Posted by: James Wapotich | April 11, 2019

Trail Quest: Wellhouse Falls

It’s been close to 40 years since my last visit to Wellhouse Falls in Lewis Canyon, near Knapp’s Castle, back when I was a Boy Scout.

My first introduction to the local backcountry was through Scout Troop 15, which met at Washington School. We were one of the few troops that regularly backpacked in Los Padres National Forest; and I was fortunate that the pack master of our troop, Donald Becker, Jr., had already been leading trips for 25 years when I joined. His knowledge of the backcountry was impressive; he had hiked many of the trails, and knew the different plants and lore of the places we visited.

Each spring, we would go on 5-, 10-, and 20-mile overnight backpacking trips, to build up stamina and get ready for our 5-day, 50-mile backpacking trip we did over spring break. By the time I joined, many of our 50-mile trips where to remote places in the Dick Smith Wilderness, and so my first treks were to some of the more hard to reach and seldom visited places, which only added to the appeal of being out there.

Almost every year we would visit Knapp’s Castle on our 5-mile backpacking trip. We would start from East Camino Cielo Road and hike the length of Snyder Trail down to Paradise Road, and from there continue to Fremont Campground, where we would spend the night.

At Knapp’s Castle, Mr. B., as we affectionately called him, would break out the topographic maps and teach us about orienteering, making use of the exceptional views of the Santa Ynez River Valley and San Rafael Mountains the site provides.

As part of the hike, we would make a side visit to Wellhouse Falls. The trail was in fair shape on my first visit, however, the subsequent year strong winter rains washed out a section of the trail, and we had to scramble across the slide to reach the falls. The next year additional rains washed away more of the trail, making the route impassable. After that, we stopped visiting the falls.

I would draw on those earlier experiences in the backcountry when I returned to backpacking years later, not only as a foundation for my own wilderness skills, but also as a rich resource of what our backcountry has to offer.

But every once in a while I would wonder about Wellhouse Falls. Was it still inaccessible? Over the years, I tried a couple times to reach the falls, but was always turned back by a wall of brush.

This time however, aided by technology, I was inspired to try a different approach. After studying old topographic maps online, I could see that there used to be an old road that went almost to the falls. Comparing those maps to Google satellite images, I could see that the first, short section of the route was still visible on the landscape, but died out just as it reached what looked like a small, overgrown side wash or ravine that led down into Lewis Canyon. If that side wash wasn’t too badly choked with brush, I thought, it might provide a way to reach the creek, and from there, hike up to the falls.

Inspired by the bounty of recent rain, I make my way to the top of Snyder Trail. The trail follows an unpaved access road down the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains. At about the half-mile mark, the trail branches with a side road leading over to Knapp’s Castle, the ruins of George Owen Knapp’s mountain lodge.

The Chairman of Union Carbide and Carbon Company, Knapp took up residence in Santa Barbara in 1912. Four years later, he purchased the homestead of Thomas Lewis to build a mountain lodge, one of several he owned in our mountains. Knapp was also instrumental in moving forward the construction of East Camino Cielo Road, donating funds, so as to more easily access the site.

In 1940, he sold the property to Frances Holden, who lived there with her friend Lotte Lehman for just five weeks before the Paradise Canyon Fire burned through the area, leaving just the chimneys and stone work. The site remains on private property, but is open to the public at the discretion of the current owners. Please be respectful of private property.

After a brief visit to Knapp’s Castle taking in the sights and reminiscing about the backcountry, I return to Snyder Trail, which continues along the main unpaved access road. The road leads through a mix of toyon, ceanothus, holly-leaf cherry, and chamise.

As I reach where the power lines cross the trail, I pause in the nearby meadow to get some water from my pack. Sensing that someone is watching me, I turn and see a young bobcat looking at me. With plenty escape routes available to it, the bobcat seems content to just watch as I continue down the trail.

bobcat snyder trail knapp's castle hike santa ynez mountains los padres national forest


As the trail rounds another bend along the ridge, the access road ends and Snyder Trail continues as a single-track trail. From here, the access road used to continue down into Lewis Canyon.

What’s left now is an overgrown trail that sees very little use. I follow the old road cut as it quickly disappears into the brush, turning into more of a gully where the water has eroded it. The faint trace of the road ends right at the slide area, which is also near the top of the ravine I saw in the Google satellite images.

The side wash is steep and rocky, but I’m able to follow the dry watercourse, threading through the chaparral relatively easily, at least until I reach a dry waterfall. After carefully scrambling down its rocky face, I continue through the now more overgrown ravine, ducking under brush and overcoming several more obstacles, before arriving at the canyon floor.

Feeling some relief at being in the slightly more open creek bed, I continue upstream and quickly arrive at a waterfall, not Wellhouse Falls, but one of several cascades along the creek. The waterfall is too high and steep to easily scale and so I backtrack and find a route around it.

Further upstream, I arrive at the remains of what may have been the pump house that was used to bring water up to the lodge. It’s been said that Knapp, not content with the seasonal nature of the falls, would also release water over Wellhouse Falls to entertain guests; and that he also built a viewing platform, and even installed lights and speakers to illuminate the falls at night and pipe down organ music from the house.

Continuing up the creek, I arrive at another waterfall. This one I recall seeing before. From here, the trail used to continue up to the left to reach Wellhouse Falls. I remember the excitement we had as scouts racing to reach our destination, and my sense of discovery at seeing the falls for the first time.

Recently, I visited with the parents of my sister’s best friend, Sonya Knapp (no relation to George Owen Knapp). Her parents, Walter and Ingeborg, immigrated from Germany after World War 2, meeting and marrying in the United States. Carrying on a family tradition from Germany, the Knapp family hiked every Sunday. Hearing Mr. Knapp’s fondness for our local trails and his appreciation for being able to revisit so many places through my writing was an inspiration to just keep hiking and enjoying the outdoors.

Afterwards something about the old world charm of their house and welcome reminded me of a dream I had many years ago about my grandfather who was from Slovenia. In the dream I was in my grandfather’s house, but what was unusual was that there were volumes and volumes of books about the mountains and scenery of Slovenia.

My grandfather immigrated to the United States after the first World War, settling in Cleveland, Ohio, where he met and married my grandmother, who was from another small town in Slovenia. He was very active in the local Slovenian community and often went back to the old country to see relatives, but I have no recollection of him mentioning how beautiful the scenery was. Seeing the volumes of books in the dream made me wonder if what he missed most was the land itself.

My grandfather was a bit of a workaholic, so completely focused on building a better life for himself and his family that he sometimes forgot to just enjoy life. The thought of him perhaps longing for the mountains of Slovenia and not even knowing it, made me aware of my own tendency to become over-focused and even lose sight of what I’m working towards. Not taking time to relax and enjoy things until I’ve completed all of my tasks, which can seem like a never-ending list. That dream in part led me to take a more balanced approach to life; to spend more time in nature and enjoy life now, rather than waiting until I’ve achieved all of my goals.

Scrambling up the last bit of old trail, I arrive at the base of Wellhouse Falls, which is at the end of short, box canyon dotted with alder trees. Not seeming to recall any specific features from previous visits, my senses instead shift to soaking in the scenery and the timelessness of the moment.

Alone in the canyon, watching the water flow gracefully over the rock wall, the falls seem more golden and majestic to me now, and I’m reminded of the words of T. S. Elliot, “and the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

This article originally appeared in section A of the March 4th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Wellhouse Falls Lewis Canyon Knapp's Castle Snyder Trail hike Santa Ynez Mountain Los Padres National Forest

Wellhouse Falls

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: