The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1976, Volume 22, Number 2
James E. Moss, Editor

By Harry W. Crosby

An article entitled “Problems of the Serra Route,” by Dr. Ronald L. Ives was published in the Fall, 1975 issue of The Journal of San Diego History. The structure of this article, certain items of information presented as facts, and some of its conclusions or implications are so controversial on the one hand or so irrelevant on the other that Ives’ contribution bids for a place as another problem of the Serra Route.

This response to Ives’ article does not intend to cavil at the author’s thesis; there certainly are problems in determining Serra’s route from Loreto, Baja California, to San Diego in 1769. However, the work in question fails to place them in perspective with what is known beyond reasonable doubt. In addition, a major part of the article is devoted to material which bears only marginally on the stated subject and hence seems more inclined to obscure than enlighten.

What are the problems of the Serra Route? The Franciscan Father Junípero Serra and most of the other members of the Portolá-Serra expedition left from Loreto and used the existing road developed earlier by the Jesuits northward to Mission San Borja. >From there they followed a less formally constructed, but well-known and marked trace to Velicatá, the eventual site of Mission San Fernando. Most of them apparently omitted the long detour to Mission Santa Rosalía and went directly from Mission La Purísima Concepción to Mission Guadalupe, a practice common also to Jesuit travellers such as Visitor-General Lizasoain who left a detailed itinerary of his 1762 journey. Thus the so-called Serra Route as far as Velicatá was no more or less than the local stretch of El Camino Real. All of this road can be located within an area less than one mile wide for the entire distance. Much of it can be found as a single unequivocal trail and most of the rest can be located within the confines of single watercourses or single inter-arroyo passes. As Ives rightly observes, the greatest uncertainty is in crossing broad arroyos or infrequent plains, places where considerable stretches have been obliterated by erosion. Even in such instances however, it is known where the trail entered and emerged from the problem terrain, and experience clearly indicates that it was the Jesuits’ practice to travel in a straight line wherever possible, so, as a generalization, we can confidently fill in such gaps on our charts adhering to that Jesuit practice.

In the course of following El Camino Real in Baja California in 1769 there were places where alternate routes were available. In addition, alternate routes were added in subsequent years, trails which confuse us when we are concerned with the usage of a certain period. Determining which route Serra took in each case is a nice piece of detective work, and, while Ives goes into this problem piecemeal, he does not outline its scope or deal with all its parts.

In summary, Serra followed a previously established and reasonably well documented trail to Velicatá. The “problems” with that section are minor and there is much evidence with which to work. From Velicatá northward the advance guard of the two-part expedition struck out into little-explored territory and had to make its own trail or follow visible Indian traces. The second group simply followed the first. The route chosen was high in the mountains, slow and difficult. Subsequent experience demonstrated that Captain Fernando de Rivera y Moncada’s belief that they had to stay high in order to insure adequate water was in error. As a result, the route was little used or documented after the initial groups had passed and much of it dropped out of use in the year or two which followed. For the stretch roughly between San Juan de Dios and Valladares no traces of 1769 trailwork apparently remain. The diaries which describe this section are disappointingly brief and at times ambiguous in their descriptions of the terrain and the route followed. Nevertheless, Ives, in his article, Margaret Mollins and Virginia Thickens in their article, “Putting a lid on California,” published in the California Historical Quarterly in 1952, and Harry Crosby in his recently published book, The King’s Highway in Baja California, have analyzed these diaries and projected them onto reasonably accurate maps. In addition, this writer has attempted to use the diaries to follow the route on the ground, a method which can display the weaknesses of ideas generated by looking only at maps. None of these researchers have suggested any important discrepancies. All three inquiries substantially agree. Given the shortcomings of the original documents and the character of the country, it is certainly true that we may never know which side of each hill they went around or which of two parallel watercourses they traversed. However, we know the character and abilities of the men we are following. We know what they accomplished in Alta California. We know the terrain they crossed, where they entered it and where they emerged. Reading their words and traversing the land either in fact or by map provides convincing proof that their route is located within a rather narrow corridor. Thus, with sufficient accuracy to satisfy most needs, the whereabouts of the Serra Route even in the least-known stretch has been adequately located.

