For many years a monument stood there marking the route of El Camino Real, but the entire corner had been bulldozed to make room for a housing subdivision at North City West, and I couldn’t find the monument anywhere.
Thursday, November 14, 1985. At ten o’clock in the morning I stood on the steps of the Mission San Diego de Alcala, longing for a stout Spanish horse to get me over the forty-some-odd miles of El Camino Real to Mission San Luis Rey. There was a time, not so many years ago, when horses were so plentiful in Mission Valley that nobody much cared whom they belonged to — if you needed one, you simply caught it, saddled it, and rode off. Wishes were horses, and in those days not even beggars walked. But now there wasn’t so much as a French donkey between me and the zoo, and if I wanted to put twenty miles of El Camino Real behind me before sunset, I would have to go it on foot.
Mission San Diego de Alcala. I found the best crossing to be almost directly beneath the I-15 overpass; I paused on the muddy banks, littered with freeway trash and speckled with possum tracks. I rolled up my pants legs, then slogged on through the knee-high water.
I started down the steps, headed west on San Diego Mission Road, then hurried south on Rancho Mission Road. Of course I could always drive, but that wasn’t the kind of journey I had in mind. The freeways would get me to San Luis Rey in less than an hour, but it wouldn’t be over the route of El Camino Real, and when I got there I would still be where I started — in the Twentieth Century. The journey I wanted to take would lead me backward with every step, over a road that no longer exists. Along the way, I hoped to see things that couldn’t be seen from the window of a car.
I was relying on a San Diego County survey map of 1872 (on which El Camino Real is shown as nothing but a foot trail), on the advice of several old-timers whose memories of the route predate most of the county’s freeways and subdivisions, and upon the diary of Father Juan Crespi.
I paused at the willow patches on the banks of the San Diego River to consult my maps. It was my intention to follow the river to the presidio at Old Town, where I would meet El Camino Real. A survey of the river in 1853 showed a road on the south side of the river, which meant I would have to cross it. Fortunately, except for a few days out of the year, the San Diego River is not a difficult river to ford.
The river was swollen by heavy rains during the previous two days, but with the dam at El Capitan slowing any gullywashers from the back country, the river was nothing like it would have been in the old days. After looking around for a while, I found the best crossing to be almost directly beneath the I-15 overpass; I assumed travelers from earlier centuries found it to be the same. I paused on the muddy banks, littered with freeway trash and speckled with possum tracks, and wished again I had a horse. I rolled up my pants legs, then slogged on through the knee-high water.
Mission San Luis Rey. I passed San Luis Rey Auto Salvage, the River Bottom Inn, and the Blue Room Beauty Salon. It seemed to be an inelegant approach for what had once been the most prosperous mission in all of California.
On the south side of the river, I found a boulder in the sunshine, where I paused long enough to wring out my socks and bang the mud from my shoes. Beside me grew some small patches of watercress, which the Spanish had found useful in treating the scurvy they suffered from after the long voyages from Mexico. I would have liked to taste a sprig of it myself, but after considering the threat of hepatitis, I decided I would take my chances with scurvy. Directly overhead, in another century, cars and trucks rumbled by on the freeway. I scrambled up the bank of the river and struck out west.
There were several footpaths along the river plain, any one of which might have been the original trail. It was impossible to follow them, since most of the plain is now choked with tules, willows, steel-and-glass high-rises, and other such obstructions. I made my way as best I could along the winding route of Camino Del Rio North.
I jogged under the 805 overpass, then stopped at Stadium Way to catch my breath. A bus driver pulled over, and with a quizzical look he opened his door for me. But I waved him on.
As I passed Saks Fifth Avenue, I considered running in to pick up a pair of cotton socks to replace the ones I got wet crossing the river, but I hadn’t even gone two miles yet, and I couldn’t justify the diversion. I pressed on, soggy socks and all.
I ducked under the 163 overpass then hustled down Hotel Circle South. A party of conventioneers, coming out of a restaurant after a late breakfast, was blocking the sidewalk. They glanced at my wet pants and at the grimly determined look on my face, then parted like sheep running from a rabid dog.
