“Mountain ranges ever have been obstacles, sometimes an all but impassable barrier to man and beast, as they have moved about over the surface of the earth; and even the birds in their annual migrations have flown up and down the valleys and along the coastal plains, whenever possible, rather than face the hard, aerial climbs to altitudes sufficiently high to allow them to pass over the range crests.”
Noticias -- The "Mountain Passes" Issue
“I cannot describe my feelings as I stood on that ridge, that shore of an ancient ocean. How lonely and desolate! Who shall tell how many centuries, how many decades of centuries, have elapsed since these rocks resounded to the roar of breakers, and these animals sported in their foam? I picked up a bone, cemented in the rock with shells. A feeling of awe came over me. Around me rose rugged mountains; no human being was within miles of me to break the silence. And then I felt overwhelmed....”
William Brewer -- Up and Down California
There’s just a wisp of a line across the ridge line anymore, a long thread of a line that suggests more of a past than it does the future. This is the Arroyo Burro Trail, once the main passageway into the back country for the Chumash. It is a trail rich with history. Countless hunting parties used it heading into the San Rafael Mountains. Prospectors walked along the rutted path on the way to quicksilver mines. Later the Forest Service improved it as use of the back country increased. Yet today the Arroyo Burro Trail is off limits to the public because a three-mile section of it lies on private property, part of it running through Rancho San Roque.
In 1972, despite hundreds of years of trail use, the ranch fenced off the property and posted No Trespassing signs at the trailhead. In 1977, the County of Santa Barbara, urged by hiking enthusiasts, sued the corporation which owned the ranch on the grounds of adverse possession, an old English common law designed to keep property in constant use. The law states that if an owner has ignored public use of his land for a period of five years or more it becomes implicitly dedicated to the users. In 1979, the County hired the Environmental Defense Center to pursue the case.
The County maintained that the public was entitled to an easement for use of the historic trail because of its “open, notorious, continuous and uninterrupted use” for many years. However, after a series of appeals, the County lost the initial suit when a local judge determined that there had been insufficient trail use to satisfy the legal requirement of “open, notorious, and continuous use.”
This has caused great concern to local hiking groups, for sweeping across the mountain wall is a swath of private land holdings, with most of the trails leading up into the Santa Ynez Mountains passing through them. How the County deals with landowners who have trails crossing through their property will have a great impact on the future of trail access.
A short way up Cold Springs Trail, there is a small bronze plaque imbedded in sandstone which is symbolic of the problem facing hikers in the Santa Barbara front country. It reads:
Right To Pass By Permission, And
Subject To Control Of Owner
Sect. 1008, California Civil Code
In 1982, Dieter Goetze, chairperson of the County Riding and Hiking Trails Advisory Committee (CRAHTAC), summarized the situation this way: “In the past 15 years, seven trails in Santa Barbara County have been closed due to private ownership. Another three trails lie within property owned by the City of Santa Barbara Water District. These trails are in jeopardy of being sold to private parties should the public choose to okay such an action.”
The problem isn’t just one of property being closed off to recreational use. As people move up onto the mountain wall, many trails face the possibility of losing the qualities for which people have sought them out—a sense of peace, a few moments to get away from civilization, the quiet sounds of a natural environment.
One of these, the Hot Springs trail, has fallen victim to the impact of a growing urban population. The Hot Springs have been bulldozed, parts of the trail are now off limits, and the available sections are bounded by rows of glitzy homes. Because of this I have chosen not to include it in this update of Day Hikes of the Santa Barbara Foothills.
Spanish Land Grants—A Curious Legacy
Access to trails in the Santa Barbara front country is a problem with deep historical roots, developing partly due to land use patterns brought to Santa Barbara by the Spanish. These practices have tied up much of the front country, especially that fronting the Santa Ynez Mountains, in large land holdings.
By decree of King Carlos III of Spain, each presidio was allotted four square leagues (one league equals approximately 4,400 acres), while the Franciscan missionaries were given dominion over the lands under their ecclesiastical jurisdiction, to hold in sacred trust for the Indians. In 1782 the Santa Barbara Presidio was founded, and four years later the Santa Barbara Mission. Since these two would be in close proximity, they quickly reached an agreement over control of land on the South Coast. These negotiations not only had a far-reaching effect on on the destiny of Goleta Valley but on access to the mountain wall as well.
