Julian, California: The Wild West is Closer Than You Think

This is a guest post by Susan Guillory of The Unexplorer.

Living in San Diego, I’m accustomed to vegan organic food, people of every ethnicity and orientation, and hipster craft beer. But just an hour to the northeast of America’s finest city, I step back 100 or more years to the historic town of Julian, California. Cowboys sit in the shade on general store porches at this official California Historical Landmark. Business owners who run antique stores (that don’t charge an arm and a leg just because they can) also sell their goats’ milk and eggs. And the old-fashioned candy store is a throwback to sweets from the past.

Welcome to Julian, population 1,500, at last count.

Certainly the appeal for visitors to this town is its old-schoolness.  Founded in around 1850, Julian was a part of that California gold rush you read about in your fifth grade history book. But while the masses desperately mined for gold that quickly dwindled after a decade, a smart man began planting apple trees in the hills. The gold is long gone (though you can get a taste for it during Gold Rush Days every April), but the apples remain. Julian is the place to go for amazing apple pie, cider, and other apple confections.

Ambling Through the Historic District

Julian Cafe & Bakery

You won’t find many shops selling tacky signs appealing to wine lovers or gag gifts. Main Street only consists of three blocks of shops, restaurants, and offices, but it’s good fun. The buildings look straight out of a Western, and locals like it that way.

When I visit, I love Warm Hearth, which has room after room of local gifts, clothing, and even garden decor. There are other clothing stores, bookshops, and antique stores to keep you occupied. Take note: this Southern California town isn’t serious about opening early or even opening on a consistent basis. We were sad that Julian Book House was closed on a recent visit.

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Warm Hearth Julian

Whether you’ve got kids with you or not, be sure to climb upstairs to Julian Candy Basket. Every candy you remember from your youth (no matter how old you are) will beckon to you from the baskets that line the shop. There’s even fun soda in the cooler and a bottle opener on the wall.

In Nearby Wynola…

Wynola Antiques

Just a five-minute drive from downtown Julian is the next town, Wynola. It’s worth a visit, too, if only for an hour well spent in Wynola Junction Antiques & Collectibles. If you’re like me, you’ll wander around, marveling at all the antiques you recognize, that your own mother has in her house. I recently picked up a few vintage bar glasses and a cute iron mermaid (not an antique), and could have spent an entire day browsing the selection.

A nice touch: owner Tracy Turner has goats at home, which means, if you’re lucky, she might be selling goat milk far below grocery store prices when you visit. She’s also got fresh eggs and produce from her garden for sale.

And if you are still hungry, cross the street to Wynola Pizza and Bistro for a simple but delectable salad or pizza. It’s a local favorite.

Craving Apple Treats? So Many Choices

Julian Apple Pie Co

As I said, Julian is known for its apple delicacies. Each September, the town comes alive, and Southern Californians flock in for Apple Days, a two-day festival celebrating its popular crop.

But the rest of the year, you can enjoy all manner of treats all around town. I love the hot caramel apple cider at Julian Cafe and Bakery. It’s also an excellent place to get a no-frills, hearty breakfast at an eye-poppingly low price.

Ask any local what the best pie in town is, and you’ll get a different answer. Mom’s Pies is great, but Julian Pie Company is my go-to, primarily because I can also buy the pies at the grocery stores in San Diego. Honestly, you can’t go wrong, as long as Julian apples are the main star.

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Julian may not be on the cutting edge of the latest sustainable food trend or even have reliable internet. It is, after all, still wild. This is the note on the Apple Days page of the city’s website:

We will have an ATM App at the event to disburse cash – However, it is the mountains. It can be slow  & temperamental. We recommend bringing cash to the event. 

Frankly, I love that there’s still a part of the country that refuses to be tame, where one can’t rely on an ATM machine working. It makes me feel like the Wild West hasn’t been completely gentrified. Whenever I want to escape San Diego, I head to the refuge that is Julian.