Even though it was nearly noon by the time I was in the shadow of Presidio Hill, I couldn’t resist taking a short diversion. I dashed up the foot trail to the top of the hill, just above where the old presidio once stood overlooking San Diego Bay. Looking west through the trees I could see the ocean, to the south I could see Point Loma, and to the north I could see as far as the white cross on Soledad Mountain, overlooking the route of El Camino Real.
By giving the name El Camino Real (“The King’s Road”) to what had been an ancient trail, the Spanish explorers made it sound as though it were royalty’s personal road. But the king of Spain never saw it and probably didn’t spend too much time thinking about it. The name El Camino Real actually means something more like “Federal Highway,” and besides its 500 or so miles between San Francisco and San Diego, the road continued for thousands of miles in Mexico, Central, and South America. In 1959 Governor Edmund G. Brown signed a measure designating Highway 101 between the Mexican Border and San Francisco as the official route of El Camino Real through California. But. of course, the governor’s signature couldn’t change history, and in fact through most of San Diego County, Highway 101 doesn't go anywhere near El Camino Real. To determine where the Spaniards’ road had actually been, I was relying on a San Diego County survey map of 1872 (on which El Camino Real is shown as nothing but a foot trail), on the advice of several old-timers whose memories of the route predate most of the county’s freeways and subdivisions, and upon the diary of Father Juan Crespi, a member of the first party of Europeans to travel the route of El Camino Real.
Of all the journeys on El Camino Real, none has been better recorded than that first journey. In the summer of 1769, traveling with a party of nearly sixty men, including soldiers, servants, Christian Indians, and Commander Gaspar de Portola, Crespi left San Diego in search of a land route to Monterey. After each day’s travel, Father Crespi recorded the route and his impressions of what he saw along the way. His geographical descriptions were so detailed and accurate that they can still be used to follow his route through San Diego County — with just enough possibility for error to give historians something to argue about.
I took a copy of Father Crespi’s diary from my pack and read what he had to say about the area surrounding San Diego Bay, 216 years ago. After describing its geography, he wrote: “In this port and vicinity there are many large villages of heathen.... They are very intelligent... noisy, bold, great traders, covetous, and thievish.” Looking over the city of San Diego, I could see so little had changed in that vicinity, there wasn’t anything I could say to improve on Father Crespi’s observations. I stumbled down through the foot trails of Presidio Park, where transients lay dozing in the sunshine with their spare clothes laid out neatly on the grass to dry. I then followed Taylor Street west to the Santa Fe Railroad tracks, where I turned north, passing between the graffiti-covered warehouses, and soon crossed the San Diego River again — this time on the railroad trestle.
“We set out from this port of San Diego... about four in the afternoon,” Crespi wrote on July 14, 1769. “We went northwest over land well covered with grass on account of the proximity of the estuaries, which have good salt deposits. Afterwards we came upon the beach of the second harbor that San Diego has [Mission Bay], although it is closed so that it cannot be entered.... At about two leagues we came to a very large village of heathen who are in a valley formed by this second harbor where there are some small springs of water.” (This would have put him near the northeast shore of Mission Bay.)
After one o'clock, I crossed Morena Boulevard, went into a Kwik Shop, bought a ham sandwich and beer, and went out to sit on the railroad tracks to eat my lunch. Just 150 feet away four lanes of traffic roared north on I-5. For lack of anything better to do, I counted the number of cars that passed in sixty seconds. There were ninety-five. If there were an average of two persons per car, I figured, that would be 11,400 people driving north every hour, perhaps 200,000 in a day, and more than 70 million in a year. According to the California census of 1850, when El Camino Real was almost one hundred years old, there were fewer than 900 people living in San Diego County (they didn’t count Indians back in those days). During the time it took me to eat my lunch, I realized, more people would drive over this route than had walked or ridden over El Camino Real during the entire Spanish and Mexican eras.
A rumbling on the railroad tracks put an end to my musing, and I looked up to see the 12:45 Amtrak careening toward me. I grabbed my beer, leaped back, and looked up to see a parade of curious faces staring down at me. If I were on horseback, at least I could look them in the eye, I thought.
“Here we left the shore and entered a valley between hills but on the same road,” Father Crespi wrote at the entrance to Rose Canyon. “It has many willows and some alders [Crespi confused alders with sycamores] and live oaks.... Although the valley is not very broad, it is well covered with grass, and on all sides of it there are knolls, ridges, and hills, all of good land. We found some small pools, which contained water enough for the people but the horses had nothing to drink.”
