Download GPX file for this article

From Wikivoyage
Jump to navigation Jump to search

A mission bell marker along El Camino Real

El Camino Real (The Royal Road) is a historic road linking the 21 Spanish missions of California. Stretching over 600 miles (1000 km) from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north, the route traverses much of the state and has been a popular traveler itinerary for California motorists for nearly a century. A trip along El Camino Real offers a fascinating look into California's history and takes you past scenic coastline, picturesque countryside, and through the heart of the state's largest cities.


Junipero Serra founded the first nine California missions

El Camino Real in the Colonial Era


This article covers only the northern half of the total length of California's Camino Real. The complete route begins in the town of Loreto in Baja California Sur at the Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó, the first of the California missions built by the Franciscan friars. The route continued north for 1007 km where the midway point on the route was the Mision San Diego de Alcata in Mexicali, the Camino Real then jogged west to pick up the route described in this article.

Days of the Padres


El Camino Real and the missions, pueblos (villages), and presidios (forts) along it, were established by the Franciscan friars to ensure safe passage through California during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but also to convert the various Native American tribes to Catholicism and to solidify the Spanish claim to the region. The first nine missions were established by Junipero Serra, while the remaining twelve were established by Serra's successors. The first mission started in 1769 and the last was consecrated in 1823, only 25 years before California came under American control.

Many of the mission buildings were built of adobe (sun-dried bricks of mud, clay, water and straw). Though thick adobe mission walls provided relief from the warm California sun, they were susceptible to collapse during earthquakes. A typical mission layout consisted of a courtyard bordered by the church, workshops, and living quarters for friars and neophytes. Many of the missions had successful farming and ranching operations, and at one point one-sixth of California's land was mission-controlled. Though thousands of Native Americans were ostensibly converted to Catholicism, many others died of overwork or from diseases brought by the padres. Similar missions, and similar roads connecting them, were built in other regions of Spanish North America, including in Texas, New Mexico, and Baja California.

Statehood to the present


In the 19th century, many of the missions fell into neglect as California became a more secular society; under Mexican rule, the missions and the land around them were sold and the mission system came to an end, with some of the missions surviving as functioning Catholic churches to this day. Beginning in the early 20th century, following a renewed interest in California's Spanish heritage, the missions were restored or preserved as historical landmarks. Thanks to the efforts of the Auto Club of Southern California and local boosters, El Camino Real was one of the first paved highways in California and became established as a traveler itinerary. In the postwar era, freeways were built to bypass portions of the old road, though many portions of these early roads can still be driven or walked on to this day, and a number of unpaved relics of the original road exist parallel to the current highway, most notably at San Miguel and La Purisima.

Juan Bautista de Anza Trail


Between Missions San Gabriel and Dolores, El Camino Real is designated the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail to commemorate Juan Bautista de Anza's expeditions to California in the 1770s. De Anza visited the existing missions and established several presidios and pueblos. Several missions, including San Gabriel, La Purisima, San Luis Obispo, San Antonio, and Santa Clara are marked as destinations on the Anza Trail.



El Camino Real can be traveled at any time of year. In most cases, there is a town with gas and food at least every 15 miles or so, and lodgings every 20 or 30. There are a few exceptions to this, most notably Gaviota Pass and the area around Mission San Antonio, which is a good 30 miles from a city of significant size. The amount of driving on the El Camino Real will necessitate refueling at least every other day. Hotels in Southern California, Santa Barbara and the San Francisco Bay area may need reservations, but it is less likely they will be needed on the Central Coast.

Most of the route of El Camino Real is in Mediterranean climates, meaning the weather is generally mild, with highs around 60°F to 70°F (16°C to 21°C) in the winter and from 70°F to 90°F (21°C to 32°C) in the summer. Lows are typically from 40°F to 60°F (4°C to 16°C) in winter, and 50°F to 70°F (10°C to 21°C) in summer. Mornings in San Francisco, Monterey and Santa Barbara can be cold and foggy because they are on the coast. Rain in the summer is unlikely; rain in the winter could happen.

In order to have more time at the missions, it may be advantageous to eat your lunches from a cooler rather than stopping at a restaurant. It is generally a good idea to eat breakfast before visiting the first mission of the day, and dinner after visiting the last one.

This itinerary may require driving at night. Also, there may not be parking adjacent to every mission. Some missions are in neighborhoods where you must pay for parking, occasionally in the form of parking meters that take quarters.

Get in


By plane


There are a number of major airports along the route, most notably at San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego. Flights are cheapest to Los Angeles; it is almost always cheaper to fly into Los Angeles and drive down to San Diego than it is to fly down to San Diego proper. There are smaller airports in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey but there are fewer (but more expensive) flights to these places, and they are in the middle of the route rather than at the end. If flying into one of the San Francisco Bay airports, one would traverse the route north-to-south, or backwards from the way it is listed here. If flying is your conveyance, this itinerary assumes flying in the day before beginning, spending the night at one end of the route (i.e. in the Hotel Circle area of San Diego), and beginning the tour of the missions the next day. Likewise, either the evening of or the day after finishing the itinerary, you'd drive to catch your return flight.