According to the agreement, land to the west of Santa Barbara was to be under the control of the Mission, as well as that to the north, including the Santa Ynez Valley and all land as far up the coast as the Santa Maria River. The coastal strip to the east, including Santa Barbara proper, Montecito, Summerland, and Carpinteria was designated pueblo land under control of the presidio.
Spanish missionaries then began the process of converting thousands of Chumash Indians to their Christain way of life as expressed in the following quote:
It is said that the Franciscan friars had a good practical knowledge of the value of land, the benefits arising from a favorable climate, and the methods of cultivating the soil so as to accomplish the greatest results in agriculture. They not only believed in converting the soul to Christianity, but the body as well; hence, they took into account all the peculiarities of climate and soil, which has since made Santa Barbara so famous.
With the aid of the Chumash, the Franciscan padres quickly developed an economy near the Mission based on livestock grazing and agriculture. By the latter part of the 1820s, however, the experiment in converting the Chumash from hunter gatherers to agriculturalists was at an end. Just a half century after Portola’s expedition, two-thirds of these Indians were gone, most victims of disease, others having fled to the interior.
Almost before anyone noticed or cared, the Chumash culture, which had existed on the Santa Barbara coast for longer than the whole of Western civilization, had disappeared.
Revolution in Mexico ended the Spanish experiment in the New World. The Mexican government did not hold the Spanish missionaries in high esteem. In 1824, when the few remaining Chumash led a brief revolt to protest their retched treatment, the new government initiated a series of laws freeing the Indians from mission control—albeit too late to do these Indians much good.
This was the first step in the dismantling of the mission system. Feelings against the missions intensified in the late 1820s as Mexican soldiers and citizens at the Presidio clamored for the breakup of the huge land holdings controlled by the Franciscans. In 1833, with the arrival of the first permanent Mexican governor for California, General Jose Figueroa, land patterns changed drastically. In August of 1834, the Governor issued an order secularizing mission lands, inaugurating an era of land disposal in the County. This move, which was authorized by the government in Mexico City the previous year, officially ended Franciscan control of the mission lands and transferred it to civilian hands.
The new leaders began to break up the coastal lands west of the Santa Barbara pueblo. All heads of households and males over twenty were to be given allotments from these lands, not to exceed 400 yards in length and breadth. Most importantly, huge land grants, some forty in all, were handed out between 1834 and 1846 under Figueroa’s authority and that of three succeeding governors.
Three were issued in Goleta Valley. In 1842, Nicolas Den, an Irish-born physician turned rancher, became grantee of rancho Los Dos Pueblos, a 15,534-acre parcel which encompassed most of the Goleta Valley from Fairview Avenue west. A year later the 3,282-acre Las Positas y La Calera rancho was obtained by Lieutenant Narciso Fabrigat, the presidio officer who was in charge of troops that followed the Chumash into the southern San Joaquin Valley after their 1824 revolt. The third, the last grant to be issued in Santa Barbara County, was given to Daniel Hill, a Massachusetts sailor who had come to Santa Barbara in 1823, the 4,426-acre Rancho La Goleta.
Rancho lifestyle during the 1830s and 1840s were decades characterized by rapid growth in the cattle industry and deterioration of the environment in which the Chumash had lived harmoniously for several thousands of years. Thick forests of live oak were cut for firewood and to expand grazing lands. Native plants were eliminated as the drought-resistant plants of the Southwest prevailed. Wildlife, unable to coexist with the domestic animals, disappeared. Predators such as the grizzly, the coyote, the puma, and the bobcat were eliminated from the valley.
Though the mountain wall remained basically unchanged, the valley, like the Chumash, would never be the same. As he walked slowly over the rolling hills of his Rancho La Goleta, Daniel Hill saw a land described by Walker Tompkins in his wonderful book Goleta the Good Land that we will never know:
“...Golden poppies made flame-colored patches on the rounded foothills; between them and the mountain chaparral line, in thmile-wide frost-free belt, wildflowers were blooming in riotous profusion. Lupin, verbena, and Castilian roses made a rainbow-hued blanket on the overflow lands closer to the slough. Daniel Hill, reveling in the clouds of ducks and geese, the herds of antelope and deer glimpsed through the live oaks, was convinced he had stumbled onto the Garden of Eden.”
