The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1975, Volume 21, Number 2
James E. Moss, Editor
Thomas L. Scharf, Assistant Editor

Book Review

David J. Weber, Book Reviw Editor

The King’s Highway in Baja California: An Adventure into the History and Lore of a Forgotten Region. By Harry Crosby. San Diego: Copley Books, 1974. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. Notes. 182 pages. $14.50.

Reviewed by Howard E. Gulick, co-author of the popular and dependable Lower California Guidebook (1956, 1958, 1962,1967), and author of Nayarit, Mexico (1965). Few people know Baja California as well as Mr. Gulick, who recently retired from the City of Glendale Public Service Department.

Here is a book about Baja California which presents an aspect of that rugged peninsula which will be almost unrecognizable to those who have recently come to know Baja California for its narrow black-topped highway, beautiful beaches, and fine sport fishing. The field it covers is even mostly outside the areas known to those who have pursued the rough side roads to where they end at little ranches.

Some years ago Harry Crosby received an assignment to retrace the trail traveled in 1769 by the Portolá-Serra expedition from Loreto in Baja California to San Francisco Bay, California. His mission was to photograph the land and the Camino Real as Serra might have seen it. His photographs illustrated The Call to California (1968), with text written by Richard F. Pourade. Now Crosby has written his own book, also profusely and beautifully illustrated with his photographs, about his adventures in locating and retracing that old trail through Baja California from Loreto to the California border.

In preparation he had to learn where the old Camino Real was located, for this old trail from mission to mission does not follow the route of present-day roads. These follow the plains where possible, but the old trail went along and through the mountains. This was a more direct route and passed through areas where scarce water could be located.

The key to locating the old Camino Real was in a few sketchy itineraries of trips made in Jesuit times and later. These mentioned only a few intermediate place names between missions, but these were sufficient to suggest the approximate route.

Crosby and his companion started their journey from Loreto, which had been Junipero Serra’s point of departure in 1769. To guide them they found men who knew the back country and were acquainted with the traditional location of the trail in their immediate areas. Many sections were still being traveled by pack animal to reach isolated ranches along the way. Confirmation that the guides were correct was made by checking against the historical itineraries, for most of the place names have remained for over 200 years to the present day.

Unmistakable evidence that they were truly on the old Camino Real was the trail itself, which was far different from trails more recently established. This had been a real road, though the missionaries had not used wheeled vehicles. Where the terrain had permitted its preservation the road was wide and straight. It was lined along the edges with rocks removed from its surface. Connecting these obvious stretches were other stretches where the guides’ knowledge of the route was indispensable, for many canyons had to be crossed where the trail was in a badly eroded, almost impassable condition. The well built trails continued as far north as San Borja Mission.

But this book is much more than a study of the route and description of the trail. The reader follows Crosby and his companion as they search for suitable pack animals and guides. They soon decided they should buy mules instead of renting them. Each of their guides stands out in his own way as an individual. Since each was intimately familiar with only his own local area, it meant a new one must be hired almost every time another mission was reached.

Crosby describes the isolated ranches along the trail. Here he encountered the “unspoiled” traditional culture of old-fashioned rural Baja California, a culture seldom observed by Americans, though some places of this kind are also reached by truck trails in the mountains. Here they experienced hearty welcomes and earnest hospitality. They ate the ranchers’ food, slept in their shelters, and usually payment was refused.

The history of the Baja California missions and missionaries is smoothly worked into the narrative. Both the travelogue and the mission story are enhanced when thus interwoven, for the reader can visualize the events of history against a background of vivid geographical description.

It is probably well that Crosby’s expedition was undertaken when it was. Since then Baja California has been traversed by a paved highway. This has not destroyed the vestiges of that ancient road, nor does it lead to any place on the trail which could not be reached by vehicle before its construction. But it brings much more traffic into villages and mission sites along the trail, and side roads are being built to isolated places. Motor cars and trucks are taking the place of the bestias for travel from place to place and for taking products to market. Some of the old ranches have been abandoned or moved to the edge of the highway. The ranks of men who know and use the old mule trails are thinning out. New families have come to Baja California from mainland Mexico, with no knowledge of the old traditions.

But Harry Crosby expresses optimism that the mountainous country will escape change for a long time, and that it will be reserved for riders and hikers and its own hardy people. It is to be hoped that it will long be possible to obtain mules capable of traversing this rugged country and guides to single out the old road and name the places along the King’s Highway.