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Hiking California’s 800-Mile El Camino Real


Modified: January 3, 2024

by Sheree Garr



Welcome to the adventure of a lifetime! Hiking California’s 800-mile El Camino Real is a journey that will not only take you through breathtaking landscapes but also immerse you in the rich history and culture of this iconic route. Known as “The Royal Road,” El Camino Real is a historic trail that stretches from San Diego in the south to Sonoma County in the north.


Steeped in history, El Camino Real was originally established in the late 18th century by Spanish missionaries who traveled along its path, building a network of 21 missions to establish Christianity in the region. Today, this storied trail offers hikers an unforgettable experience as they traverse diverse terrains, pass through charming coastal towns, and witness stunning vistas along the way.


Whether you’re an experienced hiker or a novice adventurer, El Camino Real offers something for everyone. From the northern section’s rugged beauty to the central section’s idyllic coastline and the southern section’s vibrant cities, each part of the trail has its own unique charm.


In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the history of El Camino Real and provide you with all the information you need to plan and embark on this remarkable hiking journey. From what to pack to where to stay and everything in between, let’s explore the wonders of hiking California’s El Camino Real together.


History of El Camino Real

The history of El Camino Real dates back to the late 18th century when Spanish missionaries set out to establish a chain of missions along the California coast. Led by Father Junipero Serra, these missionaries aimed to convert indigenous peoples to Christianity and create a Spanish presence in the region.


The trail, also known as “The Royal Road,” connected the missions, providing a path for the missionaries to travel between them. Starting in San Diego, the southernmost mission, the trail extended northward, eventually reaching Sonoma County. The trail covered a distance of approximately 800 miles and passed through diverse landscapes, ranging from rugged mountains to scenic coastal plains.


Each mission, strategically located about a day’s journey apart, served as a hub for religious activities, providing a place for worship, education, and trade. The missions played a vital role in the region’s development, serving as centers of agriculture, economy, and cultural exchange between the European settlers and indigenous communities.


Over time, El Camino Real became a crucial transportation route, connecting the settlements and facilitating trade and communication between them. The trail witnessed the passing of soldiers, explorers, settlers, and traders as California transitioned from Spanish to Mexican rule and eventually became part of the United States.


In the 20th century, the historic importance of El Camino Real was recognized, and efforts were made to preserve and commemorate this significant trail. Today, the route is marked by distinctive mission bells and historic markers, guiding modern-day hikers along the path that once represented the backbone of early California society.


By hiking El Camino Real, you have the opportunity to step back in time and experience the rich history of this remarkable trail. As you walk in the footsteps of the missionaries and explorers who came before, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of California’s past and the role El Camino Real played in shaping the region we know today.


Planning Your Hike

Planning your hike along California’s El Camino Real is essential to ensure a smooth and enjoyable journey. Here are some key factors to consider when planning your hike:

1. Research the Trail:

Begin by familiarizing yourself with the different sections of El Camino Real and decide which portion you would like to hike. Each section offers its own unique attractions and challenges. Consider the distance, terrain, and level of difficulty to choose the section that best suits your hiking abilities.

2. Determine Your Timeline:

Decide how much time you have available for your hike. El Camino Real can take several weeks to complete in its entirety, so if you have limited time, you may need to focus on a specific section or segment of the trail. Create a rough itinerary to help you stay on track and ensure you have enough time to fully experience the highlights along your chosen route.

3. Plan for Rest Days:

Keep in mind that El Camino Real is a long-distance trail, and it’s important to allow yourself time to rest and recover along the way. Plan for rest days in towns or cities along the trail where you can explore, restock supplies, and recharge before continuing your journey.

4. Check Trail Conditions:

Prior to your hike, check for any updates on trail conditions, closures, or restrictions. Be aware of weather patterns that may affect certain sections of the trail. It’s always wise to be prepared and make any necessary adjustments to your plans based on current conditions.

5. Pack Accordingly:

Determining what to pack is crucial to a successful hike. Make sure to pack lightweight and durable hiking gear, including hiking boots, comfortable clothing, a backpack, a sleeping bag, a tent, cooking equipment, sufficient water, and food supplies. Don’t forget essentials like a first aid kit, a map, a compass, a phone or GPS device, and other personal items you may need along the trail.

