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El Camino Real (Spanish for The Royal Road, also known as The King's Highway) and sometimes associated with Calle Real usually refers to the historic 600-mile (966-kilometer) California Mission Trail, connecting the former Alta California's 21 missions (along with a number of sub-missions), 4 presidios, and 3 pueblos, stretching from Mission San Diego de Alcalá in San Diego in the south to Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma in the north.
In fact, any road under the direct jurisdiction of the Spanish crown and its viceroys was a camino real. Examples of such roads ran between principal settlements throughout Spain and its colonies such as New Spain. Most caminos reales had names apart from the appended camino real. Once Mexico won its independence from Spain, no road in Mexico, including California, was a camino real. The name was rarely used after that and was only revived in the American period in connection with the boosterism associated with the Mission Revival movement of the early 20th century.
The route originated in Baja California Sur, Mexico, at the site of Misión San Bruno in San Bruno (the first mission established in Las Californias), though it was only maintained as far south as Loreto. Today, many streets throughout California that either follow or run parallel to this historic route still bear the "El Camino Real" name.
In Alta California (now the US state of California), El Camino Real followed two alternate routes, established by the first two Spanish exploratory expeditions of the region. The first was the Portolá expedition of 1769. The expedition party included Franciscan missionaries, led by Junipero Serra. Starting from Loreto, Serra established the first of the 21 missions at San Diego. Serra stayed at San Diego and Juan Crespi continued the rest of the way with Portola. Proceeding north, Portolá followed (as much as possible) the coastline (today's California State Route 1), except where forced inland by coastal cliffs.
Eventually, the expedition was prevented from going farther north by the entrance to San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate. Crespi identified several future mission sites which were not developed until later. On the return trip to San Diego, Portola found a shorter detour around one stretch of coastal cliffs via Conejo Valley.
Portola journeyed again from San Diego to Monterey in 1770, where Junipero Serra (who traveled by ship) founded the second mission (later moved a short distance south to Carmel. Carmel became Serra's Alta California mission headquarters.
The second Juan Bautista de Anza expedition (1775-76), entering Alta California from the southwest (crossing the Colorado River near today's Yuma, Arizona) picked up Portolá's trail at Mission San Gabriel. De Anza's scouts found easier traveling in several inland valleys, rather than staying on the rugged coast. On his journey north, de Anza traveled the San Fernando Valley and Salinas Valley. After detouring to the coast to visit the Presidio of Monterey, de Anza went inland again, following the Santa Clara Valley to the southern end of San Francisco Bay and on up the east side of the San Francisco Peninsula. This became the preferred route (roughly today's U.S Route 101), and more closely corresponds to the officially recognized El Camino Real.
To facilitate overland travel, mission settlements were approximately 30 miles (48 kilometers) apart, so that they were separated by one long day's ride on horseback along the 600-mile (966-kilometer) long El Camino Real (Spanish for "The Royal Highway," though often referred to in the later embellished English translation, "The King's Highway"), and also known as the California Mission Trail. Heavy freight movement was practical only via water. Tradition has it that the padres sprinkled mustard seeds along the trail in order to mark it with bright yellow flowers.
In 1912, California began paving a section of the historic route in San Mateo County. Construction of a two-lane concrete highway began in front of the historic Uncle Tom's Cabin, an inn in San Bruno that was built in 1849 and demolished exactly 100 years later. There was little traffic initially and children used the pavement for roller skating until traffic increased. By the late 1920s, California began the first of numerous widening projects of what later became part of U.S. Route 101. Today the route through San Mateo and Santa Clara counties is designated as State Route 82, and some stretches of it are named El Camino Real.
An unpaved portion of the original El Camino Real has been preserved just east of Mission San Juan Bautista in San Juan Bautista, California. The old road is part of the de Anza route, located a few miles east of Route 101.
Today, several modern highways cover parts of the historic route, though large sections are on city streets (for instance, most of the stretch between San Jose and San Francisco). Its full modern route, as defined by the California State Legislature, is as follows:
Some older local roads that parallel these routes also have the name. Many streets throughout California today bear the name of this famous road, often with little factual relation to the original; but Mission Street in San Francisco does correspond to the historical route. A surviving, unpaved stretch of the old road has been preserved next to Mission San Juan Bautista; this section of road actually runs parallel to the line of the San Andreas Fault, which can be clearly seen because the ground drops several feet.
Note that the official California El Camino Real route misses most of the original 21 missions. The most visible today is probably Mission San Miguel, located just off Highway 101 on the Salinas River.
In 1892, Anna Pitcher of Pasadena, California initiated an effort to preserve the as-yet uncommemorated route of Alta California’s Camino Real, an effort adopted by the California Federation of Women's Clubs in 1902. Modern El Camino Real was one of the first state highways in California. Given the lack of standardized road signs at the time, it was decided to place distinctive bells along the route, hung on supports in the form of an 11-foot (3.4 m) high shepherd's crook, also described as "a Franciscan walking stick." The first of 450 bells were unveiled on August 15, 1906 at the Plaza Church in the Pueblo near Olvera Street in Los Angeles.
The original organization which installed the bells fragmented, and the Automobile Club of Southern California and associated groups cared for the bells from the mid-1920s through 1931. The State took over bell maintenance in 1933. Most of the bells eventually disappeared due to vandalism, theft or simple loss due to the relocation or rerouting of highways and roads. After a reduction in the number of bells to around 80, the State began replacing them, at first with concrete, and later with iron. A design first produced in 1960 by Justin Kramer of Los Angeles was the standard until the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) began a restoration effort in 1996.
Keith Robinson, Principal Landscape Architect at Caltrans developed an El Camino Real restoration program which resulted in the installation of 555 El Camino Real Bell Markers in 2005. The Bell Marker consists of a 460 mm diameter cast metal bell set atop a 75 mm diameter Schedule 40 pipe column that is attached to a concrete foundation using anchor rods. The original 1906 bell molds were used to fabricate the replacement bells. The replacement and original bells were produced by the California Bell Company, are dated 1769 to 1906, and include a designer's copyright notice.
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El Camino Real is designated as California Historical Landmark #784. There are two state historical markers honoring the road: one located near Mission San Diego de Alcalá in San Diego and the other one near Mission San Francisco de Asís in San Francisco.
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