Article and photos by David Kier
El Camino Real translates to "The Royal Road" or sometimes "The King's Highway". In Spain, El Camino Real was any road built by and for the king. Often as a source of commerce and revenue, such as taxes to the royal coffers. In the New World, El Camino Real was mostly a main corridor of trade and supply. In Baja California, El Camino Real was the connecting road between the Spanish missions. While it did not serve the same purpose as in other parts of Spain or the New World, it was still a way to secure California for the king.
Jesuit padres engineered the road and Spanish soldiers built the first sections on the peninsula. Later the native Indians did more of the work. The network of roads radiated out from the first mission at Loreto. The Jesuits established California's first 17 missions and the Camino Real was a line of communication between them. The first sections of El Camino Real went north from Loreto to the visita (satellite church and village) of San Juan Bautista Londo, and the other went west to the second California mission of San Francisco Javier.
The Camino Real built during the Jesuit period (1697-1768) was so well engineered that most of it can be seen today on the ground or from space satellite images from Loreto to San Borja, the 16th mission. The Jesuits were removed from Baja California before they had the opportunity to build the Camino Real to their final mission of Santa Maria. However, even the smaller trail to Santa Maria can be seen in many places.
The Franciscans and Dominicans who continued the mission program in Baja California never constructed roads as the Jesuits had. The Camino Real north of Santa Maria is difficult to see and usually was no more elaborate than a cow or burro path. The route is known thanks to writings of the padres and early travelers in Baja California because place names, water sources, landmarks, often kept the original names given by the Spanish.
In the last century, three Baja California enthusiasts researched, traveled on, and wrote about the Camino Real:
From 1905 through 1906, Arthur North traveled the peninsula by mule and wrote 'Camp and Camino in Lower California' c1910.
In the 1950's, Howard Gulick traveled by Jeep, mule and on foot in Baja California and noted the location of the Camino Real on maps and in an unpublished paper. Gulick co-authored the 'Lower California Guidebook through several editions starting in 1956.
In the 1960's and 1970's, Harry Crosby traveled most of the Camino Real by mule and wrote 'The King's Highway in Baja California' c1974. Three years later, a series of detailed maps and articles by Crosby of the Camino Real was published in the winter 1977 edition of 'The Journal of San Diego History'. In 2002, Harry Crosby wrote 'Gateway to Alta California' which details the exact location of El Camino Real from San Fernando Velicata to San Diego.
Personally, to walk the same path as Baja pioneers of centuries past is high point of my Baja travels. I have hiked some of the Camino Real near Mision Santa Maria, west of Bahia San Luis Gonzaga as well as sections near El Rosario and Santa Gertrudis. Others I know have used mules the past few years to experience the mission trail.
Sadly, modern construction and road building have destroyed many sections of the old mission road. Nature already has erased sections from slow erosion to flash floods to plant growth. Because much of the Camino Real stayed in the mountains where water sources were located, it may still be visible for another 300 years!
View El Camino Real maps courtesy of the San Diego History Center website.