The steep Santa Ynez Mountains have always been a formidable barrier to overland travel from the little coastal shelf of land we call Santa Barbara over to the inland valleys.
Since ancient times the native people of the region wended their way up the creeks and over the lowest point on the summit from the villages on the coast. Only the bravest dared the climb through mountain lion and grizzly bear habitat.
In the early 1800s the Spanish missionaries held a land grant in the Santa Ynez Valley they called Rancho San Marcos. The trail that connected the mission to the ranch became known as San Marcos Pass.
Through most of the 1800s it was little more than a narrow horse trail, but in the 1860s it gained importance to the 6 horse stagecoaches that plied California’s roads.
The “Turnpike” road came up from Cathedral Oaks past the Indian Orchard on Maria Ygnacia Creek up through the horseshoe curves, past San Jose Vineyard, The Quaker Club, Slippery Rock, and the Kelly Bee Ranch to the 500 acre Kinevan Ranch.
Then began the torturous steep descent past Cold Spring Tavern and down to the valley floor. Since then it has been a constant work in progress to widen, stabilize and modernize the road with culverts and bridges. In 1868 a toll began to be charged by Patrick Kinevan and the road was steadily improved.
In 1893 the local press announced the “stage road over the mountain is in splendid condition, many tourists taking this route to San Francisco.” There was the occasional runaway stage and legendary bandits, and then in 1901 the train tracks along the coast finally replaced the mountain stage line.
Soon a few intrepid automobile drivers began to make the ascent, to the horror of those on horseback who passed an ordinance to outlaw auto travel on the “dangerous San Marcos Grade.” It held from 1907 to 1910, and then the County supervisors planned improvements so “a comfortable round trip auto or carriage tour could be made over San Marcos Pass into the Santa Ynez Valley.”
The deluges of rain in the winter of 1914-15 washed out much of the steep road and in 1919 the Morning press declared the Pass was “in frightful condition.”
After World War I the economy grew and San Marcos Pass was radically modernized. With the prodding and financial contribution of movers and shakers such as George O. Knapp and C.K.G. Billings, big changes occurred. In 1924 and ’25 the route was altered to start out near San Antonio Creek in its present location closer to Santa Barbara and with a more gradual ascent through the National Forest, eliminating many winding curves and grading a wide road bed with much improved drainage.
The newspaper reported that “The many steep pitches and sharp curves along the old drive have been eliminated to the loss of much of the picturesque wildness of the canyon.” In 1929 the road was taken into the California Highway system. Work continued and on January 24, 1936 the Daily News announced that the “new San Marcos Road” was completed.
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