In the guise of commenting on the problems of the Serra Route, Ives actually treats us to a rambling illustrated lecture on the geography, geology, climate, and cartography of Baja California. Much of this seems out of place; some might reasonably appear in a general work on the peninsula, but it seems inappropriate in an article concerned with tracing the final intricacies of Father Serra’s steps. The elaborate attention to rainfall data is redundant in this context. The very low rainfall, a fact which can be established to most people’s satisfaction with far fewer charts and graphs, probably simplifies all problems concerning the whereabouts of El Camino Real and Serra’s use of it. A lack of water in low country forced the aborigines first, and the Jesuits who followed, to locate trails on high ground where both springs and catchments were more common and reliable. This high terrain was and is infinitely better suited to preserving traces of trails than almost any of the lower, more easily traversed topography which surely would have been preferred had water been available. Furthermore the general dryness has preserved the record-bearing surfaces in the upland for longer than would have been the case in wetter climes. The student of trails, routes and the like can give thanks for the prolonged aridity. Ives details it at great length, but never really explains how he feels all this effort applies to his thesis.

The same is true when Ives discusses trail formation. The trails with which we are concerned in Baja California are demonstrably the handwork of men. From the simplest Indian footpaths of pre-hispanic times to the dirt auto roads of today and the immediate past, the ways have been laid out and cleared with remarkably singleminded intelligence. The route selected was the most direct possible consonant with the technology available to the builders and the limitations of the animals and machines for which it was made. If we stick to the pursuit of the Serra Route, Ives’ statement that “the entire peninsula is crisscrossed with trails, some made by men afoot, others by pack and saddle animals, and still others by wheeled vehicles,” is inaccurate and confusing. We are not concerned with the entire peninsula but mainly with high, rocky ground which certainly displays no trails made by pack or saddle animals or wheeled vehicles. Man, and man alone, clears trails in such country; the feet of animals are not capable of moving rocks of any size out of the way. Nor are automobiles a factor, they simply cannot traverse much of the terrain where El Camino Real was located.

In a series of diagrams and a photograph and in the accompanying text, Ives has much to say about the character and evolution of man and mule trails. Like much else in his article this is difficult to relate to “problems of the Serra Route,” unless we assume that we are receiving background information of a very fundamental lecture. Even if this is all that is intended, errors must be indicated. Also, it would seem that facts which may be accurate enough in other contexts should be pointed out where they really do not apply or are misleading with respect to El Camino Real. For example, Ives states: “The fracturing and subsequent erosion of the surface of the mule trail is almost surely due to iron-shod hooves.” This is patent nonsense. The vast majority of Baja California mules were never shod and the materials of trails are not appreciably fractured by even the heaviest animal traffic. Erosion is due almost entirely to the fact that in building trails men removed rocks, often the larger pieces of desert pavement, from the route and exposed the finer underlying and interstitial materials to wind and water erosion. These trails, once built, would suffer substantially the same fate, whether they were used or not, simply because the protective covering had been breached. Even where trails are very deep, sometimes as much as three or four feet below the original ground level, only a minute part of the depression is due to wear. Such trenches are created by cycles of clearing large rocks from the path to expose earth and smaller rock particles which make a better roadbed. When these erode, as they do quickly on grades, for example, the newly exposed large and troublesome rocks are lifted out and piled along the way and the cycle is repeated.

On the levelest parts of mesas very old trails are surprisingly little eroded because water does not run in them. Examination of their surfaces, certainly much used, does not bear out the contention of wear by hooves, shod or unshod. Indeed, examination of the materials exposed in similar terrain during the construction with hand tools of an auto road to Rancho Carrizito north of San Ignacio showed that the freshly exposed silt and pebbles were virtually identical in appearance to those subjected to centuries of “wear” on an old trail.