Rancho owners, bouyed by a sense of the good life they thought would never end, continued to expand their cattle empires. After California was admitted to the Union in 1850, the state’s population spiralled and trading activity increased. The cattle industry prospered even more as a result. By the early 1860s, 250,000 head of cattle grazed in the County. Droughts in 1863 and 1864, however, destroyed all but 5,000 of these, and with them the rancho way of life. Many of the owners, facing bankruptcy, sold portions of their holdings to remain solvent, bringing the first Americans, such as W.W. Hollister, to the area.
The future of Santa Barbara was now in the hands of Americans, who were moving to this rapidly changing area. It was they who would begin to look toward the mountain wall and dream of ways to improve routes across it. Santa Barbara’s isolation was about to come to an end.
Early Mountain Trails
In 1804, before the founding of Mission Santa Ynez, the only route through present Santa Barbara County was by way of El Camino Real, the same route taken by Gaspar de Portola on his expedition up the California coast in 1769 and 1770. This rough dirt road followed what is now the route of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
Indian trails led over the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains at the passes, and also by way of Romero Canyon and the Arroyo Burro Trail, but these were not used initially by the Spaniards. In 1794, Jose Francisco Ortega, the first commandante of the Santa Barbara Presidio, settled on his rancho in Refugio Canyon. After that, no doubt, the Indian trail over Refugio Pass was used more frequently.
In 1800, Father Estevan Tapis of the Santa Barbara Mission directed improvement of the route over San Marcos Pass, which made it easier to reach Indian villages in the Santa Ynez Valley to obtain sufficient beams to build the houses of Christianized Indians at the mission. According to the diary of Father Tapis, local Indians volunteered to seek out pines on the distant mountains for the houses, which they found some fourteen leagues from Santa Barbara. The source of these materials most likely was Little Pine Mountain. This improved, but still rough-hewn, route was soon known as el arrastradero, or the haul road, because of the timbers dragged by oxen across its length.
Until the American period a half century later, routes over the mountain wall remained essentially unimproved. In 1860, however, the California Legislature appropriated $15,000 for the construction of the first County road, to be cut through Gaviota Pass. Prior to this, Gaviota Pass had been used during the Gold Rush by those on horseback or on foot, but the rocky narrows near the present site of Gaviota Tunnel and numerous stream crossings made it impassable to wagons until the County road was built, which the Bixby and Flint stagecoaches quickly began to take advantage of.
Then in 1868 a group of Santa Barbara businessmen decided that a shortcut across San Marcos Pass would be lucrative if travelers over it could be required to pay a toll for crossing the Pass. Known as the Santa Ynez Turnpike Road, this route greatly reduced the distance into the Santa Ynez Valley. With the construction of a narrow-gauge railroad from the San Luis Obispo area to Los Olivos in 1886, San Marcos Pass became a busy thoroughfare.
A Civil War veteran, Pat Kinevan, was hired as toll collector. The gate was at the head of San Jose Creek near what is now the junction of West Camino Cielo. The fee charged was $1 for horse and wagon, $2.50 for a stage and team, 25 cents a head for horses and cattle, and a nickel per head of sheep. Soon thereafter Pat and his wife Nora built a frame house near the toll gate, called the Summit House, which was to serve as the dinner station for the next 25 years.
In the 1870s and 1880s, stage coaches carried thousands of passengers over San Marcos Pass each year. The mountain wall, which had once been considered an almost insurmountable barrier, was increasingly being breached. Many of those who traveled over the crest were attracted by the mountain beauty. Some homesteaded, while others later purchased tracts of land near the Pass from the original settlers. When Santa Barbara’s tourist industry flourished, retreats such as Johnson Ogram’s Painted Cave Resort were established.
The Quicksilver Mines
Due to interest in the potential mineral wealth that might be found in the back country, use of trails over the Santa Ynez Mountains also increased in the 1860s and 1870s and new routes were established. In the early 1860s, quicksilver, used to separate gold and silver from the crushed ore, was discovered by miner Jose Moraga on the north side of the Santa Ynez Mountains near the Gibraltar Narrows. The vein of precious metal ran in an east-west direction nearly parallel to the river. Two principal claims were quicky established and by the 1870s the Santa Ynez and Los Prietos mines were in full operation.
But access to the mines wasn’t easy. Equipment was hauled over San Marcos Pass and up the Santa Ynez River on a dirt road which crossed the river some 22 times. In October, 1874, the California state Index of Mines reported: “Already a graded pack-horse trail has been made from the mine over the Santa Ynez Mountains into Santa Barbara [possibly down Mission Canyon, the site of Tunnel Trail]. By this trail horsemen can go from this city, up and over the mountains, and down to the mines in three hours.”
