It was an economic fiasco half a century ago that started the foothills fall phenomenon known as Apple Hil - just east of Placerville up Highway 50. Fifty years later the vacation spot known for pie, cider and winding roads continues to be a favorite weekend jaunt for folks from the Sacramento region.
Apple Hill – – and that’s “Apple Hill” followed by the little “R” for registered trademark sign – began after a disastrous pear harvest in 1960. Many of the local farmers on the ridge in the Sierra Mountain foothills were about to go under. Rather than succumb to financial ruin, a group of growers got together and essentially had a bake sale to keep their orchards going. They hoped that word would reach Sacramento and folks would drive up the hill for enough pie and cookies to keep them going to the next year. The effort was wildly successful, the one-time event turned into an annual tradition, and the smart growers banded together as the official Apple Hill Growers Association.
My guy and I piled our dogs into the car and headed up 50 last Saturday to cruise through the back-roads on the Apple Hill ridge in search of some Granny Smiths, Galas and apple pie. The Apple Hill folks are extremely well organized and made it easy for newcomers, with roads clearly marked. Each ranch is assigned a number that’s visible from the road, and a full guide is available online that explains the features of each location, from what kind of apples they have, to whether you can pick your own, to information about fun train-rides and other features for the kiddies. (You can review the maps, guides and website at www.applehill.com)
We didn’t get out of Sacramento until noon, so rather than get off 50 at the first Apple Hill exit (which is Schnell School, exit 48), we opted to continue up the highway to the most eastern Apple Hill exit (Pollock Pines, exit 57) and explore east-to-west. Our hunch about crowds was spot-on, as we passed Schnell School and saw the lines of slow-moving cars inching their way to the first handful of ranches.
We traversed roads like the Pony Express Trail, Mace Road, and Larsen Drive. My boyfriend was in search of the “perfect” apple farm that he remembered from his childhood, so the dogs and I just sat back and enjoyed the scenery of orchards, rolling hills and mountains, and forest trees.
We finally stopped at a small ranch and helped ourselves to the samples of cider and looked at the bins of fresh apples off their local trees. Normally I would have taken my time sampling each apple and taking home a bunch for some home baking, but I had a frige full of apples from the week before. What I really wanted? Pie. And a walk.
We got back in the car and passed a few places until we came upon the ranch called “Kids, Inc.” With a name like that I had expected goofy train rides and silly costumed characters, but Kids, Inc. is a traditional Apple Hill ranch with a bake-house, orchards, and walking paths. The owners had figured out a pretty clever name to capture all the families visiting the area, but Disneyland it was not (thank goodness). The rustic bake-house was working full-speed making pies and other goodies and we got a slice for ourselves.
Food review: The crust on our slice was amazing, but the filling wasn’t as good as we would have liked. It needed to be sweeter, and the pieces of apple were of different sizes so some were cooked to mush while others were crunchy.
The best part about Kids, Inc is the path leading around the ranch and through a thicket of trees, so the 1/2 mile walk felt like a stroll through a state park. We were able to bring our dogs with us on leash with no problems, but be warned: there are children everywhere. If the presence of dozens of little humans would freak or excite your canine to no end, these walking these paths may not be the place to be.
Full of pie, we hopped back in the car and continued down the road again, visiting a handful more farms, doing our best to avoid places that were over-run with people. I suspect we missed out on some of the tastiest treats around by avoiding the crowds, but we were full of pie at that point anyway.
We did find a lovely place quite by accident that was the highlight of our trip: the Institute of Forest Genetics and its small arboretum of pine trees. Situated just across Goldbud Farms (#39) on Carson Road, the national facility had its gates open but was completely empty of both tourists and staff. The walking trail on the property had detailed signs for each kind of pine tree planted on the property, and our 15 minute stroll felt like a walk through a quiet, outdoor natural-history museum. (And I think the dogs liked it as much as we did.)
My advice for going to Apple Hill?
Don’t stop at the congested places unless you’re OK with crowds, and explore the smaller ranches and farms, not just the biggies. Consider going out and picking your own apples. Definitely get a map, either by pre-printing the two pages from the Apple Hill website or by picking up a map or Apple Hill “Cider Press” magazine at the first stop. Consider going early in the season (the official Apple Hill fall time starts in September, just after Labor Day), and explore the area in the summer, since many places also grow other fruit besides apples. Take a wine tour of the vineyards in the area, or cut down your own tree in December at one of the Apple Hill tree farms. And whatever you do, make sure you get pie. It’s an Apple Hill tradition.