What's the story behind the Camino Real in Hays County?
The drive down I-35 can be a stressful one, to say the least. It was almost always stressful for Kevin, a Central Texas resident who asked KUT to use only his first name. As a former lawyer, he often had to drive from Austin to San Antonio to get to hearings. He’d be in a rush, dodging traffic and hurrying to get to where he needed to be on time.
But sometimes, during a lull in one of these stressful drives, his eyes would wander off to the side, toward a little two-lane road, with a big stone wall and huge oak trees that looked hundreds of years old.
“It was just very pure Texas," he said. "It would be very tempting just to say, 'The heck with the hearing. Let's go down this road.'"
But he never actually did that. He still thinks about those picturesque roads he'd seen on many of his long drives, though, and over the years, he's even heard that some old roads in the area were once part of the Camino Real, a historic trail from the Spanish colonial period that runs across Texas.
So, he asked KUT's SMTXplained project: Does the Camino Real run through San Marcos? What's the story behind it?
Old wagon roads
The Camino Real de los Tejas is a historic route that stretches from the Texas-Mexico border to Natchitoches, La. It's called the Camino Real, which translates to "royal road," because the roads were once part of Spain's empire in the Americas.
But over the years, the trail has witnessed a lot of history. While it was once traveled by Spanish missionaries trying to spread the Catholic religion, eventually it was traversed by ranchers and Anglo-American settlers. Today, it's become part of the modern landscape. Much of it has been turned into roadways and highways.
"It's elemental to the state's history," said Steve Gonzales, the executive director of El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail Association. "Every Texan of note we can think of … every single one of those people came down one route of the Camino or another."
Gonzales knows these roads well.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Gonzales drives down CM Allen Parkway in San Marcos. This curvy, winding road is designated by the National Historic Trail Association as an official route of the Camino Real de los Tejas.
Gonzales says that when we think of modern roads, we usually think of a grid system with harsh 90-degree angles at different intersections. But that's not the case in this part of San Marcos.
"I can point out here how the modern roadway really does mirror that old historic route of the Camino, the essential wagon road before it was all paved like this,” he says.
These easy-to-miss details are the best kinds of clues for reconfiguring where the Camino Real was, Gonzales says. And while this particular piece of the road was once a popular thoroughfare during the times of horse-drawn wagons, the reality is that the history of the road goes back even further than that.
The creators of this road weren't actually people at all, but animals.
"Buffalo, deer," says Frank de la Teja, a historian who specializes in Texas history.
These animals created natural avenues of movement — usually leading to water. In Hays County, that's the San Marcos Springs. The Indigenous people hunting those animals would often follow their tracks.
“It's easy to imagine that at least some of these would have been the predecessors of the historic groups known to us collectively as Coahuiltecans,” de la Teja said.
The Indigenous peoples of these areas used these paths long before the Europeans arrived, to trade, travel and connect with one another. When the Europeans got here, they followed the paths that had been created before them.
"The Indigenous people and the Spanish, the Mexicans, the early Anglos, they had figured out what the best and easiest way to move from one place to another was," he said. "And in the 20th century, when road building came along, they said, 'Yeah, that section right there, that's the best possible way to go. So let's pave it.'”
Even though a lot of the Camino has been paved over to make the roads that we use every day, people like Gonzales still see so much potential in places like San Marcos to make the history of the Camino come alive. Gonzales thinks much of the open spaces of the trail could be transformed into public space or hiking trail.
He says he's trying to get different groups of people excited about the Camino, like cyclists or runners.
"We want runners to to see that, oh, there's a value to us creating this extended trail, because now, we're running for 10 miles along this route and this road," he said. "So that's a big thing we're working towards, too, is just enhancing that user group who really can appreciate the trail."
The problem is that, much like the rest of Texas, 99% of the Camino Real is now privately owned. So creating a trail and making a public space for people to experience can be a challenge. And, sometimes, pieces of the trail disappear for good.
Traces of the trail
Driving down Redwood Road, on the East Side of San Marcos, there are indicators that people know the Camino Real is there. There's a housing development called Mission Trail at El Camino Real, and a veterinarian office is named King’s Highway Animal Clinic.
“Man, every time I come back through here, there's just more and more development, and it's right up to the edge of everything,” Gonzales says, pulling up next to a rickety wire fence, right on the outskirts of a housing development called The Trace.
He points to a freshly installed drainage pipe.
“Over right here where that drainage pipe is. That was the swale,” he says.
Swales are shallow indentations in the landscape that were made by years of wagon wheels wearing down the same path over and over again. They're another subtle clue that signals where the Camino once was.
“I'm not sure why they did it, but [the developers] did put the drainage pipe directly into the swale and have now obliterated that physical remnant of the road that was right here,” Gonzales says.
Directly in front of where the swale once was is a historical marker, with details about the swale and the pieces of the Camino Real that run through Hays County. What was once a great view, Gonzales said, is now a lost opportunity for a green space or a park.
"If you had the Appalachian National Scenic Trail running through your backyard or the Santa Fe National Historic Trail running right through your backyard, just as these people have El Camino Real de Los Tejas National Historic Trail running through their backyard — that's an amenity that you can capitalize on as a developer,” he says.
Gonzales says it's important for the trail to have local advocates and leaders to protect it. In Hays County, the group leading that effort is the Council for the Indigenous and Tejano Community. The council, made up of local leaders and historians, dedicates themselves to telling the county's Indigenous and Tejano history.
Gina Alba Rodgers, the chairperson for the Council, said she didn't realize until recently that the Camino Real ran parallel to the historic Hays County Courthouse, right in San Marcos' town square.
"And I thought, well, that's amazing. How is that possible?" she said. "Where are the signs that tell us that the El Camino Real was right here on the square in San Marcos?"
Rodgers and other members of the council recently worked with the county to coordinate the installation of several Camino Real de los Tejas signs, which mark different historic sites throughout the City of San Marcos.
"I think the most important thing is that we have to ensure that future generations hear those historically excluded stories about our community from a diverse viewpoint," she said.
Gonzales said that the loss of trail at The Trace is sad in a number of ways.
"This used to be a great spot," he said, "where if you really wanted people to see the landscape of the Camino Real in Central Texas, particularly here in Hays County in San Marcos, this was a great place to see it."
The thing about the trail, is that once it's gone he said, it's lost forever.
"It's up to us to raise awareness of what the trail is [and] what it means to the people of Texas," he said, "so that we understand the valuable historic resource that we have here, [so] that we can celebrate for time eternal and hopefully protect for future generations ... to see and experience forever."