The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1977, Volume 23, Number 1
James E. Moss, Editor
Thomas L. Scharf, Assistant Editor

El Camino Real in Baja California: Loreto to San Diego | Mapping El Camino Real  | Road Building in Antigua California
By Harry Crosby

Images from the article | Maps from the article

THE KING’S HIGHWAY IN BAJA CALIFORNIA, published in 1974 with text and photographs by Harry Crosby, contains a narrative account of following El Camino Real from Loreto to Mission San Fernando. It describes, rather minutely, the terrain, botany, people and culture of today — details which far exceed the scope of this article. It is important to note that the maps and data presented here are NOT found in the book. They represent instead an expansion and further pursuit of the subject which was the book’s theme.

The term “El Camino Real” seems to have had its origin in medieval Spain. There it was used to distinguish the principal routes in each district, the roads built or improved with the King’s funds and used to extend his authority either as a route of passage for royal orders or royal arms. Such thoroughfares were patrolled to keep their users safe from bandits. In time, because these better maintained highways were favored by most travellers and transporters of goods, camino real came to mean simply the principal road between any two major centers.

In New Spain (colonial Mexico) the first road building seems to have resulted directly from royal plans and expenditures; therefore, for a time, people may have thought of them collectively as the King’s Highway. Before long they led from Mexico City to regional capitals like Guadalajara and Durango (to the northwest) and then by further branches to other cities and finally to presidios on the frontiers.

Many people today, especially in Alta California, think of El Camino Real as an adjunct of missions, a road which ran from one to another and tied them into a continuous system. Actually the connection between camino real and mission was incidental; it was expedient to the crown that usable roads be built from capitals and centers of commerce to presidios and missions. These two institutions were the cornerstones of Spain’s colonial expansion on the continent and also her devices for stabilizing the uneasy frontiers. Such settlements depended heavily on a ready flow of supplies and communications. Roads built in support of these outposts soon came to serve colonists and towns as well. Camino real once again was simply the main road in an area and that usage survives to this day here and there in the regions which were once colonies of Spain.

In California, by chance, the relation of road and mission was somewhat different, at least in the first years of Christian conquest. After a number of aborted efforts by various combinations of military, civil and religious forces, California, beginning in 1697, was finally opened and converted by the Society of Jesus which had obtained a royal license for that purpose. Under the terms of their license the Jesuits controlled the military which accompanied them and consequently were the masters, under the Crown, of the entire undertaking. Therefore, all road building during their tenure (1697-1767) was actually done at their behest and often under their direct supervision. (See the accompanying article, “Road Building In Antigua California,” as reported in APOSTOLIC ENDEAVORS).

Jesuit needs for roads began as soon as they had consolidated a hold on their first beachhead at Loreto and began to travel to evangelize nearby tribes. Their first recorded trail clearing was on a 1698 entrada to Londó lying to the north (see Map I) and the first heavy duty road building began in 1699 when they had to cross the cordillera to the west to found Mission San Francisco Javier de Biaundó. Here, as was often to prove the case in subsequent constructions, an already old Indian trail was used as the base of the new trail cleared for pack and riding animals.

From these beginnings a system of road-trails was extended with each new mission establishment. The principal thrust in early years was toward the northwest; by 1734 roads had been opened as far as 28° N. latitude, the present boundary between the two states of Baja California. Progress to the south did not really begin until 1720 when La Paz received a mission. Thereafter trails were constructed all over the cape region and even between La Paz and Loreto. However, the difficulty of the terrain, shortages of food and water, and the hostility of southern tribes conspired to prevent the roads of the south from serving as vitally as those of the north and made other means of transport more attractive. For many years vessels sailing on the gulf were favored over land travel as a means of getting supplies from the presidio and mother mission at Loreto to the establishments of the south.

Meanwhile, on the northern frontier, the missionaries found the people more congenial and their efforts were rewarded with great numbers of conversions. In consequence Jesuit energy was channelled more toward the expansion of their northern frontier then toward developing the rebellious south. When the Society of Jesus was expelled in 1767, interest in the north was unabated. José de Gálvez sent Gaspar de Portolá north to found San Diego and Monterey. The camino real which the Jesuits had built as far as Mission Santa María (see Map VII) was pressed into use by Portolá’s forces and by all those who labored after them with supplies and reinforcements.

By 1771 the pioneers of Alta California had selected the best route from Santa María to San Diego and had put it to regular use; El Camino Real in Baja California essentially was complete, a few minor additions and changes would be added in fifty more years of Spanish rule.

