The Story Behind Those Historic El Camino Real Bell Markers on the 101 Freeway

Like me, perhaps you've wondered about those unique bell markers seen frequently on the 101 Freeway with the sign that says "Historic El Camino Real."

One of those ubiquitous Historic El Camino Real bell markers we see along the 101 Freeway.

One of those ubiquitous Historic El Camino Real bell markers we see along the 101 Freeway.

El Camino Real is Spanish for "The Royal Road" and in California is the name for the 700 mile historic California Mission Trail that connects 21 missions, 4 presidios (military forts) and several pueblos (towns) from Mission San Diego de Alcala in the south to Mission San Francisco Solano in Northern California. El Camino Real is designated as California Historical Landmark #784.

California State Assembly Bill 1707 defined the El Camino Real route, which includes portions of Routes 280, 82, 238, 101, 5, 72, 12, 37, 121, 87, 162, 185, 92, and 123 and connecting city streets and county roads in a continuous route from Sonoma southerly to the international border.

So what's up with those bell markers on the 101? According to the California Department of Transportation, the Mission Bell Marker system has existed on the historic El Camino Real route since 1906. The original marker system called for installation of bells one mile apart along the entire length of the El Camino Real. By 1913, over 450 markers were in place, but over the years the bells were removed due to damage, vandalism and theft. In 1959, the Division of Highways was legislatively mandated to maintain the marker system. Legislation in 1974 reiterated that responsibility.

Caltrans initiated a plan to maintain the system beginning in 1974, when less than 100 of the original Mission Bell Markers remained. The bells are exact copies of the original 1906 bells; in fact, the original bell molds were used to fabricate the new bells. Mission Bell Marker locations were chosen based on safety, constructability, visibility and scenic quality of the site. Spacing between marker locations varied based on existing site conditions and limitations. An average spacing of 1 to 2 miles was sought when identifying the locations.

The Caltrans Landscape Architecture Program began in 1996 to fulfill its vision to restore the historic El Camino Real Mission Bell Marker system from San Diego to Sonoma. The portion of the system from San Diego to Los Angeles was not addressed by the restoration project because those bells are mostly located on local streets outside of the State’s jurisdiction. The first phase of the restoration project, between Los Angeles to San Francisco, was completed in early 2005. The second and final phase of the restoration project was completed between San Francisco and Sonoma in late 2012. The Mission Bell Marker system as originally envisioned in the earlier part of the last century has finally been realized!

Caltrans received nearly $2 million in Transportation Enhancement grants to fund restoration of the Mission Bell Marker system on the El Camino Real from Orange County to Sonoma. Funding was received for the manufacture and placement of 585 Mission Bell Markers, placed approximately one to two miles apart along the roadside in the northbound and southbound directions of State Routes 101, 82, 37, 121, and 12. Mission Bell Markers located within the roadside of a state route are maintained by Caltrans. Maintenance of Markers located on local streets that are the responsibility of the local entity.

So that explains why you see all of those interesting bell markers on the 101 Freeway! How would you like to have one of these authentic California El Camino Real Bell Markers in your own yard!? Visit the California Mission Bell company website at

Older El Camino Real bell marker on display at the  Old Mission Santa Barbara .

Older El Camino Real bell marker on display at the Old Mission Santa Barbara.