The Rise and Fall of Knapp’s Castle

knapp's castle

Knapp’s Castle, a hidden gem nestled in the Santa Ynez Mountains, is a long time favorite hike for the locals of Santa Barbara. It was also my first stop as a brand new ‘travel blogger.’ I use that term loosely because I had literally decided to try out the whole instagram thing like 23 seconds prior and  my blog wouldn’t come for at least another couple months. ANYWAYS, let’s get on with the story.

If you’ve read any of my interviews (which you can find here), my journey to become the world’s most inept travel blogger started with my trip up the famed American roadtrip, the Pacific Coast Highway. Aka, Hwy 1, aka PCH. I’ll probably use those interchangeably throughout this piece.

From Los Angeles, I traveled up the California coast, pausing briefly in Malibu before making my way to Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara is a MUST STOP on the PCH, so naturally I didn’t stop there. Instead, I took a hike to Knapp’s Castle in the nearby Santa Ynez mountains. And of course, I exited the freeway around noon. Thankfully, it was early spring so I didn’t burn alive, but if you will be visiting during the hotter months, I would suggest arriving earlier or aiming for sunset.

How to Get There

Step 1, enter these coordinates into your GPS of choice.

Trailhead address: East Camino Cielo (Forest Route 5N12), Los Padres National Forest, Santa Barbara, CA 93105
Trailhead coordinates: 34.518155, -119.793234 (34° 31′ 05.35″N 119° 47′ 35.64″W)

From the 101 in Santa Barbara, take route 154 north for about ten miles. The mountain is very curvy. I got a little car sick ;( Once you reach the top, turn right on East Camino Cielo and then in about three miles you’ll see a gated dirt road on the left and a small turnout on the right. Two or three cars were already parked there and I didn’t see any signs for a parking fee soo….you’ll probably be fine.

The gate is the start of the Knapp’s Castle trail head.

knapp's castle trail head

I never know what these signs mean.

BUT, I think it’s basically ‘we have the right to evict you if you act a fool.’ As long as you are courteous and respectful, you will have nothing to worry about. I walked around the gate and proceeded up the trail.

Knapp’s Castle’s origins are anything but humble. George Owen Knapp purchased the property for his 160-acre home in 1916 and named it Laurel Springs Ranch. Mr. Knapp was rich. He was born in Massachusetts and was both a civil engineer and businessman.

Sidenote: why do all the rich white guys who buy up a ton of land come from Massachusetts? Pretty sure that’s Massachusetts’ main export. Example: James Dole who opened the first large-scale pineapple plantation on Oahu, Hawaii.

Anyways, Mr. Knapp’s financial success was apparent by his multiple homes – including at least NINE HOUSES IN SANTA BARBARA ALONE. Excessive much? But I guess if you can, why not? Personally, my wallet cried after I bought nine cups of chai tea. Mr. Knapp wasn’t completely selfish though. He donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the hospitals, churches, and nursing schools in Santa Barbara. He also had a side hobby of building roads. I didn’t even know that was a thing.

The Los Angeles Times  gave Mr. Knapp and his rich bro squad a lot of credit for boosting public access to the Santa Barbara backcountry. Knapp N’ Friends (i made that up btw) heavily promoted, funded, and created roads and trails so that the forest reserve was accessible to all.

‘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.’”

knapps castle view

Thanks for the trails, Mr. Knapp.

This was my view walking up the mountain. It wasn’t even a super clear day, but I could still see the Pacific Ocean anddd Catalina Island (??) in the distance! The hike isn’t hard or challenging at all, so it’s good for all ages! The hike is about mile roundtrip and there are beautiful views the whole way.

They finished building the castle in 1920. Knapp wanted his estate to be unparalleled in natural beauty and grandeur. At least in North America. The castle had five gorgeous bedrooms, an observatory, and even a posh organ room for entertainment by resident pipe organists. There was also a separate cottage for the castle workers, a guest house, and a separate sleeping flat for caretakers and servants. No clue what differentiated the cottage and the sleeping flat. It was a masterpiece, to say the least.

