On a Mission: An 800-mile Walk to Discover California’s El Camino Real


Editor’s Note: We warmly welcome journalist Maggie Espinosa as she shares her experience of traveling–on foot–the 800 miles of California’s El Camino Real. You’ll want to learn more about her fascinating pilgrimage! –Barb

Courtesy of Maggie Espinosa. All rights reserved.

Courtesy of Maggie Espinosa. All rights reserved.

‘In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, amen,” were the priest’s final words of his blessing for me before I embarked from the Mission San Diego de Alcala to walk 800 miles along the El Camino Real, visiting California’s 21 missions. I wasn’t soul searching. I’m not an endurance athlete. I’m an ordinary 54-year old woman.

Why, then, did I take on such an endeavor? Perhaps the answer would come with the steps. Do I believe in God? Yes. Do I pray? Yup. But, that’s not what this was about. I love to set goals and meet them. It’s part of who I am. It springs from my younger years when I didn’t complete a few major tasks, which I regret. I didn’t know how much this lofty ambition would push me to my limit.

I divided my peregrination into 12 months, taking four days each month to cover approximately 75 miles, with Amtrak as my chauffeur to and fro. Google maps and “A Hiker’s Guide to California’s 21 Spanish Missions” were my compass. Before launch, I sent an email inviting friends and family to join me on any segment of the excursion. A surprising number said yes.

My buddy, Tracey Elliott, signed up for the first leg in November 2013, from San Diego to San Juan Capistrano. After two days and 45 miles of winding through Kearny Mesa, Torrey Pines and Cardiff, we entered Oceanside’s Mission San Luis Rey. “You’re mission walkers,” exclaimed a church volunteer as we ambled into the chapel, laden with our backpacks. Unbeknown to us, we were rock stars in the ecumenical world.

Fueled with false bravado, we continued north to our destination. During the remaining 20-plus-mile days, life stories were regaled, jaw-dropping sunsets witnessed and thousands of laughs shared.

Courtesy of Maggie Espinosa. All rights reserved.

Courtesy of Maggie Espinosa. All rights reserved.

This was the blueprint each month. My fellow pilgrims were from all walks of life, ages, professions and religious beliefs — a flight attendant, a Franciscan Friar, a medical writer, a pet groomer, an architect — all brought together by California’s Royal Road.

Along the way, my companions and I expected sore bodies and pep talks when fatigue commandeered our fervor. What we didn’t expect was the kindness of strangers. The California Mission Walkers (CMW), a group of El Camino Real enthusiasts, followed my escapades on Facebook. Having never met any members, I was astonished when affiliates asked to walk with me, and with nothing more than an email to acquaint us, graciously provided guest rooms and meals to my cadre.

A few months into the walk, my father passed away in Florida from a stroke. The following weeks were dedicated to processing the loss, planning his memorial and flying east to lay him to rest. With a heavy heart, I reluctantly resumed my walk in May. I needed to cover twice as much ground to make up for lost mileage. As I fought off tears, I asked myself, What was keeping me going? Sheer will prompted me to put one foot in front of the other. I thought about the time when I phoned Dad to tell him I was walking past a field of our favorite vegetable — artichokes. He had chuckled.

Courtesy of Maggie Espinosa. All rights reserved.

Courtesy of Maggie Espinosa. All rights reserved.

In subsequent months, CMW members, family and friends continued to traverse the King’s Highway with me, softening the loss. We geocached through the redwoods, dined overlooking Morro Rock, toured Salinas’ John Steinbeck Museum, toddled across the Golden Gate Bridge and attended Mass at San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission, where Junipero Serra, the founder of numerous missions, is buried.

Courtesy of Maggie Espinosa. All rights reserved.

Courtesy of Maggie Espinosa. All rights reserved.

I rounded the last corner to the final mission on Nov. 5 with my husband by my side. Tears streamed from my eyes as a year’s worth of emotions surfaced. I’d accomplished a daunting goal — the 11th person to complete this sojourn. I wanted to call my Dad to say “I finished.” Perhaps he knew.

I learned so much on this odyssey. Relationships are the heartbeat of life. There is a reserve deep inside everyone when called upon. Humanity is good.

Courtesy of Maggie Espinosa. All rights reserved.

Courtesy of Maggie Espinosa. All rights reserved.

I kept a journal and took lots of photos while I walked. As the journey progressed my entries became more contemplative. I’ve compiled everything into a book titled On A Mission, An 800-mile Walk to Discover California’s El Camino Real. It may be purchased on my website.

On September 23rd, Pope Francis will be in Washington, D.C., where he will canonize Junipero Serra, the friar who started the mission project. A group of CMW mapped out a “Camino de Serra” in honor of this event. They will leave the Sonoma  mission on Saturday, September 5th, and arrive at the Carmel mission the day of Friar Serra’s canonization, having covered approximately 245 miles. The destination is especially poignant because Serra is buried there. If you’re up for any or all of the hike, the CMW will welcome you. Go to their Facebook page for more information. 
Siempre Adelante! 
Copyright 2015 Maggie Espinosa.
All photos courtesy of Maggie Espinosa. All rights reserved.

Courtesy of Maggie Espinosa. All rights reserved.About the author: Maggie Espinosa is an award-winning travel journalist and author whose coverage includes national and international publications, syndicated radio interviews, and reporting for ABC, NBC, and CW TV. Espinosa has journeyed to five continents, and has lived in Europe and the Caribbean. In 2007 she summited 14,500 foot Mt. Whitney, followed by a Grand Canyon National Park rim-to-rim hike a few years later. Home is San Diego, California with her husband, and pooch, Marcel. Having married into a Catholic family and attending Catholic church, she is quite familiar with the teachings and traditions.


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  1. As someone who has spent extensive time studying and researching the missions from the tip of Baja California to Napa County for my historical series, Father Serra’s Legacy, I envy your chance to follow in the steps of the Reverend Father. Having difficulty with every step, the reverend father walked from Mission San Diego to Mission San Francisco to serve his “children”.

    You and others are more than welcome to share those stories of him at my blog, Father Serras Legacy @ http://msgdaleday.blogspot.com,

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