The Ultimate Guide to Apple Hill

An apple pie caramel apple at Abel's Apple Acres (Photo by Max Whittaker)

An apple pie caramel apple at Abel's Apple Acres (Photo by Max Whittaker)

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For many Sacramentans, A is for Apple Hill, especially in the fall. Want to know where to go for the best homemade pies or the freshest cider doughnuts? We’ve got your apples-to-apples guide to the beloved region. Scroll down—your fruit-full adventure awaits.

 

A Perfect Day

If you only have one crisp fall day to spend in the rolling hills and orchards surrounding Camino, we’ve got you covered. With about 50 spots on the official Apple Hill Growers map (and dozens of farms and bakeries that aren’t members of the association), the array of choices is downright dizzying, but our carefully curated itinerary will have you eating, drinking and frolicking your way through the region’s headiest autumnal hot spots a jump ahead of the crowds.

This cider doughnut house rules: Start your day right with a visit to Rainbow Orchards. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

9 a.m.

Rainbow Orchards

The early bird gets to worm out of having to wait for warm, fried-to-order cinnamon-sugar-dusted cider doughnuts (by late morning, the line for these locally famous goodies can wrap all the way around the orchard’s barn). Even if you’re bleary-eyed, you can’t miss the bright, happy-looking rainbow on the building’s façade, which lends a hippie vibe to this pleasingly rustic stop—fitting, as current owners the Campbell family acquired the farm (and its secret doughnut recipe) 40 years ago, in 1977. Snag a picnic table and wake up with coffee or a cup of fresh-pressed cider (Rainbow offers one of the few pressed-in-house ciders on Apple Hill) while feasting on the superlative cider doughnuts, our favorite sweet treat in all the region. Just don’t fill up—we’re only getting started. Open Fri.-Sun. through Dec. 10. 2569 Larsen Dr. Camino. 530-644-1594. rainboworchards.net

A young guest gives Denver Dan’s a big thumbs-up. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

10 a.m.

Denver Dan’s Apple Patch

Just around the corner from Rainbow Orchards lies quaint Denver Dan’s, established in 1961, where an antique apple peeler-corer has proved so riveting an attraction that its store can barely keep the home version of the contraption in stock. A picture window affords a view into the bakery turning out fresh pies, but for a hands-on experience, call ahead to reserve a slot for the baking class, offered weekday mornings at 10. On weekends, explore the orchard’s dozens of varieties or snap a farm animal selfie at the petting zoo. Before you leave, be sure to pick up some giftable stacks of jams in flavors like peach jalapeño and boysenberry apple, a handsome handmade dried apple wreath, or a few hearty, savory chicken pasties (Cornish meat pies), the perfect tote-along picnic food. Open Fri.-Sun. through Dec. 10. 4354 Bumble Bee Ln. Camino. 530-644-6881. denverdansapplepatch.com

The bustling scene at Jack Russell Farm Brewery (Photo by Max Whittaker)

12 p.m.

Jack Russell Farm Brewery

Trust us, noon’s not too soon for a cold one—and once you enter the newly renovated taproom at Jack Russell, you’ll be parched for a pint. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the brewery—which last year opened a restaurant in Placerville—offers more than a dozen taps (for peak local-seasonal flavor, try the pumpkin spice and apple-spiked ales). That’s more than enough to keep dedicated hopheads busy tasting, but you’ll want solid food, too. Whether you brought lunch from home, snagged those pasties at Denver Dan’s, or succumbed to the wafting scent of honey BBQ wings and other rib-sticking fare at Jack Russell, the hot ticket is to set up in the brewery’s wide-fenced field with picnic tables, an idyllic spot for sprawling out and sharing an alfresco meal with friends—with protein to balance the sweets you’ve snacked on all morning. Open daily year-round. 2380 Larsen Dr. Camino. 530-647-9420. jackrussellbrewery.com

Delfino Farms’ famous Walkin’ Pies in the making (Photo by Max Whittaker)

2 p.m.

Delfino Farms

Need a leisurely siesta after lunch? Head straight to Delfino Farms to recharge. The key draw? A grassy slope overlooking an expansive sweep of orchards decked in photo-ready fall colors, perfect for plopping down on or rolling down, plus corn mazes to walk through, chickens to feed, and lots of room to roam. This gorgeous parcel used to be called Kids Inc.; the name change marks the passage of the farm to the third generation of the Delfino family, who has owned it since 1964. A fully stocked bakeshop—now sweetly named Joan’s, after Grandma Delfino—offers a bevy of apple-themed treats to snack on (like apple crisps and French apple pies), but be sure to also try the family’s refreshing barrel-aged Henrietta Stich hard cider, made from their own fruit. Kick back with a tall one or the signature Walkin’ Pie with cinnamon-scented cider sauce; there’s no better place to while away a fall afternoon. Open Fri.-Mon. through Nov. 22. 3205 North Canyon Rd. Camino. 530-622-0184. delfinofarms.com

Unwind with a glass of red at Lava Cap Winery. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

3:30 p.m.

