Literally translated, "El Camino Real" means "The Royal Road". The name came into being in the 18th century and describes the road which begins in Baja California and continues into Alta California and along which most of the mission stations grew up. In what is now California, it began in San Diego and ran past the mission stations of San Luis Rey de Francia, San Juan Capistrano and San Gabriel, then westwards via Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay, through the Salinas Valley, Monterey and San Francisco.
The route taken by the Camino Real essentially corresponds to the present-day Highway 101 on which most of the mission stations are situated.
When the Spanish King Carlos III had cause to fear that either the Russians or the British (the latter had just annexed Canada) would attempt to seize the as yet unexploited lands in Alta California, he managed to forestall them; he instructed the Franciscan monks coming from Mexico to build mission stations in Alta California, as he believed that in this way it would be easier to control the surrounding land. The Fathers were to convert the native Indians to Christianity and also initiate them into the secrets of husbandry. However, he clearly overestimated his abilities, and this ambitious undertaking, to acquire land on the one hand and save souls on the other, was doomed to failure from the start.
El Camino Real
Living witnesses to this period are the 21 mission stations which were built in the course of 54 years (1769-1821) along the Pacific coast from San Diego to Sonoma. This almost 600mi/960km stretch of the California Highway No. 1 has been called "El Camino Real" since Mexican times. The Spanish word "real" has two meanings: "really, actually" and "royal, splendid". So it is up to you how you wish to interpret the road sign: "Road to Reality" or "The Royal Road".
Their condition today
After their secularization under Mexican rule only a few mission stations remained in their original condition, as fire, earthquake and malicious damage led to their destruction. Almost all have been restored and are accessible to visitors, but only a few still serve their true, religious purpose.
The peace to be enjoyed in the well-kept gardens will provide the visitor with a welcome change from the busy Californian towns and cities. All mission stations can be visited. They are listed below in order of the date when they were built.