In a photograph, Ives shows a foot trail in the Pinacate Sonora volcanic region. He attributes its construction, no doubt correctly, to Areneeño Papagos who hunted and gathered in the region and crossed it to reach salt pans on the gulf to the southwest. But about this trail he adds the following: “So far as can be determined this trail has never been travelled by a shod animal.” This seems like a naive assertion. There are readily available records of mounted men passing through, exploring, hunting in, or running cattle in Pinacate ever since Padre Kino in 1700. (As discussed in Campfires in Desert and Lava by W.T. Hornaday, et al, in 1907, New Trails in Mexico, by Carl Lumholtz in 1909-10, etc.) During the 1960s this writer saw cowboys riding in the area and selecting the old footpaths because they were open and smooth. Ives’ purpose here was to show a typical desert footpath; the photograph does not require this improbable assurance to make its point.

In describing a series of diagrams characterizing mule trails, Ives writes: “Mule trails, wherever found, tend to have some definite characteristics.” One assumes, since he is talking about the Serra Route, that these characteristics apply in some important way to El Camino Real. This is debatable. His diagram dealing with the trailforms created by grazing animals is inapplicable to the problems of locating any part of Serra’s route from Loreto to San Diego. The Indians did not have domestic animals and the Jesuits cleared their trails according to careful plans and then drove animals over them as the need arose. The trails between San Javier and Comondú in whose form Ives detects the patterns of animal grazing surely do not relate to El Camino Real, but represent nothing more than an overlay. The underlying direct trail is probably discernible.

In one of his diagrams, Ives suggests that trails are diffuse as they circle the edges of playas, but direct and narrow when they cut across them. He explains that animals wander to graze in herbage at the edges, but cross these dry lake beds only when they are driven purposefully and hence in straight lines. Even if this situation is encountered along El Camino Real it admits a different interpretation. Trails are straight across playas because men, faced with no restraints, make straight trails, not because they are driving animals, as Ives implies. Additional trails are found around the edges of playas not because animals grazed there, but because after a rain the playa is a sea of muck or, after much drought, it is miserably dusty. The perimeter trail was cleared, often carefully, as a seasonal alternative. It can be said categorically that grazing animals, in Baja California at least, do not create trails whose character confuses the search for El Camino Real. Incidentally, despite Ives’ fondness for the term “grazing,” it is inaccurately applied to most animals in most seasons in Baja California. “Browsing” is a more accurate word.

Another of the diagrams deals with alternate cuestas or grades, one for uphill travel and the other down, or for heavily and lightly laden pack animals. Ives cites an instance near La Bandera Peak, but fails to provide adequate information to identify the grades to which he refers. Just east of Cerro de la Bandera there are two well-known cuestas approximately four hundred yards apart at their respective passes. They are about equally difficult and the difference does not seem to be due to the reasons suggested by Ives. The more westerly, Cuesta de San Venancio, takes a traveller from the south toward San Ignacio over a stretch of El Camino Real which today is very sparsely inhabited. The easterly route drops down to Rancho El Rincón and proceeds to a number of ranches downstream as well as the large village of Santa Agueda and the city of Santa Rosalía. Cuesta San Venancio is much the more impressively engineered of these cuestas, and appears to be the work of the Jesuits. Cuesta del Rincón has more the character of a later ranch route. Because they are so different and because their northern terminuses are more than a mile apart, these cuestas were never alternate routes for uphill and down or for laden and unladen traffic; they were simply different trails which served different purposes. This same logic applies to some other near-parallel routings. Elsewhere, nearly identical and parallel grades have been built for a reason not even suggested by Ives. The original grades became so severely eroded that, in time, it became easier to start afresh rather than to effect repairs. A splendid example can be seen in three closely parallel cuestas which leave Arroyo Santa Gertrudis two or three miles downstream from the mission and head northwest.

