Poised between the desert and the coast, a little more than an hour’s drive east of San Diego, this surprising mountain town makes a great day trip. Set at an elevation of 4,226 feet/1,228 meters in the Cuyamaca Mountains, Julian has its roots in gold mining; tours of Eagle Mining Co. take visitors into underground tunnels, and you can try your hand at gold panning—a surprisingly subtle and challenging art.
This region, known as East County, also long attracted artists, and it’s fun to stroll along Main Street to see works by local painters and craftspeople. Hopefully all that browsing has made you hungry for the town’s signature foodstuff: apple pie. Apples, planted for income after the gold ran out, thrive in surrounding orchards, and now the town has turned into a magnet for apple pie fans (and, really, who isn’t an apple pie fan…). Where to start? Try the delectable crumb-topped Dutch apple pie and other treats at Julian Pie Company.
Outside town, visit u-pick orchards and fruit stands selling crisp apples and apple products, especially from September to mid-October, during the Julian apple harvest. Another local product is wine, and you can join in a grape stomp at Menghini Winery at the Julian Grape Stomp Festa in early September.
For a good leg-stretch, visit Volcan Mountain Preserve, trails lace native grasslands and oak woodlands. For a good heart-pumper, take the challenging hike to the summit of 6,512-foot/1,989-meter Cuyamaca Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, or take in panoramic views from the Desert View Trail in William Heise County Park.