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.
“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 California,” reported the Santa Barbara Morning Press.
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 backcountry accessible to all. As a 1917 editorial in the Santa Barbara Daily News put it: “Under their leadership places in the wild heretofore denied humans because of their utter inaccessibility are being opened up to the hiker and horseback writer.”
Knapp was 60-something 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. A forest fire destroyed the castle just five months after he sold it.
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.
The upper part of the trail, formerly Knapp’s long driveway to his retreat, offers an easy walk down to the ruins from Camino Cielo. The current owner has made efforts to stabilize some of the structures and kindly still allows public access.
From Highway 101 in Santa Barbara, exit on Highway 154 and proceed 8 miles to East Camino Cielo. Turn right and drive 2.5 miles to a saddle, where you’ll spot a parking area and a locked Forest Service gate.
Chamise, ceanothus, toyon and other members of the hardy chaparral family line the old road to the castle. Enjoy fine vistas of the Santa Ynez Valley. After 0.5 mile, the castle comes into view and you continue your descent to the unusual and very photogenic assemblage of walls, arches and chimneys.
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.
Interested in more hikes in Santa Barbara? Check out my Hike Santa Barbara Pocket Guide at The Trailmaster Store.