In spite of the poor road, the machinery and heavy timbers arrived for mine construction shortly thereafter. In March, 1875, a large boiler for the Los Prietos Mine weighing over 4,000 pounds was wagoned over the mountains, requiring six good-sized mules to move it along. The furnace itself was to be built from bricks manufactured on the site, some 140,000 in all. By April there were two main tunnels carved into the bedrock, each more than 100 feet in depth, with as many as 400 men engaged in the mining.
But problems developed. The remoteness of the mines made winter access problematical, and when the river rose during the rainy period, the mines were shut off from the outside world except for the rugged mountain trail. There were also questions regarding boundaries of Rancho Najalayegua y Los Prietos, one of the original land grants. Some claimed the grant included the land covering the mining claims; others denied it. Jose Moraga, who had originally discovered the ore, attempted to jump one of the claims which he thought rightfully was his, further confusing the situation.
Despite their early promise, eventually the mines fell into disuse due to a rapid decrease in the price of the mercury, after numerous discoveries in the northern part of the state, and the inconvenience of the remote location. But they weren’t abandoned until the mining efforts further added to the opening of the mountain wall.
The Search For Coal
Another form of mineral wealth, coal, reportedly was to be found further up the Santa Ynez watershed; it, too, involved miner Jose Moraga. In 1862, Moraga, along with several others, laid claim to what supposedly was a rich coal deposit. William Brewer, a member of the California State Geologic Survey authorized by the Legislature in 1860, was dispatched by State Geologist Josiah Whitney to survey Moraga’s claim and other potential mineral sites along the coast.
Eventually, this continued interest in mining on the Santa Ynez River caused two trails, the Rattlesnake and Cold Springs, to be pushed over the mountain wall.
“Reaching the first peak,” Brewer noted, as he crossed the mountain wall on his way to the coal mines, “we struck back over a transverse ridge, down and up, through dense chaparral, in which we toiled for seven hours. This is vastly more fatiguing than merely climbing steep slopes; it tires every muscle in the body....
“Our lunch was useless, for in our intense thirst we could eat nothing except a little juicy meat,” he continued, “Our canteen of water gave out long before we reached the top. I have never before suffered with thirst as I did that day.”
At the coal mine he found tools—drill, picks, shovels, and hammers—and signs of intense activity, but the vein itself proved to be a bust. There were a few seams from 1/8 to 3/4 inches thick, a sort of pocket that might furnish a few pecks of coal. “I did not tell the stockholders how very slim the indications were, on my return,” he wrote, “but slicked it over by merely telling them that they would not find the coal in profitable quantities.”
Interest in the mineral wealth of the back country continued undiminished, however, spurred by the efforts of Moraga and those who backed him. There were further efforts to extract wealth from this land, culminating in the discovery of a pure vein of limestone (now called the Sierra Blanca Formation) along Indian Creek, one of the tributaries of the Santa Ynez River.
Charles Huse (who later turned out to be a scoundrel), one of Moraga’s partners, pressed the Board of Supervisors to construct a route up Cold Springs Canyon, since the trail up through Mission Canyon had fallen into disrepair after the end of the quicksilver boom. This would shorten the distance to the limestone outcropping by about five miles:
“To reach a point seven miles due north of the city of Santa Barbara, it is necessary to go thirty-seven miles by the toll road or more than fifty miles by way of the Gaviota Pass. In the rainy season, as at present, the route up the river Santa Ynez is wholly impractical, by reason of the quick-sands which exist in the bed of the river....All supplies for the mines during the rainy season are sent on the backs of pack-animals over a very circuitous, rough and almost impassable trail over the mountains....
If this work is done by the county, the city of Santa Barbara...can be supplied with lime from the interior....In all of the [back country] this county has never spent a single dollar for roads or trails, or for any other object whatever. This region forms at least a quarter part of the territory of the county and merits some attention....”
Though the prospect of finding huge bodies of ore captured the attention of many Santa Barbarans, the back country never proved out. Nevertheless, as these men found their way back out of this hard-boiled chaparral countryside, many of them, like William Brewer, discovered something else.
Though searching for material wealth, Brewer found the mountains to be inviting. To be alluring. And even, to be attractive.
