In recent decades, Julian, California, has been primarily known for its apples and various apple products like pies and cider. Historically, gold was discovered nearby in 1870, and it became a boomtown/tent city of aspiring gold rush miners.
Today, whether you’re making a day trip from San Diego or plan to stay longer, what to do in Julian includes more than just old gold mines and apple orchards, but both remain a central focus. In fact, the mountain town is even a California Historical Landmark.
I’ve put together the top things to do in Julian, CA, including hotel suggestions and how to get there. In today’s changing times, you’ll need to check to see what’s available and operating during your visit before you go.
15 Best Things to Do in Julian, California
Whether you’re a first time or repeat visitor, these are the most popular activities. Some of them, like glorious apple pie, never get old. You’ll notice things to do mostly center around conservation, outdoor activities, food, and enjoying small-town charm.
1. Tour a Julian Gold Mine
Several companies offer gold mining tours so that guests can learn more about San Diego’s only gold rush. This is such a unique thing to do, making it one of my favorite Julian activities.
Julian Mining Company
For those who want a taste of gold mining without the commitment of an extended tour, the Julian Mining Company, located just a mile or so from downtown Julian, offers gold panning (very popular with kids) alongside some edutainment about the local mining history.
WHAT IS GOLD PANNING?Gold panning is the process of separating real pieces of gold from dirt, minerals, and other deposits using a pan and water. At the Julian mines, you’ll typically receive a lesson and be able to take a small vial of panned gold home with you.
Eagle and High Peak Mine
Eagle and High Peak Mine offers one-hour tours of what it was like inside an 1870s gold mine. Guests wind their way through the old mine tunnels and can also pan for gold.
2. Go Apple Picking in Julian, California
Apple picking in Julian, California, is incredibly popular. There are several u-pick apple orchards in the area. Julian apple picking season happens in the fall, and all ages love it. It’s a romantic thing to do with your partner and cheerful fun with your kids.
Orchards provide bags or baskets to fill and poles to grab apples with from off of the apple trees. You can even pick pears here, especially at pet-friendly O’Dell’s Organic Orchard. The largest orchard is Volcan Valley Apple Farm.
It is always best to check which orchards are still open for a u-pick adventure at the time of your visit since harvests vary.
WHY ARE THERE APPLES IN JULIAN?Long story short, a rancher named James Madison is credited for bringing apple trees from San Bernadino to San Diego in the 1870s. The trees did not thrive along the coast, but they did in the mountain climate of Julian. Apples were shipped around the United States and have won prestigious awards at places like the San Francisco World’s Fair of 1915.
3. Eat Apple Pie
If there’s one thing to eat in Julian, please make it apple pie. It’s extraordinary and the Julian restaurants excel at this craft.
Julian Pie Company is the most popular. It’s possible to buy pie by the slice (with toppers such as ice cream or even melted cheddar cheese), whole pies, or pies to bake at home. Their little Main Street cafe offers good coffee, jugs of apple cider, and a lovely little patio area to sit in.
The other popular spot is Mom’s Pie House, also located on Main Street. They have another location in Wynola on the way to Julian where you can even take a baking class to learn how a perfect apple (and other) pie is made.
4. Drink Apple Cider
Apple cider is also available at many Julian restaurants in regular and hard form. A visit to the Julian Cider Mill, family-owned and operated for over 30 years, may give you more insight into the process and the final product. During apple season, they’ll press cider on an antique press in view of visitors.
Head 4 miles west of Main Street and you’ll land at Julian Hard Cider‘s Miner’s Saloon, located in an old apple packing facility. Here, it’s possible to sample their award-winning hard ciders made from Julian apples (though you can find their suds all over Julian and elsewhere in San Diego).
5. Sip Apple Wine and Other Reds at Julian Wineries
In recent years, Julian has also received attention for the number of well-regarded wineries in the area. Popular San Diego wineries like Orfila and Witch Creek Winery have wine tasting rooms on Main Street.
San Diego wineries like Volcan Mountain Winery, located about 2 miles from downtown Julian, have vineyards with cozy tasting rooms on property. You’ll find the Dolcezza apple wine here which I tasted when the winery was under previous ownership. Despite Dolcezza meaning “sweet” or “sweetness” in Italian, to me, it tastes more like a Sauvignon Blanc with hints of apple.
The wine is made from 100% mixed variety apples grown at the winery. A visit here is also a fun thing to do in Julian with dogs as this winery is pet-friendly.
Menghini Winery is another small production Julian winery with vineyards and apple orchards also at the base of Volcan Mountain. They produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah. Visitors are welcome to bring their own lunch.
