The role of apples in societal lore is well documented. From the snake in the Garden of Eden encouraging Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge what has come to be thought of as an apple to Johnny Appleseed and his pot hat spreading seeds all over America to my own Jewish tradition of apples and honey for a sweet new year, apples are that most iconic of fruit. It is the one we put on a teacher’s desk, the one we make into pie or strudel most often, and even the one on the back of the phone on which I am typing this article.
For those of us in Southern California, we have an opportunity each fall to be a part of the story of the apple, playing a small role in its continued place in the evolution of our own history. We can do so by visiting Oak Glen.
About ninety minutes east of Los Angeles, tucked into the mountains overlooking the San Gorgonio Pass (the cities of Beaumont and Banning before one hits Palm Springs), Oak Glen sits at mile-high altitude, perfect for growing apples of all colors, shapes, and sizes. And for those who make the day trip out during early fall – Labor Day through early November – that journey is rewarded by the chance to pick your own apples, eat all sorts of apple treats, and even press your own cider.
Oak Glen is idyllic, apple trees and mountains
The area has a number of these “you-pick” orchards of varying sizes, ranging from the huge Riley’s and Los Rios farms to much smaller ones. I chose to do my apple picking at the historic Stone Pantry Orchard, a nine acre parcel of land owned since 1987 by Freeman House, a retired teacher and musician. He greets me dressed in his attire to play fiddle later on at Riley’s Farm, an old-time costume that seems oddly at home here in the orchard.
The stone pantry
Stone Pantry, so named for the – you guessed it – stone pantry dating from 1887, has been growing apples about as long as anyone here, even, some say, as far back as 1867, when Enoch Kidder Parrish planted the first trees in what had been mostly oak groves. Containing more than 200 trees of twenty-five varietals, the orchard allows free wandering to pick apples with your hands or extended-range pickers, paying $3 per pound (of course not including a snack while you pick) regardless of variety. It is a bit later in the season, so I grab about six pounds of Golden Delicious, Winesap, the local Glen Seedling, and two of the few remaining Jonathan apples. Most other varieties have been picked clean over the past month, but some of these trees are so laden that one feels like Isaac Newton waiting for a hit on the head.
Me trying to get one of the few Jonathan apples at the top of this tree
Freeman takes immense pride in his orchard, and I love the way it still seems a bit wild, not planted in neat rows as some are. I wander past blackberry bushes to find seemingly hidden groves of apple trees, each turn a surprise. The mountains as the backdrop, recently charred from the El Dorado Fire, it is a beautiful place to spend the morning. He tells me that each tree can produce up to 30 bushels of apples, forcing me to ask what a bushel is. A bushel is a five-gallon bucket or crate full. Some of his trees are up to 100 years old, others are younger and smaller, the apples seeming to weigh the smaller trunks down. Social distancing is easy, even with many other apple lovers picking in the orchard, or at Stone Pantry’s hand-cranked cider press.
So many apples! These are golden delicious.
My bulging bag of apples safely in the trunk of my car, I head two miles down Oak Glen Road to another historic orchard, Snow Line. Unlike Stone Pantry, Snow Line is not a you-pick orchard, though it does have raspberries for picking earlier in the year. Owned for the past 40 years by the Hudson family, the third generation of which is working behind a counter today, it began as a working orchard in 1898. Today, it is best known for its apple products: cider (hard and non-alcoholic, though they are out of hard cider today), apple butter, pies, brandy, and apple cider donuts that are worth the line wrapping around their store.
Situated in ten acres here with a further 100 acre orchard off-site, Snow Line Orchard is a great place to come with a picnic lunch. They have lawns, benches and tables, live music, a buzzing atmosphere, and the oldest chestnut tree this side of the Mississippi! Oh yeah, and they also have a full winery and distillery. The place is open on weekends throughout the year, but seven days a week during the harvest, like now through November.
Snow Line is the perfect place for a picnic!
Owner Mike Hudson (his wife Sonja co-owns the property with him) pours me an Apple Spark, the orchard’s incredible cider with a splash of champagne, and brings a small bag of warm mini donuts. I’ve eaten a lot of amazing things in a lot of amazing places, and seriously, these can hang with any of it. His father’s recipe, these have been Snow Line’s best seller for decades, and for good reason. A perfect combination of crispy and moist, topped with cinnamon and sugar, my only regret is not having had them in the prior 39 years of my life.
These would be worth nearly any wait. Trust me on that.
Apple brandy and apple butter purchased from the orchard’s store, tummy feeling all warm and cozy from cider and donuts, it’s back down the mountain to LA, past other orchards, restaurants, and attractions that beckon to be explored on a future trip. And there will be a future trip. After all, the apples of Oak Glen are some of the best, and the friendliness of the orchard owners is even better!
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