In Alta California the special connection between missionaries and road construction seen in Antigua California did not continue. The Franciscans who established the new northern missions did not control their military escort so their relationship to the developing camino real was little different from that of religious orders with missions in any other part of New Spain.

This paper presents a study of a route and its road construction which connects Loreto, the capital of Antigua California with San Diego, the first and most southerly establishment of Alta California. This route is designated here as El Camino Real in deference both to old Spanish tradition and popular California conceptions. Here is a road which was heavily used during the development of Upper California; some knowledge of its location and history is a worthy adjunct to general California studies. The Camino Real leading northward from San Diego has been thoroughly traced and published. The present study will show what preceded it and is offered as a foundation or prologue to Alta California happenings. This first California communication link long ago fell from use and even from sight, but it was once the vital land route which tied Mexico City, by way of San Blas and Loreto, to the New California of San Diego and Monterey.

The character of El Camino Real during its active life was that of a carefully cleared trail which traversed the length of the peninsula as directly as possible while conforming to several demands and limitations. These requirements, in brief, were that it touch at the principal population centers (missions), that it pass near water and food for beasts of burden used on it, and that it traverse terrain that could be made passable without efforts which would prove unreasonably heroic or expensive. Occasionally not all these factors could be reconciled and a few compromises resulted. For example, the mission of Santa Rosalia de Mulegé lay too far off the route which was otherwise best for through traffic passing to the north from Loreto. Therefore this mission was served by a sideroad. Elsewhere it will be noted that alternate routes had to be developed to combat heat or waterless conditions during some seasons. However, despite exceptions, the best generalization would be that El Camino Real was remarkably direct, so much so, in fact, that directness proves to be an excellent criterion when looking for “lost” stretches of trail, parts which have dropped from use and suffered serious erosion.

The southern half of the road lies over primarily volcanic terrain, much of it very uneven and strewn with countless pieces of fractured basalt. The construction of the road typically consisted of clearing all surface rock fragments to make a level path about two to three meters in width. When this trail had to change elevations the original Jesuit builders engineered excellent switchback grades traditionally called cuestas. In many cases these involved the construction of walls made of dry-laid rock which were then back-filled with earth and other rock fragments. The building of cuestas was formidable work and often required the removal, or at least shifting, of large stones.

At first the soldiers did all the work which required tools or skill. In a very short time however the neophytes were trained in the necessary but relatively uncomplicated mechanical procedures. Thereafter it appears that priests usually planned overall projects and selected routes. Soldiers acted as foremen and Indians provided the labor. The remains of El Camino Real give eloquent testimony of the wisdom, the skill and the immense labor which went into its building.

The best preserved stretches of the road are on mesas and in the mountains where much work had to be done to create a roadbed. Low flat areas rarely show a trace of the old road today because the battering storms of more than one hundred and fifty years have washed over them since the last royal employees worked on their maintenance. It is exceptionally fortunate that most of the first half of El Camino Real in Baja California was built over mesas and mountains, exactly the sort of terrain where its traces were most likely to endure. The builders, like the Indians before them, had to follow a path which led from water supply to water supply. These, whether springs or catchments, were much more frequent in the higher elevations which consist mostly of rock. This relatively impervious material tends to bring or keep water at or near the surface. In the sandy lower country any water is usually too far below the surface to be available unless deep wells are dug.

In the northern part of the peninsula conditions for the survival of old road constructions were not nearly as good. The high Sierra de San Pedro Mártir and greater rainfall produce larger flows of runoff water which can be obtained quite near the coast in soft sedimentary rock. The road in the north therefore was not only built on a less resistant base but was also exposed to greater erosion. As a result very little of the actual road construction can be detected north of Mission Santa María (although the route can be traced by other means).

The southern two thirds of the Baja California peninsula displays a maze of usable trails and, upon close study, remnants or other evidence of manmade routes now too eroded to trace at length. In order to pinpoint a particular route and cite it as El Camino Real, or the principal north-south road of the period from 1700 to 1820, more evidence is needed than the palpable remains of a trail. This evidence is available from three different sources.

The best proof of the old road’s location is documentary. Many records exist which mention places along El Camino Real. (see annotated bibliography) When they are combined, a long list of names is obtained, which, for most stretches, clearly indicated the general routing of traffic. This essential information is made useful however only to the extent to which we can locate old placenames. The resolution of that problem is intimately related to a second source of data: tradition.

