APPLE HILL WASN’T ALWAYS THE PLACE TO GO FOR APPLE PIE.
Before this El Dorado County destination started attracting more than 1 million visitors annually for apple harvest season, pears were its main crop.
“There used to be a saying that a pear eaten in America in the ’40s and ’50s came from Placer County or El Dorado County because there were thousands of acres of pears,” says Chris Delfino, president of Apple Hill Growers association and son of one of the group’s founders, Edio Delfino, the county’s agricultural commissioner for 33 years.
But a terrible crop disease in the 1960s wiped out the pear industry. Edio and three other men encouraged farmers to plant more apple trees. Later came grapes. They formed an association, and 16 farms grew to more than 50, with the annual apple season—generally September to December—generating about $60 million in direct spending.
“Every farm is different in its own right,” Delfino says. “Some are very small, but they have some cool little things, and some are enormous and they have a lot of things to offer. They’re all unique.”
Here’s a look at nine Apple Hill businesses.
1. High Hill Ranch
It’s hard to miss High Hill Ranch. The 155-acre ranch at 2901 High Hill Road is among the largest in the area—and the most visited (as the parking lot will tell you). And for good reason. Visitors can spend a whole day on this one property, dining on apple doughnuts and caramel apples, enjoying pony rides for the kids, trout fishing in the pond and perusing the displays of more than 75 artisans selling handmade leather works, sculptures, paintings, jewelry, knitted clothes and more.
High Hill’s bakery offers apple pies and other baked goods. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are also wagon hayride tours of the apple orchard and a pumpkin patch where visitors can pick their own. highhillranch.com
2. Delfino Farms
For farmer Chris Delfino, there’s no greater feeling than seeing the fruits of his labor, like he experiences when visitors descend upon Delfino Farms at 3205 N. Canyon Road.
Chris’s parents, Edio and Joan Delfino, purchased the 20-acre farm in 1962, planted 2,600 apple trees and in 1964 opened to visitors. In 2002, Chris returned home and spent the next two decades learning how to farm like his dad. His wife, Robyn, learned how to bake like his mom. The family-run business now includes the fourth generation.
Delfino Farms’ Edio Vineyards is open year-round for tastings of their small-batch wines. They also sell hard ciders made from apples and blackberries grown at the farm. Joan’s Apple Bakery opens during harvest season; in addition to pies, they make between 200 and 300 apple fritters each weekend in October. delfinofarms.com
3. Fudge Factory Farm
Something seems to happen to customers at Fudge Factory Farm at 2860 High Hill Road. They rediscover the joys of childhood. “I love to see everyone turn into a child when they come into the Fudge Factory,” says owner Jean Reinders, who launched the business with her late husband, Ren, in 1985. She now runs the business with her daughter, Seana Hartsell.
Fudge Factory is one of the few women-owned and run farms in Apple Hill. Friendly alpacas and other farm animals delight visitors, plus there’s house-made fudge—in about two dozen flavors—and candy apples, rocky road clusters and ice cream sundaes. Customers can also indulge in organically grown fruit, including raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, marionberries and, yes, apples. This fruit also finds its way into house-made jams, jellies, baked goods and wines.
“We upgraded our playground with lots of fun things to do,” Reinders says of this season. “We have a new line of chocolates coming out this fall.” fudgefactoryfarm.com
4. Rainbow Orchards
When Tom Heflin and Christa Campbell purchased Rainbow Orchards at 2569 Larsen Drive in 1977, they got something extra special: the recipe for Rainbow’s famed hot apple cider doughnuts, a tradition since 1964. “When visitors ask for the recipe, I say they have to buy the whole farm,” Christa says.
They make the doughnuts with fresh apple cider milled on-site and served hot right out of the fryer. Wine and hard cider tastings are held on weekends. “Visitors can watch the process of pressing and bottling the cider,” Christa says.
A grassy picnic space accommodates customers as they dine on tri-tip barbecue, pies, cobblers, crisps and other treats. Customers can also buy apples, pears, blueberries, blackberries, peaches, nectarines, pumpkins, winter squash and ornamental corn. A play area offers a hay bale hop-a-crooked-mile activity for kids. rainboworchards.net
5. Hidden Star Camino
Johann Smit, co-owner of Hidden Star Camino at 2740 Cable Road, says being open year-round—unlike many spots in Apple Hill—gives him more time to have conversations with customers about the craft hard ciders served at his taproom.
They’ve got apple cider and blends like cherry apple, pomegranate apple, lemon apple and grape apple. “We go all the way from beer styles to wine styles to kombucha styles to mixed-drink styles—all cider-format,” says Smit, who with his life partner, Wendy Holm, bought the abandoned farm in 2019.
Families are welcome, with picnic tables and benches where you can eat the lunch menu of bites. Shorty’s Doughnuts runs the bakery, selling artisan doughnuts, pastries and pies. For apple season, about a dozen craft vendors will be on-site. A children’s area is “designed for kids to be untethered” and consists of play structures using natural or repurposed wood and other local materials. hiddenstarcamino.com
6. Apple Ridge Farms
Kandi and Steve Tuso often took their two children to Apple Hill for family outings. Then, in 2009, they had an idea: Why not buy a farm there? “We always love to say we came up for apple doughnuts, we went home with the apple ranch,” Kandi says.
They established the 20-acre Apple Ridge Farms at 1800 Larsen Drive. They have a Country Store with homemade fudge, chocolates, jams, jellies and gifts. Their barbecue house has a 500-pound smoker where they prepare their own meats and house-made chicken pot pie, and from the bakery customers can buy apple pies and other baked goods to enjoy in the grassy picnic area.
There’s an apple barn, hay maze, nature trail, gemstone mining for kids, 50,000 zinnia flowers in bloom in September and a pumpkin patch. On Fridays through Sundays, about 40 artisans sell handmade soaps, jewelry, paintings, pottery and other items. “What we get from a lot of our customers, they call it the Disneyland of Apple Hill,” Kandi says. appleridgefarms.com
7. Grandpa’s Cellar
Parents exhausted from a full day of exploring Apple Hill are in luck when they arrive at Grandpa’s Cellar at 2360 Cable Road. They’ve got coffee flights of all sorts of flavors, says Jericho Kelsey, co-owner with his wife, Becka.
“This is our third season of owning Grandpa’s Cellar, and Becka wanted to put our stamp on Grandpa’s Cellar,” Jericho says. “So she went up to the bakery and made 20 different coffee flavors in a matter of two months.”
Grandpa’s Cellar started in the 1970s as a roadside stand and expanded a few years later to include a bakery and gift shop. They sell a variety of fresh baked and frozen pies along with jams and jellies. They also offer gluten-free baked treats, including mini pies, apple crisps and muffins to enjoy while surrounded by 100-year-old apple trees. grandpacellar.com
8. O’Halloran’s Apple Trail Ranch
Regular visitors to O’Halloran’s Apple Trail Ranch at 2261 Cable Road will see a familiar sight. Decades after husband-and-wife Pat and Donna O’Halloran started the farm in 1968, Donna, now in her 90s, still goes out every day during apple season to greet customers.
“People love to come and see her,” says Laurel O’Halloran, who manages social media and is married to Donna’s youngest son.
Pat—who died in June 2020—always wanted to stay true to the rural farming operation and refrained from the more entertainment-driven options of some other locations, Laurel says. “This is a running apple farm business. We’re not making apple pies. We’re selling apples. You come in, pick apples out of their bins.”
O’Halloran’s grows 16 apple varieties, plus pears and squash, and it also sells Indian corn, apple cider and apple butter. The biggest attraction is a 3-acre pumpkin patch where families can cut pumpkins from the vine. Later in the season, customers can cut Christmas trees. Additionally, they offer a hiking trail and picnic area. ohalloranranch.com
9. Harris Family Farm
Like so many of Apple Hill’s farms, Harris Family Farm at 2640 Blair Road started with dreams of a better life. That’s what led brothers John and James Blair to travel to California in 1857. Their brother, Matthew, arrived soon after and homesteaded 160 acres. The land remains in the family today, with sisters Jane and Pam Harris in charge.
Their pie shop sells pies, doughnuts, turnovers, jams and lunch food. Visitors can also buy apples, pumpkins, pickles, cider and fresh eggs. The location stays open through Christmas, giving customers a chance to cut a tree or buy a freshly made wreath. They offer jam classes, high tea events, a nature trail, rock painting and gem mining for kids. The farm also accommodates campers on its large forested acreage. harrisfamilyfarm.com