In another of his series of diagrams Ives correctly shows a later trail improving the routing of an earlier one. There are instances of typical Jesuit cuesta construction which attempted an impractically steep grade. In such cases the Jesuits themselves or subsequent trail builders provided a substitute of a more workable character. In any event the alternatives are nearly always adjacent to or at least within sight of each other and do not pose serious problems when trying to determine the route in general.

Ives goes on to state that “Mule trails in Baja California went from mission to mission over optimum routes. Optimum here does not mean in a straight line, or over a path of least gradient, but usually entailed detours to reach intermediate water holes and routings that took them through areas of maximum grazing.” (The italics are this writer’s). This statement must be contradicted. It is a very bad generalization which applies in some measure to no more than one or two alternate route situations. For the vast majority of El Camino Real, it ignores the facts. Missions were founded near springs (always) and sources of fodder (where possible). Trails between them followed exactly the pattern which Ives rejects, “a straight line or over a path of least gradient.” His own maps attest to the remarkable directness of El Camino Real, and, where apparent detours occur, they are almost invariably due to topographical obstructions. Jesuit builders were satisfied to combine the water and fodder at the missions with whatever was available along the most direct path. All accounts of missionary travel support the idea that they went as fast as possible between missions, stopping only for a few hours sleep if the trip took more than a long day. Then, at missions, they rested themselves and their animals. The only instance of trail building which supports Ives’ statement is the pair of parallel trails between Santa Gertrudis and San Borja. The problem of these and other alternate routes along El Camino Real will be considered in a subsequent article to be published in a forthcoming issue of this Journal.

The section of Ives’ article devoted to maps shows clearly that he was poorly informed. In addition, his words here seem especially likely to cloud the issues rather than clarify.

With these general trail characteristics outlined, and by use of the numerous diaries and trail descriptions now available, it would seem practicable to plot the Serra route on any map, with great confidence, and considerable ease. This however, is not quite the case. We have map difficulties!

There are perhaps a dozen honestly and competently made maps of Baja California. Augmenting them are some scattered geodetic observations, a number of satellite photographs, and at least two aerial mosaics (whose existence is still ‘officially denied’). All of these data sources are in general agreement, but there are numerous discrepancies of detail, some of them not small. The situation is complicated by migration of place names; and much of the ground surveying is skewed because of local magnetic attractions, most severe in mineralized areas, and near Tres Virgenes Volcano.

A summary study of maps and mapping methods suggests that locations in Baja California now (1975) will not be ‘off’ by more than 2 ½ miles in latitude and 5 miles in longitude (worst case); and that most of them are much more accurate. Additionally, during the last few decades, distances in Baja California have been refined from ‘dos o tres horas, poco mas o menos’ to a definite number of kilometers, often correct.

Much of this is a distortion of the situation facing a researcher in 1975. Aerial mosaics not only exist, but are available to the man in the street. This writer and several friends have bought these openly in Mexico City for at least the past five years. The source where one buys them (with no red tape or other difficulty) is:


11 de Abril No. 338
México 18, D.F.
Tel. 516-07-40

These aerials cover the peninsula and are typically of high quality although not all on the same scale. The more detailed (at a scale of 1:30,000) is so clear that many parts of El Camino Real and other trails are readily visible. Most ranches are also distinguishable.

The map situation was also remarkably good by 1975. Ninety percent of the peninsula north of the 28th parallel, in other words, half the total area, was covered by the 1:50,000 series put out in Mexico by “CETENAL” (Comisión de Estudios del Territorio Nacional). Thus, for the most problematical part of the Serra Route, that from Santa Gertrudis northward and especially the stretch from Velicatá to San Diego, there was available at the time of Ives’ writing a map whose scale and topographical accuracy were all a scholar could reasonably expect to find.