By car

A historic landmark sign for Mission Santa Clara

The easiest way to visit the missions is by car. Indeed, the history of the El Camino Real as a tourist itinerary dates back to the early 20th century, when local boosters and auto clubs promoted the route as a driving itinerary. Between Los Angeles and San Jose, U.S. Route 101 (US-101) generally follows the route of the old road. North of San Jose and south of Los Angeles, other roads, such as Interstate 5 (I-5), Whittier Boulevard, and State Route 82, carry the designation. El Camino Real is marked by mission bells, which generally occur every mile or two. Freeway exits for missions or other historical landmarks are marked with special signage, which is generally brown letters on a tan background adorned with a silhouette of a grizzly bear.

It's possible to visit several missions in one day, though to visit all 21 will take several days, and several hundred miles of driving. San Diego can be reached by car by driving west on Interstate 8, or south on Interstates 5 or 15. San Francisco and Sonoma can be reached by driving west on Interstates 80 or 580.

By train


Portions of the route can also easily be done by train. Amtrak's Coast Starlight daily service parallels much of the El Camino Real between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and some of the missions can be seen from the train itself. In Southern California, Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner serves many cities and towns between San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo, with multiple daily departures. Missions San Juan Capistrano, San Buenaventura (Ventura), and San Luis Obispo are within walking distance of Pacific Surfliner stations, while Missions San Diego, San Luis Rey (Oceanside), San Gabriel, and Santa Barbara are easily accessible by local public transit from a Pacific Surfliner station. Additionally, two commuter rail lines, the COASTER and the Metrolink Orange County Line, overlap with the Pacific Surfliner on the San Diego-Oceanside and Oceanside-Los Angeles segments of the route, respectively, making it even easier to hop-off/hop-on a train. With careful planning, it's possible to visit a few missions in a single day by taking the train. On the way you can take in some great coastal scenery and easily visit some other sites of Spanish historical interest, such as San Diego's Old Town or Los Angeles' El Pueblo district, adjacent to L.A.'s Union Station.

In Northern California, Missions Santa Clara, San Jose (Fremont), and Dolores (San Francisco) are all accessible via local public transit from nearby Amtrak stations in the Bay Area, namely stations in San Jose, Santa Clara, Fremont, and Oakland. The most easily reached are Mission Santa Clara (within walking distance of the Santa Clara train station, served by ACE, Caltrain, and Amtrak's Capitol Corridor) and Mission Dolores (a short walk from a BART subway stop). Missions Santa Cruz and San Rafael are also reachable by regional bus service, although they're further afield and require a lengthy bus ride from San Jose (to Santa Cruz) or San Francisco (to San Rafael).



El Camino Real bells

Bells were a very important part of mission life: they signaled the passage of time and alerted the natives for mass or special occasions. During the Mission Revival movement, when California boosters used Spanish mission iconography to promote California, the mission bell was selected as the marker for the El Camino Real. The first set of bells was installed in 1906, and subsequent bells were installed in the 1910s and 1920s, prior to a standard signage being adopted for state highways. Originally, the bells also served as signposts, announcing the mileage and direction to the nearest mission. Descendants of Native Californians have objected to them as a symbol of colonial abuses, and some bells have been removed.

Visiting all 21 missions will take a minimum of seven days, visiting three missions a day. Spending between 1 and 2 hours at each mission will necessitate being at the first mission when it opens and at the third when it closes, allowing time to drive between one mission and the next. If you want to visit the missions at a more leisurely pace, or visit attractions other than the missions (such as the Pueblo de Los Angeles, the Presidio of San Francisco, or wineries in San Luis Obispo County), additional days may prove desirable. An itinerary must take into account that Missions Santa Cruz and San Rafael are not open daily, and that the locations of Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista allow their places in the itinerary to be switched. There are often multiple ways to get from one mission to the next. Often, a freeway or expressway is the current designation of El Camino Real, but the originally-designated surface streets through town may still exist. In various areas, one is often left with the choice between historic integrity of the route on the one hand, and convenience on the other.

Day 1: San Diego, San Luis Rey and San Juan Capistrano


Begin the day at Mission San Diego Alcala in San Diego. To reach the mission from the hotels in Mission Valley, take Hotel Circle to Fashion Valley Road, then turn north on Fashion Valley. Take Fashion Valley until it ends at Friars Road, then turn right on Friars Road. At Qualcomm Stadium, take the exit for Mission Village Drive. Turn right onto Mission Village, then, 1/2 block later, turn left at San Diego Mission Road. The Mission will be a little less than a mile away on your left.

Mission San Diego
  • 1 Mission San Diego de Alcala, 10818 San Diego Mission Rd, Mission Valley, San Diego, +1 619 283-7319, . 9AM-4:45PM daily. Mission San Diego is the oldest of the California missions, founded in 1769 by Junipero Serra. In its long history, the mission has been the site of the first Christian burial and the first execution in California, saw bloodshed between the Spanish settlers and native peoples, and served as an armory in the years following the U.S. annexation of California before being restored to an active church in 1941. Today, Mission San Diego is an active Catholic parish and a museum dedicated to the history of the mission. Tour the site, with its gardens, museum, and the original chapel. $3 adults, $2 seniors, $1 children.

