Posted by: GeekHiker | October 20, 2009

Happiest At 4,000 Feet – A Weekend of Desert and Dessert

When October rolled around when I was a kid, in addition to Halloween, there was the annual trip up to Apple Hill.

Located near Placerville, up in the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Sacramento, Apple Hill is an association of apple growers who banded together to promote their products.  The Parentage and I went up every year to pick up things like apple syrup (which, much as I love maple, will always be my favorite on waffles) and apple crisp.

My memories of the trips up there are pretty random, but always happy ones.

I remember stopping at Grandpa’s Cellar on a rainy day to pick up our annual supply of syrup (apple and apple-cinnamon, naturally).  While my parents chatted with the owners and bought gift baskets to be mailed to various relatives, I explored around outside.  The owners would later turn the area into a nature trail, but at the time the area surrounding the farm was untamed woods.  I ran around exploring, getting wet from the moisture dripping off the trees, having a fine time.

Or the trip stopping at Kids Inc. to have apple crisp on another cold rainy day.  At the time, Kids’ was just a small place: a small one-room shop heated by a pot-belly stove in the corner.  At the time, the kids were still kids, some around my age, who worked there, serving up tasty apple crisp with a scoop of cold vanilla ice cream.

I haven’t been to Apple Hill in a number of years and, in truth, I think I’d be a bit hesitant to go nowadays.  I know that it has changed and grown quite a bit since when I was a kid, the old business adage of “grow or die” being as true in small foothill communities as it is anywhere else.

Then again, change is a part of life, and the memories are still there, right?  Perhaps I should go again if I’m ever back in Northern California during the apple harvest.

* * *

Southern California has two well-known apple growing areas: Julian, in eastern San Diego county, and Oak Glen, near Redlands.  I’ve visited both over the last few years, sometimes with The Ex Girlfriend, sometimes with friends.

Last weekend I decided to do a loop trip, hitting both areas before returning to L.A.  It’s an idea I’ve been mulling over for years, so a few weeks ago I decided to go for it and made a camping reservation.  When the friend I invited couldn’t make it, I decided to just make it a solo trip and get out on the road on my own.

Saturday morning I packed the truck.  Sort’a.  In truth, it was more that I just threw all the camping stuff I have in the bed and tied it all down, figuring that if I just took all of it I’d have everything I needed (so much easier than backpacking!).  Then, a mixture of Neko Case and Tom Petty on the CD player, I hit the road.

I decided to take a round-about route to Julian, swinging through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park on my way.  I’d been curious about Anza-Borrego for some time, and over the years whenever I told someone that I hadn’t been their, the look on their faces was somewhere between shock and disbelief.

Apple Trip 01
Entrance to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Apple Trip 02
Descending San Diego County Road S-22 towards Borrego Springs

Due to my camping reservation, of course, I only had a couple of hours to spend in the park.  Still, it was enough time to get some lunch at a friendly diner in town (a little place I’d found online called Kendall’s Cafe, located at the back of The Mall Shopping Center), and then head up to the visitor center.

The Visitor Center is very nice, with exhibits covering the natural, geological, and cultural history of the area.  The building itself is also pretty cool, half-buried underground with natural vegetation across the surface of the roof.

Visitor Center Roof Panorama
Rooftop of the Visitor Center

Apple Trip 03
Entrance to the Visitor Center

After the Visitor Center, I headed east, turning off the blacktop, putting the truck in 4WD and heading up to Font’s Point.  4.1 slippery, sandy miles later I arrived at this view:

Apple Trip 04
Weathered rock in the Borrego Badlands

Font’s Point overlooks the Borrego Badlands, an area of uplifted rock that has been eroded down by the rare rains over the eons.

Biorrego Badlands Photomerge
Looking over the edge of the uplifted rock of the Borrego Badlands

Returning to the main road, I headed back across the park, picking up California Highway 78 and proceeding to follow the slowest truck in existence up the road.  In about 20 twisty, winding miles, the road ascends from near sea level to 4,000 feet.  Along the way, the trip travels from dry desert through scrub brush and, finally, into oak woodlands.

Julian is an old mining town that, after the strikes petered out, continued to grow as an agricultural community.  The area is primarily known for it’s apple orchards, and has grown into a definite tourist destination.  Of course, that also means that this time of year, the town is packed with tourists, mostly locals from the San Diego area.

I chose to just drive through town (all six blocks of it), turning left onto highway 78/79 a couple of miles before turning off and driving the 4 miles to my camping spot: William Heise County Park.  Set in an oak woodland, the park is a great car-camping spot, especially as most of the campground was spared from the Cedar Fire of 2003.  The sites are generally large, well spaced, with fire rings and picnic tables.  There are restrooms with flush toilets and coin operated showers as well.

Apple Trip 05
Evening light on the road to William Heise County Park

This being a lazy weekend, I set up camp, then headed back out to the highway and drove west to Wynola Pizza Express.  I picked up a pie to go, drove back to camp, and built up a fire.  Settling in, the sun went down, and I ate pizza.  Of course, by that point, the thin-crust pizza had gotten a bit cold, so I simply stuck a slice on my marshmallow fork and heated it over the fire.

