WHAT: Apple Hill, central California's apple country.
WHERE: About 45 miles east of Sacramento.
WHY GO: Because from Labor Day until Thanksgiving, this surprising enclave proves that New England doesn't have a lock on autumn apple pickin'.
In an area that boasts three dozen apple ranches, you expect to see some fruit. Orchards of Fuji and golden delicious apples. Bins of granny smiths for sale. Some U-pick places, perhaps.
But it wasn't until we came across Abel's Apple Acres, on a winding country road off Highway 50, that the real lure of Apple Hill set in. The sweet scent of cinnamon, nutmeg and piping-hot pie crust lingered in the air. Rows of dome-shaped apple pies cooled on racks. A woman stood twirling green apples on sticks, like batons, before dunking them into a copper vat of buttery caramel.
It wasn't always like this. Apple Hill, tucked along 10 miles of the El Dorado County countryside, was once pear country. But after a particularly bad blight in 1960, the 16 ranchers decided to try farming apples, resulting in the state's largest concentration of apple growers.Today, more than 750,000 visitors tour the area each year. And while some things haven't changed -- two-lane roads still thread through a jumble of orchards, pumpkin patches and vineyards -- Apple Hill has grown up.
It now comprises more than 55 attractions, including Christmas tree farms, wineries, a golf course and a microbrewery. Lodging ranges from budget motels and resort spas to B&Bs, including the Camino Hotel Bed and Breakfast (4103 Carson Rd., Camino, 800-200-7740, www.caminohotel.com; doubles from $86 a night). Built in the late 1800s, the B&B offers clean, cheerful rooms as well as desserts and wine tasting in the evening.
Apples aren't the only crop grown in the region; pears, cherries, pumpkins, plums, persimmons, grapes and Indian corn are also planted. Many ranches also have expanded through the years, adding cider mills, mazes and arts-and-crafts vendors to attract more visitors.
Indeed, during our stop at Abel's Apple Acres (2345 Carson Rd., Placerville, 530-626-0138, www.abelsappleacres.com), one of the largest ranches, children waited in line for pony rides while others tackled a maze constructed of more than 500 bales of hay. Families shopped for pumpkins in Abel's patch. But we headed straight to the bake shop and its array of all things apple -- pies, doughnuts, dumplings, streudel.
One apple cheesecake bar and an apple fritter later, we found ourselves five miles down the road at the rustic Jack Russell Brewing Company (2380 Larsen Dr., Camino, 530-644-4722, www.jackrussellbrewing.com), the area's sole microbrewery.
Ian Schofield, the Brit who owns the place, grows his own hops and brews more than a dozen beers, including a London porter, a brown ale and, of course, a harvest apple ale. The tasting room features a bar with the beers on tap, along with Jack Russell-branded clothing for sale. Outdoors, picnic tables overlook the lush green lawn that frames the entrance.
We ordered a raspberry stout and an IPA, along with two steak and cabernet pot pies (a variety of hot gourmet pot pies from Z Pie of Placerville are available on select weekends), before staking our claim on a picnic table; lunch for two was about $19. Between sips of cold beer and bites of flaky pie, we watched some kids toss around a Frisbee. In the next lot, a flock of sheep grazed.
After lunch, we drove to High Hill Ranch (2901 High Hill Rd., Placerville, 530-644-1973), one of the prettiest settings on the hill. Cradled by pine trees and mountains, we sat near its trout pond. Families stood poised with fishing rods, waiting for a bite. (Fishing gear can be rented, and the ranch will scale and gut your catch.)
But thoughts inevitably turned to dessert. Again. Rainbow Orchards (2569 Larsen Dr., Camino, 530-644-1594) was easy to spot, as it's housed in a corrugated metal barn painted with rainbows. Here you can sample fresh fruit and watch a cider press squeeze juice out of apples. But the big draw are the doughnuts, made from unpasteurized cider.
We bought a couple from a lady behind the counter whose T-shirt read, "Another day, another apple cider doughnut." The treats were fist-sized and generously dusted with granulated sugar.
Even better, they were still warm.
-- Tricia Tomiyoshi
To get to Apple Hill from Sacramento, take Highway 50 east to the Schnell School exit. Make a left at Schnell School Road and a right on Carson Road. Follow the Apple Hill signs. For more info: Apple Hill Growers, 530-644-7692, www.applehill.com.