Leaving Mission San Diego, continue east on San Diego Mission Road, then turn right on Fairmount Avenue. After a third of a mile, turn right again when Fairmount merges with Mission Gorge Road. Turn right at the entrance to Interstate 8 West. Take I-8 to I-5, the freeway that bears the El Camino Real designation. Once on Interstate 5, you may remain on it until Oceanside, or you may exit it to take advantage of the Old Hwy 101 coast route. To view this, exit 29 from I-5 and turn left on Genesee Avenue (County Road S21) in La Jola. Genesee becomes North Torrey Pines Road through the Torrey Pines, Camino del Mar in Del Mar, Hwy 101 in Solana Beach and Encinitas, and Carlsbad Blvd in Carlsbad (no turns are required despite the name changes). The Old Hwy 101 route is one of the main commercial thoroughfares in each of the towns it passes through, meaning there are shopping and eating opportunities along the route. There is also a street that bears the name "El Camino Real" between Carmel Valley and Oceanside.

When entering Oceanside by either the Coast Route, Interstate 5, or El Camino Real, the directions to Mission San Luis Rey are the same regardless: turn right on Mission Avenue (exit 53 from I-5, EAST). To reach the Mission, turn left on Rancho del Oro Road.

Mission San Luis Rey
  • 2 Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, 4050 Mission Avenue, Oceanside (off the Rancho del Oro turnoff from the SR-76), +1 760 757-3651, fax: +1 760 757-4613. Museum hours: M-F 9:30AM-5PM, Sa Su 10AM-5PM. Dating back to 1798, Mission San Luis Rey de Francia is the eighteenth and largest of the 21 California missions. It was the ninth and last mission founded by Fermin Lasuen. Owing to the size of its physical plant and its land grant, as well as its success in converting neophytes, it received the moniker "The King of the Missions". The oldest pepper tree in California was planted in San Luis Rey's courtyard. During the Mexican-American War, its alcalde (governor) was Sacagewea's son John Baptiste Charbonneau. It was rebuilt between 1895 and 1905 under the direction of Father Joseph O'Keefe. A museum on site has exhibits on the history of the area and there are beautiful gardens to walk through. Adults/seniors $4; youth $3; active military/dependents free-of-charge; children under 5 free.

To continue your route, go south on Rancho del Oro to the San Luis Rey Expressway (California Route 76), turn right and take it to Interstate 5 North. If you are seeking lunch, there are numerous options in Oceanside. If not, continue on Interstate 5 through Camp Pendleton and San Clemente, exiting at Ortega Hwy/CA-74 (exit 82). Mission San Juan Capistrano is a few blocks west, where Ortega dead-ends into Camino Capistrano. The surrounding blocks have a few shopping and dining options.

Mission San Juan Capistrano
  • 3 Mission San Juan Capistrano, 26801 Ortega Hwy, San Juan Capistrano, +1 949 234-1300. Daily 9AM-5PM. This is a historic mission founded in 1776 (the seventh mission) by Spanish missionary Junipero Serra. It was the first mission to grow grapes. Today it is a museum where tours of the site are offered and masses are still celebrated in its Serra Chapel (the only existing building where we can say Serra preached). Audio tours are included with museum admission. The site houses ruins of a collapsed portion of the "Great Stone Church" and the annual "Return of the Swallows" observed March 19. Adults $9, seniors (60+) $8, children (under 11) $6, children (under 3) free.

Mission San Juan Capistrano is separated from Mission San Gabriel by miles and miles of Los Angeles and Orange County suburbs, so it is best to avoid the morning traffic and make significant headway toward San Gabriel in the afternoon, when there is less northbound traffic. Continue north on Camino Capistrano to Junipero Serra Road. Turn right on Junipero Serra, then left a few blocks later to get on I-5 North. Continue on I-5 through Mission Viejo, Lake Forest, Irvine, Santa Ana and Orange. This part of Orange County, particularly the Block at Orange, has malls with many eateries close to the freeway, though the hotels in this area may be more expensive due to their proximity to Disneyland.

At Harbor Boulevard (exit 110 in Anaheim), the marked El Camino Real diverges from the Interstate. You may continue to follow the Interstate, or you may exit and go north on Harbor Boulevard. To follow the old route, stay on Harbor Boulevard for 8–9 miles through Fullerton before turning left onto Whittier Boulevard in La Habra. If you continue on the Interstate, your best option would be to bed down in Norwalk, but if you take the Harbor and Whittier Boulevards route (Old Hwy 101), a better option for you would be the town of Whittier.

Day 2: San Gabriel, San Fernando and San Buenaventura


From Norwalk, if you are again opting for the freeway route rather than the traditional route, go North on Interstate 5. Take that to Interstate 605 North, then take I-605 to Interstate 10 West. Exit at New Avenue (exit 24), choosing the option towards San Gabriel. Turn left off the exit, then right onto New Avenue. At the wye where New and Ramona Avenues split, choose Ramona Avenue, and continue north on Ramona until it dead-ends at the Mission. This route skirts the cities of Whittier, El Monte, and Monterey Park before entering San Gabriel.

From Whittier, go west on Whittier Boulevard to Rosemead Boulevard (California State Route 19) in Pico Rivera and turn right. Then turn left onto San Gabriel Blvd, passing by the Bosque del Rio Hondo (the original site of the San Gabriel Mission). At Paramount Boulevard, turn right to stay on San Gabriel Blvd. Follow San Gabriel Boulevard through Rosemead. Turn left on Mission Road in San Gabriel and follow this to the mission, which is dead ahead.