6. Arrange Accommodations and Resupply Points:

Research and plan for accommodations along your chosen route. El Camino Real offers a variety of options, including campgrounds, hostels, hotels, and even the opportunity to stay in historic missions along the way. Determine the locations of these accommodations and plan your daily hiking distances accordingly. Additionally, identify resupply points where you can restock food and water along the trail.


By thoroughly planning your hike, you’ll be well-prepared to embark on your El Camino Real adventure. Remember to be flexible and open to changes, as unexpected situations may arise. Embrace the journey and savor every step as you hike through the beautiful landscapes and fascinating history of California’s El Camino Real.


What to Pack for the Journey

Preparing the right gear and essential items is crucial for a successful and comfortable hike along California’s El Camino Real. Here’s a list of items to consider when packing for your journey:

1. Hiking Gear:

  • Hiking boots or sturdy walking shoes: Choose footwear that provides ankle support and is comfortable for long-distance walking.
  • Moisture-wicking clothing: Opt for lightweight, breathable layers to regulate body temperature and minimize sweat.
  • Rain gear: Pack a waterproof jacket and pants to protect yourself from unexpected rainfall.
  • Hiking poles: Help maintain balance and reduce stress on the knees during challenging sections of the trail.
  • Hat and sunglasses: Shield yourself from the sun’s rays to prevent sunburn and eye strain.

2. Camping Essentials:

  • Tent: Choose a lightweight, waterproof tent that is suitable for the number of people in your group.
  • Sleeping bag and sleeping pad: Opt for a sleeping bag suitable for the expected temperatures and a comfortable sleeping pad for a good night’s rest.
  • Cooking equipment: Pack a compact camping stove, cookware, utensils, and a lightweight food storage container.
  • Water filter or purification tablets: Ensure a safe and clean water source along the trail.
  • Headlamp or flashlight: Essential for nighttime visibility and navigating around the campsite.

3. Navigational Tools:

  • Map and compass: Carry a detailed trail map and a compass to navigate the route, even if you have a GPS device or phone.
  • GPS device or smartphone: Use these devices as backup navigation tools, but ensure you have a reliable power source and offline maps.
  • Guidebook: Consider carrying a guidebook that provides information on the trail, historical sites, and points of interest along the way.

4. Personal Items:

  • First aid kit: Include basic supplies such as bandages, gauze, antiseptic ointment, pain relievers, and any necessary prescription medications.
  • Sunscreen and insect repellent: Protect yourself from harmful UV rays and pesky insects.
  • Toiletries: Pack travel-sized toiletries such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, and toilet paper.
  • Personal hygiene items: Bring wet wipes or hand sanitizer for quick clean-ups without access to running water.
  • Multi-tool or pocket knife: Handy for various tasks and emergencies.

It’s essential to pack light and only carry the necessary items to avoid unnecessary weight and strain. Remember, your backpack should be comfortable to carry for long distances. Prioritize essential items while leaving room for food, water, and any additional supplies you may need along the way.


By packing smart and considering the specific needs of your hike along El Camino Real, you’ll be well-prepared to embark on your adventure confidently.


Northern Section: San Francisco to Monterey

The northern section of El Camino Real is a breathtaking stretch that takes hikers from the vibrant city of San Francisco to the charming coastal town of Monterey. This portion of the trail showcases the stunning beauty of the California coast and offers a mix of natural landscapes, historic sites, and cultural attractions.


Starting in San Francisco, hikers can explore the city’s iconic landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Alcatraz Island before heading south along the trail. The northern section of El Camino Real winds through scenic coastal trails, offering panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and rugged cliffs.


As you journey south, you’ll encounter picturesque towns like Pacifica and Half Moon Bay, known for their stunning beaches and cozy coastal vibes. Explore the quaint downtown areas, indulge in fresh seafood, and immerse yourself in the relaxed atmosphere.


One of the highlights of the northern section is Pigeon Point Lighthouse. This historic landmark stands tall on a rocky promontory, guiding ships along the coast since the 19th century. Take a moment to appreciate the lighthouse’s architecture and enjoy the breathtaking coastal vistas surrounding it.


Continuing further, you’ll reach the charming town of Santa Cruz, famous for its vibrant boardwalk, surf culture, and the historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park. Enjoy the lively atmosphere, take a dip in the ocean, or indulge in some delicious local treats.


