Pick your own adventure

Apple season beckons tourists and farm enthusiasts alike to Apple Hill

Apple-cider doughnuts at Apple Hill are worth battling crowds, traffic and serpentine lines.

Apple-cider doughnuts at Apple Hill are worth battling crowds, traffic and serpentine lines.


A longer version of this story is published on Kat Kerlin’s blog, Farmophile, at http://farmophile.wordpress.com.

Fall brings with it soft shadows, autumnal glows—and a weirdly powerful urge to pick apples. With the mecca of all apple picking a little more than an hour’s drive away, my family and I took an early October trip to Apple Hill.

It should be clear that Apple Hill is a region, not one particular orchard, as some mistakenly think. It’s a loop of you-pick farms, pumpkin patches, bakeries and wineries along a two-lane highway in the Sierra foothills of Placerville and Camino.

Think Napa, but substitute apples with wine and corn dogs with bacon-wrapped rabbit roulade. OK, so maybe it’s less Napa and more county fair. But it is a place where something grows extremely well, and visitors are encouraged to see it, pick it and enjoy it in all forms—be it fried and frittered, coated in caramel and stuck on a stick, or tossed in sugar and enveloped in a pie crust.

It’s easy to get sucked into the commercialized aspects of Apple Hill. The Apple Hill Growers Association and several visitors before us have sung its praises as a place where apple-cider doughnuts and apple milkshakes are worth the battle of traffic, crowds and serpentine lines.

The traffic and crowds weren’t actually too bad. Arriving around noon, we started our visit at Rainbow Orchards and walked past families beginning their picnics on benches under some apple trees. Then, we shot straight past a wagon full of pumpkins and gourds, around bins of apples, and lined up for the fabled cider doughnuts ($1 each). They came out hot and sweet, with a slight crunch on the outside. I’d like to say I noticed a special, cider tang in them, but I didn’t. They were good little doughnuts all the same.

We were all hungry. While apples are in no short supply, it’s slightly harder for new visitors to discern the best places to eat “real” food. (One cannot live on apple crisp alone.) I had heard Boa Vista Orchards served lunch, so we headed there next.

After that, we’d saved the best for last: apple picking.

There are several you-pick farms at Apple Hill, though I’ve heard there are fewer than in years past. I was looking for a laid-back, organic spot, and Willow Pond Organic Farm fit the bill.

After pulling into this farm, where children were eating apples in the shade next to a pond, I wished we’d just brought a picnic lunch and headed straight here.

A small farm stand welcomed us at the entrance. Dried sunflowers in the fields stood behind late-summer crops, and zinnias lined vegetable plots. We grabbed some green baskets and followed the signs to the you-pick apples.

These farm trips always come with a lesson in preconceived notions: My sister had her heart set on picking red apples. But most of the reds were covered with black spots and blemishes—a visual assurance of the organic methods used on this farm: no pesticides here. The reds still tasted pretty good, but the yellow apples fared far better. And at $1 per pound for organic apples, we couldn’t complain about either variety.

As I walked between the rows of trees, a tension, which I hadn’t realized was there all day, was released as I searched for some good apples. The sun glinted gold across the leaves. I tossed an apple high up into a tree in a failed attempt to knock loose the bigger apples clustered at the top. I threw my hair back, opened my chest and let in the day. This was what I’d come for.

All of the little markets and bakeries, with their value-added products, pony rides and fresh-pressed cider, help support a rather charming local industry here. But I hope Apple Hill will always be a place where we can walk into an orchard, reach up into an apple tree and fill our baskets.