Pick Apples and Run with the Wolves in This Rustic SoCal Town
Hit the trails, pan for gold, and howl with the wolves in this mountainous region outside of San Diego.
Even in idyllic Southern California, where the average temperature rarely dips below a “brisk '' 65 degrees, San Diegans long for a picturesque autumn season filled with brilliant blue skies, changing leaves, piles of pumpkins, and hikes through the woods. Enter Julian, a tiny town about an hour east of San Diego that, come fall, will make you wonder if you've been accidentally transported to a fall foliage-ridden town in New England.
Much of Julian’s rustic charm has to do with the fact that it’s preserved its roots as a Western mining town gone bust. Shortly after its founding in 1870, the town experienced a population spike following the discovery of gold in a nearby stream by formerly enslaved cattleman A.E. “Fred” Coleman; the find spurred San Diego’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.
With a friendly, small-town feel, four distinct seasons, and enough fun to make for a stacked itinerary—including an incredible wolf conservatory, hundreds of miles of trails, charming cafes and cideries, and more—Julian is perfect for a weekend escape or a longer stay, and fall is one of the very best times to go. Here’s how to make the most of your visit:
Apple pie is king
No one visits Julian without indulging in its famous pies, and there’s no shortage of bakeries in town. Everyone you ask will have a personal favorite, but the biggest name in town (and possibly in the West) is Julian Pie Company. Along with boasting 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.
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 (don’t miss the chili) and a slice of pie for dessert. Also noteworthy, Julian Cafe and Bakery’s boysenberry-apple pie 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.
Autumn is prime apple-picking time
Did you know that the apple you just bought at the grocery store may have been in storage for nearly a year? Apple picking season in Julian runs from early September until mid-October, and if you’ve never tasted a crisp, sweet apple that’s just been plucked from its tree, Julian has plenty of options for you to remedy that. Volcan Valley Apple Farm has more than 8,000 apple trees, seven different varieties, and is open for picking on a first-come basis Friday-Monday. Entry is $5 per person and a six-to-seven-pound bag of apples goes for $15. Grab organic Jonathan, Jonagold, Red, and Golden Delicious, or Granny Smiths for $20 per half-peck (approximately five pounds, cash or Zelle only) at Peacefield Orchard, on Saturday-Sunday, but get there early. It’s first-come, and it closes at 2 pm.
Apples and Art Orchard only accepts groups of 20+, but it has the largest variety of apples—you might find familiar faves like Gala, Arkansan Black, and Fuji, new varieties such as Greensleeves, Queen Cox, and Liberty, or heirloom apples. You'll also get the full apple experience, including a short talk about fun apple facts, picking a half-peck of apples ($15), and using a hand-cranked press to squeeze your own glass of apple cider. Finally, you’ll make some new feathered friends when you recycle the used apple pulp by feeding it to the resident chickens! Call 760-310-6368 or email for reservations.
Julian Mining Company features Granny Smith apples exclusively and has the latest picking season, from October 15-23, Saturday and Sunday only, on a first-come basis. There's a $2 entry fee to the orchard, and a quarter-peck (approximately 2.5-pound) bags are $18.
Have some old-timey fun
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, historic 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.
Crawling into the mines that dot Julian’s back streets and hunting for gold is considered a rite of passage for kids who grew up in Southern California. 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 like 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 historic 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.
Cozy up at local diners and restaurants
You won’t be leaving this little town hungry, and for a trip down memory lane, Miner’s Diner is the spot for all your malted needs. 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.
Julian Café is another popular spot for breakfast and lunch and serves up some crispy fried chicken and chili fries along with a decadent hot giant cinnamon roll and apple cider float for dessert. And over at Julian Grille, the lace curtains and antique furniture are all a part of the draw of a locally beloved steakhouse; bask in the quaint ambiance found inside the cottage, or post up outside on their patio to enjoy a Reuben sandwich and Julian Chicken Salad.
Visit a free-range camel farm
For the meek, there’s also the quirky and unexpected Oasis Camel Dairy farm, home to free-range camels and their calves. The camels are hand-milked, and the results are turned into luxurious camel milk soaps, bath bombs, and lotions as well as decadent chocolate bars made by chocolatier Al Nassma in Dubai. Open farm and private group tours are available by appointment, and you can purchase their camel milk products in the gift shop.
Howl with the wolves
There’s no more magical way to start your adventure in Julian than getting a chance to support the wolves. 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.
Commune with nature
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. The Stonewall Peak Trail offers spectacular vistas (not to mention plenty of shade) along its 3.4-mile out-and-back course, which takes you to the summit for 360-degree views of Lake Cuyamaca and the park, while the Cuyamaca Peak Trail delivers views of the Anza-Borrego Desert and the lake below.
There’s also the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve—go for a gorgeous, yet moderately strenuous hike that will see you criss-crossing 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-foot descent that includes some bouldering, climbing, and traversing before you reach the sparkling falls and the natural swimming pool beneath.
Cideries and wineries abound
True to its southern California roots, beer, wine, and hard apple cider aren’t hard to come by in Julian. A good place to start 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, 16 taps of house-brewed beer and plenty of outdoor seating are always on the table—just don’t miss the Apple Pie Ale or the Volcan IPA, and feel free to grab a growler for the road. And at Julian Hard Cider, 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, there’s also Menghini Winery, 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.
On your way out of town, make a stop at The Cooler Tap and Tasting Room for one last Julian craft beer. It’s part of Julian Station, a multi-purpose destination built into the remnants of a 1940s apple and pear cider processing and packing facility that also houses Julian Hard Cider and Julian Wine and Chocolate. Business days and hours vary, so check the Julian Station website before you head out.
Where to stay in Julian
There’s a handful of charming family-owned lodges and B&Bs scattered around town. For something really special, the Orchard Hill Country Inn is just a few blocks off the main drag but feels like it’s a world away. With just 22 rooms—several with their own fireplace—plus complimentary breakfasts and daily happy hours, this quaint, craftsman-style inn is a real gem.
The aforementioned Julian Gold Rush Hotel, set in a landmark building right off Main Street, is equally charming. Dating back to the late 1800s, the lovely Victorian stay offers a mix of suites, cottages, and even a “honeymoon house” for those looking to dial up the romance.