Beside that, for several years prior to the appearance of this coverage, there was the supposedly restricted Series F 501 put out by the Army Map Service and made to a scale of 1:250,000. A number of sets found their way into the collections of major universities in departments of geology, botany, oceanography and the like. Certainly a serious researcher could have gained access to this mapping or, failing that, he could have bought monochrome copies which were available for years from Tucson Blueprint Co., Tucson, Arizona.

For Baja California Sur the map situation is markedly poorer but not as bad as Ives implies. The old 1:500,000 series put out by the Comisión Intersecretarial Coordinadora del Levantamiento de la Carta Geográfica de la República Mexicana has been available since 1959 and presumably is the map whose difficulties are pointed out by Ives. 1:500,000 is admittedly a poor working scale for anyone seriously trying to plot a trail. Nevertheless, the fine topographical detail of this map makes it quite accurate and useful. In field surveys it is possible to utilize color and black and white enlargements raised to a scale of 1:100,000. Where this map has failed to clarify problems, it is always possible to resort to the aforementioned aerial photographs.

The practical significance of Ives’ reservations about the quantity or accuracy of geodetic observations or ground surveying is questionable. If there are available maps which are filled in with contours reflecting all the major topographical features, it is of minor import if the whole carpet, as it were, is skewed a little one way or the other. In other words, we should be more concerned with placing the Serra Route in the correct arroyos and having it cross the right passes than in getting its exact latitude and longitude. Ives incidentally fails to explain why he presents us a map based on a relatively crude 1:1,000,000 base which has only primitive topographical information. Even if space considerations forced him to transfer his indication of the route to a smaller map there is no excuse for numerous major errors; for instance, his gross distortion of both the shape and location of the Sierra de San Borja or his showing El Camino Real entering Santa Gertrudis from due south, a route rendered impossible by the rugged Sierra de San Juan which lies athwart his dotted line. All these errors and many others could have been avoided by simply using the long available 1:500,000 series of maps.

Among his remarks about maps Ives included an amazing (and unexplained) piece of intelligence: “Additionally, during the last few decades, distances in Baja California have been refined from ‘dos o tres horas, poco mas o menos’ to a definite number of kilometers, often correct.” One can only speculate on the connection of this statement with maps, the context in which it is printed. It would seem to tell us that people in the last few decades have become better informed as to quantitative aspects of local geography. If that is indeed the intent of the statement, its validity can be denied, at least along El Camino Real. Precisely during the decades to which Ives refers, the younger people have become an auto-road oriented group. The best guides (and the most accurate facts and figures) for mountain trails are found among older men.

There are other scattered errors in Ives’ article. Spanish suffers a few abuses; dust storms are incorrectly called “tormentos secos” instead of tormentas secas and the time of cyclonic storms, the autumnal equinox, is called “Corondazo” season instead of cordonazo. This last, by the way, is a picturesque term. The season of these storms coincides with the feast of San Francisco de Asis, the founder of the Franciscan order which is associated with rope. The word cordonazo means a ropelash.

Ives states that “tinajas (water catchments) are found in plunge pools eroded into the harder rocks by ephemeral stream flows.” Actually, the vast majority of tinajas are worn into the softest volcanic agglomerates, not basalt as his statement, in context, implies.

In several places Ives refers to grass as mule fodder on upland plateaus and says that it is more plentiful there than on lower ground. Actually, true grasses are not abundant enough in a typical year to form a significant part of a mule’s diet. Grasses are probably more common at any time on the lowest levels than on the rocky mesas. Surely we must interpret his term “grass” to mean any sort of annual herb on which pack and saddle animals can browse.

In a passing reference to the peninsular chain of Jesuit missions, Ives calls “most of them successful.” It is unfortunate that he did not include some notion of his criterion for success. A casual reader could be badly led astray here. These missions were “successful” in terms of the missionary orders with their zeal for spiritual and temporal control over non-Christian people. They were much less successful not only as seen from our historical perspective, but even as viewed in their own time by secular authority. Spain, having claimed the land, hoped to create through the missions a hispanized population subject to the king. It is not too much to say that the Spanish government envisioned the missions as the opening force which would lead to a citizenry capable of defending the area, making it a haven for Spanish shipping, and yielding by its labor prosperity to the region and a return to the crown. As a matter of fact these “successful” missions, for reasons beyond control of the missionaries, independently failed to feed, clothe or house their neophytes. They all required the constant input of funds from sources apart from the peninsula and all of them ministered to rapidly diminishing populations as imported diseases decimated the converts.