As you approach Monterey, make a stop at the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. This coastal gem offers stunning hiking trails that meander through cypress groves, rocky cliffs, and picturesque beaches. Keep an eye out for wildlife, including sea otters, harbor seals, and various bird species that call this reserve home.


Arriving in Monterey, be sure to visit the historic Monterey Bay Aquarium, known for its impressive marine exhibits. Dive into the world of fascinating sea creatures and learn about the diverse marine life that inhabits California’s coastal waters.


The northern section of El Camino Real offers a perfect blend of natural and cultural attractions. Hikers will be captivated by the scenic beauty of the California coast and enchanted by the historical sites and charming towns that dot the route. It’s a journey that will leave you with lasting memories and a deep appreciation for the rich heritage of this iconic trail.


Central Section: Monterey to Santa Barbara

The central section of El Camino Real takes hikers on a mesmerizing journey from the coastal town of Monterey to the sunny shores of Santa Barbara. This stretch of the trail encompasses stunning coastal landscapes, cultural landmarks, and charming beach towns.


Starting in Monterey, take some time to explore the historic Cannery Row, made famous by author John Steinbeck. Visit the Monterey State Historic Park, which preserves several adobe structures dating back to the Spanish colonial period. Immerse yourself in the rich history and heritage of the region as you walk in the footsteps of the early settlers.


As you continue south, you’ll encounter the quaint town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, known for its picturesque streets, art galleries, and beautiful beaches. Take a stroll along Ocean Avenue, lined with unique shops and restaurants, or relax on the pristine Carmel Beach.


Heading further south, the coastal scenery becomes even more breathtaking. Make a stop at the Point Sur Lighthouse, a historical landmark perched on a rocky outcrop. Take a guided tour to explore the lighthouse’s history and enjoy panoramic views of the rugged coastal landscape.


One of the highlights of the central section is the famous Big Sur region, where the Santa Lucia Mountains meet the Pacific Ocean. Hiking through this magnificent stretch offers panoramic vistas of towering cliffs, rugged coastline, and picturesque beaches. Explore the trails of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where you can witness the majestic McWay Falls, a waterfall that cascades onto the beach below.


Continuing south, you’ll reach the charismatic town of San Luis Obispo, known for its Spanish-style architecture and lively downtown area. Visit the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, a historic mission founded in 1772, and delve into the region’s colonial past.


The central section concludes in the vibrant city of Santa Barbara, nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Stroll along Stearns Wharf, the oldest working wharf in California, and explore the beautiful Spanish-style architecture of the city. Don’t miss a visit to the Santa Barbara Mission, known as the “Queen of the Missions,” and discover its rich history and impressive architecture.


The central section of El Camino Real offers hikers a captivating blend of natural beauty and cultural treasures. From the charming streets of Carmel to the dramatic cliffs of Big Sur and the vibrant city of Santa Barbara, this segment of the trail will leave you with unforgettable memories of California’s coastal wonders.


Southern Section: Santa Barbara to San Diego

The southern section of El Camino Real takes hikers on an incredible journey from the picturesque city of Santa Barbara to the vibrant metropolis of San Diego. This portion of the trail showcases the diverse beauty of Southern California, from stunning coastal vistas to bustling urban centers.


Starting in Santa Barbara, take a moment to explore the city’s Spanish-style architecture and enjoy the beautiful beaches. Visit the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, a stunning landmark known for its distinctive design and panoramic views of the city. Immerse yourself in the local culture by exploring the shops, galleries, and restaurants along State Street.


Heading south, you’ll encounter the charming coastal town of Ventura, with its historic downtown district and picturesque harbor. Take a stroll along the promenade, visit the Ventura Pier, or explore the boutiques and art galleries in Ventura’s vibrant downtown area.


Continuing on El Camino Real, you’ll reach the beautiful beach town of Malibu, famous for its stunning coastline and luxurious homes. Enjoy the sandy beaches, take a hike in the nearby Santa Monica Mountains, or simply relax and soak up the sun.


As you journey further south, you’ll arrive in Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world. Explore the iconic attractions like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Griffith Observatory, and the famous beaches of Santa Monica and Venice. Immerse yourself in the vibrant culture and diverse neighborhoods of this iconic city.


