and Camino de Santiago

With more Americans walking the Camino de Santiago and looking for a Camino walk in the United States, the California Missions Trail has begun to draw more pilgrims seeking a pilgrimage walk in America.

Born from the ancient footpaths traversing the coast between California’s twenty-one Spanish missions, the California Missions Trail 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 and controversial chapter in the history of Spanish colonialism, Catholicism, and the birth of California as we know it today.

For hikers and walkers seeking a Camino experience in America, the California Missions Trail can be a rewarding pilgrimage but to truly enjoy this “California Camino” it is important to understand how it is like Camino de Santiago as well as key differences between this walk and Spain’s legendary pilgrim trail.


Key Differences between the California Missions Trail and Camino de Santiago


Pilgrim Infrastructure along the California Missions Trail

By far the greatest difference between this American Camino and the Camino de Santiago is the lack of pilgrim infrastructure along the California Missions Trail.  Unlike Spain, there are no dedicated pilgrim accommodations or albergues and no pilgrim menus in restaurants and cafes.  Walking the California Missions Trail will require pilgrims to stay in AirBNB or hotels (both of which are plentiful but not inexpensive in nearly all sections of the route) or carry additional equipment to camp in designated campgrounds.  With abundant shops, cafes, and restaurants, pilgrims will have many choices however the menus will be full price.

That said, the California Mission Walk does have its own pilgrim passport that will be happily stamped at each of the twenty-one missions as well as a certificate available by mail for those who have completed the way.


Maps, Route Finding and Waymarking

Famous for its yellow arrows and shell markers, the Camino de Santiago is one of the best-marked pilgrimage routes in the world. Unlike the Camino, the California Missions Trail is not marked at all. Pilgrims walking from mission to mission will need to rely upon guidebooks and/or GPS routes to follow the way.

Looking for maps for the California Camino? Click here to view and download GPS maps for the California Missions Trail.


Pilgrim Community

Unless you make arrangements to walk the California Missions Trail with others, it is very unlikely that you will cross paths with another walking pilgrim. However, this American Camino has a very strong and dedicated network of volunteers to support your walk. It is not uncommon for volunteers to join pilgrims along the way, meet walkers for meals, or open their homes to support those on pilgrimage.

Two very good resources for the California Missions Trail pilgrim community are the California Mission Walk page and the CMW Facebook Group.


Urban Hiking

Far beyond anything you would experience on the Camino de Santiago, the California Missions Walk takes pilgrims through some of America’s largest cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. These large cities have all of the amenities of big cities but also create their fair share of difficulties, including high traffic, public street crossings, and long stretches of pavement.

I’ve written Five Tips for Urban Hiking that will help orient and prepare pilgrims for these busy metro areas.



While the California Missions Trail offers some of the most scenic vistas imaginable, the way includes hundreds of miles of paved roads. These long tarmac walks offer grand views of mountains, lakes, and idyllic bluffs along the Pacific Ocean but pilgrims should be prepared that at least eighty percent of the California Missions Trail is walking on concrete roads, bike paths, and sidewalks.


Route Flexibility

Every route on the Camino de Santigo ends in Santiago de Compostela; however, this Camino in America gives pilgrims much greater flexibility in walking the California Missions Trail. While it is “traditionally” walked from the oldest mission in San Diego to the newest in San Francisco, pilgrims may choose to reverse the route and walk from north to south.

And with really exceptional transportation infrastructure, pilgrims on the California Missions Trail can utilize the Pacific Surfliner Amtrak train to start/stop / resume the trail or even bypass less intriguing sections to customize the route to satisfy their own pilgrimage goals.

While unlike Spain’s Camino de Santiago in key ways, the California Missions Trail connecting the twenty-one original Spanish missions offers a unique, enriching, and enjoyable Camino experience in the United States for those pilgrims who seek it.