It was a bit smokey tasting, sure, but at least now I can say I’ve roasted pizza over an open fire.  Really, how may people can make that claim?

The rest of the night was spent reading, keeping the fire going at an admirable height, and drinking hot chocolate.  The evening was perfect: cool without being cold, calm weather.

Sunday morning I awoke exceptionally well-rested.  The weather in the morning was just like the night before: cool but not cold, making it easy to crawl out of the sleeping bag and start the day.  I took a shower, packed the truck, and headed back into Julian.

Apple Trip 06
Morning light on the trees in the campground

Julian Main St
Main Street in Julian, CA

In town, I stopped at Mom’s Pie House to enjoy an early morning slice.  Whereas Saturday the line had been out the door and down the block when I drove by, I had the whole place to myself.

Well fed, I picked up a couple of bottles of apple syrup from a local store (Julian Cider Mill; no website) and headed back down the road to Santa Ysabel, picking up a frozen pie from Julian Pie Company (the original store is in Julian, but they grew so much they needed a larger facility in Santa Ysabel).  This pie will stay in my freezer until later in the winter, when the weather is cooler.  I should’a bought two, but at least I can get more online.

Santa Ysabel Valley Panorama
Santa Ysabel Valley

Heading north, I decided to skip the interstate and take the back roads, cruising through open country and Hemet, heading straight north for Oak Glen.  Oak Glen was unbelievably crowded, but I was in a pretty relaxed state by this point, so it didn’t bug me too much.  Nevertheless, I didn’t want to stay long.

So, after picking up a tri-tip sandwich at Riley’s at Los Rios Rancho, I drove down to Snow-Line Orchard, which makes great cider, and is the only place I know that makes raspberry cider.  I picked up three half-gallons (two of which will also be frozen for later enjoyment), struggled to get out of the parking lot (a narrow one way road largely blocked by a Hummer driver who clearly had no clue how to handle a vehicle that size), and headed downhill to I-10 for the westward journey back to L.A.

Oak Glen Cider Barn
Cider Barn at Snow-Line Orchard

* * *

The unexpected thing about this trip was that it allowed me to compare and contrast Julian and Oak Glen in a way that I hadn’t before.  Overall, I have to say that Julian was the better part of the trip.

Don’t get me wrong: Oak Glen has its charms and is well worth a visit.  I think the crowds at Oak Glen were mostly due to an airing of Huell Howser’s show on the area, which always puts the idea in the locals’ heads and off to the mountains they go, all on the same weekend.  Plus, Oak Glen is probably more like Apple Hill than Julian is.

The hard part about Oak Glen is that there are relatively few growers as compared to Apple Hill’s 30 or so.  Oak Glen also has, in some parts, a bit of a tourist-trap feel to it, especially in the area around Law’s Oak Glen Coffee Shop, which has a large area with games, arts & crafts booths, even a petting zoo.

Come to think of it, I think some farms at Apple Hill had that, but we simply never went there as a kid.

Still, raspberry cider…

Julian, on the other hand, was a town before it lured the tourists up to partake of its apples.  There’s some history there.  In addition, Julian has managed to maintain some of its small-town charm, if for no other reason than there’s no Thomas Kinkcade store.  Having traveled to a lot of small towns in California that live or die by their tourist trade, it always seems to go downhill when a Kinkade store moves in, in my humble opinion.

Julian, of course, has all the things you’d expect in a small, tourist town: antique stores, gunslingers walking the streets, bed & breakfasts.  Still, the people are friendly, the food is good, there’s a real feeling of a community there, and the nearby mine tour is pretty darn cool.  (I do have a couple of little tips, if you go.  Skip the Wolf Center tour; when The Ex Girlfriend and I went several years ago, the mostly-nocturnal wolves stayed out of sight in the shade.  Definitely do the mine tour, which is really cool.)

Would I enjoy Julian as much on just a day trip?  Maybe not, given the crowds I saw when I drove through town.  Still, if you can only get to one, I’d have to recommend Julian.

* * *

One thing I will say about this trip is how much I’m reminded that I like foothill country, both in Northern and Southern California.

4,000 feet is where you get distinct seasons, with warm summers and cool winters, but it’s mostly below the snow line.  As a result, you don’t spend all winter shoveling snow, nor all summer in blistering heat.  There are seasons, without the extremes of the High Sierras or the lowland valleys.

And without bloody June Gloom.

* * *

In the end, I think the biggest difference between Oak Glen and Julian might just come down to one word: pie.

Apple Pie.

See, in Oak Glen, they prefer a high-domed apple pie: maybe an inch around the edge, but rising to 2-3 inches thick in the middle.  In Julian, the pies are level: even all the way across the top of the pie.

Why is the difference important?  The high domed pies never seem to cook up right to me, especially when I take them home.  The center never quite cooks through; the outside can get downright burnt in an effort to cook the center.

The flat-topped pie cooks up perfectly.

