The Broads interview Maggie Espinosa a woman in her mid -50’s who walked 800 miles to all 21 of the California missions. She’s an award-winning travel writer, teaches travel writing, a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and former president of the San Diego Press Club.
Broads – Do your feet still hurt?
Maggie – Yes, they do. I have one toe that’s still acting up.
Maggie completed her walk 1 year ago. She has written a book about it called On a Mission – An 800-mile walk to discover California’s El Camino Real.
She had thought about trekking through California but wasn’t sure where to go. Born and raised outside of Philly, she didn’t come out to California until she was almost 30. She had read about a retired school teacher from Oregon who had walked all the California missions. He was 70+ at the time. If he could do it, so could she. Besides, it would be a fabulous way to learn about California and its history.
Her journey started in San Diego at the Mission Acala going south to north. Normally this takes about 55 days. Since she was neither hard core or an athlete, she divided the journey into 12 months. She would walk approx. 80 miles each month, come back, work for 3 weeks and then walk again. It took her a total of 10 months.
She invited friends to walk some of it with her and was surprised when they took her up on it. She spent nights in discount hotels, people’s homes and a few deluxe accommodations as a special treat. She doesn’t like camping and felt she needed a good night’s sleep after walking so far.
When she walked from Capistrano Mission to San Gabriel Mission she didn’t have friends along and did it alone.
It was “boring!”
At that point, the scenery wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t particularly interesting.
She picked up reminders of her trek like rocks, a cool cigarette carton from Hong Kong and other items she found on the trail.
The distance between missions, with the exception of Santa Inez to La Purisima, were more than a day apart walking. Besides the 21 California missions, there are estancias and asistencias. Some used to be trading posts or places to hold mass. They still exist although many are in disrepair. Some are being restored and others are have been given other uses.
Maggie wasn’t able to stay directly on the El Camino Real because it’s now a major highway. Because she couldn’t walk on highway 101, she had to cut back and forth from the coast to the inland. That added mileage but also made the walk more interesting. She especially loved walking on the beach.
The farthest mission north is in Sonoma. Not all the California missions were erected sequentially up the coast. Father Junipero Serra built the first 9 missions and then passed away. Others were added between the ones he built.
Some of them are located in affluent communities and are well taken care of. Others have as few as 200 parishioners but are simple and beautiful. The San Antonio Mission is located on an army base called Fort Hunter Liggett. It’s located on grounds that used to belong to William Randolph Hearst (who built Heart’s Castle) Maggie was able to go on the base to see it. It’s one of the few missions that allows you to spend the night in the mission itself but you have to book it well in advance. Maggie didn’t and wasn’t able to stay there.
The weather on the walk was extremely hot, especially in the Central Valley. There are long stretches of road with no infrastructure or water in between. Sometimes it was 96 degrees with no shade. By mile 19 Maggie was crying. She saw skeletons of animals and turkey vultures. Scary!
We asked if weirdos tried to pick her up. She said she felt safe walking with friends. When she was alone, she always walked in areas with people around, avoided dirt trails and walked on sidewalks. It was all done in the daytime except when she was in a safe location. The challenge was to make it to where she was staying before dark.
She would walk for 4 days and then take a train back home. Three weeks later she’d take the train to where she left off and walked 4 more days. When she got as far as Salinas, she flew back and forth.
Broads – Are you ready to walk the Camino in Spain?
Maggie – NOOOOOOOOOO!
While she was on her journey her father passed away. She had to leave her quest to lay him to rest and take care of business. A month later she had to play catch up because of publication deadlines. She walked 158 miles sad and depressed. After 10 days she was approaching a mission and found a white, perfectly carved wooden heart on the trail. Her dad was a cardiologist. She kept it as a memento.
On the last leg of the journey, she walked with her husband from San Rafael (north of San Francisco) to Sonoma. It choked her up because she couldn’t call her dad to let him know she had finished. Looking down, she saw a perfectly formed plastic smiley face on the road. Dad was watching.
Each day’s walk would be chronicledon paper in the evening. If too much time passed her emotions and recollections would have been softened and she felt she would have written them through rose colored glasses.
If you want to walk the California missions
Know your limits of what you can and cannot do. Maggie had people join her who didn’t realize how hard it was going to be. You have to wake up early, wrap your toes in moleskin, wear open toe socks, put on knee braces, smear Vaseline on your heels to prevent blisters . . .
You have to train – Maggie found she had to take breaks from training so she wouldn’t exhaust herself before she actually started. She would walk 9 miles a day on a treadmill for a month and a half.
She averaged 18 miles on the walk but some stretches were longer than others. To walk through Camp Pendleton, she had to get a pass and then make it in and out to the other side in one day. It’s 24 miles total. (almost a marathon)
Maggie spent many days walking in fluffy slippers because her feet were so swollen. Her shoes were a size and a half larger than she usually wore.
Navigating the Route
The retired teacher who had previously walked the California missions kept a step by step journal and put it into a 3 ring binder. He makes photocopies for those who want to go on the walk themselves and sells them. He started a Facebook group for El Camino Real enthusiasts called The California Mission Walkers. They followed Maggie’s walk on Facebook and when she was near their area would invite her to stay with them.
One man in the group walked with her for hundreds of miles and was excellent at navigation and Google maps.
Maggie’s website is
You can find her book “On a Mission” on her site or on Amazon.
The book is her daily journal along with accompanying photographs of her California mission walk.
What is the longest distance you’ve walked? Please leave a comment below.