Lava Cap Winery

Ready to hit the pause button on sweets? Relax on a shady patio with a glass of old vine zinfandel or lush viognier at this winery started by a geologist. Lava Cap’s late founder David Jones had a distinguished career at the U.S. Geological Survey and UC Berkeley (check out the National Academy of Sciences medal recognizing his contributions to the theory of tectonics), scoured the globe for the ideal site for wine—and found it here, where rolling foothills are covered with volcanic soil that the ’49ers called a “lava cap,” believing it signaled the presence of gold. Jones’ hunch was right: Lava Cap, which opened its doors in 1986, has produced highly lauded wines (its 2015 Sauvignon Blanc took gold at the Sunset International Wine Competition last year). And the winery’s rich volcanic setting is as scenic as it is fertile, lending itself to an unforgettable experience. Open daily year-round. 2221 Fruitridge Rd. Placerville. 530-621-0175. lavacap.com

Pie à la road: Before driving back home, make a final pit stop at Abel’s for some tasty take-home treats. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

4:30 p.m.

Abel’s Apple Acres

Evening is approaching. It’s time to stock up on pies and hit the road, and the best place to do that is at Abel’s Apple Acres, situated at the far western edge of the Apple Hill area—convenient if you’re going back down the hill to Sacramento. Abel’s, now a fourth-generation farm, bakes a full range of flaky-crusted pies daily, and takes orders ahead by fax or email. Our recommendations? Try the old-fashioned apple, the pumpkin apple (with tart apple slices embedded in sweetly spiced, earthy pumpkin, it’s surprising, and just right for your Thanksgiving table), or the buttermilk apple, which is the bakeshop’s specialty and was created by owner Evelyn Abel. If the family is hungry, Abel’s also offers a fine slate of barbecue sandwiches and burgers. Plus, snag some adorable crafts like locally sewn aprons and other gift items to take home. Open daily through Dec. 24. 2345 Carson Rd. Placerville. 530-626-0138. abelsappleacres.com

 


 

The Pie-oneers

How a band of resourceful farmers bounced back from misfortune to make Gold Country the mother lode for apple lovers throughout NorCal

A 1964 Mountain Democrat photo spotlights the first official Apple Hill season. (Photo courtesy of The Mountain Democrat)

The ’49ers are long gone from El Dorado County—which was named, during the region’s mining heyday, after a fabled place in South America abundant in gold—but now every fall its hills centered around Camino welcome an eager apple rush of visitors armed not with picks and mining pans but with ice chests, plastic forks and cameras. So just how did the bucolic, rolling countryside around the American River, once home to the Gold Rush, become better known for fruit pies than fortune hunting?

The story begins with intrepid pioneer farmers willing to make rough journeys and survive tough winters. It’s hard to imagine how rugged the area once was, when today it’s an easy hour-long drive from Sacramento. But in the 1860s, when the Larsen family traveled from Norway to reach then-remote Northern California, they endured many hardships, says present-day family member and former Apple Hill Growers Association board president Lynn Larsen. The clan paused in England, where twins were born only to die on the Atlantic crossing, and made their way from New Orleans upriver to St. Louis, then crossed overland by wagon, losing another baby en route.

The start of farming, however, didn’t mean the start of apples. The Larsens, the region’s first homesteaders, initially grew what they knew: potatoes. And the first orchard crops were pears, which increased in acreage as more families settled throughout the late 19th century. More hardship came when pear orchards were wiped out by a massive blight in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Area farmers, desperate and unsure what to do next, traveled to a Southern California area called Apple Country and returned with a spark in their eyes.

“The pear decline really engineered the idea for Apple Hill,” says Lynn Larsen, who adds that the El Dorado farmers were inspired by Apple Country’s success as a tourist destination. “They came back with the idea, ‘Let’s make a group, and we can get people to come up [our] way,’ and they put in more and more apples.” (Apple trees were not susceptible to the disease affecting pears.)