Maybe it’s a small thing, and maybe it makes me picky about my pie.

So be it.

‘Cuz a perfect, warm slice of Dutch Apple?  The slice where the apples are so tender they practically melt in your mouth?  Where the topping is slightly crispy, mixing with the sauce and the apples?  Maybe even sitting next to a small scoop of cold vanilla ice cream?

I doubt I need to say more, because that’s pretty darn hard to beat.



  1. Neko Case and Tom Petty? Fine road trip tunes!! Another excellent report! Wrong time to read this post at midnight — now I want a slice of apple pie!

  2. Ah, I went camping in Anza-Borrego a couple years ago (along w/Joshua Tree). I don’t remember those badlands, but I may have been in another area of the park. We were there when the desert flowers were blooming, it was quite lovely.

    Uggh, Thomas Kincade gets a major thumbs down from me.

    Sounds like a nice little road trip, I love apple orchards and small, albeit touristy, towns.

  3. I’m not a huge pie fan, but fire-warmed pizza and apple syrup sound divine! Great pictures. Mr. W and I were talking about trying to go out to Julian one of these days – glad to know it’s the better destination of the two.

  4. Pie road trip… I make a trip up the coast to Cambria every year for Olallieberry Pie and syrup….

  5. So that post right there is on the list for when the fam hits Cali. Sounds awesome, and I only like lemon merignue pie!!

    Oh and i too have done a pizza warm up over the fire. Best day two breakfast on the trail ever. 🙂

  6. I would recommend a pie crust shield the next time you put a dome shaped pie in the oven, it’ll keep the edges from burning while the middle cooks.

    It sounds like a wonderful trip. Apple syrup and raspberry cider are two new things to me! My dad would really like to try those I bet. I also really liked the picture of the morning light on the trees.

  7. The pictures of the Borrego Badlands reminds me of the hills around Nazca in Peru. Awesome pictures.

    I;m not much of a pie fan but my mouth is watering. Go figure.

  8. K – LOL, time to hit the 24-hour restaurant for slice!

    S’Dizzle – Well, it is the biggest CA State Park. 🙂 I’m hoping to get out there in the spring at some point myself. As for the towns, well, they have to do what they have to do to survive, right?

    Mel Heth – It is a good destination, probably better as a romantic trip, actually.

    Jean – I’ll have to go up and try that at some point…

    Cmacc – Let me know when you’re here, and I’ll join you! So cool I’m not alone on the fire-roasted pizza.

    MissMcCracken – I suppose I could try that, but I think I’ll still like flat pie. You should try both! And thanks for the compliment.

    Homer-Dog – Well I guess now I have to go to Peru. And how can you not like pie?!?

  9. I dig badlands. I’ve only ever been to the ones in N Dakota, and even tho’ they’re not that big, they’re still old and ominous and inviting and utterly their own.

    I miss that sense of a land utterly its own. I do love NYC, but it’s clear this joint is all about us.

    As for the touristy apple places: be glad for the tourists (gasp! can’t believe I said that!) because they’re probably helping to keep those stores in business. The apple orchard I went to as a kid (hay rides, pick-yer-own options, frozen cider on a stick) went bust some years ago. They’re relatively close to a tourist draw, and should have been able to siphon off some of those visitors.

    Didn’t happen, tho’. Too bad.

  10. AbsurdBeats – I like badlands to visit, but I definitely wouldn’t be happy living in Borrego Springs. I think I like trees too much!

    As for the tourists, I think I hinted in the post that reality is what it is. Still, I’m happy that a town like Julian hasn’t completely succumbed to the stereotypical “tourist trap”, but retains it’s own character as a home for its permanent residents. 🙂

  11. hey gh, this is what ran through my head while reading this:
    1. – how cute that he was a gh-in-the-making as a kid
    2. – apple syrup…mmmm
    3. – these badlands are soooo cool. reminds me of when iwas in the dakota badlands
    4. – pie…mmmm
    5. – cider…mmmm
    6. – damn, i am hungry

  12. apple syrup? I grew up in WA, self-proclaimed apple capital, but have never heard of this.

    Is it like apple butter? Do tell!

    PS. If you precook the apples, they shouldn’t be raw in the middle. I recommend any of the America’s Test kitchen cookbooks; they’re particularly anal about testing recipes and then *telling* why a technique is important. Perfect for geeky types.

  13. MAYBE sitting next to ice cream? MAYBE?!?!?

    OF COURSE it’s sitting next to ice cream…that ensures that (a)there is ice cream available for eating and (b)the ice cream doesn’t get too close to the warm apple-y good ness and melt all over the plate.

    Sheesh. It’s only 7:30 in the a.m. but now I want some pie.

    WITH ice cream.


  14. […] it seems. Rockgrrl is getting ready to lead a climbing expedition to Joshua Tree, GeekHiker did a bit of exploring around Anza-Borrego (and got his fall-fix at Julian and Oak Glen), and 100 Peaks has been enjoying […]

  15. Great post! Looks like a fun trip. I’ve been wanting to go down to that area all year.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: