When the leaves turn red and gold and start fluttering gracefully off the trees, I do a little happy dance. It signifies the beginning of my favorite season – sweater wearing, cocoa sipping, pumpkin carving, leaf jumping autumn. I’ve always wanted to visit the East coast for fall – those stark white birch trees and the iconic maples against the dramatic burst of color speaks to my soul. Alas, I’m in California. Amidst the pines. That don’t change color. But we just discovered Apple Hill, a land of orchards, fall leaves, cider, hay rides, pumpkin picking, and perhaps most important, hot apple donuts!
Apple Hill is a region in Placerville, California, just under an hour northeast from Sacramento or an hour and a smidgen west from Tahoe. There are over 30 farms and orchards that open to the public in the fall (some year round), where you can roam through the trees, sample more seasonal food than you could possibly imagine, pick your own apples and pumpkins, go through a hay maze or simply relax by a pond and people-watch with your slice of apple pie.
Before our trip, I made a list of 17 farms I wanted to visit. Hay maze? Check! Lavender farm? Count me in! A barn with hot apple cider donuts, tacos and apple sundaes? Heaven!! I may never leave! As we crested the hill into Placerville, a sleepy little historic town that explodes with traffic in the fall, I realized my list may not be completed in our first trip. Traffic is… well, if you’re from the Bay area, it will feel like home. If you’re from a smaller country town like this gypsy mama, your eyes might boggle for a minute and you might start to wonder about the genius of this whole plan. Then you’ll get to your first farm, with all the running, laughing children hopped up on fresh caramel and kettle corn, you’ll smell the fresh mountain air mixed with the sweet aroma of apples and hot donuts, and you’ll be glad you made the trip.
We only made it to three farms on our lazy Sunday afternoon. There are some lines for certain foods and activities, but I was pleasantly surprised at the laid back attitude and general good cheer of all the farm attendants and the visitors. First stop, High Hill Ranch. It’s one of the bigger farms, and as such they had people directing traffic (thank you!). Even better, their flag waving staff were all in bright orange “Cat Herder” shirts. I imagine directing several hundred cars an hour into parking amidst the apple trees (while the drivers excitedly point at painted barns and visibly sniff the donut-laden air) is a lot like trying to herd cats. Sorry, I was one of the air sniffers. We made a hustle for the donut barn, and within minutes our eyes were rolling to the backs of our heads at the first bite of spiced, sugar coated, fried goodness. The kids opted for caramel apples. I have never seen caramel so soft and buttery. I must figure out how this is done. After we were properly sugared, we took a hay ride through the ranch and browsed the craft fairs.
Just down the road is Boa Vista. The sign says “less traffic!” This is a lie. But here you can have an expertly crafted tri-tip sandwich drizzled in freshly made apple BBQ sauce, you can watch cider being made, and you can run through a field of pumpkins or stop to pose next to their witches and scarecrows.
Our last stop was Apple Ridge Farms. This farm is a bit farther out from the craziness of the central farms, and there was blissfully less traffic. Still packed, mind you, but parking was much easier to be had. We found our hay maze here, along with giant domed pies, fresh apple dumplings, ciders and turnovers. They also have a gem mining station for kids (don’t be afraid to jump in there if you’re a kid at heart) and a large selection of pumpkins and perfectly warty gourds.
Most farms are within very short driving distance, though you may be tempted to walk with the traffic. Each farm has its own selling point, with a few of the larger farms having craft fairs and multiple activities, while the smaller farms with less traffic (its own selling point) may have one signature activity or food item. You can visit the regional website for Apple Hill here to browse through and pick your favorites. Below I’m including some of our own.
Apple Pantry Farm – Strudel, turnovers, dumplings and freshly made apple butter
Apple Ridge Farms – A barn full of apple varieties for sale, along with a gem mining station and hay maze, pumpkins, craft fair and giant pies
Bolster’s Hilltop Ranch – U-pick berries and apples, cider and a forest trail for working off all the donuts
24Carrot Farm – Farm stand with a variety of beautiful flower bouquets
Denver Dan’s – Apple peeling, jam tasting and pony rides
Fudge Factory Farm – I think the name speaks for itself. Go there.
Goyette’s North Canyon Ranch – U-pick apples, pumpkins, sunflowers and Indian corn
High Hill – Seriously, the caramel apples. I can’t stop thinking about them. Also, parking helpers in Cat Herder shirts, hot apple cider donuts, fritters, tacos, hay rides and a large craft fair. You can also fish at the little pond here, but there is a steep fine for catch and release – you have to take what you catch.
Larsen Apple Barn – Large variety of delicious baked goods, and a very cute painted barn
Rainbow Orchards – Incredibly cute barn, hot cider donuts and a cider mill
Mill View Ranch – Live scarecrow, craft fair and a Kids Town play area