El Camino Real, the Royal Road, is a route that links California’s 21 iconic missions and provides an authentic view of the state’s colonial history. I’ve visited many of these landmarks and enjoyed the serenity they offer – and that was enough for me. In contrast, my friend and fellow travel journalist Maggie Espinosa felt compelled to walk the entire El Camino Real. Is she an endurance athlete? Was she soul searching? Here’s her story:
Recently, I laced up my Nike Pegasus and embarked on an 800-mile walk to visit Junipero Serra’s California missions. Yup, walked. I know what you’re thinking: loco.
You may recognize the name Serra from the Pope’s visit to Washington, D.C. in September, where he canonized the aforementioned Franciscan friar. Serra’s lofty ambition resulted in a string of 21 missions – landmarks that stretch along El Camino Real from San Diego to Sonoma. He lived to see only the first nine outposts come to fruition; fellow padres completed the rest.
These churches were established between 1769 and 1833 as religious and military outposts. The objective was to spread Christianity and educate the Native Americans who inhabited the plots procured by the newcomers. Lots of controversy surrounds the conversion, which indigenous people view more as slavery, especially now seeing the colonization through 21st-century eyes.
I divided my journey into 12 months, taking four days each month to cover approximately 75 miles, with Amtrak as my chauffeur to and from various sectors. Google maps and Ron Briery’s book, A Hiker’s Guide to California’s 21 Spanish Missions Along El Camino Real, were my compass.
Prior to launch, I sent an email inviting friends and family to join me on any segment of the excursion. A surprising number said yes. What ensued was the journey of a lifetime.
El Camino Real companions
My buddy, Tracey Elliott, signed up for the first leg from San Diego to San Juan Capistrano. During the 20-plus-mile days, life stories were regaled, jaw-dropping sunsets witnessed and thousands of laughs shared.
This was the blueprint each month. My fellow pilgrims were from all walks of life, ages, professions and religious beliefs – a flight attendant, a Franciscan Friar, a medical writer, a pet groomer, an architect – all brought together by California’s Royal Road.
Strangers followed my escapades on Facebook. With nothing more than an IM to acquaint us, they’d offer guest rooms and meals to me and my cadre. The heartwarming hospitality was one of the trip’s highlights. Most time on the road we bunked in motels; two, three, sometimes four people to a room. Lodging was just that, somewhere to lay our head while trekking El Camino Real. It was by no means a vacation.
Luxury on El Camino Real, Santa Barbara
That being said, when my lofty ambition pushed me to my core, I found solace in a few haute hotels along the hike. Less than a mile from Mission Santa Barbara is one of Southern California’s premier resorts – Belmond El Encanto. Having covered 287 miles thus far, I needed personalized monogrammed pillows, a saline pool heated to 85 degrees with views of the Channel Islands, Acqua di Parma toiletries, lily ponds, and wisteria draped trellis’ among craftsman style bungalows.
The two girlfriends who joined me in Santa Barbara for the four-day march north reaped the bennies of my need for a little five-star treatment. We dined on farm-to-table cuisine and cheese from Ellie, the resort’s cow. She’s pampered as much as the guests with a custom diet, special baths, hoof pedicures, and massages.
Day hike options
As luck would have it, El Encanto is situated along one of the most scenic and varied sections of El Camino Real – Haskell’s Beach, Los Padres National Forest, Santa Ynez, the Santa Rita Hills vineyards, and over Harris Grade Road into Santa Maria.
For those wanting a day hike, 17 miles of the sandy shores, and bluffs cutting through UCSB is a perfect option. Or, the Refugio Pass with a 2,600 foot elevation gain offers more of a challenge, especially on hot days when effort becomes Herculean.
Authentic early-California lodging
Central California has an array of accommodations with fewer diamonds, none the less interesting in their own right. San Antonio Mission de Padua sits on the old William Randolph Hearst Ranch, which he sold to the government. At that time, 86 of the 162,000 acres were retained for the parish. The mission has 29 guest rooms where the public can stay, but these fill up fast. The other option is The Hacienda on the Fort Hunter Liggett military base. This 1929 abode was built by Hearst to house 30 of his ranch employees. Julia Morgan, who designed nearby Hearst Castle, lent her talents to the humble structure.
El Camino Real, Monterey County
The stretch of the walk through California’s salad bowl required me to dig deep inside for stamina. There is minimal infrastructure and temperatures reached the high 90’s quickly. By the time I reached Carmel, the Cypress Inn was a must. Hollywood legend Doris Day is co-owner, which explains her movie posters adorning the walls. The nonagenarian lives close by in the valley. Nearby, Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove make it the perfect launching pad for those interested in day hikes. For me, it was close to the Mission San Carlos Borrome de Carmelo, the 15th of the 21 missions I visited.
The final chapter
I rounded the last corner to the final mission on Nov. 5 – my 54th birthday – with my husband by my side. Tears streamed from my eyes as a year’s worth of emotions surfaced. I’d accomplished a daunting goal – only the 11th person to ever complete this sojourn.
Tony digs to celebrate were in order, and Sonoma’s MacArthur Place – with its “oasis of calm” spa – fit the bill. A 50-minute aromatherapy massage kneaded away 796-miles of turf from this life affirming odyssey.
I kept a journal and took many photos while I walked, which I’ve compiled into a book titled On A Mission, An 800-mile Walk to Discover California’s El Camino Real. It can be purchased on my website or Amazon.