The amazing thing about the West Coast is that it is still mostly wild, open, and astoundingly beautiful country, where you can drive for miles and miles and have the scenery all to yourself.
El Camino Real and the California Missions
While the American colonies were busy rebelling against the English Crown, a handful of Spaniards and Mexicans were establishing outposts and blazing an overland route up the California coast, along the New World’s most distant frontier. Beginning in 1769 with the founding of a fortress and a Franciscan mission at San Diego, and culminating in 1823 with the founding of another outpost at what is now San Francisco, a series of small but self-reliant religious colonies was established, each a day’s travel apart and linked by El Camino Real, The King’s Highway, a route followed roughly by today’s US‑101.
Some of the most interesting missions are listed here, north to south, followed by the dates of their founding.
San Francisco Solano (1823). The only mission built under Mexican rule stands at the heart of Sonoma, a history-rich Wine Country town.
San Antonio de Padua (1771). This reconstructed church, still in use as a monastery, stands in an undeveloped valley inland from Big Sur in the middle of Fort Hunter Liggett Army training center. Monks still live, work, and pray here, making for a marvelously evocative visit (learn more on the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road and Mission San Antonio de Padua page).
San Miguel Arcángel (1797). This is the only mission not to have undergone extensive renovations and restorations—almost everything, notably the vibrantly colorful interior murals, is as it was.
La Purisima (1787). A quiet coastal valley is home to this church, which was restored in the 1930s using traditional methods as part of a New Deal employment and training project (learn more on the Lompoc and La Purisima Mission page).
San Gabriel Arcángel (1771). Once the most prosperous of the California missions, it now stands quietly and all but forgotten off a remnant of Route 66 east of Los Angeles.