Lots of folks are familiar with the San Diego County town of Julian, known for its fall leaves, apple harvest and, especially, apple pies. But what about the rest of the year? Eager to get a little mountain time, my wife, Julie, and I headed south for a long weekend last winter. Julian got its start about 1850, then went boom in 1869 when an African American former slave discovered gold in a nearby creek. Prospectors, general stores, cafes and hotels sprang up, followed by an influx of ranchers and farmers, some of whom planted apple trees that thrived in the cool mountain air and that still draw tourists today. The tab: $650 for two nights’ lodging and $115 for meals.
Orchard Hill Country Inn is enough off the beaten path to feel disconnected from Julian, although it’s only a 10-minute walk to the center of town. The inn has 10 rooms in its main Craftsman-style lodge building, starting at $215 a night, and 12 cottage rooms, starting at $325, in outbuildings on a wooded hillside. In the evenings, our hosts provided a hearth warmed by a generous log fire in the river rock fireplace and a happy hour assortment of wines, fresh-pressed apple juice and appetizers. A full breakfast, included in the price of the room, offered fresh quiche, strong coffee and baked goods. And more of that amazing apple juice.
In previous visits, we had contented ourselves with Main Street mainstays such as Julian Café and Bakery and Miner’s Diner. But in wandering the area, we stumbled across Cuyamaca Lake Restaurant & Store. This outfitters’ establishment, nine miles from downtown Julian, carries supplies for fishermen and campers enjoying the nearby lake. The casual café’s kitchen prepares several Austrian specialties —Tyrolean Skillet breakfast, Tyrolrean sausages and even Wiener schnitzel — although there is nothing especially Austrian about the décor or surrounding geography. But the café is known for its pies, savory and sweet. We had an amazing homemade chicken pot pie followed by a slice of mountain berry pie, one of the best we’d ever encountered, made from a mixture of fruits grown in the area. Good thing the restaurant closed at 8 p.m., or we might have stayed, had another cup of coffee and another slice of pie. Or several.
About 30 miles down the mountain from Julian is the immense Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which boasts some of the most fascinating geography in California. We drove out California 78 to the turnoff for Slot Canyon — maps are available through the California Department of Parks and Recreation at parks.ca.gov — and did a wonderful hike up this narrow fissure. The walls, worn smooth by flowing water, rise 30 feet in places and are close enough that you can touch both sides as you walk. Stay away if wet weather is forecast; otherwise, this otherworldly hike is a bonus.
THE LESSON LEARNED
We’d hoped to meet a friend in Julian, but snow was forecast. She said Julian would be swarming with snow-seeking day-trippers and that the traffic would be horrible. We thought, “OK, but how bad could it be?” A few hours later, we understood her trepidation. There are only two routes into town, and both are narrow, winding, single-lane roads. Clog those roads with several hundred sedans, SUVs and family vans, many without snow tires or chains, and … . It took us 90 minutes to drive the last two miles into town. Note to self: Don’t do that again.
Orchard Hill Country Inn, 2502 Washington St., Julian; (760) 765-1700. Two wheelchair-accessible rooms.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs;
(760) 767-4205. Some trails wheelchair accessible.