Food & Drink

The best of Apple Hill: An expert guide to the foothills’ orchards and food stops

I remember sitting on the lawn outside Larsen’s when I stumbled across a four-leaf clover with my late grandmother.

I remember the grumpy old man at Bill and Felice’s crank an apple peeler for me.

I remember my mom snapping a photo of what must have been the most ginormous apple-filled crate a baby me had ever seen.

And I remember swinging on a tire at Apple Ridge Farms only to be interrupted by the smell of warm caramel apple slices my dad had just bought.

I always loved going to Apple Hill.

A lot has changed since our family made the annual trip to our cabin in Pollock Pines. The water wheel at Larsen’s is no longer functional, Bodhaine’s is under new management, the tire swing at Apple Ridge is gone and Bill and Felice have since passed.

Despite the changes, on a warm Sunday afternoon I’m too busy sipping cider, eating a warm donut and taking in the view of an orchard to think about anything else.

Hundreds of thousands of people descend on Apple Hill every year because it has so much to offer, and I want everyone to be able to enjoy themselves. It can be stressful navigating through traffic, fighting for a good place to pick apples and searching for a decent lunch spot.

I’ve visited the area three times this year and have yet to be disappointed. With that in mind, here’s an expert’s guide to Apple Hill:

When should I go?

Now is the perfect time to go to Apple Hill to beat the mid-October crowds. While some of your favorite apples, such as Granny Smiths and Fujis may not yet be in season, there’s no shortage of things to do and places to eat. Regardless of the timing of your trip, you’ll want to leave early in the morning. I recommend leaving home early Saturday morning, traveling to the furthermost point of Apple Hill and working your way back toward Placerville from there. You’ll still face your fair share of traffic, but this is a good way to minimize the burden.

How do I get there?

Unlike previous years, El Dorado County is not offering shuttle service through Apple Hill. If you’ll be driving, you should plan to arrive in the small town of Camino at 9 a.m. and begin your day at Bill’s Apples and Felice’s Dolls, where they have a small selection of apples. Make sure to grab a 2019-20 pamphlet while you’re there, as it has an Apple Hill map toward the back of it.

What are the hours Apple Hill is open?

Some sites, such as Boa Vista, are open year-round. Others, however, begin closing down for the season around Thanksgiving. Sites are generally open on weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Hours can vary slightly from place to place.

Where should I go?

These are the places you should visit in order of appearance:

Bill’s Apples and Felice’s Dolls: Grab a couple of Honeycrisps and take a walk around the building near the flowers and benches. Start your morning with a three-minute walk and the purchase of a couple apples to get in the mood.

O’Holleran’s Apple Trail Ranch: There may be better places to get apples, but this site is right up the hill from Bill’s and has a nice pumpkin patch. If you need something to do before the next stop opens, this is a good place to spend time.

Bodhaine Ranch: At 9:30 a.m., Bodhaine’s opens for business. You should come hungry, as they have delicious pie available fresh by the slice or frozen to take home. The chef tells me they sell around 20,000 blackberry apple sour cream pies in a season. It comes with a $19.25 price tag, but it is well worth it. The instructions don’t require time to thaw when you get home. Just bake it for an hour and half and give it a few hours to rest. If you’re feeling simple, get a slice of the french apple pie and ask for it to be warmed up. I wasn’t as big of a fan of the rhubarb or traditional apple pies.

Grandpa’s Cellar: This is not on the map, but is a must-stop attraction. It opens at 10 a.m., and there’s delicious apple turnovers in their bakery and killer apple butter in the store to the left. For a healthier alternative, you should buy the granola on the back shelf. It goes great with yogurt and could be a nice substitute for cereal in the morning.

Apple Ridge Farms: If you have kids, there’s a small mining area and cutouts for taking photos. There are also several merchants selling a variety of artistic goods. Barring that, this is a spot you could skip over and not miss out on too much.

Denver Dan’s Apple Patch: This is the prime spot for apple picking, though the setup can be confusing. When you enter the shed, you’ll find empty buckets and a map with directions on where to pick your apple of choice. Rather than going behind the shed, though, you’ll likely want to cross the road on the opposite side of the parking lot. In the distance, you’ll see a sign telling you where apples are. The labeling isn’t great and the map can be difficult to follow. But as far as the taste of the apples, this might be your best picking spot. Just make sure to ask a clerk which apples are ripe.

Rainbow Orchards: Parking can start to get messy as you get closer to the middle of Apple Hill. Even so, you must make a trip for hot apple cider donuts – one is not enough. There’s no shortage of picnic tables if you bring your own lunch, and it’s a good spot to buy peaches. From here, you can go to High Hill Ranch and Fudge Factory Farm, but I prefer to dodge that area due to the crowds. If you do stop for fudge, though, make sure to get a sample of the peanut butter chocolate.

Delfino Farms (formerly Kids Inc.): Make a right turn as you exit Rainbow Orchards, then turn left when you approach Larsen Apple Barn in a couple thousand feet. You’ll stay on that road for about three miles until you get here. Upon arrival to Delfino, you’ll be greeted with a plate of apples. You’ve got to try the special Redji apple — a unique hybrid combining Red Delicious and Fuji – two apples that would otherwise be terrible on their own. Oddly enough, this combination works. The desserts in the bakery are expensive, and I’m sad to report the walkin’ pie didn’t cut it for me. If you’re getting a treat, I’d recommend a simple apple crisp with ice cream on top. The highlight of Delfino Farms is the hill for kids to roll down and the view of the vineyard. The farm offers a walking trail, though I’d recommend you take a pass on it. There’s nothing special, as construction is currently underway.

Boa Vista: This is perhaps the most popular attraction at Apple Hill. From fresh caramel apples to frozen pies, you are in store for a treat at Boa Vista. When you arrive, you must visit the sampling station to try all the different apples in season. Honeycrisps are the best! Be warned the traffic is heavy, but it is well worth it.

Abel’s Apple Acres: There’s no shortage of treats at Abel’s. While I don’t find it to be the best in any particular area, it does have good variety and is very kid-friendly. Also of note are the BBQ sandwiches and hot dogs. There’s few places to get a decent lunch at Apple Hill, and this is one of them. Once you wrap up here, you can drive south for a couple miles before merging on the highway to make your way back to Sacramento or the Bay Area.

Note: You must get your apple cider from Barsotti’s. The actual juice company keeps its office closed, but it is sold at a variety of locations across Apple Hill. It may be hard to find, but cash in on the opportunity if you find it.

Which apples are in season right now?

Orchards are still harvesting, and many of the best apples begin to go on sale in October. Honeycrisps are perhaps the best-tasting apple on sale at most locations. The Redji has become a fan favorite a fan favorite at Delfino’s. By the end of September, I couldn’t find a single location selling Granny Smiths – arguably the best apple for baking pie. In the meantime, you can settle for a Golden Delicious for your baking needs. Winesaps and Pink Ladies are about to hit the market and you need to pick them up while you can if you prefer something sweet. An Apple Hill harvest calendar can be found online.

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Bryan Anderson is a political reporter for The Bee. He covers the California Legislature and reports on wildfires and transportation. He also hosts The Bee’s “California Nation” podcast.