The southern section concludes in San Diego, known for its perfect weather, beautiful beaches, and lively downtown scene. Visit the historic Gaslamp Quarter, where Victorian-era buildings house trendy shops, restaurants, and nightlife venues. Explore Balboa Park, home to numerous museums, gardens, and the renowned San Diego Zoo.


Don’t miss the opportunity to visit the historic Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, where you can experience the rich cultural heritage of the region. Discover the preserved adobe buildings, learn about the early settlers, and enjoy authentic Mexican cuisine in the lively restaurants of this vibrant district.


The southern section of El Camino Real offers hikers a diverse and dynamic experience, from the stunning coastal beauty of Malibu to the bustling streets of Los Angeles and the laid-back charm of San Diego. It’s an incredible journey that showcases the vibrant spirit and cultural tapestry of Southern California.


Highlights Along the Way

The journey along California’s El Camino Real is filled with numerous highlights that showcase the beauty, history, and culture of the state. Here are some of the must-see attractions and experiences along the trail:

1. Historical Missions:

One of the defining features of El Camino Real is the chain of 21 Spanish missions that were established along the route. These missions are steeped in history and offer a glimpse into the region’s colonial past. Highlights include Mission San Juan Capistrano, Mission Santa Barbara, and Mission San Luis Rey, each with its own unique architecture and cultural significance.

2. Coastal Scenery:

As you hike along El Camino Real, you’ll be treated to breathtaking coastal vistas. From the rugged cliffs of Big Sur to the pristine beaches of Malibu and the charming coastal towns in between, the scenic beauty of the California coast is a highlight in itself. Be sure to take the time to soak in the stunning views and capture memorable photos along the way.

3. Historic Landmarks:

Along the trail, you’ll encounter several historical landmarks that showcase the diverse heritage of California. Highlights include the Point Sur Lighthouse, Pigeon Point Lighthouse, and the charming downtown areas of Monterey and Santa Barbara, with their Spanish-style architecture and rich history.

4. Natural Wonders:

El Camino Real is surrounded by incredible natural wonders. Be sure to visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, where you can explore scenic trails, cypress groves, and rugged coastline. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is another must-see, with its enchanting McWay Falls cascading onto a pristine beach. And don’t forget to explore the trails and beaches of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve near San Diego.

5. Cultural Experiences:

As you hike along El Camino Real, take the opportunity to immerse yourself in the diverse cultural experiences offered along the trail. Explore the charming downtown areas of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Ventura, and Santa Barbara, where you can discover unique shops, art galleries, and local cuisine. In Los Angeles, embrace the vibrant culture of the city by visiting famous attractions like the Griffith Observatory, Universal Studios, and the Getty Center.

6. Wildlife Encounters:

Throughout your journey, keep an eye out for the abundant wildlife that inhabits the regions along El Camino Real. From sea otters, seals, and dolphins along the coast to various bird species in the state parks and reserves, the trail offers opportunities to witness California’s diverse wildlife in their natural habitats.


These are just a few of the many highlights along the El Camino Real trail. Each step of the way unveils new wonders and enriches your understanding of the history and beauty of California. Embrace the journey and be prepared to be amazed by the incredible sights and experiences that await you.


Accommodations and Camping Options

When hiking along California’s El Camino Real, you’ll find a variety of accommodation options to suit your preferences and needs. From charming bed and breakfasts to campgrounds offering stunning natural settings, here are some options to consider:

1. Historic Mission Stays:

For a truly unique experience, some of the historic missions along the trail offer accommodations for visitors. Stay in rooms that have been carefully restored to reflect the period when the missions were active. This allows you to immerse yourself in the history and ambiance of the region.

2. Bed and Breakfasts:

Along the route, you’ll find numerous cozy bed and breakfast establishments that offer comfortable accommodations and a personal touch. These charming properties often have a rich history and provide a warm and inviting atmosphere for hikers to rest and recharge.

3. Hotels and Inns:

In the towns and cities along El Camino Real, you’ll have access to a wide range of hotels and inns that cater to different budgets and preferences. Whether you’re looking for a luxurious beachfront resort or a budget-friendly accommodation, there are plenty of options to choose from.

4. Campgrounds and RV Parks:

For those who prefer a more immersive outdoor experience, there are several campgrounds and RV parks available along the trail. These offer opportunities to sleep under the stars, surrounded by nature. Many of these campgrounds provide amenities such as restrooms, showers, and picnic areas.

