How El Camino Real, California's 'Royal Road,' Was Invented

Along Highway 101 between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, cast metal bells spaced one or two miles apart mark what is supposedly a historic route through California: El Camino Real. Variously translated as "the royal road," or, more freely, "the king's highway," El Camino Real was indeed among the state's first long-distance, paved highways. But the road's claim to a more ancient distinction is less certain. The message implied by the presence of the mission bells -- that motorists' tires trace the same path as the missionaries' sandals -- is largely a myth imagined by regional boosters and early automotive tourists.

Although the definite article in the road's name suggests otherwise, California's El Camino Real was just one of many administrative roads that stretched through Spain's New World empire. These highways linked Spanish settlements in far-flung provinces to administrative centers. One well-established trail in Baja California preceded Alta California's by several decades. Another extended from Mexico City to Sonora and thence to Santa Fe.

In Alta California, one such road helped link the presidios (military forts), pueblos (civilian towns), and religious missions that Spain furiously began building in 1769 to parry the territorial ambitions of Russia and Britain. But the stories told today about the footpath diverge from its actual history. The road's exact route was not fixed; the actual path changed over time as weather, mode of travel, and even the tides dictated. Furthermore, while the road provided local transportation links between colonial settlements, the primitive highway was eclipsed in importance by a water route between Southern and Northern California. Boats rather than the so-called royal road usually transported goods and passengers over long distances.

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