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Weekend Escape: Julian : Off-Season Apple Pie : A Spring Trip-- Sans Crowds--to a Mountain Town That Goes Wall-to-Wall in the Fall

April 10, 1994|PAT GERBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Gerber is a copy editor for the Orange County Edition of The Times

JULIAN, Calif. — The bull's-eye in the middle of our recent two-day trip was Julian, a mountain hamlet nestled at about 4,000 feet on the border of the gargantuan Cleveland National Forest in northeastern San Diego. My husband and I figured it would provide ideal R&R--it's relatively close to our south Orange County home, and not yet trendy enough to be expensive. Its apple-pie industry is a big draw in the fall, but I don't find elbowing through the multitudes for a slice a real tasty prospect, so we chose Julian's wildflower off-season.

We headed out on a weekend morning, chased by cumulus clouds left over from a heavy spring rain the day before. Ginger-hued poppies, wild mustard and purple ice plant lay like a continuous welcome mat along Interstate 5 as it cut through Camp Pendleton. Turning east on California 78 toward San Marcos, we watched ocean vistas give way to wide-mouthed lagoons and marshes, where spindly-legged white herons pecked around in the reeds for brunch. The freeway ended a few miles farther on at stoplights in Escondido, turning into a stop-and-go street bordered by vacated businesses and scruffy bars. Hmmm . . . could those "No Life East of I-5" bumper stickers be right?

Before I had time to despair, though, the road climbed over a set of hills. We gasped when we reached the crest. Stretched before us lay the San Pasqual Valley, a lush agricultural preserve of cultivated fields and orchards.

We stopped at the state-run history center just off the highway to stretch our legs, then continued on San Pasqual Valley Road past citrus orchards ripe with the heady perfume of orange blossoms and tangerines. The two-lane road led into Ramona, a town where the barbecue joints appear to have a monopoly on Main Street.

We ordered a sweet-spicy lunch of Cajun-style jambalaya and rice-pork sausage mixture from Cal Pickering's roadside cast-iron smoker (Road Kill Cafe--You Kill It, We Grill It!), then headed on out of town, through foothills that were dead ringers for the Mother Lode country outside of Sacramento. Change a few road signs and we could have been heading into Sonora or Angels Camp. Instead we pulled into Santa Ysabel, population about 450, set at the crossroads of California 78 and 79. Dudley's is the biggest game in town. Its appeal is that most basic of all foods, tasty bread. We bought two big, round loaves--raisin date nut and Danish apple nut seasoned with cinnamon--for less than $4.

Across the street and up the road, the Witch Creek Winery showroom holds tastings in a converted one-room cottage. Two dollars gets you five tipples, plus you get to keep the glass and knock a dollar off any bottle you buy. Rich Koziell, pouring enthusiastically and chatting amiably, conceded that his winery is a small operation, run out of a garage-size plant in Escondido. Try some of his Ramona Red, he suggested. "It has a back-country swagger."

Indeed it did. We bought a bottle and headed up the combined State 78 and 79 into Julian, arriving late afternoon. Clumps of daffodils and lilac bushes lined the road leading into Julian, whose old but neatly kept wooden buildings bear the faded colors of age. Some of the sidewalks on Main Street remain wood. Horses pulling open and fringe-topped carriages wait for the next load of tourists. The scene could pass for a movie about a prosperous Western gold-mining town, which it once was.

We checked into the Julian Hotel, a two-story brown structure that commands the corner of Main and B streets, and claims to be the oldest continuously running hotel in California. Proprietor-for-the-day Norm Rein greeted us in the burgundy-hued parlor and waited while we waffled for five minutes about switching our reservation from a somewhat dark 1920s-era room in the newer wing to one of the nine original rooms on the hotel's brighter upper floors in the main building. There, we also could use a big claw-foot tub. He even offered to lend me a guest bathrobe.

We chose the main building's Duke of Wellington Room, tiny and decorated in peach-pink wallpaper, but the room would have been more aptly named the Horatio Hornblower because it listed to starboard, as do many of the 100-year-old-plus buildings in Julian.

We quickly unpacked, changed into our running gear, then followed Norm's directions up Main Street and onto Farmers Road for a late-afternoon jog. The tourist traffic was fading as we headed toward the open country, passing clumps of daffodils in full bloom. The cultivated yellow flower is a tame contrast to its wilder cousins, the daisies, poppies and fiddle necks that abound this time of year. (This year's Julian Wildflower Festival is May 7-15; the Julian Art Show is May 7-30.)

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