A premature autumn color has spread across the hills and dales of Julian. The yellow leaves of black oaks are spinning to earth on warm September breezes. Crimson poison-oak leaves are brightening the banks of would-be streamlets. Clusters of pines on certain rocky, south-facing hillsides have turned a russet yellow under the desiccating sun.
The effects of the four-year drought are really coming to roost in these mountains. This is entirely natural: periodic droughts have been a normal part of Southern California's climate for millennia. If you can accept the ambiguity of crispy colors caused not by chilly nights, but by lack of water, don't wait too long to catch sight of it. A month from now, many of the deciduous trees may have lost their leaves entirely.
One of the best mountain haunts in the Julian area is William Heise County Park. This 311-acre park, which abuts the northern tip of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, covers one of the most beautiful and unspoiled pockets of undeveloped land around Julian. Its five miles of hiking trails, arranged in several loops, span an elevation range of 900 feet and pass through habitats ranging from shady oak and conifer forest to sunny, chaparral-clad ridges. About 10% of the park's area is devoted to impeccably maintained camping and picnic areas. These developed areas lie along the thickly wooded bottom lands of Cedar Creek, an upper tributary of the San Diego River.
The $1 entrance fee for picnicking and day-use at Heise Park has got to be one of the best recreational bargains in the county. The nightly camping fee, though, is a rather stiff $11. Despite the cost, the park's 103 family camping sites and additional group sites are often filled to capacity during the warmer part of the year. The family sites can be reserved 3 to 13 weeks in advance by calling County Parks, 565-3600.
Finding Heise Park is easy: From the Pine Hills Road turnoff one mile west of Julian, large signs direct you all the way to the park entrance. The free park map, obtained at the entrance station, accurately details every trail, road and parking space within the park's boundary.
If the day is warm, or if you have small kids, you will hardly go wrong by sticking to either the Cedar Trail or the self-guiding Nature Trail. Each of these trails loops through an agreeable mix of oaks, pines and incense cedars. Midday temperatures in these shady environs hover 10 to 15 degrees cooler than on the sunnier slopes above. Cedar Trail has a couple of steep spots; and you'll also want to be aware of the poison oak that grows along the trail in a few places.
If the day is cool, and especially if the air is very clear, I'd recommend the Canyon Oak and Desert View trails. Interconnecting trails between these two make possible loop hikes of two or three miles. On either trail, you climb up through the chaparral to reach points overlooking the forested hollows below. "Glen's View," the highest point on the Desert View Trail (as well as the highest elevation in the whole park--4,945 feet), overlooks Anza-Borrego Desert and the Salton Sea to the east.
If you want to really go places, Kelly Ditch Trail is the right ticket. Dedicated five years ago, this riding and hiking trail winds 5.5 miles between the edge of Cuyamaca Lake (just south of Engineers Road) and the entrance to Heise Park. If you walk it in a one-way direction, going south to north is preferred, since Heise Park is about 500 feet lower than Cuyamaca Lake. You'd need two cars for a car shuttle, or one car and one patient driver to drop you off at the start and pick you up later at the finish. With some dawdling along the way, the hike takes 3-4 hours. There's no water, so bring your own.
The first mile of Kelly Ditch Trail travels in, or on the rim of, the remnant Kelly Ditch, which was hewn by pick-and-shovel labor a century ago. Its purpose was to divert runoff from the south slope to North Peak into the then-new reservoir. About two miles into the hike you cross an open hillside, with clear-day views west to the ocean, and more optimistically to San Clemente Island 110 miles away. Later, you tread over the barely recognizable traces of a "skid road," where freshly cut logs were slid down off the mountain ridges to serve as lumber and fuel for the mines and boom towns of Julian's gold-rush era.