Mission San Gabriel Arcangel
  • 4 Mission San Gabriel Arcangel (San Gabriel Mission), 428 South Mission Drive, San Gabriel, +1 626 457-3035, fax: +1 626 282-5308, . Daily 9AM-4:30PM; closed New Years Day, Easter Sunday, July 4th, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. This church was the fourth of the 21 missions on El Camino Real. It was established in 1771, pre-dating the Pueblo of Los Angeles by several years. Between 1771 and 1834, more people were baptized at Mission San Gabriel than any other mission. Today, the church and grounds have been restored and contain a small museum, as well as a playhouse that was built for productions of The Mission Play. The first Saturday of each month features special programs. This mission is one of the smaller missions and can be seen in 1 or 2 hours. Adults: $5, Seniors (62 and older): $4, Youth (6-17): $3, 5 and under: free.

If you want to go to the Pueblo Los Angeles, go west on Junipero Serra, which becomes Mission Road in Alhambra, then Alhambra Avenue in East Los Angeles. When Mission dead-ends at Valley Blvd, turn right onto Valley, which becomes Main Street in Downtown Los Angeles. Take Main Street to where it dead-ends at Alameda, then turn south on Alameda. The Pueblo is between Cesar Chavez and the US-101 freeway. From the pueblo, board US-101 at Los Angeles or Hill Streets. From there, then take US-101 through Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley. From there, take the 101 to California Route 170 North, and that in turn to Interstate 5 North.

However, if not, it may be best to avoid downtown Los Angeles altogether. To do this, go west on Junipero Serra Drive (it becomes another Mission Road), then turn right on Garfield Avenue. After a little less than a mile, turn right on Atlantic Blvd, which becomes Los Robles Avenue in the upscale town of San Marino. Continue on Los Robles through the traffic circle with Glenarm Street. Turn left on Del Mar Blvd, then right onto an on-ramp for the 134 West in conjunction with Pasadena Avenue. Take the 134 West to Interstate 5 North. This route takes you through Pasadena, Glendale and Burbank, three towns with many lunch options.

From either route, once you are on I-5, exit at San Fernando Mission Blvd (exit 157B). Stay in the left lane for S.F. Mission Blvd west, which loops you around to go the right direction on San Fernando Mission Blvd. The mission is a few blocks west on the right-hand side.

Mission San Fernando
  • 5 Mission San Fernando Rey de España, 15151 San Fernando Mission Blvd, Mission Hills (on San Fernando Mission Blvd between Interstates 5 and 405), +1 818 361-0186. Daily 9AM-4:30PM. Founded in 1797 by Fermin Lasuen, this historic complex has a church and museum and is the 17th of California's 21 Spanish Missions. One of the few missions established after there had been significant development in the region. The Convento building (built in 1822) is apparently the largest adobe structure in California. Following a 1971 earthquake, the mission was restored in 1974. Bob Hope is buried in the memorial garden next to the church, and in the adjacent cemetery are buried Richie Valens and many other Hollywood celebrities who were Catholic. $4.

Leaving Mission San Fernando, one has two options, either to follow El Camino Real as designated or El Camino Real is convenient (and probably as historical)

  • As designated: Go west on San Fernando Mission Blvd before turning right onto the looping entrance to Interstate 405. Take Interstate 405 to US-101 North (or West, towards Ventura), and continue on US-101 to Ventura.
  • As convenient: Go west on San Fernando Mission Blvd before turning left on Woodley Avenue. A couple blocks later, turn right to board California Route 118 West. Take CA-118 to CA-23 South, then take that to US-101 West.

The I-405/US-101 route takes you through the South San Fernando Valley, Calabasas and Agoura Hills, while the other route takes you through the upscale new exurb of Simi Valley. Avoid US-101 between the Valley and Thousand Oaks during the afternoon rush hour. The portion of US-101 on both routes goes through Camarillo and Oxnard before reaching Ventura, and there are a large number of chain shopping and eating opportunities in either. Exit 101 at California Street in downtown Ventura, then turn left at Main Street. Mission San Buenaventura is at Main and Figueroa.

Mission San Buenaventura
  • 6 Mission San Buenaventura, 211 E. Main St, Ventura (on Main Street in the heart of old town Ventura. Exit US 101 north at California Street), +1 805 643-4318, fax: +1 805 643-7831. M-F 10AM-5PM, Sa 9AM-5PM, Su 10AM-4PM, except for major holidays.. Founded in 1782, it was the ninth and last mission established by Father Serra. Church services, funerals, and weddings are still performed at the mission today. It was one of the most successfully irrigated of the missions, leading to plentiful orchards and vineyards. An original well stands in the back of the church, and a school for children is attached to the side. The Old Mission welcomes visitors daily from sunrise until sunset. $2.

When done with Ventura, you may elect to spend the night there, or you may travel several miles further north on US-101 to Carpinteria or Santa Barbara (continuing west on Main Street will eventually put you on US-101). As Santa Barbara is a resort community, its hotels are usually more expensive than those in Ventura, but this is compensated for by having a more lively shopping and eating scene along State Street. Exits 96B through 99 on US-101 all serve Santa Barbara.

Day 3: Santa Barbara, Santa Ines and La Purisima


If you spent the night in Ventura or Carpinteria, take U.S. north and exit at Mission Street (exit 99B). Turn right on Mission, and continue on Mission until it dead-ends into Laguna Street. Turn left on Laguna and take that until it dead-ends at the mission.

