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Day Hike

Trekking to George Knapp's Dreamy Castle in the Sky

November 26, 1988|JOHN McKINNEY

This tract, at the edge of the grand canyon of the Santa Ynez Mountains, is one of the most magnificent, in point of scenic glories, in Califor nia.

--The view from Knapp's Castle, as reported by the Santa Barbara Morning Press, April 9, 1916

In 1916, George Owen Knapp's recurrent bouts of hay fever sent him high into the Santa Ynez Mountains behind Santa Barbara to seek relief. The wealthy former chairman of the board of Union Carbide found relief--and an ideal locale to build the mountain home of his dreams.

The high, huge and presumably hypo-allergenic parcel belonged to Homer Snyder, once the chef at Santa Barbara's Arlington Hotel. In 1902, Snyder had built a rustic hostelry atop Camino Cielo, "the Sky Road." Visitors during the early 1900s included Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Knapp bought the Snyder place, renamed it Laurel Springs Ranch and charitably offered it as a weekend retreat for Santa Barbara's hard-working nurses and hospital workers. Today, one part of the old Laurel Springs Ranch is owned by Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden.

Knapp's dream home, carved from thick sandstone blocks, took four years to complete. It was a magnificent residence, complete with illuminated waterfalls and a room housing one of Knapp's other passions--a huge pipe organ.

While Knapp was developing his private retreat, he was also helping to boost public access to the Santa Barbara Forest Reserve, as it was known in those days. Knapp and a couple of his wealthy friends were tireless promoters of roads and trails, in order to make the back country accessible to all. Knapp's enthusiasm and money helped extend trails west to the top of Refugio Canyon (now Ronald Reagan's spread) and east to Ojai.

The trail-building efforts of Knapp and his buddies were much appreciated by the local populace. As a 1917 editorial in the Santa Barbara Daily News put it: "They are strong advocates of the great out-of-doors, and under their leadership, places in the wild heretofore denied humans because of utter inaccessibility are being opened up to the hiker and horseback rider."

Knapp was in his 60s when he threw himself into his castle-building and trail-building efforts. He spent most of the rest of his long productive life in his castle in the sky. In 1940, he sold his retreat to Francis Holden, who nearly became the first and only person to lose money in the Santa Barbara real-estate market when a forest fire destroyed the castle just five months after she bought it. Fortunately, she had insurance.

Stone walls, part of the foundation and a couple of chimneys are all that remain of Knapp's Castle, but the view of the Santa Barbara backcountry is still magnificent, particularly if you arrive at sunset and watch the purple shadows skim over the Santa Ynez and San Rafael Mountains.

Snyder Trail, which receives sporadic maintenance from the Santa Barbara Sierra Club and the U.S. Forest Service, leads to the castle ruins. The higher part of the trail, formerly Knapp's long driveway to his retreat, offers an easy walk down to the ruins from Camino Cielo. From Paradise Road, Snyder Trail takes you on a steep ascent to the castle.

Directions to Paradise Road trailhead: From U.S. 101 in Santa Barbara, exit on California 154 and proceed 11 1/2 miles up and over San Marcos Pass to Paradise Road. Turn right and proceed 4.4 miles to a turnout on the right side of the road. (If you spot the road leading to Sage Hill Campground, you went a little too far on Paradise Road.) The trail begins at a dirt road that's closed to vehicles.

Directions to Camino Cielo trailhead: From U.S. 101 in Santa Barbara, exit on California 154 and proceed 8 miles to East Camino Cielo. Turn right and drive 2 1/2 miles to a saddle, where you'll spot a parking area and a locked Forest Service gate.

The hike (from Paradise Road): From the turnout, walk 50 yards up the dirt road to the signed beginning of the Snyder Trail, which is actually the very road you're following. The road passes under some stately oaks, and after a quarter of a mile reaches a large, green water tank.

The road narrows to a trail, passes some planted pines and a second water tank, then begins ascending a series of switchbacks. For the most part, you'll be climbing in shade. Behind and below are good views of the canyon cut by the Santa Ynez River.

About two miles from the trail head, Snyder Trail joins an abandoned dirt road. The old road/trail crosses a cottonwood-lined seasonal creek and tunnels beneath the boughs of pungent bay laurel. Around a bend, you'll get your first glimpse of Knapp's Castle, then ascend another three-fourths of a mile to the ruins.

The hike (from Camino Cielo): It's a half-mile descent on a dirt road to the castle. Chamise, ceanothus, toyon and other members of the hardy chaparral family line the old road.

From the ruins of Knapp's Castle, enjoy the view of the Santa Ynez River, Cachuma Lake and the wide blue Pacific, and take in the panorama of peaks from Mt. Pinos to Figueroa Mountain to the Casmalia Hills.

Snyder Trail

Paradise Road to Knapp's Castle: 6 1/2 miles round trip; 2,000-foot elevation gain Camino Cielo to Knapp's Castle: 1 mile round trip

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