“The clear sky above, the twinkling stars—to watch them rise over the mountains in the northeast and sink out of sight in the west, to watch the moon rise ... all this is pleasant ...,” he said after one of his excursions. “From this summit we had a grand view of the desolate, forbidding wilderness of mountains that surrounded us .... The wild dark canyon, rugged rocks, the dark shadows under the bushes and behind the rocks, the wild scenery on every side, conspired with the hour to produce a most picturesque effect.”
Gradually, as men like Brewer crossed the mountain wall, as stagecoach passengers enjoyed the views while crossing San Marcos Pass or dining at Summit House, as homesteaders began to filter onto the crest and especially, as Santa Barbara became a mecca for tourists, people began to look at the Santa Ynez Mountains as something more than a barrier.
Hot Springs and Tourism
When Wilbur Curtiss came to Santa Barbara in the 1850s he was suffering from an incurable disease and doctors had given him only six months to live. Having lost his health in the mines, he was determined to spend his remaining days enjoying the scenery and wonderful climate in the Montecito hills. But he, too, would find an attraction in the mountain wall.
One day while hiking in the foothills he noticed an old Indian, bathing in Hot Springs Creek, who seemed to be in remarkable health. An Indian boy who accompanied Curtiss on his daily excursions explained that the secret behind the old man’s lengthy years, which totalled 110, was his bathing in some hot springs, which flowed from the base of a sandstone cliff further up the canyon. After several hours of climbing, Curtiss reached the springs.
There were four of these thermal pools, each heated to 116 degrees, and containing a foul-smelling sulphur, as well as arsenic, iron, magnesium, and other minerals. He soaked himself in the soothing water, apparently even drinking from one of the pools. Perhaps the hot springs had nothing to do with it, but after repeated visits to them his health began to improve remarkably, enough so that six years later, still alive and doing well, Wilbur Curtiss filed a homestead claim for this part of Hot Springs Canyon.
Slowly the site evolved as a resort-from camping spot to a tent camp, then a hut-before a cottage was eventually built. In 1873 the Santa Barbara Morning Press announced that a magnificent hotel costing $100,000 would be built at the mouth of the hot springs to accommodate the tourists flocking to the area.
One writer boasted, “Many a rheumatic and neuralgic cripple has left his crutches here as a momento to the healing touches of the waters, and gone down from the rocky mountain glen out into the gay world, shouting praises to the boiling fountain which has invested him with new life.”
By 1877 there was a large plunge, a shower, and three bath houses, each containing large tubs-enough in all to handle forty persons. In the early 1880s a three-story wooden hotel was finally completed on a bench above the springs. By this time Curtiss’s original homestead had become the property of a number of wealthy Montecitans and the private club ritzy enough that anyone with a bank account containing less than seven digits was not considered substantial enough to apply for membership.
In 1920, a forest fire destroyed the hotel and most of the vegetation in the canyon. It was rebuilt in 1923, but this time under the ownership of a corporation that contained but 17 members, all Montecito residents, who also controlled the Montecito Water Company. This structure stood until destroyed in the Coyote Fire of 1964.
In the late 1890s and early 1900s a drastic change occurred when the back country became part of the National Forest system. Concerned by the rapid destruction of forest resources, and, locally, fed by the need to manage the chaparral for water, the public pressured for federal management of what remained of the country’s public lands. In 1891, an obscure amendment to an act revising land disposal policies gave the President the power to set aside forest reserves. In 1897, another act, the Forest Management Act, spelled out the terms under which these reserves were to be managed.
One of those was to secure favorable water flows. Faced with an impending water shortage, Santa Barbarans clamored for the mountainous country behind them to be included in the system. As a result, in 1899, the Santa Ynez Forest Reserve was added to the already existing Pine Mountain and Zaca Lake Reserve. For the first time, the County’s mountainous territories were under the direct management of the federal government.
The first trail created during this new era was the La Cumbre Trail, one you won’t find listed anymore. It has been fifty years since anyone has used this path, because subsequently it has been widened and paved to become Gibraltar Road. On New Year’s Day in 1902, the Santa Barbara Morning Press speculated:
“Someday there will be an easy wagon road leading up to La Cumbre, to accommodate vehicles and the automobile; and it is quite within the range of possibilities that a trolley-line may be constructed to the place, getting its power from the Mission falls, and which will course the summit of the range and add one more to the great wonders of the world.”
A trail construction committee composed of members of the Chamber of Commerce began a campaign early in 1902 to raise funds, estimated at that time to be some $400 to $500. They also proposed to rework the overgrown and rundown Rattlesnake Canyon Trail, which had been constructed earlier in part by Jose Moraga and by a man named Flores, who owned a homestead at the head of the canyon.
Work was carried out primarily by rangers in the newly-created Forest Service. Beginning in Sycamore Canyon, the La Cumbre trail intersected the present location of Gibraltar Road about a mile up from Mountain Drive at a large promontory, the original Inspiration Point. As the trail was ascended, one encountered various views, all named by the Chamber of Commerce. These names emphasized the new attitude Santa Barbarans had about the mountains behind them.
The first view of Montecito was called El Contento, or the place of contentment, while the first glimpse of Goleta Valley was El Reposo or tranquility. At the 1,700 foot elevation was La Roca Grande (the great boulder); a spot at 2,400 feet was called El Encanto, meaning the enchanting place.
At 2,900 feet a large block of sandstone, known today as Gibraltar Rock, was entitled Centinela del Abismo, or the sentinel of the abyss. Just beyond was Flores Flat or El Descanso, the resting spot. At the 3,300-foot summit, one found La Sorpresa or the surprise, where one could see the San Rafael Mountains for the first time.
This increased use of the mountains was due primarily to the tourist boom, itself made possible by the transportation revolution, begun by the construction of the Gaviota Road. In 1887, when the Southern Pacific Railroad completed a branch line from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, even more people began to travel to the area.
In 1892, when Lillard and Catlett, owners of the property traversed by the stage coaches closed the old stage road, a newer, more practical route over San Marcos Pass was built, making it much easier to travel into the Santa Ynez Mountains. A decade later, the age of the automobile came to Santa Barbara on San Marcos Pass road, when a Locomobile Steamer piloted by George Beauhoff of Philadelphia chugged over the summit on March 28, 1901. Santa Barbara’s stagecoach days were just about over.
Three days later, the day the Southern Pacific Railroad completed its connection between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the last stage coach traversed the Pass. In the process Santa Barbara’s isolation was ended forever.
Trail Use Explodes
At first, despite the new modes of transportation, trail use became even more popular. During the first decade of the century other trails were built as more tourists came to Santa Barbara. The San Ysidro Guest Ranch pushed a horse trail to the summit, and as hunting and fishing became more popular, the Franklin and Rincon trails were built in behind Carpinteria giving better access to the upper Santa Ynez drainage from this area.
The Forest Service also contributed to the popularization of the back country, as forest rangers improved and extended the trails over the crest. In 1910, with the support of a $10 million federal appropriation for the improvement of roads within the forest reserves, the local mountains became much more accessible by auto.
First a rough road was cut from San Marcos Pass Road to Los Prietos, substantially following the same route used by the quicksilver miners. At the same time the County began to improve the roads over the passes, spurred by such men as wealthy Santa Barbaran George Owen Knapp, who had purchased one of the original homesteads on the crest from pioneer Homer Snyder.
Camino Cielo, the sky-hugging road along the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains, was built during World War I, one of the many dreams made real by George Owen Knapp. In October, 1916, the Santa Barbara Daily News announced that the Forest Service was planning to “open large sections of the forest reserve for lease in small tracts, large enough for a camping lodge and horse corrals, to entice many people to build camps in the woods next summer.”
To facilitate this, Congress approved $10,000,000 for the improvement of roads in the forest reserves. The first built was a rough road from San Marcos Pass to Los Prietos, giving access to the upper Santa Ynez recreation area. On the ocean side of the mountains, spurred by the Forest Service activity and the urgings and financial support of private citizens, the County also contributed to opening the mountain wall.
One of the citizens who contributed most to this effort was George Owen Knapp, who had come to Santa Barbara in 1912. Born in 1855 in Hatfield, Massachusetts, 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, and eventually 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 and C.K. Billings, another lover of the mountains, hired laborers to remedy poor road conditions. Due to their efforts, horse trails were extended east all the way to Ojai and west to Refugio Pass. In 1920, again due to their efforts, San Marcos Pass Road was greatly improved. The two men provided half of the $50,000 expense for this work, the County the other half. “Eventually these summit trails will be widened and graded for the automobile, giving Santa Barbara the finest system of scenic automobile roads in the state,” prophesied the Daily News in 1917.
For their work these men were praised highly, the Daily News stating, “They are strong advocates of the great out-of-doors, and under their leadership places in the wilds heretofore denied humans because of utter inaccessibility are being opened up to the hiker and the horseback rider.”
From 1916 through the 1920s, as men like Knapp moved to Santa Barbara, ownership of the land in these mountains changed hands rapidly. The mountain setting was what drew the wealthy to the Santa Ynez Mountains. It felt good to own a place at the top of the mountains with sweeping views, cool breezes, and unpolluted air, where “one could rub elbows with a historic past”. Eventually pioneer homesteaders gradually relinquished their holdings to these “men with money”, as property values hardly dreamed possible a few years earlier were placed on the mountain properties.
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.
As the original mountain homesteaders began to move out, use of the land near San Marcos Pass entered a new phase. Homer Snyder, formerly a cook at the Arlington Hotel, had originally homesteaded his retreat for his ailing wife. Subsequently developed his Laurel Springs Ranch as a vacation resort. Snyder sold a portion of his land to Knapp in 1916 for the mountain lodge, and in 1925 Knapp added Laurel Springs to his possessions. Others, such as Mike Finneran, the boisterous “Mayor of San Marcos Pass”, died and his land and that of a number of others were sold to properous Santa Barbarans. Civilization was finally creeping up onto the mountaintop.
Trail Use Declines
Unfortunately, as access to the mountains by road was made easier, use of many of the front country trails, so popular at the turn of the century, began to decline. Ironically, despite the large number of people who hike in the Santa Ynez Mountains today, there are fewer trails open now than there were at the turn of the century.
In the 1930s, with the aid of thousands of Civilian Conservation Corps workers, roads were further improved, others were added, and as this occurred, use of the front country trails diminished even further. Horseback enthusiasts who wanted to use the Santa Ynez Recreation areas no longer needed to ride over the crest, for it was now easier to trailer horses over the Pass to Upper Oso or Pendola than to ride over. By the late 1930s, most hunters no longer used the foothill trails either, nor did tourists, since their automobiles gave them increased mobility.
The Forest Service also contributed to this diminished use in the 1930s. To protect the Santa Ynez watershed, seasonal closure of the area above Los Prietos was put into effect in 1934, restricting travel during fire season. Then, during World War II, the back country was closed entirely because there wasn’t sufficient personnel to supervise regulated use.
By the 1950s many of the historic front-country trails had fallen into almost complete disuse. Among them were the Arroyo Burro, Franklin, and Romero Canyon trails. Concurrently, much of the private land, held in large blocks since the era of the land grant, was being broken up into smaller parcels. Foothill properties were subdivided and used for speculative purposes and ownership changed somewhat frequently.
As the land passed through a series of hands, owners became accustomed to the lack of trail use. In fact, many of the owners weren’t even aware that historic trails passed through their property. Once closed, few owners who found out about trails going through their properties wanted hikers to begin crossing their land again. Private property signs began to go up on many ranches and large land holdings.
Some who did so were avocado growers, such as the owners of Rancho San Roque, who feared that a fungus known as cinnamon root rot would be brought onto their property on the soles of hikers’ shoes. Others had purchased property away from the city to live in the peace and quiet the foothills offered and didn’t want scores of hikers invading their solitude. There were those, too, like the owner of the land above the San Antonio Creek Trail, whose land value would fall as much as $600,000, according to appraisals, should trail users be allowed to cut through the middle of their property.
Today, the Santa Ynez Mountain trails and those found in the back country are as popular as ever. Despite legal problems affecting a few of them they offer us something special: a place to get away when life in Santa Barbara gets a little too hectic; the joy to be found in a quiet canyon filled with the flow of cascading water and the cheerful sounds of chaparral birds; the physical release that comes from an energetic hike.
Few other locales have places such as these to offer their communities. In an environment where we can enjoy both the beauty of the sea and the majesty of the summit within minutes of one another, the mountain wall offers us still another of the treats which makes Santa Barbara so special.
The history of this land, the geology, the chaparral plant community, and and perhaps an understanding of ourselves can be found in the exploration of this country. There is also the heritage of the people who lived in this land—the Chumash, the pioneer miners, and the homesteaders.
The trails, and the hidden places to be found along them, are there to appreciate, and to enjoy. They are both beautiful and fragile, and they need the care of all of us.
These mountains have many messages to offer. Please take care of them.