CAMINO — If you are looking for an excursion to enjoy fresh air and nature in a manner that COVID-19 protocols don’t really crimp the experience then take a bite out of Apple Hill’s wholesome offerings.
The popular collection of farms, real country bakeries, wineries, and even fudge shops in the Sierra foothills of El Dorado County is just entering the busy part of their season.
Given crowds don’t usually reach a crescendo until weekends in October when weekdays can also be busy, September is a prime time to enjoy Apple Hill offerings especially given the rules that are in place for the pandemic. There are the usual social distancing measures in place but there are expected to be additional ones when October rolls around due to the crowds. To really avoid the crowds weekdays are your best bet in September.
Most farms open around Labor Day.
Keep in mind the following COVID-19 measures are in place:
* Masks are required. Guests and employees will be wearing them.
* Consider keeping groups to household members only.
* Businesses have been configured to allow for appropriate social distancing in all areas, including additional sanitation measures.
* Businesses are implementing safe payment options.
* Some farms and wineries are taking reservations for visits and you-pick activities, so call ahead to be sure.
Situated in the rolling terrain at 3,000 feet east of Placerville, Apple Hill is where the rolling hill terrain of the western Sierra is about to give way to the mountains. The soil here drains well, producing sweeter and tarter apples than you will find on the valley floor.
Apple Hill is so named by the signature crop. But there are also wineries, spas, bake shops, a golf course, and even a fudge factory. Nor is Apple Hill just a seasonal thing. Besides the wineries there are lilac farms, several year round apple growers that add to their array of offerings as the calendar pages turn, and – looking ahead – 14 Christmas tree farms.
If you think this is just about apples per se, guess again. This is about “everything apples” from German apple crunch cake, apple dumplings, and apple fritters approaching the size of a plate with the taste to match to every kind of apple pie imaginable. Several of the farms offer the absolutely freshest apple juice around. And if you are so inclined, you can get hard cider as well.
Some of the 18 apple orchards offer BBQ and other food. Almost all have a place where you can secure a picnic table, an expanse of green grass to enjoy lunch while soaking in the rolling hills jammed with trees, ponds, various farm critters, and low key old fashioned fun centered on harvest themes. There are also gift shops with country-style artisan creations
Kids can enjoy pony rides, petting a lamb, or simply burning off energy. Those activities may or may not be offered this year on a farm-by-farm basis.
Not to dismiss the wineries — they get raving reviews from friends of mine that venture up into El Dorado County from Sacramento at least twice a year to sample the wares of 10 wineries and shop for their wine cabinet while stopping in Placerville for dinner in the historic Hangtown district where browsing specialty shops caps off the excursion.
I go for the apples. I used to hit Apple Hill once a year to load up on apples when I lived in neighboring Placer County. Since I’ve moved to Manteca my trips are farther apart but each time I make them I kick myself for not going more frequently.
While San Joaquin County is the state’s leading county for apple production, growing 31 percent of California’s crop, there’s something a bit better about Apple Hill apples. It may be the fact the ones that reach the local fruit stands may take one to two days after being picked and then malingers for a while. Friends I know from San Jose and San Francisco rave about the apples they do pickup at produce stands that line East Highway 120 between Manteca and Escalon when they head up toward the mountains or return home. I can’t disagree. They are good and taste much better than the store.
Also you can’t top scoring an apple that was just picked that morning. It’s almost like eating corn fresh right off the stalk when the cob has just been cut off from its water source. The corn kernels are so sweet they practically melt in your mouth. And they taste 10 times better than when they are cooked. It’s sort of the same with apples when it comes to being juicy that allows the taste to be heightened just enough that I can tell it is a notch above the rest.
It also helps that the scenery adds to the enjoyment.
Apple Hill Growers offer plenty of online information to plan a trip along with a downloadable map. There’s also an app for Apple Hill as well.
The map lists 133 growers but that includes everyone that offers a solid excuse for you to return during other seasons as well as a few wholesale operations.
Among the 55 ranchers are 18 that grow apples.
You can’t go wrong, with any of the choices at Apple Hill. That said I’m going to provide a rundown of some of my favorites.
* LARSEN APPLE BARN: If I was forced to have a one-stop shop for apples, this would be it. It’s because they have over 20 varieties. It is where I first realized there were more apples than just red and green and that each variety has a different take on sweetness or being tart. They a have a variety of other fruit as well. The deli is my favorite eating spot on the hill and the bakery is solid as well. (To be honest I have yet to come across a bakery — and there are 14 — on Apple Hill that isn’t good.)
* HIGH HILL RANCH: Did I say you couldn’t go wrong at any Apple Hill bakery? That is especially true with a slice of their Mile High Apple Pie — you’ll see why it’s named so — a la mode. I’m not a wild fan of doughnuts. I make an exception when it comes to High Hill’s freshly baked apple doughnuts. They also have a large pond, fishing, hay rides, crafts, a BBQ, and more.
* FUDGE FACTORY FARM: While they have fresh apples they also have 20 flavors of candied apples. I’m not that big of a fan of candied apples but I am of their apple jellies and jams. But let’s be honest. The real reason I love this place is the homemade fudge and handmade chocolate. Growing up, the one dish my mom could make better than anyone around was her homemade fudge. People wouldn’t just hint that they wanted some for Christmas, they openly asked for it in lieu of anything else. One year at Christmas she made 60 batches all as gifts plus eight batches we polished off between Christmas and New Year’s. How good are the 40 plus different fudge creations that are whipped up daily? Let’s put it this way. Anytime I can get an excuse to take someone from out of town to Pier 39 when we head to San Francisco, I drop $20 at Chocolate Heaven for the absolute best four truffles. If the Fudge Factory Farm was closer to home, I would make a pilgrimage every three months or so. The reason not more frequently is simple. It is that good that you want to reserve the fudge they make as a special treat.
* BOA VISTA ORCHARDS: Two words — apple cider. They press and bottle it daily year round and it’s 100 percent apple. It is also a treat to peak through the windows and watch as the press squeezes out the juice. I have yet to taste apple cider that tastes better and certainly not as fresh.
There are a ton of other places you can’t go wrong at that offer everything from apples sold next to custom handmade dolls — yes they have apple dolls — to places where you can cut fresh flowers.
The great part is you can savor the apple season now through mid-November making it a great drive for day tripping.