California’s earliest explorers and European colonists were mostly from Spain—hence the proliferation of Spanish-named streets, towns, and even colleges that persist to this day. Monuments to many of these men can be found in various parts of the state.
No single man is credited with as much influence on the early development of California than Father Junipero Serra. The Franciscan monk took an active role in bringing Christianity (and, unfortunately, the corollary syphilis, measles, and smallpox) to native peoples from San Diego  all the way up to Sonoma .
To that end, the Franciscan order built a string of missions, each of which was meant to be a self-sufficient parish that grew its own food, kept up its own buildings, and took care of its own people. The monks also created a road between the missions—El Camino Real—with the idea that a pilgrim could travel the length of El Camino Real and find a bed at the next mission after only one day’s journey.
Today, El Camino Real remains a vital part of the state and much of the original path still exists; just look for the mission bells mounted on curved poles posted along the sides of the road. In the Bay Area , El Camino Real isn’t a highway—it’s a business street running the length of the Peninsula. To the south, El Camino Real and U.S. 101 sometimes merge into one; at other points El Camino rambles away from any main roads.
The missions prospered in the early 1800s, then gradually deteriorated until they were ordered to secularize in the middle of the 19th century. Some took on new uses; others fell into disrepair and outright abandonment. It was only in the 20th century that interest in the history of the missions was rekindled and money was invested into restoring many of the churches and complexes.
Today, many (but not all) of the missions have been restored as Catholic parishes, with visitors centers and museum displays of various levels of quality and polish. Several of these missions are covered in this guide. Arranged south to north, they are: