One of the best places to go camping in Julian is William Heise County Park, just a 5-minute drive from the historic downtown area. It’s the perfect road trip from San Diego and opportunity to totally unplug.
Our most recent trip included several families and I can’t tell you how nice it was to watch the kids pick up sticks, collect acorns and play like we did well before technology and fancy toys while the adults chatted around the fire pit.
A Bit of History…
The indigenous Kumeyaay people were the first humans to live in the area. A few indicators of their presence still remain in the park, including bowl-like holes bored into rocks that they used for grinding. Gold was discovered in Julian in 1870 and two gold mines were on what is today the park’s property.
William Heise County Park is actually named after an inventor of ambulance equipment who purchased the land and its sealed mines in 1941. In 1967 he sold his 134-acre plot to the County of San Diego for $67,000. The park opened to the public in 1970.
As noted at the start, downtown Julian is just a couple of miles away. The smallish, tourist-oriented downtown features original storefronts from the Gold Rush era, as well antique shops and other historic attractions. Julian is, of course, famous for apples and delicious apple pies (you must eat at least a slice).
See also: What to Do in Julian, California
Tents, Cabins and More for Camping in Julian
While you can enter the park with a day use pass (parking for day use is $3), do stay overnight if you can. For overnight visitors, the park offers camping in 42 tent sites in addition to 20 partial hookup and 37 non-hookup sites for RVs, trailers, and tents.
There are also 14 wooden cabins for rent that come with propane heaters and indoor lighting. Each site includes a table, a fire ring, a tent or RV pad and a parking space. Water is available nearby. There are shaded picnic areas and benches located throughout the park to enjoy as well.
We chose, as did most of our group, one of the 14 wooden cabins. The park’s brochure states that each cabin can sleep six. In our case, this would have been an incredibly tight fit but there are definitely cabins that can handle six inside (and each cabin has a tent site). Take a look at the cabin layouts online as each is slightly different. Ours had two sets of bunk beds and a small table area in one room whereas other cabins have a master bedroom somewhat separated from a set of bunk beds and a small table area.
The bunk beds are frames only as no mattresses or bedding are included. We brought light sleeping bags and air mattresses and were very comfortable. We were also surprised and impressed by how clean and comfortable our cabin was. The propane heater (styled like a faux wood stove) kept the cabin very warm all night, even on a lower setting. And, our phones stayed charged thanks to electrical outlets inside.
Despite the cabins being described as wilderness cabins, they are actually all clustered among each other immediately adjacent to the paved road that runs in the middle of the center of the park, and just a few feet from a very clean communal bathroom. Other cabins are nearby. No pets are allowed in or around these cabins.
You can drive your car literally right up to your cabin and park it there, which we found very convenient. Several friends of ours rented other cabins the same weekend. Firewood may be purchased at the ranger station at the front entrance to the park. When we stayed there, it was $5 a bundle. Coin-operated showers (50 cents) are located on site as well. (The ranger station at the front entrance can provide change.)
We all gathered around one of the fire pits located in front of each cabin and enjoyed a simple dinner cooked over the fire in addition to breakfast the next morning.
Our cabin cost about $65 per night when we stayed. Reservations can be made by calling (858) 565-3600, or (877) 565-3600. I recommended that you do it in advance as all the cabins on our date sold out months prior.
Located in the Cuyamaca Mountain range 4,200 feet above sea level in a forest of pines and oaks, the centerpiece of the 1,000-acre-park is the 12 miles of multi-use, non-motorized trails. The Desert View Trail leads to a scenic overlook where, on a clear day, visitors may be treated to a panoramic view ranging from the Salton Sea to the east to the Pacific Ocean.
If you wish to go further, there is a connection to the 1.65-mile Canyon Oak Trail. The 5.75-mile Kelly Ditch Trail runs south to Lake Cuyamaca. In addition to hikers and biking, this trail allows equestrian use as well. The Fern Trail is a 0.5-mile connector of the Kelly Ditch that runs alongside Cedar Creek.
Wildlife Around the Campground
The park’s brochure (link to PDF online below) states that mule deer and flocks of Rio Grande turkeys are a common sight. We were warned about mountain lions, too, and the park’s brochure also warns of rattlesnakes. During our visit, we saw some deer and pretty birds but nothing else.
Speaking of birds, be sure to download the Birds of William Heise County Park Activity Kit before your trip so that you can identify the various types.
All plants, animals, natural features, and natural archaeological resources are fully protected features of the park, and may not be damaged, injured, or removed. It’s clear that they take good care of it and are diligent about poison oak removal as we saw none, though it’s out there.
Junior Ranger Program for Kids
The park also has its own Junior Ranger program where kids can fill out a series of fun worksheets and give it to a park ranger for certification. The kids will receive a certificate in the mail.
Tips for Camping at William Heise County Park
There is a 10:oo p.m. overnight noise curfew (that extends until 8:00 a.m) at the park that was obeyed by everyone, including the dozens of people camping nearby in other cabins or tents or RVs not with our group. This noise limit was unobtrusively enforced when we were there. At about 9 AM park rangers began unobtrusively, but noticeably, patrolling the camping area in trucks and on foot. But all of these tents and cabins are clustered together in a way that, when the park goes silent after 10:00 p.m., you can still hear the occasional laugh, cough or whatever in the distance. By 6:00 a.m., other campers were emerging from their cabins and tents and starting fires in their fire rings for breakfast.
When we were there, it was very much a family-friendly atmosphere with lots of kids. No one was rowdy.
The park’s website includes a useful brochure about the park including an easy-to-read map and the County of San Diego has put together the helpful video below.
Have you been camping at William Heise County Park in Julian?