Crespi spent the night near the place which later became known as “Ladrillo,” where a brickyard stood for many years. In spite of the freeway and railroad, the bottom of Rose Canyon remains much as Father Crespi found it. Sycamores and willows still grow in abundance, and foxes run wild. Near San Clemente Canyon, Morena Boulevard ends, and for a mile or so the east side of Rose Canyon is accessible only by foot or bicycle. In several places old roadbeds can still be seen, any one of which might have been traveled by Father Crespi.
In another mile, at Gilman Drive, I came to one of the most perplexing problems concerning the route of El Camino Real through San Diego County, and I sat down in the clover to ponder it. Some historians — including Richard Pourade in his popular series of books on San Diego history — have claimed that Crespi’s route continued up Rose Canyon, in a wide arc to the northeast, through University City. The railroad follows that route today because it offers the most gradual grade out of Rose Canyon. But that route adds nearly five miles to the journey, and as I sat there studying the landscape, I couldn’t believe that anyone traveling on foot or horseback would have gone that way.
I brought out Father Crespi’s notes and read what he had to say on the subject: “Following the same direction to the northwest, we ascended a large grassy hill, all of pure earth, and then found ourselves on some very broad mesas of good soft ground, all covered with grass.” Looking to the northwest, up Gilman Drive, I could see a natural route all the way to the top of Torrey Mesa. Consulting the survey map of 1872, I saw that the road at that time clearly went up what later became the Pacific Coast Highway, and is now Gilman Drive. When a trio of college girls in jogging shorts trotted past me and headed up Gilman Drive toward UCSD, I careftilly weighed the historic evidence before me, then followed the joggers.
It was a long, hot mile to the top of Torrey Mesa, and the coeds, who ran as freshly as year-old fillies, left me far behind. “We saw seven antelopes running together on this mesa and at every moment hares and rabbits came running out,” Father Crespi wrote. The antelope disappeared long ago, but the rabbits still abound. Father Crespi also described seeing small oaks and chaparral, which can still be found in the few vacant lots where houses and condominiums haven’t been built. Farther on, near UCSD, the mesa has been taken over with groves of eucalyptus trees. As I passed through there, the air was so clean from the recent rains that I could see as far as the Cuyamacas to the east.
The old road across Torrey Mesa passed just east of the UCSD Central library — close enough that Father Crespi could have admired his reflection in the mirrored glass as he rode by. By the time I got there, my water bottle needed refilling, and since the creeks were muddy from the recent rains, I went inside to refill it at the drinking fountain. While I was there, I couldn’t resist another slight diversion.
I rode the elevator to the fifth floor, where I found the diary of Sgt. Daniel Taylor, who, in January of 1848, had marched through San Diego with the Mormon Battalion. His observations along El Camino Real, though not as precise as Father Crespi’s, were at least as vivid. “Traveling in sight of the ocean,” he wrote, “the clear bright sunshine, with the mildness of the atmosphere, combined to increase the enjoyment of the scene before us. We no longer suffered the monotonous hardships of the desert, and the cold of the mountains. January seemed as pleasant as May. Much of the soil over which we passed was very rich, and the vegetable growth exceedingly luxuriant. The water was clear and good, being mainly cold mountain streams somewhat warmed by the brilliant rays of the sun.”
While I was still on the fifth floor, I went to the window and studied the route ahead of me. When I had it fixed in my mind, I rode the elevator back down and continued on my way.
North of the UCSD library, the route dropped into a narrow canyon. Nobody passes that way anymore, but the old roadbed of the Pacific Coast Highway can still be seen, cracked and crumbling, with yerba santa and Indian tobacco growing up through the pavement. At Genesee Avenue the old route has been obliterated, but it picks up again on the north side, where it continues to follow the canyon bottom, parallel to I-5, until it reaches Sorrento Valley.
“We came to a very beautiful valley,” Crespi wrote, “which, when we saw it, seemed to us to be nothing less than a cultivated cornfield or farm, on account of its mass of verdure. On a small eminence in this valley we saw a village of heathen, with six little straw houses. Upon seeing us, all of them came out into the road, in great good humor and making demonstrations of joy. We descended to this valley and saw that its verdure consisted of very leafy wild calabashes, and many Castilian roses.”
