The Bells of El Camino Real – San Luis Obispo, California - Atlas Obscura
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San Luis Obispo, California

The Bells of El Camino Real

A chain of bells connect the California Missions and honor the legend of the "King’s Highway." 

According to lore, the story of El Camino Real, alternately known as the “Royal Road” or the “King’s Highway,” starts in the early days of  California under Spanish colonial rule. The story goes that there was a trail that hooked up the 21 missions established by the Franciscans so that any distance between the settlements was only a day away by horseback.

Honoring that old route with a string of lovely bells hanging from shepherds’ staffs would be a great way to commemorate its vaunted history, if only that history were true.

In reality, such a distinct route didn’t really exist at that time, although certain sections of it did. In 18th and 19th century California, many roads were called Camino Real, not just one singular path traversed by missionaries hopscotching up and down the coast. Still, the dangling bells are lovely things to try and spy along the highway.

How the lore of El Camino Real came to be has a history of its own. In the early 20th century, automobiles were first tightening their grip on the Golden State. Joining forces in California Boosterism were then-popular women’s clubs, real estate developers, and the relatively new Automobile Club of Southern California. In an effort to improve the state’s roads, thereby allowing for more development (and the sale of new cars), the “historic” El Camino Real was born. Paving projects got underway to hook up the daisy chain of missions, presidios and other outposts, and in 1906 the first bells appeared.

Over the 20th century many of the originals were lost or stolen from the route, but in the late 1990s a full-on restoration and “replanting” of the old bells was underway. From the bottom of the Royal Road at Mission San Diego to the northern-most Mission San Francisco Solano in the town of Sonoma, the new bells (and if you’re lucky, a few of the originals) provide motorists with an excellent treasure hunt opportunity, if not a perfect history lesson. 

Know Before You Go

As you travel highways 101 and 82, keep your eyes open for the bells on the sides of the road. The website California Highways provides a useful map of the full route and list of the Missions. The route begins at Mission San Diego de Alcala and ends at Mission San Francisco Solano in the town of Sonoma.