Calmino mission trail is a hiker’s dream

It’s California’s take on the 500-mile trek in Spain

Due to the popularity of the recent movie “The Way,” more Americans have become aware of the Camino de Santiago, the 500-mile trek through northern Spain.  What many Californians don’t realize, however, is that we have a Camino of our own right here in the Golden State.

El Camino Real, the Royal Road, the King’s Highway, the mission trail... it goes by all of these names traditionally, but more succinctly, the “Calmino” – the California camino.  It actually bears little resemblance to the Spanish camino, except for its beautiful location and the convenient intervals of churches for stopovers. The Calmino lacks the Spanish trail’s amenities, but there are those who believe the Calmino could someday become a hiker’s dream.  

One of those starry-eyed dreamers is Stephanie Dodaro, a 39-year old freelance copywriter from the Bay area. After a soul-nourishing hike on the Camino de Santiago in Spain in 2011, she returned home, scratching her head and wondering if there was a similar experience to be had in the States.  

That’s when she noticed the mission trail.  Like the Spanish Camino, the California mission trail has a long history and can be broken into discrete segments, each ending with a church.  The problem was, no one in modern memory was walking it. 

The main reason is that asphalt ribbon we call the Highway 101, which covers most of the Calmino, making it less than hospitable to walkers.  

In the 18th century, Spanish missionaries established the California missions about 30 miles apart from each other, a long day’s horseback ride.  Travel between the missions often followed worn Indian trails, so the route itself is more ancient then the padres’ in many places.  

This brings up another difference between the Spanish camino and our Calmino: safety.  Spaniards have hosted pilgrims for a millennium and have a sense of protection over the trail.  California, lacking reverence for the history of the trail and not accustomed to pilgrims, does not provide that sort of vigilance. 

Besides the danger of two-legged animals, other wildlife co-habits the trail.  Dodaro walked the entire 800 miles looking over her shoulder for mountain lions, her particular bête noire, but it would also be possible to encounter bears, rattlesnakes, and skunks along the way.  

More dangerous than wildlife is automobile traffic.  At present, the route requires walkers to cover many miles on the shoulder of highways.  

Dodaro set out to hike the 800-mile Calmino from the northernmost Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma to Mission San Diego de Alcala in the south.  The trek took 55 days.  

Dodaro’s hope is that if more people hike the Calmino, demand for safer trails, affordable lodging and access to water will grow... in other words, the Calmino might become as friendly to hikers as the Spanish Camino (which is a hefty source of tourist revenue to the nation of Spain, if any state politicians happen to be reading).

More hikers along the Calmino might also save the missions.  Maintenance costs and building retrofit demands have threatened several of the historic buildings and, as the Spanish already know, pilgrims mean income.  

Only a handful of modern American pilgrims have now completed the 800-mile Calmino, most of those very recently and as the result of a captivating experience on the Spanish camino.  

As part of Dodaro’s dream to popularize the Calmino with walkers, she has published a free walking guide on the internet at which includes maps, descriptions of the route, elevation, distances, walking surface and food and lodging options.  

Another Spain-besotted pilgrim, Ron Briery, has published a turn-by-turn, almost obsessively-detailed Calmino guide which can be ordered directly from him at

Dodaro’s route through our Central Coast area went something like this: starting at Mission San Miguel, she walked down through Paso Robles and Templeton on roads parallel to the 101.  Stopping at the asistencia in Santa Margarita, she topped the Cuesta grade, descending to Mission San Luis Obispo.

From Mission San Luis, the next stop was La Purisima Mission via Pismo Beach, Arroyo Grande, Nipomo, Santa Maria and Orcutt along Highway 101-parallel roads and country roads, over the Harris Grade into the Lompoc Valley.  

There are two possible routes to the next mission, Santa Ines.  The shorter, along Highway 246 from Lompoc to Buellton, requires a sharp lookout for traffic.  The other is longer, but utilizes sleepier Santa Rosa Road.  Dodaro took the shorter route, continuing on 246 into Solvang, with beautiful views of the Santa Ynez mountain range and valley.

The section south of us, from Santa Ynez to Santa Barbara, is especially difficult as elevation changes increase and there is a section currently non-navigable by foot between El Capitan State Beach and Goleta.  The leg north of us, from Mission San Antonio de Padua to San Miguel, is also particularly challenging as there are few water and lodging options and the climate is brutal in the summertime.  

The SLO/Central Coast section is quite doable, however.  At a pace of 15 miles per day, it’s a week-long trek.

Dodaro bought a reflective vest and attached a bike flag to her pack to be visible in traffic, stored up a lifetime’s worth of courage and endurance and just set out.  If the Calmino develops into what she hopes, she and Briery will have been pioneers with their excellent travel notes.

To transform the Calmino into anything approaching the walker-friendly Spanish camino, a long, sustained, coordinated, well-funded campaign would be required.  But that’s not how the Spanish camino came into existence.  It was a spontaneous result of groups of people who simply set out for a destination.  Over time, a path was worn.  Merchants swarmed in because pilgrims carried money and needed amenities.  It evolved organically.  

Perhaps our own Calmino will evolve in the same way.  And perhaps it will begin on the Central Coast, as more and more hikers set out for the next mission down the road.  

Links for aspiring Calmino pilgrims

Stephanie Dodaro’s trail guide is available free online at  

Ron Briery’s trail overview is at:

Another group of four recently completed the Calmino.  See their notes at:

Sheryl Collmer - is a hiker and runner from San Luis Obispo and a veteran of the Spanish Camino de Santiago.