The beautiful valley Crespi described is, of course, an industrial park today. By the time I got there, the afternoon traffic was so heavy that I was making better time on foot than the commuters in their cars. I tiptoed across the shallow creek and rejoined the railroad tracks, which I followed as they passed behind the warehouses, research labs, and assembly plants along Sorrento Valley Road. Just across the creek, the west side of the valley looked as verdant and serene as when Father Crespi rode through it. If I had seen a village of naked heathens there, squatting outside their straw huts, I would have waved to them and kept on going because it was nearly dark and I still had two more miles to go.
Where Sorrento Valley opens into Carmel Valley, the way becomes marshy. The Santa Fe Railroad was able to overcome this by building a rock causeway across the shallow estuary. But El Camino Real had to follow the high ground on the east side of the estuary, where Sorrento Valley Road winds today.
“In about a half a league’s travel, at the end of the valley we came to a medium-sized pool of freshwater, in which we saw two pots of baked clay, very well made,” Father Crespi wrote. This site is near the commuters’ parking lot on Carmel Valley Road, just one hundred feet west of I-5. I arrived there at dusk and found things much as the good Father described them, though the clay pots were gone.
As Father Crespi would say, this day’s march covered seven leagues, or about twenty-one miles. I considered that a long day. Father Crespi and his party had taken two days to cover about the same distance, though that included the time it took for their scouts to explore the route ahead of them. In later years, Spanish horsemen on their way to the fiesta at San Luis Rey would ride the entire forty-four miles from Mission San Diego in one night. After my seven leagues on foot, I had a pretty good idea how their horses must have felt.
Friday, November 15, 1985. At ten o’clock in the morning I was slogging around in circles through the mud and clay behind the Shell service station on Carmel Valley Road, just east of the freeway. For many years a monument stood there marking the route of El Camino Real, but the entire corner had been bulldozed to make room for a housing subdivision at North City West, and I couldn’t find the monument anywhere. I went back to the Shell station, but none of the attendants knew what happened to it. I went to the phone booth and called the construction company building the subdivision, but I could only get their sales office — and they had no idea what happened to the monument. I had the feeling I was witnessing history being forgotten.
I set off across the bulldozed fields, slipping and sliding over the fresh clay. After a half-mile or so, I at last came to a paved road and a road sign that said “El Camino Real.” I passed through a new subdivision of homes, all empty, until I came to a notch in the mesa. There I paused long enough to look out over the entire San Dieguito Valley.
“It seems this place is near the sea, judging by our view of it as we came down the valley,” Father Crespi wrote. “The hills that surround the valley are not very high and are all of pure earth, covered with pasture, the only thing lacking to the site being trees. Many scorpions have been seen, but no one has been bitten by them.”
I limped past a horse ranch where a frisky appaloosa romped across the pasture, stirring within me the compulsions of a horse thief. I checked them and continued on to the bridge over the San Dieguito River. This was said to be a difficult crossing during the rainy season, but with the dam at Lake Hodges, the river was barely trickling now.
Father Crespi recognized the potential for the San Dieguito Valley, and he envisioned a mission built there someday. But the soldiers in his party, who were sometimes paid their wages in land, had other plans for it. One of them named the watering hole there “The Well of Osuna,” and in later years one of his descendants was awarded the Spanish land grant to Rancho San Dieguito, now called Rancho Santa Fe.
Today the most pleasant stretch of El Camino Real winds through the large estates of Rancho Santa Fe. The pastoral solitude that can be found there is so rare in the coastal area now that it seems to have become the exclusive privilege of the very rich. I strolled down the eucalyptus-lined boulevard like a feudal lord overlooking his landholdings.
“We climbed a bare hill which followed soon afterwards with a small wood of little trees unknown to us, and some chaparral,” Father Crespi wrote of the area around Rancho Santa Fe. “Passing over it we came out upon some broad grassy mesas, and...descended to a very green valley, with good level land covered with alders.”
