The Mountain Crest
The drive is awesome. Breathtaking. Winding its way from the 2,250’ summit of San Marcos Pass to the tiptop of 3,985’ La Cumbre Peak, each turn along East Camino Cielo uncovers a new vista—Santa Cruz Island, the Santa Barbara coastline, Lake Cachuma, Figueroa Mountain, the Big Pine cliffs, Little Pine, Gibraltar Lake, a blend of images which suggests a wildness and an isolation rare to be found so close to civilization.
In actuality, the road is not a single continuous route but is composed of two distinct sections: East and West Camino Cielo. West Camino Cielo begins a half-mile below the crest of San Marcos Pass. Leading across the rugged and extremely remote western portion of the Santa Ynez Mountains, it snakes its way across a series of bony spines and high prominences for 17 miles to Refugio Pass where it ends. For five miles the road is paved, and the going seems easy, but just beyond the entrance to a private gun club, the road abruptly turns to dirt and begins a series of sharp downhill switchbacks that seem to lead backward in time to a frontier era in which the mountain wall dominated human attempts to intrude upon the wilderness interior.
For more details on driving this route check out the West Camino Cielo car tour.
West Camino Cielo
To get the flavor of what travel might have been like three-quarters of a century ago, take an afternoon and drive from San Marcos Pass to Santa Ynez Peak along West Camino Cielo. It is rough and bumpy, and there are lots of potholes and plenty of places for you to curse me for taking my advice, but it is well worth your time.
Most likely you won’t meet anyone on the entire 15-mile drive and you won’t see sprawls of tract homes dotting the valley below. Only rarely will you see either Highway 101 or the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. What you will see is a land almost unchanged since the days in which Chumash Indians lived here, a place that must be taken slowly and with care, as your springs and shocks will tell you.
East Camino Cielo
The thin, winding eastern part of Camino Cielo also seems remote in nature, though not nearly so much as West Camino Cielo. It is paved across the entire 10-mile length from San Marcos Pass to Gibraltar Road and you’ll more-than-likely see a lot more people along the way. Nevertheless it still provides a sense of adventure and a feeling of exhilaration on the drive across.
A few miles east of Gibraltar Road the crest road turns primitive once more near Romero Saddle, turning into a bumpy dirt road that leads down into the upper Santa Ynez watershed above Gibraltar Dam. The 15-mile drive takes more than two hours to complete, but it leads to a wide variety of outdoor experiences from car camping to day hiking and biking, as well as a number of backpacking routes into the Dick Smith Wilderness.
For more details on driving this route check out the East Camino Cielo car tour.
East Camino Cielo—Knapps’ Road
Camino Cielo was begun during World War I, one of the many routes made possible by George Owen Knapp, who came to Santa Barbara in 1912. Born in 1855, Knapp graduated as a civil engineer from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of New York in 1876. He went on to work for People’s Gas, Light and Coke Company in Chicago, building gas plants. Eventually Knapp became president of the company before moving to Union Carbide, where he was Chairman of the Board for 25 years.
Retiring in Santa Barbara, Knapp quickly became involved with everything that seemed to be identified with the city’s progress. Within a few years he had funded a nursing school at Cottage Hospital with a $200,000 contribution, donated substantial sums toward the construction of both All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church and Montecito Presbyterian Church, and provided money for a number of costly pipe organs in other churches.
Next to building organs and hospitals, Knapp’s abiding passion was building roads. Although he was past 60 years of age at the time, he personally supervised the construction of mountain roads to and from a lodge he was constructing in the Santa Ynez Mountains “with all the interest and enthusiasm of a man half his years.” More than anyone, it was George Owen Knapp who was responsible for the construction of Camino Cielo.
Knapp himself built four palaces in the mountains: the “Castle” above Painted Cave; one near Wind Cave (it is likely that the steps at the Chumash cave there were built by him); a third near Refugio Pass, now the site of Rancho La Chirpa; and the last next to a hot springs in the upper Santa Ynez drainage, now known as Pendola Hot Springs. The cement pool you will find there was added by Knapp.