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.

Father Junipero Serra generally is credited with founding the footpath in the late 1700s that later developed into the El Camino Real, connecting 21 missions along a 700-mile stretch of road in California.

The name is Spanish for Highway of the King, or Royal Highway.

Parkman, however, said another Spanish missionary -- Father- Juan Crespi -- recounted in his journal finding existing pathways when Crespi explored the area around San Francisco Bay.

Parkman said the paths may have been the work of Native Americans or of animals, including mammoths from long ago. In other words, the Spanish missionaries may have stumbled onto an existing network of rudimentary roads.

In 1906, the California Federation of Women's Clubs established the first bell trail marker project, with the first bell installed at the Plaza Church in Los Angeles.

The California mission revival by then was in full swing, both as a way of honoring history and to promote the state as a great place to live or invest in. The Spanish mission style became a standard of California home architecture.

Parkman said the notion of missions as "quaint and romantic" places did not correspond to reality. He said missions embodied conquest and religious conversion, as well as hubs of commerce and politics.

The route of the El Camino Real charted by the state Legislature winds along Highway 101 to Highway 37, and from there to Highway 121 and into Sonoma.

But Parkman said the actual North Bay route likely went north from Novato to the Coast Miwok village of Olompali, and from there, crossed the Petaluma River east toward Tolay Lake. From there it went over the hills via what is now Highway 116 to Sonoma Valley.

Parkman said that is the route Father Jose Altimira took when he founded the Sonoma Mission in 1823.

Robinson said the El Camino Real is a subject of debate, historically. Its route was known to change because of environmental conditions such as flooding and landslides. The present route was established by the Legislature.

Parkman said missions and the El Camino Real are worth remembering, and that the bells marking the route are a "subtle reminder that we live in a very historic landscape."

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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