The green valley he describes is at San Elijo Lagoon, and upon arriving there I was confronted with another route-finding dilemma. At the junction of El Camino Real and La Noria, I found a chain across the old road, detouring modern-day travelers onto La Noria. I couldn’t imagine Father Crespi wasting his time with such a detour, and since there wasn’t a “No Trespassing” sign across the old route, I assumed it was a public right of way. I stepped over the chain and forged on.
The dirt road became a dirt path as it descended toward the lagoon, passing behind orange orchards and tennis courts. Within a few hundred feet, the path became wet, then boggy, and finally plunged into the tule swamp at San Elijo Lagoon, now swollen by the recent rains. After consulting my maps, I pushed on, determined to follow the route I knew to be correct. When the water was nearly waist high and the muck was sucking the shoes from my feet, I suddenly recalled reading a passage from the diary of Father Crespi’s friend, Father Pedro Font, who in 1776 described an encounter that a group of runaway soldiers had with just such a tule swamp: “One deserter who saw himself about to be captured, in order to get away jumped precipitately into one of these mires, trusting perhaps that he might be able to swim but was swallowed up and unable to get out, and it was impossible to aid him, he remained there drowned and buried in the mud.”
Of course I didn’t recall the entire quote as I stood there slowly sinking into the mud, but the last phrase remained particularly vivid in my memory and seemed to justify my decision to find an alternate route. After a brief but animated struggle, I was able to turn around and make my way back to solid ground.
Without further consulting my maps, which I had decided were only an approximation of geographic reality, I skirted the edge of the lagoon, hopped several barbed wire fences, and finally came to a section of cow pasture that seemed firm enough to bear my weight. As I plodded across, a herd of cows stared down their long faces at me, as though I were the first person in a hundred years to pass this way.
At Manchester Avenue I stopped long enough to stomp the mud from my shoes and pick the cockleburs from my socks. Then, looking northward, I confronted yet another dilemma: The modern-day El Camino Real picks up about a half-mile to the west, climbs the bluff, and continues across Encinitas Boulevard to La Costa. But a more obvious route lay directly ahead, along Rancho Santa Fe Road. Should I trust the road signs, I wondered? Or my own instincts?
After some hesitation I consulted my maps again and found that both the county map of 1872, as well as a topographic map of 1903, showed roads following both routes. I decided to let Father Crespi decide which road to take: “In about half a league we came to another little valley with many live oaks, where we found a small stream of water, which ran a short way in the midst of some blackberry bushes,” he said. This seemed to describe the area where the town of Olivenhain is today. “Then followed extensive hills with good land and pasture.” (Such hills can be found on Rancho Santa Fe Road, but not the modern El Camino Real.) “After about one more league of travel, we descended to another very green valley.” (Known as Green Valley today.) So, I concluded, Father Crespi had followed the route of Rancho Santa Fe Road, not the modern-day El Camino Real, and I would do the same.
As I trudged up the hill to Olivenhain, the ancient wisdom of the foot traveler slowly dawned on me: The best route is always the easiest route. This might mean going around treacherous bogs during the rainy season, avoiding washed-out creek crossings, accepting short cuts once they are proven to be short, and even avoiding well-traveled routes if it is easier not to be seen. In other words, there wasn’t just one El Camino Real, there were many Caminos Reales, and they were changing all the time. Even today, as I had discovered, what is called El Camino Real could be obliterated by a subdivision, then recreated somewhere else by a road sign.
I turned northwest at Olivenhain Road and followed it to Green Valley, where I rejoined the modern version of El Camino Real. From here it was a short mile to Batiquitos Lagoon. “We made camp near a hill which has two springs of water,” Father Crespi wrote, describing the area at La Costa resort. “Both springs are surrounded by Castilian roses, of which I gathered a branch with six roses open and twelve about to open.”
It was already three o’clock in the afternoon by the time I reached La Costa Avenue, and like Father Crespi, I decided to call it a day. I took off my wet shoes and found a sunny spot on the golf course, where I lay back and admired the view across Batiquitos Lagoon to the ocean. This day’s travel covered four leagues, or about thirteen miles.
Saturday, November 16, 1985. Once again the weather was clear and warm — two reasons for a foot traveler to be joyful. I left La Costa at about 9:30, fully recovered from my hardships of the previous two days.
