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Julian Mixes Past, Present & Pie

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Historic mountain town is a gold mine for family fun

By David Moye

“After passing a ravine and ascending a sharp and rocky hill, the city of Julian in all its glory burst upon us,” is how New England schoolteacher Mary Morse described her first view of Julian when she visited in September. “I could have shouted with very joy at the sight.”

In the 145 years since she wrote that, Julian has changed very little. The roads to the mountain town are better paved, SUVs and BMWs are parked on the streets next to the horse and buggies, and the hotel on Main Street now offers free Wi-Fi.

Still, Julian’s scenic setting and old-fashioned charms still inspire similar shouts of joy.

Back when Miss Morse visited, it was gold that brought them to “them thar hills.” These days, the town’s claim to fame rests on apples, pies and the occasional winter snowstorm.

More than any city in San Diego County, Julian, an official California Historical Landmark (No. 412), breathes history. People like A. E. “Fred” Coleman, a former slave and the person first credited with discovering gold in 1869, and Drury D. Bailey, who founded the town a year later, are mentioned as casually as if they lived down the street, not in the 19th century.

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“… you will see the buildings that were the town’s founders’ original homes. These have been turned into cute shops that sell arts and crafts, fudge and homemade cider.”

This mix of past and present with pie makes Julian a wonderful day-trip destination, especially during the winter months. When San Diegans dig out their snow chains from the garage and drive up to the mountains, you can bet they’ll get a taste of real winter in this historic gold rush town. And for sledding, head on over to Jess Martin County Park.

That is if it’s snowing (this is SoCal after all!). But Julian in winter is still fun … even during a sunny Santa Ana. 

To get a perspective on what a miner’s life was like during Julian’s gold rush, make sure to visit The Eagle Mining Company. The hour-long tour takes visitors 1,000 feet underground (tall people take note: you will have to crouch at times), and is a true journey back in time, thanks to the presence of authentic mining equipment. Knowledgeable guides explain the rigorous world of pre-tourist Julian: a place where men were men and women were tough as nails. 

Afterwards, you can pan for gold in troughs set up for that purpose. I hoped to get enough for my kid’s college fund, but the guide told me any gold found was strictly “catch and release.”

Walk down Main Street and you will see the buildings that were the town’s founders’ original homes. These have been turned into cute shops that sell arts and crafts, fudge and homemade cider. The Birdwatcher is a unique store that offers everything you can imagine for a bird enthusiast. You can find hummingbird feeders of all shapes and sizes as well as a variety of bird supplies. It’s a great place to buy gifts for the bird lover in your life. In addition, the store offers garden accessories, home décor, art, jewelry, apparel, birding books and CDs.

And pie? We’re saving that for dessert.

Want more history? The Julian Pioneer Museum has many artifacts and photographs of the town over the years. The proprietors are fourth-generation Julian residents who have a great insight into how the town survived many boom-and-bust periods.

For the best view in town, walk north up Main Street past the Bailey BBQ. On the left is a path that goes up the hill to Julian Pioneer Cemetery, where many of the town pioneers have been interred in the “Haven of Rest.” Each tombstone tells a story of the people who traveled to find the “California dream” (before it was called that). Or you can look to the south and see the historic wooden buildings surrounded by pine and oak trees with lovely rolling hills in the distance. 

The orchards, where the famous Julian apples grow, are bare in winter, but there’s always plenty of fresh apple cider. You can get a hot cup at the General Store, or go to one of the two new breweries in town and have a glass of the hard kind. For the sake of convenience, try the Julian Brewing Company, which is housed in the same place as the Bailey BBQ, a popular restaurant named after the town founder (try the pulled pork). There are also 10 wineries or tasting rooms in the area, including nearby Wynola and Santa Ysabel.

Most Julian restaurants serve tasty, hearty food at reasonable prices. They have to—they wouldn’t make it on just tourist traffic. We like Soups And Such Café and the Julian Grille. But for something more upscale, Jeremy’s On The Hill in nearby Santa Ysabel serves seasonal and organic cuisine.

Regardless of where you eat, go lightly, as you must save room for pie. Pie is to Julian what flan is to Mexico and gelato is to Italy.

Since the 1920s, the town has been known for its apples. But since the 1980s, the place has gone sweet for pies. Downtown Julian has spots serving a variety of pies, and there are more places a few miles away in Santa Ysabel and Wynola. The Julian Pie Company and Moms Pie House have been there the longest (with the longest lines!). Moms also sells sandwiches, and the Pie Company has a nice deck out back. 

Don’t want to wait? The Candied Apple Pastry Company near the Julian Pioneer Museum isn’t as crowded and has crepes as well as pies. For those seeking savory, the homemade chili is hot enough to take away the winter chill.

But regardless of what you do in this lovely mountain town, you’re bound to get your just desserts.

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