Any student of Baja California hinterlands quickly learns that the events of one hundred or more years ago are not lost or forgotten. The present population of the remote areas in the southern part of the peninsula are descended from the same people who used the old roads a century or more in the past. Virtually all place-names in use in those earlier times are still used or are readily identified and located, particularly by older people. The student of such matters soon learns to respect the accuracy of such traditions because he usually has additional means of identifying at least some of the places in which he is interested. He notices that specific descriptions, surviving constructions, etc. nearly always tally with the reports of his local guides. Tradition serves in two ways. It locates and it provides us with direct surviving knowledge as to the whereabouts of the old road.

A third source of evidence lies in the remains of the trails themselves. The Jesuits had certain ways of working and, after following stretches of road unequivocally built under their direction, it is fairly simple to distinguish their work from subsequent constructions. This is particularly true with respect to El Camino Real because so much of it lay through country which has had a very small population and little economic development. People in such places have therefore built only simple inter-ranch footpaths and virtually never a thoroughfare which could be confused with the Jesuit road which came to be used as El Camino Real.

The Jesuit proclivity for selecting direct routes and constructing straight roads has been noted along with some of the factors which curbed their desires. However they were not easily detoured. These religious taskmasters were not loathe to expend the labor of their soldiers and Indians in removing sizable obstacles. This distinguishes Jesuit roads from nearly all subsequent work in the Baja California uplands. When open country was available, Jesuit trails were layed out as if by transit. Their remarkable straightness exceeds that of the best work by subsequent ranchers, miners, etc.

When cuestas had to be constructed the Jesuit builders called for many walls and the use of large amounts of fill material. Their generally wide roads on steep grades contrast with later constructions which are no wider or more elaborately built than was necessary for a safe passage.

A fourth source of evidence, negative evidence in a sense, can be employed to justify the final placement of El Camino Real. Alternate routes can be sought which would also meet the criteria suggested for identifying the old road. In a number of places there are long or short alternate and roughly parallel trails. These must be accounted for in order to have complete confidence in a final selection. Some can be eliminated by library research. A number of trails can be positively identified as the work of certain companies or individuals who kept records. A useful example is that of El Boleo, a coppermining concern which operated fifty ranches in the greater Santa Rosalia area between 1900 and 1950 and built an elaborate system of roads to serve them. Local tradition likewise can identify a number of trails and associate them with specific ventures subsequent to the era of El Camino Real. Finally, these alternates can be examined carefully to determine the mode of construction and to find evidence of hard and long use.

When all these tests are applied to alternate routes, some still give evidence of having been built and having served during the epoch of the royal road. These must be considered legitimate alternates either coexisting with another choice or representing a route used before or after. Incidentally, not all such alternates need be the subject of conjecture. For example, there is a wealth of documentary evidence for the existence and simultaneous use of the two trails from Mission La Purisima to Mission San Ignacio. One, the more direct, went by way of Mission Guadalupe and was used by nearly all through traffic. The other went by way of Guajademí to Mission Santa Rosalía de Mulegé and was used by those who had business at the latter mission.

Other alternates in simultaneous use might have offered seasonal advantages. For example, the eastern route from Mission Santa Gertrudis to Mission San Borja is substantially shorter and easier on loaded animals. Nevertheless it is extremely hot and poorly supplied with water in a typical summer season whereas the western alternate has an average elevation over 300 meters higher and is exposed to Pacific breezes as well as having more frequent springs and water catchments.

Some sets of alternates probably reflect different patterns of usage. For instance, the three routes through the Sierra de San Juan represent not only a situation comparable to the one described in the Sierra de San Borja, but also an additional factor. During part of the mission period the western route was established to connect various ranches and visiting stations with the mother missions of San Ignacio and Santa Gertrudis. Though this route was the longest and perhaps the most difficult of the three, during that time it offered welcome breaks at inhabited places and, possibly more important, plentiful mission labor to insure excellent trail maintenance. This last was no small matter; each major storm could wash away the soft materials from the roadbed exposing a new jumble of boulders which had to be cleared away.

But whether a single clearly defined construction or a complex of parallel trails, the consecutive parts of El Camino Real add up to a coherent, logical pathway over which it is still quite practical to ride the length of the peninsula. The trail still exists in written records, in men’s memories and in surviving constructions. The purpose of this work is to translate a summary of this information into map form in order to make it accessible to students of California history.