Although we’ve come to look forward to visiting Apple Hill each fall to welcome the season, with Aron usually taking a half-day off to ensure we can go midweek and avoid the weekend crowds, I’ve always wished we could have an insider’s guide to the region. Where should we be spending our time? Where should we go to get off the beaten track? And, of course, which donuts are really worth eating?
I’ve started following Heather Palmer’s wonderful blog, Farm Tots, for tips on local, Northern Californian farm-visit experiences for families and knew she would be the one to ask. I’m thrilled that she agreed to share some of her picks for the perfect day at Apple Hill. (I was only a little tempted to keep it to myself.)
GUIDE TO APPLE HILL: 10 Farms to Get Closer to Agriculture
By Heather Palmer of Farm Tots
A day trip to Apple Hill is the quintessential fall experience wrapped up into a plaid flannel, hot cider, hay ride blur of fall colors and crisp country air. Located between Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe right off Highway 50, Apple Hill is a easy drive from most points in Northern California. Apple Hill has been beckoning locals for over 50 years and now boasts more than 50 apple farms and growers.
My husband Ben has been visiting Apple Hill since he was just tall enough to cast a line into the fishing pond at High Hill Ranch, and he has been going back year after year since. Because we live a short distance away in the Sierra Foothills, we make many trips up to Apple Hill both during apple harvest and throughout the year. Today, I’m sharing our top 10 farms for getting closer to agriculture and for learning all aspects of the apple production cycle.
AN ORGANIC FARM STAND
24Carrot Farm is a new addition to our Apple Hill this fall and we couldn’t be more enthusiastic about their arrival. As some of the most personable owners in the area, this partnership is a winning combination of Bay-Area business savvy and local-agriculture expertise. Mix in youthful entrepreneurial exuberance and the product is a sustainable organic farm that takes permaculture and delivers it to young visitors in a completely approachable and intriguing way. Farmers are always available and ready to chat with farm guests, and after a visit or two we forget these guys aren’t our own family members. From detailed walks through rows of seasonal produce to long talks about melon varietals, the people that brought this farm to the Apple Hill community are here to educate and their excitement is contagious.
Insider Tips: This is the last farm in the area to offer You-Pick apples during the apple season and the apples are dry-farmed and organic. This means that instead of the watery, diluted apples you find in most grocery stores, the product here is smaller, with a hard, crisp texture, and an intense flavor. You-Pick pumpkins are also available. Shaded picnic tables are available for visitors along with a picturesque pond to admire. Dirt-lot parking and outhouse-style restrooms are available.
24Carrot Farm | 2731 Jacquier Rd, CA 95667 | 510-828-6538
Apple Pantry Farm is our favorite place to sit back, take in valley views and savor homemade pies. The pies here range from Classic Apple to Sour Cream Berry and everything in between. Slices are served up with decadent, creamy, overflowing scoops of some of the best vanilla ice cream we have had. This place is staffed by some of the sweetest ladies we know and they are ready to tell guests all about their favorite farms along the Apple Hill scenic drive. Want to bring home a pie for the holidays? Visit the Pie Shop for frozen pies ranging from $16-18 with easy-to-follow baking instructions.
Insider Tips: A group picnic area is the shadiest spot to sit with tots and let them run around. The farm has gravel parking and restrooms available; neighboring wineries for grown-ups and a pumpkin patch and corn maze for tots provide some side-trips to burn off the sugar rush and experience all that this region has to offer.
Apple Pantry Farm | 2310 Hidden Valley Way, Camino, CA 95709 | 530-318-2834
AN ORCHARD HIKE
Apple Ridge Farm has been a favorite for season after season. With expansive grounds and a variety of activities, this farm can be a one-stop shop for everything that makes Apple Hill a fall attraction. With kid-friendly hiking trails looping around plentiful apple trees, visitors are able to picture themselves as the proprietors of this grand estate. A bakery, BBQ house, and country store are ready to provide hungry families a wide array of lunch choices. Kids can choose from a pumpkin patch, corn maze, mining activity, fall photo-op stations, and more.
Insider Tips: The hiking trail offers two distinct trails for beginner and intermediate hikers. The shorter trail is just the right length for young visitors and provides a scenic diversion from the crowds cramming other locations in the area. The property is immaculately maintained and provides clean picnic areas to bring food from any of the dining options on property. One of the largest parking lots in Apple Hill provides plentiful paved parking and makes this the ideal meeting destination for meeting friends or groups. Outhouse-style restrooms are available for guests.
Apple Ridge Farm | 1800 Larsen Dr, Camino, CA 95709 | 530-647-0613
TAKING PIE BAKING CLASS
Denver Dan’s Apple Patch is classic Apple Hill, and coming here is like taking a trip back in time. The old-fashioned barn experience lures visitors with hundreds of apple products to fill pantries, and with staff that have been greeting hungry guests for years. You-Pick apples, traditional hearty ranch lunch options, and picnic tables complete the experience.
Insider Tips: Cookin’ Kids classes are offered weekdays twice a day and teach tots how to make their own 6” apple pie. A minimum of 5 participants are needed so visitors are invited to grab some friends and make a reservation for one of the most unique experiences in the area. Pies are packaged up and bakers are sent home with the pride of learning the first steps in baking. Gravel lot parking and restrooms are available for visitors.
Denver Dan’s Apple Patch | 4354 Bumble Bee Ln, Camino, CA 95709 | 530-644-6881
PONY AND HAY RIDES
High Hill Ranch is where Apple Hill fun begins—and during peak season its parking lots are jam-packed as tourists arrive by the carload beginning as early as 8:00 am. With one of the largest farms in the region, High Hill Ranch has craft booths, multiple pie shops and restaurants, fishing, pony rides, hay rides, and more. We have been going to this farm every year since we moved to the Sacramento area—usually bringing a picnic to sit on the banks of the fishing pond and watch families reeling in their catch of the day. The donuts come in more varieties than anywhere else, and we get a mixed box of 12 to sample on our drive home.
