While many boomtowns eventually became ghost towns, Julian had more to offer than mining.
In the lush rolling hills and mountains, just 60 miles northeast of San Diego, is the small town of Julian. It’s not on the way to anywhere for most folk, but if you’re even close it’s well worth visiting for a day or two.
Confederated, veterans from Georgia headed west to seek their fortunes in a new, mostly unsettled land. Among these were cousins, Drue Bailey and Mike Julian, who found a lush meadow between the Volcan Mountains and the Cuyamacas to their liking.
The town was named Julian, in honor of Mike Julian, who later was elected San Diego County Assessor. The town was never large; at the most, it boasted a population of about 600. Rumor has it that Julian almost became San Diego’s county seat.
A cattleman, Fred Coleman, found the first fleck of gold in a creek in early 1870. It was San Diego’s first and only gold rush. The gold rush was short-lived, lasting from 1870 until around 1900 with some mining still later on. But the pioneers stayed and began farming the rich land.
While many crops were planted and animals pastured, Julian proved to be a fine place to grow apples. Julian apples, “Twenty-one varieties of well-grown and carefully selected apples”, received the Bronze Wilder Medal, a top honor, from the American Pomological Society at the 1907 Tri-centennial Exposition held in Jamestown, Virginia.
Apples continue to be produced in Julian. Their sweet, fresh flavor lures thousands to the mountains each fall when visitors will find fruit stands overflowing with crisp fruit, homemade cider, and other delicacies and enjoy U-picking.
Apple picking season in Julian arrives in early September and lasts until mid-October. But even if your trip doesn’t coincide with the harvest you can still enjoy the spoils: there’s no shortage of bakeries in town and everyone you ask will have a personal favorite.
The biggest name in town (and possibly in the West) is Julian Pie Company. Along with the most widely distributed apple pie throughout Southern California, they carry more than 20 pie varieties, apple cider donuts, apple nut bread, and “apple memories,” bits of extra pie crust cut out into hearts that are perfect to snack on during the ride home.
At Mom’s Pie House, you’ll find a laundry list of pie options and other equally delightful confectionary goodness but not to be missed are their apple dumplings loaded with brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg and baked in cream cheese to absolute perfection.
Related: The Charms of Julian
An unassuming spot right off the main drag, Apple Alley Bakery turns out a spectacular apple pecan pie with a crunchy crumb topping plus a killer lunch special that includes your choice of a half sandwich and a side of soup or salad and a slice of pie for dessert.
Also noteworthy, Julian Cafe and Bakery’s boysenberry-apple is the perfect mix of sweet and tart, and Juliantla Chocolate Boutique covers cinnamon-scented caramelized apples in a flaky crust that’s also completely vegan.
Julian is an official California Historical Landmark, meaning that any new development must adhere to certain guidelines that preserve the town’s architectural integrity. Once you’re settled in, get your bearings with a self-guided walking tour and explore Julian Town Hall, historical homes, and the Pioneer Cemetery as well as the Julian Gold Rush Hotel, the oldest operating hotel in Southern California and one of the first businesses in San Diego County to be owned and operated by African Americans.
One of the longest-running mining operations in town, The Eagle Mine is a popular spot to take a tour and try your hand at panning for gold as they did in the olden days. Julian Mining Company also has all your gold-panning needs covered, plus gem mining, tomahawk throwing, and train rides.
It’s also worth checking out the outstanding collection of historical artifacts at the Julian Pioneer Museum where you can learn about how local Indigenous groups and pioneer settlers lived and worked as well as The Barn Vintage Marketplace just outside town in Wynola, a great spot to shop for vintage keepsakes, furniture, and souvenirs. Be sure to say hello to the sweet emus who call the latter home.
You won’t be leaving this little town hungry and for a trip down memory lane, Miner’s Diner is the spot. Operated within the Historic Levi & Co. building (the first brick building erected in Julian, 1885) the historic significance doesn’t stop there. From the eclectic mix of vintage signage to old prescription medications which line the shelves to the numerous photos of the town and the building, customers receive an understanding and experience of old Julian which is available nowhere else.
Dating back to 1929, this charming vintage soda shop has classic diner fare on deck—stacks of pancakes, bacon, and eggs, burgers, dogs, and melts included—plus a “Fun Stuff” menu where you’ll find old-timey treats like phosphate soda, ice cream floats, thick shakes and malts, banana splits, and, yes, apple pie.
Established in 1977, the California Wolf Center is home to several gray wolf packs including one of the rarest and most endangered species, the Mexican gray wolf. Reservations are required to visit so schedule one of three different tours to learn about wolf conservation and meet with the wolf packs.
Cut my pie into four pieces, I don’t think I could eat eight.