6. Explore Downtown Julian
The commercial/business part of downtown Julian is actually tiny. It’s really mostly a single street (the aptly-named Main Street) of several blocks. It’s very picturesque and has a bit of an Old West look and feel.
In keeping with this mining town spirit, you may see people riding in a horse-drawn carriage tour by the Julian Carriage Company, a popular thing to do here.
Tourists enjoy shopping for antiques, crafts, yarn, hand-knit accessories, and specialty foods on Main Street in a small-town atmosphere.
You can stop into the Julian Town Hall & Visitor Center (home also to the Julian Chamber of Commerce) for information and to pick up a map or ask any tourism-related questions about things to do. They also have a fun self-guided walking tour of historic sites that is easy to take.
GRAB LUNCH TO-GOThe Julian Market and Deli are popular for those who may want a picnic lunch to take to a campground, hiking or elsewhere.
7. Have a Charming Afternoon Tea
Julian Tea & Cottage Arts is a tea shop and salon inside of the former home of gold miner Clarence King that was built in 1898.
Do stop in for a proper English tea set complete with scones and finger sandwiches (they also have a fun children’s tea set). The curried chicken salad sandwich is outstanding. My daughter and her friends raved about it during a tea service and were given the recipe. That’s the kind of intimate place this is.
8. Grab a Soda from an Olde-Fashioned Fountain
Here’s another popular place in Julian for kids. Craving a hand-mixed milkshake or burger? Then head to Miner’s Diner and Soda Fountain for classic treats and eats. This 50’s diner has a history dating back to 1885 as it has over time been a general mercantile store, pharmacy, cafe, and gift shop.
The highlight though is the olde-fashioned soda fountain with menu delights such as Tiger’s Blood, strawberry, root beer, and chocolate. Oh, and they also have a little candy mine where kids can go mining for candy that’s always a hit.
9. Go Hiking in Julian, CA
There are dozens of hiking trails in and around Julian for all levels. Most are okay for leashed dogs. If you’re interested in the Californian wilderness, head just out of town on one of these popular trails.
Volcan Mountain Trail
Looking for gorgeous views over the rolling hills to the distant ocean? The Volcan Mountain Trail inside Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve is a moderate out and back hike with picturesque scenery.
It’s the most popular hike in the area, so don’t expect to be the only ones there. If you’re in Julian during wildflower season, it’s even more spectacular.
Sunset Trail and Big Laguna Lake
This beautiful hiking trail is best between April and September, when the lake is at its fullest. It’s also a great running trail, with minimal elevation gain and a comfortable distance of 4.2 miles.
Five Oaks Trail
Another fantastic hike in the Volcan Mountain Reserve is the Five Oaks Trail. It’s shorter than the Volcan Mountain Trail, and very popular among bird-watchers.
See also: The 30 Best San Diego Hikes
10. Learn History at the Julian Pioneer Museum
If you’re interested in American history and want to understand this mountain town’s rich background better, don’t miss out on the Julian Pioneer Museum.
Located in an 1800s blacksmith shop, the little museum covers the Native American villages in the area to the frenzied activity of the Gold Rush. There are quite a few artifacts to see and enjoy here.
11. Stop into Oasis Camel Dairy for Soap & Camel Encounters
As one nears Julian town on Highway 78, you’ll see an increasing number of cattle ranches, horses, and other animals in fields beside the roads. One of the most notable is the Oasis Camel Dairy, which makes and sells camel milk soap, lotions, and chocolate. They also offer tours.
So, if you’re looking for one of the most unusual Julian things to do, how often do you get to tour a camel dairy? And, truly, their silky smooth soaps make fantastic gifts. Check their website for opening times.
12. Visit the California Wolf Center
The California Wolf Center is a rehabilitation center for wolves. The center emphasizes public outreach to increase awareness of these beautiful animals, reduce wolf-livestock conflict, and promote wolf recovery in California.
This endangered species has been absent in the wild in California since 1924 until recently, thanks to the center’s efforts. The center is home to several packs of grey wolves and offers public and private tours. Reservations are required to visit.
13. Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and Lake Activities
While small, Julian is a brilliant base for an incredible amount of nature experiences. This gorgeous park is open to camping, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and a lot more thanks to the terrain provided by the Cuyamaca Mountains.
Explore meadows and creeks, and bring a picnic to enjoy on Lake Cuyamaca banks, which is also a popular fishing spot.
14. See the Milky Way in a Dark Sky Community
Julian carries an official Dark Sky Community designation which means that measures are taken to avoid light pollution at night. What this also means is that it’s one of less than 1% of communities that can actually still see the Milky Way.
If you have an interest in astrology, it would be worth planning an overnight stay to coincide with one of the many fun and educational Dark Sky related events throughout the year.
