Julian, California is only a three-hour drive from the SoCal urban sprawl that's home to millions, but it's a whole different world once you get there. McDonald's is nowhere to be found. You won't find a mall. The one chain eatery that was there, Subway, has disappeared and has been replaced by a local purveyor of down-home cooking. Antique agricultural equipment, both the rustic and the rusty, adorns front yards and street corners. The agricultural implements on display share equally with multi-ton mining machinery in Julian's past and present.
Originally settled by southerners, both black and white, in the years following the U.S. Civil War, Julian was named after one of the town's original citizens, Mike Julian. The town bears Julian's name, but it was A. E. "Fred" Coleman, a former slave, who discovered the gold that put Julian on the map.
In 1869 Coleman, a ranch hand, was watering his horse in a creek when he saw shiny flecks in the water. Since he'd worked in the gold fields in northern California, he recognized the gold flakes for what they were, drew a skillet out of his pack, and began panning for gold. Coleman wasn't much for keeping secrets, and the word got out about Coleman's gold discovery. The rush was on.
The original gold rush was for placer gold. Placer gold is 'free' gold found by itself in rivers and streams in the form of dust, flakes, or nuggets. Eventually, the placer gold was diminished, and the hard-rock source of the gold was sought out. Hard-rock mines sprouted up around Julian, bringing industry and income to the town. A total of 39 mines were dug into the mountainsides near Julian. The Stonewall Mine, named after Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, was the richest gold producer of the group. During its operating years the Stonewall Mine produced a total of two million dollars' worth of gold.
In the thick of the mining era people began to recognize that the Julian area was also ideal for apple orchards. James Madison, originally from New York, arrived in 1867 and is credited with bringing the first wagonload of apple trees from central California to the Julian area. While mining was a boom-and-bust business, apple orchards were steady producers that catered to a growing demand.
The apple orchards saved the town. Most of the former mining towns in the western United States are shadows of their former selves. They're ghost towns. In contrast with the still-thriving apple orchards, mining ceased in the Julian area before WWII broke out. Today, Julian is home to about 300 full and part-time residents.
What does Julian have to do with trail riding and off-road adventuring? Proximity. Julian sits on the rim of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and rubs up against the Cleveland National Forest. Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area, on the eastern edge of Anza-Borrego, is also close by. With several hotels, bed-and-breakfast inns, and campgrounds to choose from, Julian makes a great base camp for adventure trips.
During this trip to Julian, we left our transfer case in 2WD and toured the town itself. At 4,000 feet, Julian gets chilly in the winter and remains pleasant in the summer. The main street is lined with shops and eateries. A few blocks away, there's a gold mine offering tours and gold panning lessons. Despite the winter date on the calendar, we timed our visit with a mid-winter heat wave and were rewarded with spring-like weather. We found plenty of cool stuff to see, do, and sample in town. We'll mix in a trail or two on our next visit.
If you're feeling overly urbanized in So Cal, or you're feeling nostalgic, take the three-hour drive to Julian. It's the quickest way to travel back in time. For more information, visit www.julianca.com