Elsewhere Ives remarks that the expedition of “the Serra Party” was a success, “but the personnel were sadly reduced by death and desertions.” This also could mislead a reader not intimately familiar with the story. Neither “the Serra Party” nor the group preceding, led by Captain Rivera and Father Juan Crespi, suffered any deaths or desertions among their Spanish-Mexican people. A number of Indians did desert and several died, but the facts would not seem to warrant the conclusion that the expedition’s personnel was “sadly reduced,” particularly with respect to desertion. While still in Velicatá, before the really trying part of the journey began, Crespí wrote in his diary that their group was to include “some forty California Indians, new Christians, from the last Missions, for the labor of opening roads and other things that might come up. However, that number was not completed, for some did not reach Velicatá, but fled back to their missions while on the road.” (In Palóu: Historical Memoirs of New California, page 45) We can scarcely wonder that these natives, newly converted, taken far from any land they knew and asked to do hard work, might lose heart and desert. When we learn further that they were essentially not fed, but expected to forage for food along the way, we wonder that any remained. Ives’ statement, while not exactly inaccurate, fails to reflect the complete survival and loyalty of the European-Mexican contingent or the character of the Indian participation.

In an article to be published in a forthcoming issue of this Journal, the author will present a concise description and mapping of El Camino Real as it has emerged from his field and library research. Special emphasis will be placed on tracing authentic alternate routes built and used during the old road’s century or more of mission use.



Crosby, Harry, The King’s Highway in Baja California (San Diego: Copley Books, 1974)

Hornaday, William T., Campfires on Desert and Lava, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925)

Ives, Ronald L., “Problems of the Serra Route,” The Journal of San Diego History, Vol. XXI, No. 4 (Fall 1975), pp. 21-37

Lizasoain, Ignacio. Noticia de la visita general del Padre Ignacio Lizasoain, Visitor General de las Missiones de Nueva España, que comenzo dia 4 de Abril 1761 y se concluye a fines de Henero de 1763, con algunas notas y adiciones. University of Texas Library at Austin, W. B. Steven Collection, manuscript of 46 pp., dated 1761-1763.

Lumholtz, Carl, New Trails in Mexico (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912) Palóu, Fray Francisco O.F.M., Historical Memoir of New California (edited by H.E. Bolton, Berkeley: University of California, 1926)

Thickens, Virginia, and Mollins, Margaret, “Putting a lid on California: An Unpublished ‘Diary of the Portolá Expedition by José de Cañizares,” California Historical Quarterly, Vol. XXXI, Nos. 2,3,4, 1952.

Harry Williams Crosby, born in Seattle in 1926, has lived in La Jolla since 1935. He graduated from Occidental College in 1948 and taught in San Diego Unified Schools until 1963. As a photographic illustrator, Crosby went to Baja California in 1967 to photograph the Portolá-Serra Route for Copley Books (The Call to California. San Diego: Copley Books, 1969). As a result of this experience, he began research on Baja California history and pre-history. Since then he has written two books, The King’s Highway in Baja California and The Cave Paintings of Baja California (San Diego: Copley Books, 1974 and 1975). He is now involved with research and writing of a book on Gente De Razón, Mexican pioneer families in Baja California. Crosby has lectured extensively on Baja California topics at various institutions including the San Diego History Center Institute of History (1974), the Fine Arts Museum of San Diego (1974), UCLA and USC (1975), Scripps Institution of Oceanography (1975), Baja California Symposium-Riverside (1975), and Ensenada Cultural Symposium (1974).