We approached the ruins and the contrast was striking.

knapps castle ruins

That was all that was left of the castle.

In 1940, Mr. Knapp sold his posh estate for a whopping $10,000 – Oh, how the times have changed – to Frances Holden and Lotte Lehmann, a world-famous opera singer. Five weeks later, the entire estate burned to the ground in a wildfire.

#california

knapp's castle arches

These arches are still standing though! There used to be a giant waterfall flowing somewhere around the arches, but I can’t even imagine where or what that would look like. It was very windy up on the arches, but at the same time, calming. Refreshing. It’s one of those places where you could go to think. Well, there was a gaggle of middle schoolers on a field trip taking selfies behind me, but if they were gone, I could have stayed up there for hours.

The arches are the most intact, but aside from them, the rest of the ruins are just vague stone walls. In case you’re curious, yes, that is indeed a cactus pattern on my romper.

knapp's view arch view

Ignore the awkward poses, I was new to this whole picture-taking thing.

Although they are ruins, Knapp’s Castle has had a few upgrades since the fire.  The property was purchased by Castillo Cielo Holding Company in 2004. In 2010, Calvin Smith obtained a 31% interest in the property and may be the voice behind some of the recent changes. The new owners constructed a rudimentary amphitheater looking out toward the arches, using only native stone. Reinforcements were also added to the walkways, walls, and chimneys. Yanno, so they wouldn’t topple over when people tried to take scenic pics on them. Knapp’s Castle is a popular site for wedding and engagement pictures, so crumbling walls are definitely a safety concern.

knapp's castle ledge

The Los Padres Forest officials initially stated that they would stay out of interfering. The Knapp construction was “a personal matter on his or her property,” said Forest Service spokesperson Andrew Madsen. “They can do whatever they want to do so long as they’re permitted. That’s fine by us.” After further investigation, however, no permits were filed for work. Thus, the Santa Barbara County Planning Department officials ordered a stop work on all Knapp construction.

(Read more about the construction here)

I visited after the stop work order. Previously, I guess the site was crowded with construction equipment but when I went, everything was cleared out.

Overall, I didn’t spend too much time at the ruins. One, there were a ton of preteens there. Two, it’s really small. You can see everything in maybe twenty minutes. Even after taking pictures and contemplating my existential crisis, I was only there thirty minutes. I personally think it’s a perfect pitstop to get out and move your legs on a roadtrip. And it isn’t a long detour either! After you’ve gotten your fill, walk back down the same trail. There’s plenty of space for a picnic, but no bathrooms or running water. If you’re from out of town though, I would suggest checking out a good restaurant in Santa Barbara.

Sitting on the ledge of an unidentified building, I briefly wondered what it would be life to live up here. What would it be like to wake up with this view every morning?

It sounded magical.

Then I remembered snakes and rodents and mountain lions. And the inevitable wildfire. So, for now a brief hike was good.

knapp's castle in mountain

Have you ever visited Santa Barbara? If so, would you want to hike up to Knapp’s Castle? There are so many dope photoshoot possibilities, but it’s also a great mini hike. If you don’t mind the curvy drive, that is. Also, what are your Santa Barbara recommendations? I definitely want to take another trip through the city! Let me know in the comments below!

knapp's castle standing up

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4 Comments

  1. November 27, 2017 / 3:13 pm

    Wow haha, that’s a crazy back story. This is such a cool hike! I want to plan a California road trip next year with lots of hiking…definitely using your blog!

    • Kay
      November 27, 2017 / 3:29 pm

      Omg yeah SO MANY GOOD TRAILS and national parks!! I’m going to do another road trip through next year too! Do you have any sites on your list so far?

  2. November 27, 2017 / 7:43 pm

    Pretty interesting story. Even though it was in the 40’s, I can’t believe you could buy a castle for only 10K. And no one decided to say, “Let me rebuild a castle here?”

    • Kay
      November 27, 2017 / 7:45 pm

      hahah right?? SO CASUAL. Maybe he was so rich he undersold it just to get rid of it.

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