5. State Parks and Reserves:

El Camino Real passes through several state parks and reserves that offer camping facilities. Parks such as Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve provide campgrounds with stunning natural backdrops for a memorable camping experience.

6. Planning Ahead:

It’s important to plan your accommodations and camping options in advance, especially during peak seasons. Some campsites and popular accommodations along the trail may require reservations, so be sure to check availability and make any necessary arrangements ahead of time.


Whether you prefer a cozy bed and breakfast, a historic mission stay, or a night under the stars at a campground, El Camino Real offers a range of accommodation options to suit every hiker’s preferences. Plan your journey accordingly and enjoy the comfort and convenience of your chosen lodging along the way.


Safety Tips for Hiking El Camino Real

When embarking on a hiking adventure along California’s El Camino Real, it’s important to prioritize safety to ensure a smooth and enjoyable journey. Here are some essential safety tips to keep in mind:

1. Plan and Prepare:

Thoroughly research the trail, understand its challenges and requirements, and plan your hike accordingly. Familiarize yourself with the route, landmarks, and potential hazards. Check weather forecasts and trail conditions before heading out.

2. Stay Hydrated:

Carry sufficient water with you and stay hydrated throughout your hike. Keep in mind that sections of the trail may be exposed to the sun, and temperatures can rise quickly. Drink water regularly and avoid dehydration.

3. Dress Appropriately:

Wear comfortable, moisture-wicking clothing suitable for the expected weather conditions. Dress in layers to adjust to temperature changes and protect yourself from the sun’s rays. Don’t forget to wear sturdy, well-fitting hiking shoes to prevent foot injuries.

4. Navigation and Communication:

Carry a map, compass, and/or a GPS device to navigate the trail. Ensure your phone is fully charged and consider using offline maps. Let someone know about your plans, including your expected route and estimated time of arrival at each destination.

5. Wildlife Awareness:

Respect the wildlife along the trail and keep a safe distance. Do not feed or approach wild animals and be cautious of venomous snakes or insects. Familiarize yourself with the potential wildlife you may encounter and know how to react in case of an encounter.

6. Leave No Trace:

Practice Leave No Trace principles by packing out your trash, disposing of waste properly, and respecting the environment. Minimize your impact on the trail and be respectful of the natural and cultural resources along the way.

7. Be Prepared for Emergencies:

Carry a well-stocked first aid kit and be knowledgeable about basic first aid procedures. In case of an emergency, know how to contact local authorities or emergency services. Carry a whistle or signaling device to attract attention if needed.

8. Respect Private Property and Trail Etiquette:

Stay on designated trails, respect private property, and follow any signs and regulations. Yield to other hikers, bikers, or equestrians when necessary, and maintain a safe distance when passing others. Be courteous to fellow hikers and respect the tranquility of the trail.


By following these safety tips, you can have a safe and enjoyable hiking experience along El Camino Real. Remember to use common sense, be aware of your surroundings, and always prioritize your well-being and that of others around you.



Embarking on a hike along California’s El Camino Real is an extraordinary adventure filled with history, natural beauty, and cultural immersion. From the rugged northern section to the picturesque central section and the vibrant southern section, this iconic trail offers a unique and enriching experience.


As you traverse the 800 miles of El Camino Real, you’ll have the opportunity to witness the remnants of California’s colonial past, explore charming coastal towns, and immerse yourself in the stunning landscapes that make this trail so captivating.


From the historic missions and lighthouses to the unparalleled coastal scenery and diverse wildlife, El Camino Real truly showcases the best of what California has to offer. Whether you choose to hike a specific section or tackle the entire trail, you will be rewarded with unforgettable memories and a deep appreciation for the state’s rich heritage.


Remember to plan your hike carefully, pack the necessary gear, and prioritize safety along the way. Take the time to explore the historical sites, enjoy the breathtaking views, and connect with the beauty of nature.


As you hike El Camino Real, embrace the adventure, savor the moments, and appreciate the beauty and history that surround you. Let the trail guide you through a remarkable journey that will leave you with a deeper understanding of California’s past, a sense of accomplishment, and a love for the great outdoors.


So lace up your boots, grab your backpack, and embark on the adventure of a lifetime along California’s El Camino Real. Get ready to discover the wonders of this storied trail, create lasting memories, and experience the magic that only the Golden State can offer.