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The Mission Walk: a California Pilgrimage

Robert Nicholson is a member of the California Mission Historical Society and the California Mission Walkers and an amateur historian.

Mission San Juan Bautista seen from the original mission trail

Mission San Juan Bautista seen from the original mission trail

Many religions have a tradition of pilgrimages – journeys undertaken for spiritual growth, or to demonstrate religious devotion. A pilgrimage may be a journey to a site with spiritual significance, or it may be a journey along a specific route. Generally, pilgrims are expected to devote significant time or effort to their journey.

Most pilgrimage routes and destinations date back hundreds, if not thousands of years. But in the past decade, a new route has arisen in an unlikely place: coastal California.

The California Mission Walk is an 800-mile route that roughly follows El Camino Real (the Royal Road), the trail that once connected the 21 Spanish missions in California.

The missions form a continuous line from San Diego to Sonoma California. Some of the missions are little more than ruins, while others have been extensively restored. Most are still active Catholic churches.

The California Mission Walkers

The trail is being promoted by the California Mission Walkers, an informal group that provides information and resources for people who want to walk the route, in whole or in part. The group also maintains an active page on Facebook, where members share photos of their journeys and comments about the route.

The motto of the group is Siempre Adelante (always forward), which was the personal motto of St. Junípero Serra, founder of the California mission system.

People join the mission walkers, and walk the trail, for a variety of reasons. For some, the walk is a religious pilgrimage – an act of devotion. For others, the motivation might be staying in shape, or learning about early California history, or sharing the comradery of the trail.

Because the route connects a line of missions, roughly equally spaced, it’s possible for walkers to hike just a few “legs” at a time, taking several years to complete the entire journey. The trail itself includes pedestrian routes through urban areas, roads through historic towns, country roads, and even forest trails.

In some places, the trail follows the Historic El Camino Real bell markers erected by California in 2005. However, in areas where the markers are placed along highways, the hiking trail deviates from the route.

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A long-term goal of the California Mission Walkers is to formalize the trail with route markers, and perhaps even gain recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Pilgrimage Hike.

Currently the group publishes a Pilgrim Passport which walkers can have stamped at each mission they visit to commemorate their journey, as well as an embroidered patch which is worn by many mission walkers.

Inspirations for the Mission Walkers

Edie Littlefield Sundby

One of the most inspirational and motivational stories for mission walkers is told by Edie Littlefield Sundby in her 2017 book, The Mission Walker. Diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and given just 3 months to live, Sundby began her personal mission walk on southern tip of Baja California, and followed the mission trail for 1600 miles. Her book is an exploration of courage, faith, endurance and transcendence.

Camino de Santiago

Many of the California Mission Walkers have been inspired by the Camino de Santiago in Europe. The Camino de Santiago actually consists of several routes in France, Portugal, and Spain, all of which terminate at the burial site of St. James’ remains, in the city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It is estimated that 300,000 people travel along the Camino de Santiago each year. The primary routes through France and Spain have been in use for over 1,000 years, and are listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

A scallop seashell has long been the symbol of both the Camino and St. James. Seashell markers were placed along the trail, and adorned many churches and cathedrals in honor of St. James. Today, the trail is marked by stylized shell motif. Many pilgrims also wear a scallop shell as a pin or necklace, or even dangling from a hiking staff.

St.James' shell at the Well of the Way, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Languedoc-Roussillon, France || Stylized Camino de Santiago Logo || Camino de Santiago trail marker in Huesca, Spain

St.James' shell at the Well of the Way, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Languedoc-Roussillon, France || Stylized Camino de Santiago Logo || Camino de Santiago trail marker in Huesca, Spain

Travelers along the Camino de Santiago may carry a “pilgrim’s passport,” or credencial, which allows them to stay at reserved accommodations along the route. Like the California Mission Walkers passport, the credencial can be stamped at each place they visit or stay along the route.

Walking the California Mission Trail

For anyone interested in hiking the mission trail, there are many resources available on the California Mission Walkers website. Most hikers follow the route described in “Butch” Briery’s guidebook, “California Mission Walk ~ The Original Hiker’s Guide to California’s 21 Missions Along El Camino Real”. The book is available on Kindle, or a hardcopy can be ordered through the website.


Liz Westwood from UK on February 22, 2020:

Having watched a programme about the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela a while ago, I have read your article with great interest.

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