It's mid-October, but it still feels like summer in Sacramento. This shouldn't, perhaps, be too much of a surprise: about 80% of days around California's state capital are sunny, often in defiance of the season. But I've come here today to do something specifically, traditionally, quintessentially autumnal, and so it's taking me a while to wrap my head around the heat: who dresses for a day of apple-picking, pie-tasting, cider sipping, and pumpkin patching wearing shorts and a T-shirt and SPF 50?
Turns out, me and the hundreds of others on this low-90s Wednesday on Placerville's Apple Hill.
Counterintuitively, the warm weather is actually responsible for some of the fall goodness we're all here to sample. Thanks in part to its abundance of sunshine, the Sacramento area grows a huge amount of California's produce, and has even been dubbed America's "farm-to-fork capital." And on Apple Hill, the focus is on fall produce with a little extra sun-kissed sweetness.
Apple Hill is a network of 50-some family orchards and farms stretching between the towns of Placerville and Camino. The start of the densely packed Apple Hill route starts about 40 miles from Sacramento, making this a favorite day trip for state capital locals and visitors alike. And, after dropping my bags off at HI Sacramento, it's time for me to see what all the fuss is about.
At the outset, I decide to plan my itinerary obsessively: I've printed a map in advance from Apple Hill's website and even color-coded it: "you-pick" apple farms in green, bake shops in yellow, pumpkin patches in orange. But the over-kill in my approach quickly becomes evident: from almost the moment I enter the Apple Hill Area, I'm bombarded with little road signs pointing me towards everything I could possibly want.
At Abel's Acres, my first stop on Apple Hill, I get the distinct impression they're hoarding food for the winter: the place is a veritable apple emporium: jars of apple butter, apple sauce, microwavable caramel for apple-dipping; freezers full of partially baked dome-topped apple pies to take home and brown in the oven; cases of candy apples with nuts and sprinkles and thick coats of cinnamon sugar.
Behind the in-house bakery counter, where ovens are constantly opening and closing and workers are piling pastries high, I eye a stack of saucer-sized apple fritters slathered with crystallized icing. But I decide to pace myself, opting instead for a modestly sized 85-cent apple donut. It's fluffy and crumbly and studded with tiny bits of apple, and dipped in cinnamon and sugar that crunch satisfyingly between my teeth.
To balance out the donut – and the many more I suspect I'll consume today – I decide some fresh fruit is in order. I jump in the car and cruise over to Pine O'Mine, where I pull in down a one-way gravel drive. Despite the fact that I'm just a few minutes down Carson Road from Abel's Acres, this place is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. If Abel's is proof that apples can be made into just about anything, Pine O'Mine is an ode to the fruit's perfection in its simplest form. The family-owned ranch is staffed today by two guys with overalls, side-smiles, and plenty of good-natured jokes when I tell them I'm visiting from cosmopolitan San Francisco.
They point me toward an orchard of golden delicious, where eager day-trippers have already plucked the best of the low-hanging fruit. But I've been equipped with an apple picker – sort of a lacrosse stick with a metal claw – to reach the untouched beauties up at the top. I've already picked four pounds by the time I realize I've got far more than I can eat on my own, so I tote my goods up to a scale at the little "apple shack" where the two farmhands are waiting.
"Say," one of them says to me, "I don't suppose you like Granny Smiths, do you?"
"Only about as much as I like oxygen and kittens."
"We've left the Grannies on the trees a little longer this year to let them get a little extra sugar, so they're about the sweetest, biggest, most beautiful Grannies you've ever seen. The branches are about breaking off the trees with 'em." I decide I'll pass the multiple pounds of extra fruit I'm about to pick off to the other guests at HI-Sacramento later today, grab an empty sack, and head to an orchard 20 meters away. Apples the size of grapefruits and the color of fresh-cut grass are dangling from every bough in sight. By the time I leave Pine 'O Mine, I've got six pounds of apples and an invite to come back for blueberry season in the summer.
A bit further along Carson Road, I see the overflow parking for Boa Vista Orchards before I spot the farm's apple-shaped sign. As far as I can tell, it's immensely popular for a reason: like Abel Orchards, it's got pies and pastries and jars of all manner of apple sauces and spreads, plus open-air crates running over with other seasonal fruit and vegetables. There are avocados, tomatoes, greens, and gorgeous fall squash in Grand-Canyon colors. Inside, there's a tasting counter where I gobble up samples of apple-pumpkin butter. Behind the warehouse-sized commercial building, there's an expansive view of the ever-green trees and gilded hills that characterize early fall in Northern California.
From there, it's on to High Hill Ranch, which feels very much like a holiday resort designed by Norman Rockwell. There are stalls of crafts for sale, hay rides, a pumpkin patch, an apple cider mill, and even a tree-ringed pond where visitors can rent fishing poles for an afternoon of catch-and-release.
Nearby, I can't resist a stop at Grace Patriot Winery. As my own designated driver, I'm not tasting today. But I am taking notes for next time. A tasting flight, selected from a huge list of varietals, runs just $5, refunded with the purchase of any bottle. Outside, a sunny patio overlooks acres of vines with the Sierra foothills as a backdrop.
By mid-afternoon, I haven't even made it to one-tenth of the ranches on Apple Hill: further along the same route I've been on all day, there are Christmas tree farms, a brewery, a spa, and dozens of other you-pick farms and bakeshops. But with a car trunk full of produce, a stomach full of pastry, and dwindling memory in my iPhone camera roll, I'm ready to head back to the hostel happy.
Stay at HI Sacramento, a beautifully restored Victorian mansion in the heart of California's state capital. Sacramento is an easy drive from the start of the Apple Hill route, making it a popular jumping-off point for autumn-happy locals and visitors alike.