CAMINO — The heat of summer is fading away.
There is a slight nip in the afternoon air.
Leaves are getting ready to transition into a kaleidoscope of yellow, brown, and red hues.
And pumpkins are awaiting their first frost.
It’s October in Apple Hill.
The apple harvest is still underway, although at a much slower pace than last month.
But as the harvest mellows so does the weather and the fun.
It is why Apple Hill — known for its wholesome family fun and enchanting day dating — is in the prime of the harvest season.
Situated at the 3,000-foot elevation 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 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 big flavors to match, and every type 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.
Not to dismiss the wineries — they get rave 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.
San Joaquin County is California’s second most productive county for apple production; the first being El Dorado County where Apple Hill can be found.
There’s something, however, a bit better about Apple Hill apples. Friends I know from San Jose and San Francisco rave about the apples they do pick up 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 tasty.
But there is something about 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 the official Cider Press guide and map you can view online or request a copy from most grower locations. There’s also an app for Apple Hill as well.
The map lists 50 plus ranches including 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 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 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’d 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 peek through the windows and watch as the press squeezes out the juice. I have yet to taste apple cider that tastes better or more fresh.
There are a ton of other places you can’t go wrong 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 with a day destination.
Apple Hill is in Camino east of Placerville off Highway 50.
Travel time via Highway 99 and Highway 50, it is 1 hour and 49 minutes from Manteca (98 miles); 2 hours and 17 minutes from Turlock (127 miles); and via Highway 88 and Highway 49 it is 1 hour and 57 minutes from Oakdale (94 miles).
Go to www.applehillca.com where you will find everything you need including direct links to websites for every possible stop you may want to make during your trip to Apple Hill.