Exploring the Mountain Crest
Until George Owen Knapp came to Santa Barbara in 1912 access to the interior parts of the county were limited to the rough route over San Maros Pass via Slippery Rock and a handful of trails that crossed over the Santa Ynez Mountains. 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.
An Afternoon’s Drive on East Camino Cielo
For those of you who don’t want to test your vehicle on the more primitive western section of this road, a drive on East Camino Cielo across the central portion of the Santa Ynez Mountains will provide a worthwhile afternoon full of beautiful views, islands and the coastline on the south side of the road and the Santa Ynez Valley, the San Rafael Mountains and wilderness areas on the north.
A 30-mile loop can be made by taking Highway 154 to the crest of San Marcos Pass, turning east and following Camino Cielo for 10 miles, and then dropping back down to Santa Barbara on Gibraltar Road. Following on the next page is a guide to what you might take time to experience as you drive from San Marcos Pass to Gibraltar Road.
Mileages are from San Marcos Pass. You might also start on Gibraltar Road and enjoy music at Cold Springs Tavern later.
Camino Cielo Drive
0.0 San Marcos Pass
0.2 Cielo Store. Here you can purchase last minute supplies as well as relax with folks who live in the neighborhood. The store carries a wide variety of cool drinks, food, and local crafts.
1.75 The Pines. Look for an open parking area on the left with a large pine tree in the center of it. A short hike up to the top of a small saddle and back to the west leads to a picturesque forest of pines and a series of wind-sculptured caves. This is an excellent short hike, a great place for kids to scramble on the rocks, and a nice picnic area.
2.0 Fremont Ridge Road. More information on this trail is listed under Crest Hikes.
2.5 Painted Cave Road. Painted Cave is approximately a mile down this narrow road, which winds past Jane Fonda’s Laurel Springs Ranch and the Painted Cave community, eventually leading back down to Highway 154. An excellent small book, “Guide to Painted Cave”, by Travis Hudson, who was Curator of Anthropology at the Museum of Natural History before his untimely death several years ago, can be purchased at most bookstores or at the Cielo Store.
3.75 Knapp’s Castle turnoff. For more information, see the trail description later in this section.
6.0 Arroyo Burro Road. A shooting area is just to the north side of the road where Arroyo Burro intersects with Camino Cielo, so be extremely careful should you decide to explore anywhere in this area. The historic Arroyo Burro Trail crosses here (see trail description).
8.0 La Cumbre Peak. At the 3,985’ peak you’ll not only have the best views in town but there are picnic tables for a pleasant afternoon’s feast and plenty of rocks for the kids, or you, to explore on the coast side of the crest. For those with a real sense of adventure, it is possible to work your way down the front side of the mountain, across a saddle, and up to the top of a lesser mountain called Cathedral Peak, a 300’ spire which has a small trail register nestled in a mound of rocks.
10.0 Gibraltar Road. On the way down look for Gibraltar Rock, a large ice cube shaped boulder made of extremely resistant Matilija Sandstone, where you will usually be able to watch climbers testing their skill (and courage).
There is more—much more—to the Crest though, than just taking an afternoon’s drive. There are a host of hidden places to explore, like the Playground or Lizard’s Mouth on West Camino, and trails to enjoy, such as the Fremont, Snyder and Arroyo Burro Trails on the central section of East Camino and the Cold Springs, Forbush, San Ysidro and Blue Canyon trails on the portion east of Gibraltar Road.
Most of all there is the Castle—Knapp’s dream and gift to us—a place where it is possible to gain an appreciation and perhaps a bit more of an understanding of a time in history that has past us by.
On April 9, 1916, George Owen Knapp purchased a 160-acre tract east of the Laurel Springs Ranch, wanting, in his words, “to make the tract a private mountain lodge that in natural beauty and grandeur will have few to equal it on the American continent.” If the structure itself was anything like the view, it must have been awe-inspiring.
There were seven buildings in all, carved from thick sandstone blocks. The main house had five bedrooms, a large hallway, dining room, observatory, and a room especially designed for Knapp’s pride and joy, a pipe organ. Over 20 men were employed during the construction of the lodge, which took more than four years. In addition to the main house, there was a studio next to it, a workman’s cottage below, a dormitory which housed six servants, and a superintendent’s house in the hollow where the lower road forks away from the path leading up to the lodge.
Soon after the lodge was constructed, Knapp discovered a series of cascades in the canyon east of the lodge, known now as Lewis Falls. Shortly thereafter an automobile road led down to them. If you look closely after you have hiked down this road about a mile, you will see the faint remnants of the rock steps he had built to the base of the falls, now mainly a dirt path with sandstone rocks lining the way. There he also added a bath house and a pool fed by the falls, installed lighting to illuminate the falls at night, and even had the organ music piped all the way down from the house!
The music was provided by resident organist Dion Kennedy. Concerts were given at the rustic retreat from time to time by Kennedy as well as by invited guest artists of local and national repute, including Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer.
Today all that remains of the Castle is the foundation and several chimneys rising like solitary spires into the sky. In 1940, Ms. Francis Holden purchased the lodge, but tragically five weeks later it was destroyed when a fire started in Paradise Canyon and raged out of control up the north slope of the Santa Ynez Mountains.
As the fire burned nearer, a friend of Ms. Holden painted the fiery mountain scene around her until she was forced to evacuate. Rather than worry about her fate, the woman seemed more concerned about her artwork, complaining of all the ashes falling in her paint and on her canvas. While everyone else panicked, including Ms. Holden, she calmly sat and painted.
The Forest Service finally made the women leave, with time enough only to throw a few belongings into a sheet, jump into a car, and go. When Ms. Holden tried to go back later to retrieve more, she was unable to get through a roadblock, though her chauffeur was able to climb a hill in time to see the flames reach the house and engulf it.
Five days later, only the observatory, built by Knapp in 1931 to house a large telescope, remained intact. Francis Holden never rebuilt, for the cost was simply too high. In 1964, the Coyote Fire claimed the observatory too, and the last of Knapp’s dream.
Still, the beauty that Knapp saw as he first walked over the crest to his newly purchased property remains. Stepping onto the floor of the old observatory, its octagon-shaped walls long since destroyed, one can gain a vision of what life in the Santa Ynez Mountains must have been like a half century ago.