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East County San Diego: Peddling for Apple Pie 

The desert spreads out thousands of feet below the Storm Canyon Overlook. Photo by Dan Shryock 

This article originally appeared in Cycle California! Magazine

By Dan Shryock

The idea of riding to Julian was appealingI’d driven the famous Sunrise Highway in San Diego’s east county but never ridden it. What could be better than pedaling 30 miles toward a slice of Julian’s famous apple pie? 

Julian, a high country town of less than 2,000 people, is famous for its dessertDecades ago, wwould drive up from our San Diego home to escape the city and enjoy a warm slice after a hike in the Cuyamaca mountains. 

Now Mark Oemcke, an old friend and lifelong San Diego County resident, was ready with a point-to-point route that would lead us along the Sunrise Highway from Interstate 8 north to Julian. The elevation chart clearly showed we would start with a 10-mile climb. Still, we were game. 

Halfway up the hill, however, I realized elevation gain would not be the problem. The higher altitude, thinner air than normal for me, and dry head winds would make this a challenge I would not soon forget. 

The Route 

The main feature of this ride is the Sunrise Highway itself. Popular among locals, the highway – also noted as S1 on the map –  snakes its way north up and across the Cleveland National Forest. Turnouts and marked vistas provide an expansive view east across and down into the Anza-Borrego desert. 

Drivers, both in cars and on motorcycles, also like the winding two-lane road. The area is a popular destination for off-road cycling as well. Despite the occasional traffic and off-and-on road shoulders, we never were concerned about safety. 

There’s no escaping the climbs. Heading north from Interstate 8, the ride starts at the 4,100-fooelevation mark and peaks at 5,900 feet 10 miles later. The road maintains a steady ramp with grades ranging from 4 to 7 percent.  

But the real villains here are the thin air and those parching winds. It didn’t long for us to reach for water to keep ourselves hydrated. 

The initial climb ends at the small village of Mount Laguna, an enclave – a general store, restaurant and cabins – that seemingly hasn’t changed in 50 years, Mark says. This should be a mandatory stop for every rider to refill water bottles. It’s the only water stop until Julian. 

The road from here makes a bumpy, very gradual descent to Julian.  

The day’s heaviest traffic arrives once the route turns from the Sunrise Highway north to Highway 79. There are still six miles to go, primarily downhill, and there’s enough road shoulder to provide some comfort as the occasional RV passes by. 

Along the Way 

The Cuyamaca mountain range forms the geographic wall between urban San Diego County and the eastern desert. This route, with its black and scrub oak, pine trees and vast stretches of manzanitais a classic San Diego mountain traverse, Mark says.  

He made sure we stopped at the Storm Canyon Overlook to fully appreciate the diverse landscapes. Standing on the wooden deck, we could look nearly straight down as much as 3,000 feet and get a wide view of the desert below. 

The area was ravaged in the devastating 2003 Cedar Fire that swept across San Diego County, burning 273,000-plus acres, destroying 2,700 structures and claiming 16 lives. Nearly 15 years later, concrete building foundations and monolithic stone chimneys are still visible along the road as stark reminders. 

The dry heat off the desert and Santa Ana winds that pushed that fire are still strong, making this a route best suited for spring when the meadows are greenwildflowers dominant the landscape and there are fewer cars on the road. 

The road across the wide-open wilderness descends toward Julian but not without a few rolling grades along the way. Each time you think the final grade is behind you, another appears in the distance. There’s no time to be complacent. 

“I enjoy climbing but my favorite part of this ride comes after topping out at Laguna,” Mark says. The descents are fast, long and stable, and the flat meadow miles are just a treat to ride through. We’ve even seen road runners trotting alongside cyclists. 

The adventurous can extend the ride by completing an out-and-back ride. The same road from Julian south includes 20 miles of rolling elevation gain to Mount Laguna and then a speedy 10-mile drop to the Interstate.  

Another option is to follow Highway 79 south past Lake Cuyamaca and through Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. The state park also provides camping for those wishing to spend more time in the area. Be advised, however, there will be more traffic near the lake and state park. 

“I have ridden both directions and prefer the approach to Julian,” Mark says. “You get the hard work done early. You can then ride down to Julian for that apple pie, good coffee and lunch spots to refuel.” 

Arriving in Julian 

Historic Julian is a busy place, especially on weekends. Its downtown, once the centerpiece of the 1870s gold rush, is now the hub for East County tourism. The trees brought in by gold rush pioneers now produce the city’s feature attraction – apple pie. 

The pie is easy to find. Once the bikes are racked and shoes are changed, stroll either side of Main Street and choose from several pie shops or an outdoor table in front of a downtown restaurant. Then savor the well-earned sweetness.     

Etc. … 

For more information on Julian, visit 


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