The daffodils were in bloom when I ascended 4,235 feet out of the Anza-Borreno Desert into Julian, a historic California mining town established in a fertile valley beneath Vulcan Mountain.
Julian was founded by cousins Drue and Mike, two soldiers escaping fallout from post war Dixie, who were ex-slaves and gold diggers. Long after the gold rush of the 1870s had subsided, orchards planted there began producing prize apples and the mountain village became famed for its pies.
Apple, peach, cherry, rhubarb, lemon, chocolate, pecan, pumpkin, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, blackberry, boysenberry and bumbleberry (a combination of the previous three). Flakey topped, French crumble topped and lattice topped. No less than seven pie shops and bakeries line the towns four-block main street. The aroma of baking pies filled the alpine air as I wandered streets lined with cafes, inns, gem shops, art galleries, a tea shop and quaint boutiques, all offering a surprising array of quality wares. I knew it would only be a matter of time until I succumbed to that pie.
Julian is a walkable Old West, Victorian-style town with a four-season climate that’s located a scenic 90 minutes east of San Diego. When I turned my purse to pie (after doing most of my years gift shopping at Mountain Gypsy at their 25th anniversary sale) at the infamous Mom’s Pie Shop, it had a line out the door and down the street. GOOD pie, everyone said.
I don’t do lines, so I went back when everyone else had gone. I tried Moms strawberry-rhubarb, cherry lattice top, and apple turnovers (not all in one sitting!). But it was the apple-raspberry crumble pie from the Julian Pie Co. that really rocked. It was a bit on the sweet side, but hands down the winner.
Julian’s Apple Day Festival, attracting just shy of 50,000 visitors, has been held since 1907 when the towns apples won the prestigious Wilder Medal, the highest pomological (fruit) award. This years centennial celebration begins in early October. The original festivities included a rooster pull, a gruesome game introduced by Spanish missionaries that involved racing horsemen competing to grab a rooster from a field where was buried up to its neck. Conducted at top speed, the game often left participants with broken bones and you can only imagine what the bird looked like by the end of the game. Hopefully, the festivals planning board has omitted this traditional event from the current line-up.
Another event held annually in Julian is the Laguna Mountain Rendezvous, a re-creation of a colonial fur traders camp. With hundreds of skinners participating from around the country, the camp becomes a living museum for the weeklong event. Traders Row provides demonstrations of traditional campfire cooking, tool making and weaponry, including muzzle-loading guns, knives, and tomahawks. The $25 fee includes camping accommodations and participation in all shooting events.
The tiny town, remarkably, is also home to 13 wineries, some with names such as Hawk Watch, Eagles Nest, Shadow Mountain and Witch Creek. For $90, the California Overland and Wine Passport buys you a seat on a wine tasting tour of Julian’s hill country with stupendous mountain and pastoral views along the way. For those looking for a more interactive experience, there’s a European-style Grape Stomp held at Menghini Winery in September that draws thousands of participants.
Julian’s Country Christmas is a three-week long festival beginning the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Tucked high in the Cuyamaca Mountains, December temperatures here are cool and crisp. With apple cider fresh off the presses set to mulling at almost every hearth, decorated picket fences, lit hedges and narrow streets provide a quaint, old fashioned Yuletide experience locals call Snow Bunnies. Carolers wander the Victorian village at sundown throughout the festival season. What more could you want for an ideal holiday shopping experience?
Legends and Lore
When I returned to Julian a week later in a t-shirt, I landed smack in the middle of a springtime blizzard. I had come back to explore the towns rich history.
There are plenty of ways to get a feel for Julian’s past. The Julian Doves and Desperados perform historic reenactments on Sunday afternoons at 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00 p.m.. Main Street Horse and Carriage Company offers buggy rides to historic sites. Ahls Photography provides rides in buggies drawn by miniature ponies. (This sounds chick-cute but Id personally feel horrible watching the little guys strain to haul me around at a speed I could easily walk. I passed on that one.)
The self-guided historic Walking Tour takes you past the original town jail that housed the towns only indoor toilet. Oddly, it reeks of urine as if that weren’t the case.
While out walking, history enthusiasts can participate in the towns interactive History Hunt. It involves walking to sites indicated on a card (provided at the information kiosk on the Town Halls), reading the historic markers, and answering questions. Although some of the questions are tricky, Id like to have seen details about each historic site on the map itself so that I could read the sites story while walking to it. Highlighting restrooms, cafs, restaurants, pubs, ice-cream and pie shops would also be helpful.
Up the hill is an abandoned gold mine that Enthrall Incorporated guides tourists through. Tickets include panning for gold with tap shoe-er host, Celia Lawley. There’s one of those wee trains there as well for the tots. And, every weekend in October, the audience participation, comedy-infused, Melodrama begins, portraying aspects of the towns gold rush history.
Board and Bread
Julian is well-stocked with quaint inns and lodges, all with rocker-lined porches inviting folks to come on up and sit (read set) a while. I found the Pinecrest Retreat and the Observers Inn intriguing options for those looking to stay a few days and who are open to something eclectic.
Pinecrest houses more than 100 vintage travel trailers in a tree-shaded canyon. The Observers Inn was obviously designed by serious astro-nerds. Guests are invited to tour the Walk of the Planets, a 600-foot replica of the Milky Way built to scale. It was their advertisement of a Hammock Heaven set beneath a grove of oak trees, however, that earned them a double take from me.
Julian also offers some great places to eat. Coming into town, I ate lunch at Jermey’s On The Hill. His Lobster Bisque and Grilled Pineapple and Quinoa Salad were both excellent. Before leaving that evening, I was drawn up a side street to Romanos Italian Restaurant by the alluring aroma of tomatoes, garlic, basil and freshly baking bread. The restaurant is housed in the historic Dodge family homestead and I was led to a table in front of a toasty wood stove. I ordered a glass of Quercettos Chianti and watched Yellow Breasted Finches peck seeds from a feeder hanging from the porch eaves. Owned by Stan and Paula, Romanos offers the traditional dishes as well as some with local flare, such as the spicy apple cider sausage and pork loin baked in cinnamon, garlic and whiskey sauce. The butternut squash soup I had was lovely.
By the time I was finished eating, the sun had come out completely and the snow from the surprise spring storm was beginning to melt off resilient daffodils and lilac buds. I knew coming down off the mountain would offer a gorgeous sunset. There are several viewing point turnouts where you can safely pull over to shoot pictures of vibrant green meadows, rolling hills, and ponds reflecting the snow-capped peaks in the distance.
And while Julian offers stunning landscapes, that’s not what draws me back again and again. Julian is one of those places where shop keepers remember your face. More than its small mountain village ambiance and the rich beauty of the surrounding valleys, its the friendliness of the people that keep me coming back.
— by Ruth Newell, RFT Contributor