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My 800-mile Walk to California’s 21 Historic Missions

One Woman’s 800-mile Walk to Visit California’s 21 Historic Missions

A relocation to California after college in Pennsylvania plopped me in San Diego, a relatively young state in comparison to those I was accustomed to on the East coast. Upon arriving, I was eager to learn the history of my new home. California’s 21 Historic Missions along El Camino Real seemed like a good start. Growing up outside Philadelphia I learned about our nation’s founding fathers, but not about the missions so precious to the West coast.

I read an article in Westway’s magazine about a man who walked 800-miles to all the missions. Yes, walked! Bingo! I found my answer to how I could learn California’s history… and get some exercise along the way.

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I divided my peregrination into 10 months, taking four days each month to cover approximately 80 miles, with Amtrak as my chauffeur to and fro. Prior to launch I sent an email inviting friends and family to join me on any segment of the excursion. A surprising number said yes.

Mission San Diego de Alcala, was the starting point. Tracy, a longtime buddy, signed up for the first leg north to Mission San Juan Capistrano. During the exhausting 20-plus-mile days, life stories were regaled, jaw-dropping sunsets witnessed and thousands of laughs shared. This was the blueprint each month. My fellow pilgrims were from all walks of life, ages, professions, and religious beliefs — a flight attendant, a medical writer, an architect, a Franciscan Friar, a symphony bass player, a pet groomer — all brought together by California’s Royal Road.

Walking through the red woods. Courtesy of: Marie Horn
Walking through the red woods. Photo courtesy of: Marie Horn

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.

When walking through Ventura with a friend, a CMW septuagenarian gentleman who had already braved the El Camino Real offered us his home. Here’s excerpts from the book about this kind man and his wife…

Leg Four, Day One…Kurt & Rose Buckley – members of the California Mission Walkers – graciously invited Tami and I to stay at their house when they heard we were passing through their neck of the woods. Never met them, but we all became fast friends over stories of the trail. Rose had dinner ready for us when we arrived. Kurt has walked the Mission trail in 53 days! No days off. He walked all day and camped at night…at the age of 72! He’s walking with Tami and I tomorrow. He’s training for an upcoming 250 mile “jaunt” on Spain’s Camino de Santiago. I’ll have to pick up the pace with Kurt along.

Day two began with Rose’s delicious home cooked breakfast. A real treat from the usual grab & go morning meals. Tami started the walk in Teva flip flops, trying to give her aching feet a break from the confines of her Reeboks. Kurt, the seasoned hiker, lead the way as we stormed Ventura’s Harbor Boulevard fueled by copious cups of coffee. It was a welcome change to be following someone who knew the route vs forging the path myself with Google maps and the hiker’s guide. Within 5 miles Tami realized her rubber sandals wouldn’t cut it on the El Camino Real. Luckily she brought her sneaks. We reinforced her feet with moleskin and crammed her swollen feet into what I’m sure felt like leather vises.

Carmel Beach, California
Walking along Carmel Beach on our way to the Carmel Mission. Photo Credit:: Maggie Espinosa

Whenever asked what’s the best part of walking California’s 21 Historic Missions, my answer is always the wonderful people I met. This overshadowed marching through 100 degree days wearing a 25-pound backpack, and missing a foot plant on a snake by two inches, and dodging cars on precarious curves, and getting lost, and…and…and. Friendship really is what the trail is all about.

After Forty-nine walking days — or 1,841,931 steps later — I reached the final mission 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 the sojourn of walking to California’s 21 Historic Missions. I had traveled with 25 different companions, had two tired feet, and was one elated woman!

I kept a journal and took lots of photos while I walked California’s 21 Historic Missions. As the journey progressed my entries became more contemplative. I’ve complied 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.

Historic Missions in California


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  1. Hi, Paula,
    Thanks so much for the kind words. The hike was amazing & challenging. Yet, the kindness of strangers and the beauty was well worth the foot blisters :-).
    ~ Maggie Espinosa

  2. What a great task! You can be proud of yourself. I’ve seen some of these missions and they are great historic monuments. Walking to see all of them seems like such a great idea.

  3. Hi, Anda, Thanks! Yes, walking to the missions gives a different perspective in seeing the historic structures. Each one is unique. The people who run the missions play such a large role in keeping them viable. It’s really wonderful.

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