Sitting in traffic, it's hard to imagine several southern Sonoma County highways once were footpaths connecting California's Spanish missions from San Diego to Sonoma.
The El Camino Real was paved over long ago, its glory marked in the pages of history books and by distinctive bells that marked the route, before theft and vandalism threatened even those modest reminders.
But now the bells are back and once again directing travelers to California's missions, including Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma, the northernmost outpost of the vanished Spanish empire.
“California is what it is today in large part because of the missions and the El Camino Real,” said Breck Parkman, a senior archaeologist with California State Parks.
The California Legislature in 1974 directed Caltrans to repair or replace the bells when fewer than 100 of them remained. Financial constraints hindered Caltrans from meeting that mandate, however.
Then in 2000, the agency received the first of two grants totaling nearly $2 million from the Federal Transportation Enhancement Activities fund to complete the work.
The final 30 bells — out of nearly 600 — were installed late last year along Highway 101 in Marin County, and in Sonoma County along Highways 37, 121 and 12.
The markers consist of cast metal bells 18 inches in diameter, set atop a column of 3-inch pipe attached to a reinforced concrete foundation.
Some compare the look of the markers to a “Franciscan walking sticks.” An attached sign designates the route as being part of the “Historic El Camino Real.”
Keith Robinson, an architect who oversaw the project for Caltrans, said the agency's mission includes protecting and preserving areas of historical significance.
He said the mission bells mark “California's first highway.”
Parkman said the route's history and that of the missions it connected is more complicated than what most people believe.