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Long Distance Hiking Trails: How One Woman Completed California’s 800-Mile El Camino Real

long distance hiking trails
Maggie’s husband, Miguel, walked the final 45 miles of the journey with her. Here they are at the San Rafael Mission.

Love long distance hiking trails?

Have you ever wanted to walk in solitude, finding your own inner piece and immersing yourself in local cultures along the way?

The idea isn’t as impossible as it may seem.

Just ask Maggie Espinosa, a journalist and intrepid traveler who recently completed the El Camino Real, an 800-mile walkthrough California’s 21 missions.

I caught up with Maggie to learn more about her story and the inspiring journey.

After reading her interview, don’t forget to grab a copy of her book about the experience, On a Mission: An 800-mile Walk to Discover California’s El Camino Real.

1. Last November you completed an 800-mile walk to visit California’s 21 missions. What was your goal with this journey?

I entertained the thought of a long walk after I completed a Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hike, and after summiting Mt. Whitney. I read about a retired school teacher who walked from the San Diego Mission to the Sonoma Mission and I thought bingo!, this is a good way to tackle a long walk and learn about my adopted state of California.

long distance hiking trails
Peggy Johnston followed Maggie on Facebook and contacted her about walking together. Turns out they both live in San Diego. She and Maggie’s buddy Karyl walked across the Golden Gate Bridge.

2. What was one memorable local encounter you had along the way?

There were too many encounters to choose just one. The kindness of strangers was one of the most wonderful aspects of the walk. Also:

  • Migrant workers in Salinas Valley would offer my co-walkers and I rides thinking we had no transportation.
  • People reading about my walk on Facebook offered me their spare guest rooms and meals when passing through their town.
  • I walked a portion of the trek with my nephews, creating lasting family memories.
  • Strangers asked to walk with me. If was fascinating getting to know them while clocking miles on the road.
long distance hiking trails
Migrant workers in Salinas Valley were so nice. Maggie spent many days walking alongside the veggie fields.

3. How did you prepare for the 800-mile walk?

I divided the journey into 10 segments, covering 80 miles each month. I’d take Amtrak to and fro. Prior to the walk I trained on my treadmill. But, a few segments into the journey, I found I needed to rest between walks instead of train.

long distance hiking trails
Photo: Maggie Espinosa dominating California’s hiking trails

4. For those looking to make a positive impact on the places they visit, what advice would you give?

Get to know the locals. Eat at the Ma & Pa diners instead of chain restaurants. Stop at the local shops. When I was walking from Buellton to Lompoc I passed a small little lavender farm. A 90-year old man and his grandson were selling hand made creams, soaps and other products in a little shed. I stopped in and had a blast talking with them. They were shocked to hear I was walking 800-miles. I purchased a few items and off I went with a big smile on my face!

long distance hiking trails
Maggie’s nephews, Gabe and Pete, walked with her for four days.

5. What was the highlight of the trip for you?


6. What have been some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from traveling?

Humanity is good. The more you see the world, the more your world grows.

long distance hiking trails
Jim Lutz and Friar Bob followed Maggie’s walk on Facebook and asked to join. She’s never met them. Jim lives in Buellton and Bob in Monterey. Both of their families put Maggie up when she walked through their towns. Maggie and her friend Marie had a blast walking with them both.

7. What was the biggest challenge of the trip, and how did you overcome it?

There were a few challenges. First, my father died when I was halfway through the walk. I had to fly east to lay him to rest. It was extremely difficult to resume the journey upon returning. The sadness was palpable.

Second, my feet had constant blisters. I tried every remedy available. After awhile I just realized I needed to walk with painful feet.

Third, usually I had people walking with me. But, a few days I walked alone. On those days, I needed to be careful being a woman walking alone. I stayed on public sidewalks, and had my cell phone always in reach.

long distance hiking trails
Maggie’s feet were in constant pain. Ouch!

8. What would you tell someone wanting to do a similar pilgrimage who is afraid or doesn’t think they can do it?

Traveling is getting out of your comfort zone. There are many times I have to coax myself due to fear. If one is afraid, try and get friends to join you. Or, join a hiking group.

Other California Hikes

Looking to explore other California hiking trails? A few not-to-miss trails include:

1, 2, & 3 Day Itinerary For Yosemite National Park

Lost Horse Mine in Joshua Tree National Park

Hidden Valley Nature Trail in Joshua Tree National Park

Ryan Mountain in Joshua Tree National Park

Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevadas

The Lakes Trail in Sequoia National Park

Sentinel Dome to Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park

How To Hike The Columbia Rock Trail in Yosemite National Park

How To Hike Vernal And Nevada Falls In Yosemite National Park (Mist Trail)

One Day In Sequoia National Park: The Perfect Itinerary

10 Day California Road Trip Itinerary: Los Angeles To Big Sur Road Trip

10 Best Places For Solo Female Travel in California

long distance hiking trails

About Maggie Espinosa

Maggie Espinosa is an award-winning travel journalist and author whose coverage includes national and international publications, syndicated radio interviews, and reporting for ABC, NBC and CW TV. She authored The Privileged Pooch, Luxury Travel With Your Pet in Southern California, a 206- page guide profiling upscale pet-friendly hotels, restaurants, shops and activities. Espinosa has journeyed to five continents, and has lived in Europe and the Caribbean. In 2007 she summited 14,500 foot Mt. Whitney, followed by a Grand Canyon National Park rim-to-rim hike a few years later. Home is San Diego, California with her husband Miguel and pooch, Marcel.

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  1. Ron "Butch" Briery on at 3:22 am

    There is a FB Group, “California Mission Walkers”, dedicated to helping people do this walk. Maggie is a member and it was the vehicle for her making contacts with many of the people who shared in her adventure. Members share names and email addresses with each other in order to gain specific information about portions of the route.

    • Jessie Festa on at 2:49 pm

      @Ron: Interesting! I’ve found Facebook groups to be really helpful with niche trip planning in other topics, as well. Very cool a resource like this exists!

  2. Emma on at 10:45 am

    I live in Sweden and I dream of visiting California during the summer (that might be all year, I’m not sure). There is so much I’d like to see: The architecture, theme parks, LA and much, much more. I’m thinking of renting a car and drive along the coast and see where I land. Great post btw

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