If you are already in Santa Barbara, take State Street north/west to Los Olivos and turn right. The mission is at the corner of Los Olivos and Laguna.

Mission Santa Barbara
  • 7 [dead link] Mission Santa Barbara, 2201 Laguna St, Santa Barbara (from downtown State St., turn east onto Mission St. and follow signs pointing toward the Mission), +1 805 682-4149. Self-guided tours daily 9AM-4:30PM. Known as "The Queen of the Missions," Santa Barbara's "Old Mission" is a superb example of California's Franciscan Spanish architecture. The tenth California Mission to be constructed, it was consecrated in 1786 as the first of Father Lasuen's nine missions. Today, Mission Santa Barbara is both a scenic wonder and a fine anthropological study of original native culture in the surrounding area. Santa Barbara is the only California mission with twin bell towers, owing to its status as a cathedral in the early days of California statehood. It also has had a longer continuous association with the Franciscans than any other mission, and a longer continuous history of choral music than any other mission. The headquarters of the mission system in the 1830s and 40s, it is where many of the archives concerning the California missions are held. The presence of the mission inspired the city of Santa Barbara to build its buildings primarily in the Mission Revival style. Well worth a visit, note the adjacent pottery kiln and tanning vat ruins. Adults $5.

From Mission Santa Barbara, go south/east on Laguna to Mission and turn right. Take Mission to US-101 North, and get on US-101 through Goleta and Gaviota Pass all the way to State Route 246 in Buellton (an alternate route to US-101 on the coast is State Route 154 over San Marcos Pass; this route is shorter but narrower and with sharper turns that necessitate driving at lower speeds). Exit 140A, turn right on State Route 246, and take it through Solvang to Mission Santa Ines. It's at corner of CA-246 and Alisal Road. There are restaurants in Solvang, but, as it is one of the few Danish enclaves in Southern California, they can hardly be considered authentic Spanish or Mexican cuisine.

Mission Santa Ines
  • 8 Mission Santa Ines, 1760 Mission Dr, Solvang (on California Route 246 at Alisal), +1 805 688-4815, fax: +1 805 686-4468, . 9AM-4:30PM daily (except Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day). The 19th of the 21 Spanish missions, founded in 1804 by Father Estevan Tapis, who succeeded Fermin Lasuen as head of the mission system. It was built at the site of the Chumash settlement Calahuasa. It served as a seminary during secularization, and restoration efforts began in 1904 by Alexander Buckler and later the Capuchin friars. Some of the original adobe building material is visible in places. Catholic Masses take place regularly. $5 (Children 11 and under: free).

To get to La Purisima from Mission Santa Ines, go west on State Route 246, back through Buellton and toward Lompoc. At the traffic circle, turn onto Purisima Road. The state park is a couple miles further on Purisima Road.

Mission La Purisima
  • 9 Mission La Purisima Concepcion de Maria Santisima (La Purisima Mission State Historic Park), 2295 Purisima Rd, Lompoc, +1 805 733-3713, . Daily 9AM-5PM. Commissioned by Father Fermin Lasuen in 1787 as the eleventh mission. The most complete restored mission, which was built from 1813 onwards after the original buildings south of Lompoc were destroyed in earthquakes in 1812. A large cross constructed in 1912 to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the founding of La Purisima Mission & 100th anniversary of its destruction can be observed on the top of the hill behind the Veterans Memorial Building. Is unusual in several respects, including the fact that is one of two missions managed as a State Park rather than an ecclesiastical institution (after its restoration by the Civilian Conservation Corps, completed the day Pearl Harbor was bombed), and that its bell wall is painted pink instead of the more common white. $6.

Travelers should plan on staying the night in either Santa Maria or Pismo Beach, both of which are north of Purisima. Continue west on Purisima to its junction with California State Route 1, then go North on CA-1 through Vandenburg Air Force Base (a right turn to stay on Route 1 is necessary at one point) to its junction with California State Route 135. Continue on Routes 1/135 North, then when Route 1 splits from Route 135, take CA-135 North into Santa Maria. Route 135 is Santa Maria's main drag, and many hotels are on or near it, or near US-101. To continue into Pismo, stay on Route 135 (Broadway) to its junction with US-101 at the north end of town, then get on US-101 North. Exits 190-195 are for Pismo Beach. The area around Santa Maria (and the Five Cities area) is known for Santa Maria Style pit barbecue, which emulates the style of cooking beef in the early days of California, though there are many other restaurants in the two cities if you desire something else. It is worth noting that, while Santa Maria lacks the charm of Pismo Beach, it has cheaper accommodations.

Day 4: San Luis Obispo, San Miguel and San Antonio


To get to San Luis Obispo, travel north on US-101, exiting at Marsh Street (Exit 202A) for Downtown San Luis Obispo. Marsh and its couplet pair Higuera Street are the main drags through Downtown San Luis Obispo, and several breakfast establishments are there. To reach the mission, turn left at Broad, then right onto Monterey.