As I started northward on El Camino Real, I was surprised to find that I was walking uphill. I had driven this section of road many times yet had always thought it was flat. As I trudged along, black exhaust from the transit buses billowed around me, and the people inside turned their heads to stare at the foolish man walking when he could have ridden.
Before long I had left the subdivisions of La Costa and arrived at the industrial parks surrounding Palomar Airport. From here the road descended into the small valley of Agua Hedionda (stinking water), named after the stench left by the lagoon at low tide. In spite of its name, it’s a beautiful little valley, wooded with sycamores, which Father Crespi once again confused with alders: “We descended to a valley full of alders, in which we saw a village, but without people. This valley...is not very far from the shore, and at the end of it we saw an estuary, although the sea was not visible. We continued on our way in the same northerly direction, over hills and broad mesas supplied with good pasture, and...descended to a small, very green valley, which has a narrow plain.... We pitched camp on the slope of the valley on the west side. The water is collected in pools, and we noticed that it flowed out of several springs, forming about it marshes, or stagnant pools, covered with rushes and grass.”
Crespi’s camp was at Buena Vista Creek, probably in the parking lot of the Plaza Camino Real shopping center. The creek was flowing well when I crossed over the bridge, but the surrounding pasture land was no longer as green as Crespi described it. I stopped in at Del Taco and grabbed a burrito to go.
The road climbed over Fire Mountain, then dropped into Loma Alta Creek. The countryside, as Father Crespi with his agrarian eye might have said, was of good soil well covered with grass. In spite of Crespi’s optimistic observations, which no doubt were intended to impress the viceroy back in Mexico with the possibilities for developing a chain of missions in California, San Diego County was too dry to become much of a farmland. The valleys Crespi pictured covered with fields of wheat and corn were instead used to raise people, and for that purpose they are proving to be among the most fertile in the nation.
I climbed one last hill, then stood on the high ridge overlooking the broad San Luis Rey Valley. It looked huge. “We descended to a large and beautiful valley, so,green that it seemed to us that it had been planted,” Father Crespi wrote. “We crossed it straight to the north and pitched camp near a large pool of water, one of several on the plain. The valley...has many wild grapes, and one sees some spots that resemble vineyards.” Father Crespi knew immediately the San Luis Rey Valley was a perfect site for a mission. In terms of physical attributes — water, flat land, and good soil — there is nothing in the county to match it.
As I started down the long hill, I could just make out the mission, a mile and a half away, on the other side of the valley. Though the geography of the valley seemed to have changed little, the resident population has undergone a change that Father Crespi no doubt would have approved of: “Soon after our arrival the heathen came to visit us. There were more than forty Indians, naked and painted from head to foot in several colors.... The women were modestly covered, wearing in front an apron of threads woven together. To cover their breasts they wear little capes made of hare and rabbit skins. But all the men go as naked as Adam in Paradise before he sinned, and they did not feel the least shame in presenting themselves before us...just as though the clothing given them by nature were some fine garment.”
At the bottom of the hill I crossed Highway 76 and started up the final two blocks to the mission. In the entire valley, except for one bare-chested marine out jogging, all the residents were modestly covered.
I passed San Luis Rey Auto Salvage, the River Bottom Inn, and the Blue Room Beauty Salon. It seemed to be an inelegant approach for what had once been the most prosperous mission in all of California. At the entrance to the mission grounds, which had once covered 15,000 acres and had provided food for as many as 3000 people at one time, a cracked and peeling sign now reads, “Por Favor No Cortar Los Nopales” — “Please Don’t Pick The Prickly Pears.”
At 1:30 in the afternoon, with my journey behind me, I stood on the steps of the Mission San Luis Rey, looking up at its brilliant, white walls. They were beautiful in the afternoon sun and had the look of something permanent, something built to span the centuries.
Looking back to the south, toward the land I had traveled in the last three days, I had the odd sensation that the distance had been somehow compressed. This is the pedestrian’s paradox — on foot distances seem shorter rather than longer. Maybe this is because the footsteps give the distance a human scale that the body can understand. Walking all the way to Monterey not only seemed possible to me, but also a very good idea. It wasn’t so far. By following Father Crespi’s diary, and his pace, I could get there in about nine weeks. Distance was only time, and if one thing is certain, the time will pass whether you’re walking or not.