Many growers already had a few apple trees, so they knew the crop did well. Indeed, the Camino soil and climate proved ideal for apples. The 3,000-foot elevation provides ample winter chill time (which the trees need to set fruit), eons-ago lava flows have enriched the soil, and the warm summer days balanced with cool evening breezes develop both sugars and acidity, making for maximally flavorful fruit.

Enterprising farm families took the concept a step further when they started baking, making desserts like pies and turnovers to entice visitors. The idea was so successful that the bakeries could barely keep up with demand—area lore has it that overworked ovens even blew up. In 1964, the farmers officially banded together and formed the Apple Hill Growers Association. Originally comprising 16 farms, today the group boasts almost 50 members—not just orchards, but wineries, breweries, berry farms and more. Many original families remain, with third and fourth generations involved in complicated, overlapping family trees. (Numerous other bakeshops and orchards that are not part of the official association dot the area.)

Apple Hill now attracts 1.2 million visitors a year, most during the bustling fall season—a striking record of success for farmers who originally just wanted to pull in a few hungry travelers with some apple pies. Now, those pies (and doughnuts and cakes and cider) bring families back year after year, building cherished traditions. Those El Dorado forefarmers might not have been prospecting for gold, but they definitely struck a rich vein.

 


 

Prep Talk

While you can’t really have a bad Apple Hill outing, a little planning can help you sail over the rookie pitfalls. Here are our top strategies for making sure your visit proves fruitful.

Illustration by Hal Mayforth

Bring storage for goodies. Shallow cardboard boxes (like the kind used by grocery stores for canned goods or by online retailers) are great for keeping pies and other delicate baked goods from sliding around in the trunk and making a mess. An ice chest is indispensable if you want to grab frozen pies or fresh-pressed cider. Reusable shopping bags come in handy for apples and other produce.

Tap the app. Yep, there’s a handy (and free) map-based app that lists everything from current weather to traffic conditions to the farms’ hours. (The app offered by the Apple Hill Growers Association is tagged with the word “official,” and its icon sports the red-and-white sign of the group’s logo.) The association’s website (applehill.com) also offers a wealth of information, including a farm finder that sorts by opening dates or desired features, from kids’ activities to the types of produce for sale.

Beat the traffic. Many visitors from the Sacramento area head straight to the big farms at the western end of the region, eagerly jumping off at the first exit, Schnell School Road, to enter Apple Hill. On busy October days, this route is often clogged and slow. Bypass traffic jams by being patient and starting at one of the easternmost exits (such as Barkley Road or Carson Road; although Carson Road traverses the whole region and houses many big players at its western end, its intersection with Highway 50 is farther east), working your way back toward the west. You’ll avoid the crowds with your “reverse commute” and be that much closer to home when you’re ready to call it a day.

Stay hydrated. The foothills can still be warm in October, and although most bakeshops sell bottled water, relying on that can get pricey. We suggest bringing a reusable water bottle (many farms have drinking fountains for refilling), or, better yet, start with a cooler full of iced H2O bottles, which you can swap out for homebound treats as the day progresses.

Layer up and wear comfy shoes. A chilly morning often gives way to a blazing afternoon, so dress for changes in weather as well as lots of walking. Also, toss a blanket in the car, both for picnicking on and for swaddling sleepy folk as the air crisps up toward the end of the day.

Pack for a snack attack. Bring paper plates, a knife and other utensils so you can buy whole pies or cakes and enjoy them spontaneously when you stumble on that perfect picnic ground. A roll of paper towels and wet wipes are always good ideas, too.

Leave pets at home. As much as Fido may love it down on the farm—and even though most of the orchards on Apple Hill are canine-friendly—you’ll be limited in what you can see and do if you bring your four-legged best friend along. Association rules prohibit tying him up while you duck into a bakeshop or eatery (dogs must stay with their owners at all times), and since cars can heat up quickly even in the fall, letting him sit this one out is the better option.

Skip the stroller. Parking lots are frequently unpaved, terrain can be bumpy, and shops can be crowded, so if you’re bringing little ones, consider using a backpack or other carriers, as strollers may be more hassle than they’re worth. For walks or U-pick excursions, a collapsible wagon is a great choice for transporting your brood—and it can do double duty as a fruit-hauler.

Be patient. With more than a million visitors every year, the Camino apple farms are a hot ticket, so you may have to wait for parking spots or pies. Take a deep breath—remember it’s all part of the experience—or consider postponing your visit until after October, when the crowds thin. All the farms are still open in November, an equally lovely and less thronged time to visit the foothills.