Mission San Luis Obispo
  • 10 Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, 728 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo, +1 805 543-6850, fax: +1 805 781-8214. Open daily winter 9AM-4PM, summer 9AM-5PM (closed New Year's, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas). Founded in 1772 by Junipero Serra, Mission San Luis Obispo was the fifth Catholic mission in California. Still an active parish, it is in the middle downtown on Chorro St and Monterey St, with its main courtyard interrupting Monterey St for a full city block. The Mission is part of the Mission Plaza neighborhood, which incorporates San Luis Creek and a number of stores and restaurants. Walk from the Mission to the creek and up to one of the restaurants for a bite to eat. Free, but donations appreciated.
Mission San Miguel

To proceed north, go north on Broad until it ends at US-101 North, then take US-101 North through Atascadero and Paso Robles before getting off the freeway at Mission Street (exit 239A) in San Miguel. The bell wall is right off the freeway, and the mission proper is about a quarter-mile further on your left.

  • 11 Mission San Miguel, 775 Mission St., San Miguel, +1 805 467-3256, . Museum open daily 10AM-4:30PM. Church open daily 8AM-5PM. Mission San Miguel was founded in 1797 by Father Lasuen as the 16th mission. During secularization, it served as a dance hall after its owners were murdered. Features an arcade of 12 arches of varying sizes, and frescoes inside the sanctuary. Reopened in 2009 after suffering significant damage in a 2003 earthquake. Still inhabited by Franciscan monks.

Traveling to Mission San Antonio from Mission San Miguel takes you a ways off Highway 101 and through 26 miles of back roads in the sparsely populated San Antonio Valley. Since there is only one gas station between here and King City, make sure you have enough fuel before leaving San Miguel. From Mission San Miguel, continue north on Mission Street, boarding US-101 at its end near Camp Roberts. Follow the signs for Mission San Antonio that occur every so often: the California Landmark sign will instruct you to exit at Jolon Road (exit 252). Follow Jolon Road (also signed as County Roads G18 and G14) through the valley before turning left on Mission Road after about 21 miles (this is marked by signage pointing left for Fort Hunter Liggett and the mission). Stay on Mission Road through the Fort Hunter Liggett gate and at the wye with Nacimiento-Fergusson Road.

Mission San Antonio de Padua
  • 12 Mission San Antonio de Padua, P.O. Box 803 (end of Mission Road), Jolon (6.3 miles on Mission Road, off County Road G14 from Jolon), +1 831 385-4478, fax: +1 831 386-9332, . 10AM-4PM. The third mission established by Father Serra, established in 1771 but mainly constructed in the early 1800s. Site of the first Catholic marriage in California; and the first of the missions to have a red-tile roof. Due to its isolated location (it is one of the few missions without a nearby city), it was never secularized. Contains a gristmill, tannery, and a museum of Native American artifacts. $5 for adults and $3 for children 12 and under.

To return to US-101, go back the way you came on Mission Road until you return to Jolon Road, then turn left (toward King City and US-101 North). Stay on this for 18 miles, then turn on to US-101 South to enter the farming community of King City, where you will be spending the night. The hotels are at the next two exits. There are chain restaurants adjacent to the hotels, and Mexican cuisine near the center of town.

Day 5: Soledad, San Carlos and Santa Cruz


From King City, continue north on US-101 through Greenfield toward the town of Soledad. Exit the freeway at Arroyo Seco Road (exit 301), then go 1 mile on Arroyo Seco before turning right on Fort Romie Road (County Road G17). The mission is a mile and a half down Fort Romie on your left.

Mission Soledad
  • 13 Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, 36641 Fort Romie Road, Soledad (Across the Salinas River from the town of Soledad.), +1 831 678-2586. 10AM-4PM daily, except major holidays. The 13th California mission, founded by Fermin Lasuen in 1791. Burial place of José Joaquín de Arrillaga, first Spanish governor of Alta California. The mission was inundated by floods, and following secularization, the remaining buildings were looted for supplies. It was reconstructed in 1955 and today serves as a museum and Catholic parish. Donations.

To get to Mission San Carlos, it is possible to get there via the roads along the Salinas River, but a better route is to go back the way you came: go on Fort Romie to the stop sign at Arroyo Seco, turn left, and board US-101 North at the end of Arroyo Seco. Stay on US-101 through Soledad and Gonzales before taking the exit marked Monterey Peninsula (Exit 326C). This will dump you off onto Sanborn and Blanco Roads, which bypass the center of Salinas but are well situated in terms of gas stations and truck stops. Turn left on S. Main Street (California Route 68). Take CA-68 into Monterey, and at the junction with Route 1, opt for CA-1 South/CA-68 West toward Carmel. Continue south on Route 1 past the junction with Route 68 west, eventually turning right at Ocean Avenue in the artist community of Carmel. In central Carmel, turn left on Junipero Street. The mission will be three-quarters of a mile south on your right.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo
  • 14 Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, 3080 Rio Road, Carmel, +1 831 624-1271, fax: +1 831 624-8050. M-Sa 9:30AM-5PM, Su 10:30AM-5PM. Mission San Carlos was the second of the 21 missions established by Father Junipero Serra along the coast of California. Established in 1771, it is considered to be one of the most beautiful of the missions. Father Serra, the leader behind the greater Spanish mission to California, is buried here along with his lieutenant Juan Crespi and his successor Fermin Lasuen. During the lifetimes of Father Serra and Father Lasuen, it was the headquarters of the mission system from 1771 until 1833. The mission serves as a repository for some Serra-related documents. Self-guided tours take you through the remaining original buildings which now hold exhibits, a small museum, and a gift shop. Catholic Masses occur regularly. The mission is a working Catholic church, so dress and act respectfully. Adults: $6.50; seniors: $4; children under 17: $2.

