JULIAN, CALIF. — Gold!
Those flecks, spotted in these hills above Julian in the winter of 1869, set off San Diego County's only gold rush -- and gave birth to the mining camp that is now this picturesque mountain town 145 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
Some of the 800 prospectors who flocked to the area struck it rich -- before the boom went bust seven years later, after producing about $2 million in gold ($150 million in today's dollars). Today, the Old West lives on in Julian, with its wooden sidewalks and 19th century brick and wood buildings.
Apples saved Julian from becoming a ghost town. The first trees were imported in the 1870s, and the area's rich soil and cold winters proved ideal for this crop. These days, apples attract thousands of visitors, many of whom come for fall's annual Apple Days Festival. (This year's two-month centennial event kicks off Sept. 15 and will include a bluegrass festival and banjo-picking contest on Sept. 19 and 20.)
But from June 19 to 21, the town will celebrate its real roots with the second-annual Julian Gold Rush Days.
An events schedule is available at the Chamber of Commerce or at shops of the sponsoring Julian Merchants Assn. Events include panning for gold and touring the now-dormant Eagle and High Peak Mines, where visitors can walk through a tunnel and learn how gold was extracted. ($10; kids under 12, $5). Other activities will include a scavenger hunt for gold nuggets (OK, rocks painted gold) and a "pole-out" ceremony marking the completion of a yearlong project to replace utility poles with something more rustic.
There will be living history demonstrations outside the Julian Pioneer Museum. And, as they do every Sunday, weather permitting, the Doves & Desperados will stage one of their silly skits complete with saloon girls, a sheriff and maybe a rubber duck falling from the sky. They're free, but a spittoon is set out for donations.
Walking off the calories from a slice of apple pie, the town's ubiquitous treat, is a good way to see Julian's compact historic center. On a recent weekend visit, I stopped first at the chamber in the 1914 town hall at Main and Washington streets to pick up a free guidebook.
I had to smile as I read, on a bulletin board outside, a copy of a newspaper notice posted in 1857 by Cockney Bill, a mountain man seeking a wife. He specified a woman "free from those extravagant notions and airs so peculiar to a large portion of females." Apparently he found one; within a month, he had wed a local belle.
The guide lists 30 historical sites, most identified with plaques. Among them: the two-cell 1914 jail, where prisoners "often involved with whiskey and/or fists" were held while awaiting trial, and the century-old Julian Gold Rush Hotel, where schoolmarms new to town once lodged.
At the Julian Drug Store & Miner's Diner, I stopped for a vanilla Coke at the old-fashioned soda fountain, which serves ice cream, shakes and malts. There's a collection of vintage artifacts such as Horlick's Malted Milk containers.
Next stop: the Julian Pioneer Museum, a former brewery that houses an eclectic collection that includes a shawl that belonged to American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, a horse-drawn buggy, rattlesnake skins, Indian baskets, a stuffed skunk, saddles, guns and a tin bathtub. There's a suggested $3 donation for admission.
Back on Main Street, I passed up the opportunity to pose in costume at Grandpa's Old Time Photo shop but did succumb to temptation (in the name of research, you understand) and ordered apple pie a la mode ($4.45) at Julian Pie Co.
Antiques shops abound in Julian and three miles west in Wynola. Stores and boutiques are local enterprises, and Julian has no fast food chains. There's the Cowgirl Cafe, which posts a sign, "Please Leave Buggies Outside." A cottage where miners -- who made only $3 for a 10-hour day -- could rent rooms for $6 a month is being reborn as Mustang Sally's resale shop. Julian Tea & Cottage Arts is a wonderland of all things tea, and the Birdwatcher sells all things avian -- except the wild birds -- as well as kites, garden flags and walking sticks.
There are five wineries, several stables and numerous art galleries in the area. The casino at Santa Ysabel, seven miles west, has live entertainment on weekends. Julian isn't much for night life, but sometimes there's live music on Saturdays at Bailey Woodpit Barbecue and in Wynola at the somewhat misnamed Wynola Pizza Express, which is so popular on Saturdays that I waited in line 30 minutes to place my order.
Julian Gold Rush Days
WHERE TO STAY
Orchard Hill Country Inn, 2502 Washington St.; (800) 716-7242, www.orchardhill.com. Lovely B&B with sophisticated country charm. Rooms with all amenities, 10 in the lodge, 12 in cottages. Dining room serves excellent prix-fixe dinner ($38) four nights a week. Rates begin at $195.
Julian Gold Rush Hotel, 2032 Main St.; (800) 734-5854, www.julianhotel.com. Small rooms and baths, but this historic B&B has a certain Victorian charm and ideal in-town location. Through Aug. 31, rates begin at $125.
WHERE TO EAT
Jeremy's on the Hill, 4354 Highway 78, Wynola; (760) 765-1587, www.jeremysonthehill.com. Young chef Jeremy Manley, who grew up in the area, is getting high marks for his California- French cuisine. Open daily for lunch and dinner except Wednesdays. Dinner entrees: $12 to $28.
Julian Grille, 2224 Main St., (760) 765-0173. Lunch daily, dinner nightly except Mondays in an inviting vintage cottage. Steak, seafood, pasta. Dinner entrees, $14 to $30.
TO LEARN MORE
Julian Chamber of Commerce, 2129 Main St.; (760) 765-1857, www.julianca.com.