Insider Tips: Free samples of apple cider are available by the Cider Mill and guests can watch the cider-making process through the windows of the historic shed. Parking is expansive so be prepared to walk. Restrooms with running water are available in multiple locations.
High Hill Ranch | 2901 High Hill Rd, Placerville, CA 95667 | 530-644-1973
A CORN MAZE AND FARM ANIMALS
Kids Inc. has been in business since 1964, and just by its name it’s obvious they want to entertain their youngest visitors. This family of nine named the farm over 50 years ago: the seven Delfino kids were all expected to work the farm and so got to choose the name. With two corn mazes, farm animals, a hiking trail, a pumpkin patch, and a junior-farmer program, this place has whatever families are looking for in their Apple Hill adventures. The picturesque, hillside picnic area offers views of expansive vineyards and trees.
Insider Tips: The corn mazes are open Friday-Monday only. For parents that need some relaxation after a long day of apple hunting, Henrietta Stitch, a premium hard cider, is offered from apples grown on the estate. Dirt parking and outhouse-style restrooms are available.
Kids Inc. | 3205 N Canyon Rd, Camino, CA 95709 | 530-622-0184
A PICNIC UNDER THE APPLE TREES
Larsen’s Apple Barn is the longest-running family-operated farm in Apple Hill; it has been around since 1860. With over 20 varieties of apples, this place has apples for everyone and even has a tasting table where guests can sample each currently available variety. There is also a bake shop across the parking lot that offers baked favorites, and the best veggie burgers our expert tasters have tried. There is a privately-owned park across the street where families can picnic, run, and explore the waterfalls and historic trees. With gently-sloping hills and grass spanning acres and acres, tots can run and jump for hours.
Insider Tips: Apple seconds—lunch-box sized apples that aren’t perfect—are Larsen’s specialty. If they aren’t out for sale, they are usually kept in back. Ask a sales associate for assistance getting a 40-pound box; the price is usually only around $15, depending on the variety. They are what we use for school lunches and for canning our annual batch of apple sauce. Larsen’s is closed on Saturdays, so plan accordingly. With a large, paved parking lot, and restrooms with running water, this farm has all the makings of a day full of activities.
Larsen’s Apple Barn | 2461 Larsen Dr, Camino, CA 95709 | 530-644-1415
GOLD RUSH HISTORY AND FARM EQUIPMENT
Mill View Ranch is just a quick turn off the main street in Camino. A quaint farmhouse-style apple and craft shop is the first stop for visitors as they arrive at the farm. A pumpkin patch designed for young visitors has historic farm equipment and artistic additions that add to the farm-day experience. At the bottom of the farm, there is a re-created gold rush town complete with a red school house, jail, and candy shop. Old-fashioned wooden play equipment like a maze and see-saw entices younger visitors, and keep guests coming back for more.
Insider Tips: During the week, the play area is quieter so, for school groups and families, it’s the best time to visit. Dirt parking and outhouse-style restrooms are available.
Mill View Ranch |2740 Cable Rd, Camino, CA 95709 | 530-622-6885
Sun Mountain Farm, owned by Stan and Joel Geel, may just be apple-picking-perfection wrapped up in a hillside orchard: it boasts expansive views and the warmest owners in Apple Hill. These two have created a sustainable apple farm that not only respects the land where it was planted, but also aims to show future generations how apples are grown and harvested. The farm is only open for a month or two (depending on annual harvest): first, right when apple harvest starts around mid-September, and then for a brief time over the summer for blueberry picking. The best way to find out if they are open is to take a look at their website. Apple and blueberry picking is from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm on weekends.
Insider Tips: Email or call to set up a private picking appointment during the week to avoid the crowds and to spend some quality time with Mr. and Mrs. Geel. Bring cash and be prepared to work for your apples! Buckets are provided. Parking is hillside dirt parking. Outhouse-style restrooms available.
Sun Mountain Farm | 3000 North Canyon Rd, Camino, CA 95709 | 530-621-3740
Boa Vista is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and has been greeting visitors with a wide range of farm goods and experiences since 1915. We visit Boa Vista all year long and do much of our regular grocery shopping there. The farmstand offers local produce from neighboring farms along with apples from their own ranch. Off-season apple prices are the lowest we have found, so we buy boxes of apples throughout the spring and summer and the apples are some of our favorites. The farm has a pumpkin patch in fall, and cut-your-own Christmas trees during winter.
Insider Tips: We do some of our holiday shopping each year at Boa Vista. With more apple-inspired pantry goods offered than anywhere else, sending loved ones a piece of Apple Hill is easy and affordable. Grab a steaming cup of apple cider, a pastry or donut, and catch up around the cedar-burning wood fire to take the chill away. Large, shaded picnic areas are open to visitors that want to buy or bring lunch. Paved parking and restrooms with running water are available for guests.
Boa Vista | 2952 Carson Rd, Placerville, CA 95667 | 530-622-5522
Thank you so much, Heather!
Heather Palmer is a former wine marketing creative who has relocated to the Sierra foothills with her husband Ben and two young children. She writes for her blog farmtots.com that explores how families can bring the farm-to-fork movement home, and is a vocal advocate for nutrition, sustainable farming, and embracing the California-lifestyle of indoor-outdoor living.
[All photos c/o Heather Palmer with exception: top and bottom photo mine]