To continue your journey, go west on Rio Road from the mission to its junction with California Route 1. Turn left, and continue up Route 1 through Monterey Bay, passing the towns of Monterey, Seaside, Marina, Castroville, Watsonville, Aptos and Capitola. After the freeway ends in Santa Cruz, continue on Route 1 before turning left at Mission Street. Turn left at Emmett Street, then right at High to visit Mission Santa Cruz.

The interior of Mission Santa Cruz
  • 15 Mission Santa Cruz, 144 School St, Santa Cruz (at Emmett, one block north of Mission), +1 831 425-5849. M, Th–Sa 10AM–4PM; Su 12–4PM. The original Mission Santa Cruz was dedicated by Fermin Lasuen in 1791 as the 12th California mission. The original mission buildings, save one, fell down in an 1857 earthquake, and in their place was built a modern Catholic church with the anglicized name Holy Cross Church. The surviving building was built in the early 1800s. Ohlone and Yokuts Indian families lived there, and eventually it passed to two families. The different rooms in the building show how people lived at different points in time. Picnic area, restrooms, and view of the city. Catholic school and small city park next door. Free.

Santa Cruz has a number of dining, lodging, and amusement options, but you may also want to consider backtracking down Route 1 to Aptos (exits 432-435) or Watsonville (exits 425-427) to bed down for the night.

Day 6: San Juan Bautista, Santa Clara and San Jose


Continue south on California Route 1, exiting at Route 129 for Watsonville (exit 425). Turn left on CA-129 to go through Watsonville. (If you slept in central Watsonville, take Main Street south to Riverside Drive/CA-129 and turn left). Continue on this road past the junction with US-101. Soon after the junction, the road veers right and becomes the San Juan Highway into San Juan Bautista, where it becomes 1st Street. Turn right onto Monterey Street, then left one block later at 2nd Street. The mission is on San Juan and Mariposa opposite San Juan Bautista State Historic Park.

Mission San Juan Bautista
  • 16 Mission San Juan Bautista, 406 2nd Street, San Juan Bautista, +1 831 623-2127, fax: +1 831 623-5433. Daily 9:30AM-4:30PM, except major holidays. The 15th mission, Bautista founded in 1797 by Fermin Lasuen. One of the larger and more successful missions in the 18th century, it is the only mission with a three-aisled church. The resting place of Father Estevan Tapis, who led the mission system from 1803 to 1812, and later served as the mission's choir director, solidifying Bautista's reputation as the "Mission of Music". During secularization, the mission housed survivors of the Donner Party, and contains some of their artifacts to this day. Major restorations took place in 1884, 1949, and 2010. Alfred Hitchcock fans will likely recognize the mission from the climatic scene of the classic film Vertigo; unfortunately, the bell tower in the movie was a fake and looks nothing like the real one, but the rest of the mission scenes were indeed shot here. Contains furnishings from the mid-19th century, including ca. 1816 altar statues and screens. $4 adults, $3 seniors, $2 children, Under 5 years – free.

To continue to Mission Santa Clara, backtrack on 2nd Street to San Jose Street, turn right, then turn left at 1st Street a block later. Take 1st Street, which becomes San Juan Highway. At the junction with US-101, turn right to get on US-101 north toward San Jose (An alternative route to US-101 is Monterey Road, the former 101 alignment through Gilroy, Morgan Hill and San Jose, now designated US-101 Business or California State Route 82). Exit US-101 at Alum Rock Avenue/Santa Clara Street/CA-130 (Exit 386A) and turn left on to Santa Clara Street through Downtown San Jose. Santa Clara Street becomes The Alameda, which was built for Native Americans to walk between St. Joseph’s Basilica and Mission Santa Clara. In Santa Clara, a left turn is required to stay on The Alameda. The Alameda dead-ends into Santa Clara University, where Mission Santa Clara is on Alviso Street between Franklin and Stanta Clara.

Mission Santa Clara
  • 17 Mission Santa Clara, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara (on what is now the Santa Clara University campus), +1 408 554-4023, fax: +1 408 551-7166. The eighth Franciscan mission founded in California by Father Serra in 1777. It was built nearer to the Guadalupe River, but it was moved to its present location in 1825 after numerous floods and restored in 1929. It is the only mission on a university campus, which was founded in 1851 Its bells were given to it by the King of Spain.

To get to Mission San Jose, backtrack on the Alameda, turning right to stay on the Alameda, before merging right on the loop on-ramp to Interstate 880, Continue on I-880 through Milpitas before exiting at Mission Blvd (Exit 12A, signed as "to I-680"). Continue north on Mission Blvd past the junction with to the Mission San Jose neighborhood of Fremont, where the mission is at Mission and Washington.