15. Attend Seasonal Events Like the Apple Festival
The single event Julian is most known for is the annual Julian Apple Days festival, held around late September each year. It’s a celebration of all things apple including a pie contest, crafts, multiple food vendors, and much more family fun. And, because it’s fall, you’ll have one of the only opportunities to peep fall foliage in San Diego County on the gorgeous mountain trees.
It’s also a popular destination during the holidays for tourists to see a wintry, old-time Christmas at the Julian Country Christmas with sleigh rides, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Santa, and more old-fashioned fun. These are the single two most crowded times of the year to visit the tiny town of Julian, CA (population 1,500).
Where to Stay in Julian
While Julian is a fairly easy day trip from San Diego and Orange County, many choose it for an overnight getaway. Camping is incredibly popular, so it requires advanced reservations. But, don’t forget you can also opt for charming inns, hotels, and lodges.
Camping in Julian
While there are a number of places to go camping in Julian, William Heise County Park is among the most convenient campgrounds. It’s about a 10-minute drive from the stores and eateries on Main Street. It’s a lovely state park with various camping (tent, camper, group tent, cabins) and hiking opportunities.
The cabins are simple but clean with wooden bunk beds (bring your own sleeping bag and pad), small table and chairs, a propane-fueled faux fireplace, electrical outlets and lights. Each cabin also has its own fire ring and picnic table outside, too. Book as far in advance as possible. The cost of our most recent cabin was about $65/night.
Hotels, Lodges, and Inns
You won’t find any big hotels in Julian. If you’re spending the night, accommodations are cozy, comfortable, and mostly family-owned — perfect for mountain getaways. I help people plan vacations to San Diego so may be compensated if you book tickets, tours, and hotels through the links below.
Julian Gold Rush Hotel
Step back in time, to the gold rush heyday of Julian. This charming inn is an 1890s historic hotel, with old-world decor and wonderful service. If you’re looking for accommodation that is an experience in itself, this hotel is the perfect place for you. The location is also ideal, a quick walk from the Julian Mining Company. It’s also the oldest hotel in Southern California. Check availability.
Wikiup Bed and Breakfast
If you prefer to have your own space while traveling, this lovely little B&B offers individual units. Each has its own kitchenette, balcony, and private bathroom. They’re totally self-contained, but if you’d prefer a little company, take a stroll through the garden or kick off a conversation in the shared lounge. Check availability.
Tucker Peak Lodge
Head just a little way out of town for spacious wood-floored rooms at this elegant lodge. You’ll enjoy mountain views and your own fireplace in your room, so you’re guaranteed a snug stay. The lodge also has games and a library to keep everyone entertained, even on a rainy day. Check availability.
Plan Your Trip: Directions, Weather, & Tours
Before you drive from San Diego to Julian, you should know a few things because the mining town is at a higher elevation than the city, and you aren’t traveling straight on major highways to get there.
Julian, California Weather
Julian, California weather is quite different than most parts of San Diego County. At an altitude of over 4000 feet above sea level, it actually does snow there lightly in winter. Temperatures also reach higher highs and lower lows than they do in the coastal regions.
It’s important to check the weather before heading there but note that it’s advisable to wear layers if spending a full day in Julian. Even if it’s warm during the day, it can be quite chilly in the evening.
How to Get to Julian San Diego
Depending on where you are in the San Diego area, the picturesque town of Julian, Ca can be a 1–1.5-hour drive north and east into the mountains, mostly on Highway 78. It is a gorgeous, but winding two-lane road so be sure to take measures if prone to car sickness.
The last significant town you’ll pass on the way there is Ramona. There are several gas stations and other stores, chain fast food restaurants (and other sit down restaurants) like Rubio’s and McDonald’s here in case you may want to make a strategic stop on the way to Julian.
If you’ve passed Ramona but still want to stop before arriving in Julian, Dudley’s Bakery on Highway 78 in Santa Ysabel has been a famous local institution for over 30 years. It’s about a half-hour or so before downtown Julian. Note that the parking lot there can get very crowded on weekends.
Bringing Your Dog
Your dog is very welcome to accompany you on a day trip to Julian. Most restaurants with patio dining will accommodate dogs as do some orchards, hiking trails, shops, wineries and breweries. Check the list of dog-friendly places to go.
If pressed for time, a common way to experience Julian and other gorgeous mountain spots in San Diego is via a full-day tour. This small tour can take you through Julian, on small hikes in Anza-Borrego State Park, and elsewhere complete with insider tips from a local.
One day may not be quite enough to experience the full beauty of the area, but you’ll see some highlights.
What are your favorite things to do in Julian, California?