A little over an hour's drive from San Diego's beaches and big-city attractions is a place that will transport you back through time and offer a glimpse of post-Civil War life in San Diego County. A trip to the small town of Julian also will take you through terrain that, at times, seems more like the Sierra Nevada range than the foothills east of California's southernmost major city.
We discovered Julian shortly after moving to San Diego from the Pacific Northwest — someone at the office mentioned that, if we were homesick for trees, the place to be was Julian. And so it wasn't long before we traveled the scenic country byways out to the eastern reaches of San Diego County — a trip we would henceforth take at least a couple of times a year to get our "fix" of the forests and backcountry that seemed so different from San Diego.
We'd like to say it's a road less traveled, but the truth is that Julian is a popular day or weekend trip for not only San Diego residents, but Southern California motorcycle and sports car clubs who find these curvy, scenic roads especially well-suited for their frequent excursions. If you like crowds and a certain kind of electricity, visit on a weekend; otherwise a weekday visit can offer a quiet respite from bustling city life.
Whether you come from the LA area through Warner Springs, or from the San Diego area through Ramona, the drive to Julian takes you through mountains — well, okay, maybe large hills if you come from real mountain areas — and valleys and meadows, and then along forested hillsides as the two-lane road snakes its way up to Julian's 4,000-foot elevation. The driving is not treacherous; it's just interesting. The views change from minute to minute as you pass farmhouses, horse ranches, cabins and the occasional outpost diner.
Then, suddenly, you're in Julian. No build-up with houses and civilization becoming more and more dense as you near town — you are one minute in the forest, the next minute on Julian's tiny Main Street. The business district, in fact, is only about three blocks long and four blocks wide, although you'll find sporadic businesses outside of the downtown area. On a weekend, about the only place to park will be a tourist parking lot on the southwest edge of the downtown area. On weekdays, street parking is usually plentiful.
Most of the buildings downtown are historical in some sense — many dating back to the post-Civil War period when the town was founded. It actually became a town when displaced Confederate veterans headed west to find unsettled land. The town was named after Mike Julian, one of those early settlers. In 1869, gold was discovered and, by 1934, the region had produced up to $5 million worth of the precious metal. Later the town's residents took advantage of the rich local soil to produce many different crops, and foremost among those was apples. Julian apples began to win national awards in places as far away as Chicago.
Today, the town of Julian is known for its apples and a tourist ritual is to enjoy a fresh-baked apple pie and ice cream at one of several local eateries. For a town with just a few hundred souls, Julian has an unusual number of bakeries and pie shops such as Mom's Pie House, where visitors stop for their obligatory treat.
The other shops in Julian run the gamut from tacky tourist shops to crafts of all types to the normal small-town fixtures like hardware and general stores. There are lots of specialty shops such as the Julian Cider Mill where you can pick up dried fruits, apple butter, jams and jellies and nuts. The Bird Watcher is a prominent building just off Main Street and is the largest wild bird supply store in Southern California. Other stores specialize in such things as angels, fairies and dolls, Old West gift items, candies, flowers, earth products and wood carvings.
While the women folk are enjoying this western town's shopping diversity, the men folk and the youngin's probably will get a kick out of the historic comedy skits that are staged three times each weekend afternoon during the summer out on the town's Main Street. Julian Doves and the Desperados dress up like cowboys and stage rough-and-tumble shoot-outs for the town's visitors.
For those interested in galleries, antiques and collectibles, Julian has that covered as well. There are a total of nine galleries as well as several antique and collectible shops. If you meander down the side streets, it's amazing the number of small businesses that are tucked in nooks and crannies up and down each street.
Of course all of this is against the backdrop of Julian's historical buildings that make it easy for the visitor to imagine what life was like here back in the late 1800's. Among the historical buildings are the Julian Town Hall, the Hotel Robinson, the Wilcox Building the Julian Jail, the F.A. Deluca store and many other structures that are part of this town's early history.
If you are planning to stay a night or two in Julian, there are plenty of activities in the local area to keep even the most frenetic tourist satisfied. There are five local wineries to visit, or you can go horseback riding with one of several outfitters offering trail rides in the area. Visitors can tour the Eagle and High Peak Mine, one of Julian's original gold-producing mines. Those who would like to see what wolves look like up-close will enjoy a visit to the California Wolf Center where you can visit with the resident wolf packs. The Julian Pioneer Museum provides a look at clothing, photographs, household and mining equipment and local Indian artifacts.
Not far from Julian is a wilderness to explore. While in recent years fires have ravaged some of the nearby forests, there are still plenty of places to explore. One of our favorite half-day hikes is at William Heise County Park where, in addition to many excellent, forested campsites, there are trails that take you to great vistas. A series of trails are located in and around Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, an area that was hit by the fires but that still offers excellent hiking opportunities.
Just east from Julian on Highway 78 is Anza Borrego Desert State Park where the visitor will find a large variety of flowering cacti, palm groves, bighorn sheep and exotic birds. A unique way to see the park is with California Overland LLC, which offers trips that range from three-hour tours to full 30-plus hour excursions aboard ex-military troop carriers. They expect to offer Humvee tours in the future.
About 70 miles of hiking trails are available in the Laguna Mountain Recreational Area, where there are picnic areas, campgrounds and restrooms. One of our favorite areas to visit is Palomar Mountain, relatively close to Julian and home to the famous Palomar Mountain Observatory.
If you prefer to stay close to Julian, there are several options for overnight accommodations including bed-and-breakfast inns, hotels and vacation rentals. The Julian area is a popular spot for vacation homes and cabins, which can be rented for a weekend or extended vacation. If you're planning ahead, be sure to check with the local chamber of commerce about special events that occur at various times of the year.
Whether you're looking for a glimpse of California history or a scenic drive through terrain that seems more like the Sierra Nevada range than San Diego, Julian is a good choice for a weekend or an extended vacation.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Julian is located about 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles and is easily reached by taking Highway 79 east from I-15 at Temecula. From San Diego, travel north on I-15, east on Highway 78 to Ramona and east on Highway 79 to Julian.
WHAT: Julian is a historic theme town that has become a popular tourist destination for people wanting to leave the bustle of the city and enjoy a scenic journey through the forests and foothills. The town has many historic buildings, activities and attractions.
WHEN: Any time of year.
WHY: The scenery is spectacular and the town has a certain charm that keeps people coming back.
HOW: For more information on Julian, contact the Julian Chamber of Commerce at www.julianca.com or 760-765-1857.
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