Mission San Jose
  • 18 Mission San Jose, 43300 Mission Blvd, Fremont, +1 510 657-1797. Museum open daily 10AM-5PM; Mass weekdays 8AM. This mission founded in 1797 by Fermin Lasuen as the 14th mission. It is the only mission in the East Bay region, and its land grant once encompassed most of the East Bay. The original 1809 adobe church (which served as a saloon and general store during secularization) was destroyed by an 1868 earthquake along the Hayward fault. The current mission building underwent a four-year reconstruction project to produce a modern replica of the 1809 adobe church with 4-5ft steel-reinforced walls and was dedicated in 1985 for daily Mass and tours. The only surviving building from the Spanish period is a monastery, which serves as a small museum of seven rooms that houses a collection of artifacts, vestments, and memorabilia. The small cemetery holds the graves of many prominent Spanish and American settlers, whose prominence allowed the gilding of the mission's altar. $3, Students $2.

There are many hotels in both the East Bay and West Bay, including in Fremont and San Jose. If you are desirous of sleeping somewhere along El Camino Real between San Jose and San Francisco (which is recommended for the integrity of the historic route), go south on Mission Blvd back to I-880 South towards San Jose. Then, take I-880 to California Route 237 West. From there, take CA-237 either to US-101 North (the freeway) or California Route 82 (El Camino Real). Turn right on El Camino Real, and take either that or US-101 through Mountain View, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Redwood City and San Mateo. Each of these places has suitable accommodations for a night's stay, and El Camino Real is one of the main commercial drags in these towns.

Day 7: Dolores, San Rafael and San Francisco Solano


Though San Mateo and San Francisco are fairly close geographically, allow extra time (at least an hour in total) to get to Mission Dolores because this is one of the few times on the journey you will be traveling the same direction as rush hour traffic. Continue north on El Camino Real (CA-82) through San Mateo, Millbrae and Daly City.

The interior of Mission Dolores in San Francisco

Route 82 changes its name to Mission Street in Daly City, but to stay on Mission, you have to merge right shortly after John Daly Boulevard near the border of Daly City and San Francisco proper. Mission Street has carried El Camino Real through this part of San Francisco since the days of the padres. Continue on Mission Street to Cesar Chavez Avenue and turn left. In a few blocks, turn right on Dolores Street. The mission is at Dolores Street between 16th and Chula Lane. (To get to the Mission via US-101, Exit at Vermont Street, turn left off the exit onto Vermont, then turn left on to 16th and take it to 16th and Dolores)

  • 19 Mission Dolores (Mission San Francisco de Asis), 3321 16th St, Mission District, San Francisco (at Dolores), +1 415 621-8203, . Summer: 9AM-4:30PM, winter: 9AM-4PM. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, & New Year's Day; closed the afternoon of Good Friday. The oldest building in San Francisco, commissioned in 1776 by Father Serra and members of the De Anza Expedition as the sixth of the 21 missions in California. The original mission is a small building adjacent to the parish church, a large building with intricately decorated towers that was also the first Catholic church west of the Mississippi River to be deemed a basilica. The mission cemetery is the only extant cemetery in San Francisco. Suggested donations of $5 adult, $3 Seniors, $3 children.

For the next mission, go east on 16th Street, then turn left at Van Ness Avenue. Turn left at Lombard Street to follow US-101. A couple miles later, US-101 veers right onto Richardson Avenue as it enters the Presidio, which was fortified by the Spanish in 1776 and remained fortified by the Spanish, Mexicans or Americans until 1994. Follow US-101 over the Golden Gate Bridge and through Sausalito, Mill Valley and Corte Madera before taking Exit 452B for Central San Rafael. Go through 2nd Street before turning left on 3rd. Then turn right on A Street. The mission is at the end of A Street.

Mission San Rafael
  • 20 Mission San Rafael Arcangel, 1104 Fifth Ave, San Rafael (at A Street), +1 415-456-3016. W-F Su 11AM-4PM. The 20th of the 21 California missions, San Rafael was founded as an asistencia or adjunct to Mission Dolores in San Francisco in 1817, but was promoted to full mission status in 1822. San Rafael was a hospital mission, tending the sick from Spanish settlements and natives. The first mission secularized, it was used by General John C. Fremont during the Mexican-American War, and during statehood as the Marin County Courthouse. The original church was torn down in 1861, and a series of Catholic churches were erected at that site. The mission chapel was restored in 1949, and tours of the site as well as a museum containing three original mission bells are open to the public. Free.

To get the final mission, go east on 5th Avenue. Turn left at Irwin Street, then merge onto the on-ramp for US-101 a block later. Take US-101 to California Route 37 (exit 460A) in Novato. Take Route 37 to Route 121. After curving right to stay on Route 121 at the junction with Route 116, turn left at the junction with Route 12. Follow Route 12 into Sonoma, where it goes by Broadway. When Broadway dead-ends into Napa Street, turn right, then turn left on 1st Street East a block later. Mission San Francisco Solano is at the corner of 1st and Spain.

Mission San Francisco Solano
  • 21 Mission San Francisco Solano (Sonoma State Historic Park), 114 East Spain Street, Sonoma, +1 707 938-9560. 10AM-5PM. Founded in 1823 as the last of the Spanish missions, in part by Mariano Vallejo to check the Russian's impact in Northern California. Site of the first vineyard in Sonoma County. This is where American settlers began their uprising against the Mexicans known as the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846. It was bought by the California Historic Landmarks League in 1903 and restored in 1913. Though it was the last mission, it was the third structure in California to be designated a State Historic Landmark

Go next


This itinerary to El Camino Real has guide status. It has good, detailed information covering the entire route. Please contribute and help us make it a star!