The mountain town of Julian is synonymous with apple pie. Head an hour east of San Diego and check out this charming small town—and bring your appetite.
With a friendly, small-town feel, four distinct seasons, and enough fun to make for a stacked itinerary—including a wolf conservatory, hundreds of miles of trails, charming cafes and cideries, and more—Julian is perfect for a day trip, a weekend escape, or a longer stay. Here’s how to make the most of your visit.
Take a step back in time to the days of Julian’s beginning rooted in the 1870s gold rush. See where gold was discovered, shop stores housed in historic buildings dating back to the 1870s, hike and picnic amid oaks and pines, and sample Julian’s famous apple pie.
Nestled in the foothills of the beautiful Cuyamaca Mountains, much of Julian’s rustic charm has to do with the fact that it’s preserved its roots as a Western mining town gone boom. The town experienced a population spike in the 1870s following the discovery of gold in a nearby stream by formerly enslaved cattleman A.E. “Fred” Coleman; the find spurred the area’s first and only gold rush which lasted until about 1900.
A bronze plaque near Town Hall also commemorates the city’s early Black history as Julian once boasted the majority of San Diego’s Black population: in the 1880 census, 33 of 55 Black residents living in San Diego County lived in the Julian area.
Around that same time, another enterprising gentleman, James Madison (not the fourth president), brought a wagonload of young apple trees to the area. The trees flourished in the mountain environment and became one of the reasons people from all over SoCal continue to visit Julian today.
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Foodies will have a field day here, especially those with a sweet tooth. A warm slice of pie with a scoop of ice cream feels decadent anywhere else but in Julian it’s essential! Julian Pie Company is the most well-known bakery in town so be prepared to wait in line. Moms Pie House is equally delicious. Both have whipped cream, caramel sauce, ice cream, and sharp cheddar cheese as pie toppings, so pick your pleasure.
Feeling thirsty? There are several wineries around Julian including Blue Door Winery just off of Main Street. Julian Beer Company is another fun place to unwind with several options on tap including Julian Hard Cider. If you’re looking for a caffeine boost, stop by Regulars Wanted Beanery, a cute cafe that serves breakfast all day and some of the biggest cinnamon rolls you’ve ever seen.
True to its southern California roots, beer, wine, and hard apple cider isn’t hard to come by in Julian. A good place to visit is Calico Cidery, a dog-friendly cider farm and super scenic spot to lounge under the shade of huge oak trees and sip handcrafted hard ciders made from apples and pears grown exclusively on their ranch. Fun fact: It was on the property of Calico Ranch that Fred Coleman first discovered gold in 1870, sparking the Julian gold rush.
Over at Nickel Beer Company (1485 Hollow Glen Road; ½- mile east of downtown Julian), 16 taps of house-brewed beer and plenty of outdoor seating are always on the table—just don’t miss the Apple Pie Ale, Volcan IPA, or Hidden Fortress Double IPA and feel free to grab a growler.
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And at Julian Hard Cider (4470 Julian Road), you can pull up a chair outside of the cider bar and try a flight of ciders with adventurous names like Razzmatazz and Freaky Tiki (though of course, you can’t go wrong with their traditional Harvest Apple).
Tucked into the base of Volcan Mountain at just above 4,000 feet elevation, Menghini Winery is the oldest winery in Julian and the second oldest in San Diego County. Located just 2.5 miles outside of town, the winery is a small-batch operation that produces sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, riesling, rosé, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and syrah. Their tasting room is open seven days a week and visitors are welcome to bring a picnic lunch to enjoy on their expansive grounds.
As part of Julian’s Apple Days Celebration, Menghini Winery will be hosting a two-day Apple Days Festival on Saturday, September 23, and Sunday, September 24, 2022. The weekend-long event will feature music and dancing, an antique tractor display, children’s games and activities, gold panning demonstrations, a beer, and wine garden, food and merchandise vendors, contests, and more.
There are several historic sites to explore around the town including The Eagle Mining Co. which offers guided tours of its underground tunnels. The family-friendly town has horse-drawn carriage rides, old-fashioned candy shops, and more activities that will take you back in time.
As is often the case in California, hiking is an essential pastime in Julian. About 20 minutes outside of Julian, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park has hundreds of miles of trails to traverse.
There are over 100 miles of trails that accommodate hikers, bikers, and equestrians. The two family campgrounds, Paso Picacho and Green Valley are open and on the reservation system spring through fall. Green Valley sits at an elevation of 4,000 feet and has a creek that runs through the middle of the campground. Green Valley has 81 campsites.
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Paso Picacho, 5 miles north, sits at an elevation of 5,000 feet. The most popular hikes start from this camp including the 2-mile hike up Stonewall Peak (elevation 5,700 feet) and the 3.5-mile hike up Cuyamaca Peak (elevation 6,512 feet) both of which offer breathtaking views of the deserts to the east, the coast to the west, and Lake Cuyamaca at the bottom. Paso Picacho campground has 85 campsites.
There’s also the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve—go for a gorgeous, yet moderately strenuous hike that will see you crisscross your way through a mix of scenic conifer forest and desert—and the challenging 4.1-mile Three Sisters Falls out-and-back trail in Cleveland National Forest with a two-mile, 980-feet descent that includes some bouldering, climbing, and traversing before you reach the sparkling falls and the natural swimming pool beneath.
For something truly out of this world, Julian’s night skies make for prime stargazing, giving visitors magnificent views of the Milky Way, planets, and constellations. Amateur astronomers will want to book a Sky Tour at Observer’s Inn where you’ll use research-grade telescopes to view planets, open star clusters, nebulae, star systems, and the moon. Plan a visit around upcoming celestial events for an unparalleled look at the heavens.
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Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don’t claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent.
—Jalal Ad-Din Rumi