Apple Picking, Star Gazing and Pie Grazing in Southern California

Genie Davis September 18, 2010 No Comments


Autumn – time for apple picking, cider drinking, and a bounty of multi-colored leaves. Even in Southern California.

While there are several options for apple picking within a few hours drive of Los Angeles, we like the Julian area, east of San Diego. We enjoy the dry gold and green pasturelands giving way to hillier and lusher territory between Temecula and Julian. We like the U-Pick-Em Orchards scattered around town, and the farm stands with pumpkins, jams, and of course, pies. Julian is justifiably famous for its pies.

Ready to stargaze in the clear Julian sky

Ready to stargaze in the clear Julian sky

We also like The Observer’s Inn, a wonderful small bed and breakfast, with its rooms located in a modern guest house just across the property from a private planetarium owned and operated by astronomer Michael Leigh and his wife Caroline. Families can rent the whole house which includes a living room, or fit snugly but comfortably in individual rooms, each with a star gazing, astronomical theme.

The planetarium, built by Michael himself, will be the heart of your visit. Every evening you’re invited to a private, entertaining star gazing experience. Children of all ages – and yes, even babes in arms, enjoy the clear night air and awe inspiring hour long tours of the heavens. The star gazing in this California high desert town is clear even to the naked eye – this is also the territory claimed by world famous Palomar Observatory – and Michael begins each evening’s “Sky Tour” with a laser pointer to show you some of the night sky – the blue Pleiades, the north star, the dippers, Venus – the planet of love.

Then step inside the open roofed observatory and relax into a comfortable sofa to listen to a brief and informative talk about the ever changing, magnificent sky. Your family will slip into a whole new world, spending gazing at a variety of planets, constellations and stars through three professional research grade telescopes that put you up close and personal with a dazzling universe of star clusters, nebulae, planets and galaxies, including some that are millions of light years distant and as old as prehistoric time. From the sparkling rings of Saturn to the wonderful spread of the milky way, you’ll marvel through your “Sky Tour.” The only way to describe the experience is – thrilling. Kind attention is paid to the smallest visitors, with step ladders at the ready to reach the telescopes, and simplified explanations of the starscape, gladly provided.

Heading to Julian - East of San Diego

Heading to Julian - East of San Diego

Afterwards, you’re just steps away from a good night’s sleep. And in the morning, beautifully presented fruits and pastries are served in the dining area of the guest house, family style. You can stroll the grounds and relax with the children in soothing hammocks strung amid the pines of the property, before setting off to explore the Julian area. Julian is located at about 4300 feet of altitude, and usually offers crisp, comfortable weather virtually year ‘round. The woods, valleys, and lakes of this region are delightful to hike and explore, and have many easy trails.

In town, you’ll find a collection of cute antique stores and shops and some of the best apple pie around at the Julian Pie Company. Maybe not the most nutritious lunch, but it sure tastes pretty good – apple cherry is a special treat topped with vanilla ice cream. Mom’s Pies always has a line out the door, and we like their berry mix cobbler.

The Eagle Mine Company offers a touristy walking tour of a gold mine and includes a few moments with lights extinguished in the total darkness of the tunnel. While the tour is brief and fascinating, the youngest might find the dark emersion a little scary, so know your audience!

You’ll find a variety of apple orchards in the area, and in the late summer through late fall you’ll find plenty of picking opportunities. Some trees are small, low to the ground and easy for the smallest hands to reach; others require the use of a ladder or fruit picking basket. Our kids always like to run around the orchard rows almost as much as they enjoy the process of picking. Julian has some special apples, particularly famous is the sweet Golden Delicious fruit. Make sure you bring some home.

Just outside of town, there’s more good eating in the form of a wide variety of breads – try the cheddar – baked fresh daily at Dudley’s. The fresh apple cider is yummy too. A loaf of cheese bread, a jug of cider and a picnic near Lake Henshaw – whose marshlands play host to a variety of waterfowl from startling white herons to more prosaic mallards. This is a good area to spot red and gold leaves; we’ve found the autumnal tree color abundant in this area. Or climb the twisting road to the top of Mt. Palomar, for a spectacular view of the patchwork valley below and another glimpse into the universe above us. Mt. Palomar is of course home to another Julian observatory, the world renowned research facility that provides astronomers with a road map to the skies. Here, inside an enormous, surreal white dome, a guided tour is offered twice a day to see the 200-inch Hale Telescope. Even if you skip the tour and just walk around the grounds, the enormous dome is a spectacular sight.

Amateur astronomers often abound around Mt. Palomar campgrounds and are able to give you an up close day time view of the sun through their carefully placed telescopes. They seem always eager to introduce young viewers to the wonders of the sky.

If you’re not still too stuffed on apple pie and cider, there’s another cafe named Mom’s, an old fashioned diner-style eatery at the foot of Mt. Palomar that will fill you up on hearty soups, salads and sandwiches.

In town, there’s the casual Romano’s Italian Restaurant, or the BBQ choices at Bailey’s. Both are child friendly, with kid’s menus and fast service.

Satiated, you’ll return for a second night of star gazing at Observer’s – enjoy your privileged glimpse at distant planets, count the shooting stars, and let your children see if they can actually meet the man in the moon.

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Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling.

Tags: Reviews, Travel Excursions

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