Ah, the lure of cold-weather culture.
Where is it written that autumn comes clothed in brilliant reds and golds, chilly nights and brisk days? That children bundle up to pick out their pumpkins while grown-ups sip hot apple cider?
Lots of books, that's where.
It is the Official View of Autumn. It says right here in one of those books--published back East--that autumn is when Jack Frost softly glazes that land with icy dew, and kids get to jump into huge piles of gaudily colored leaves.
Well, not in Orange County. At least, not to any great extent. Here, we measure fall by the empty beaches, less-crowded restaurants, school activities, elections and a stray deciduous tree here and there doing its exhibitionist best to shed its coat like its cousins in colder climes.
But those hankering for a taste of the Real Autumn are not entirely out of luck. They have only to hop into their cars and head for Oak Glen.
There, a 1 1/2- to 2-hour drive from most of Orange County, is a picturesque mountain community of apple and cherry orchards and enough oaks to make Chip 'n' Dale think they died and went to Acorn Central. It is as if the Starship Enterprise beamed you into New England, except for the drier air and occasional lizard.
And while you are ogling the fall colors, you can reacquaint yourself with perhaps the most American of foods.
In Oak Glen, the apple is king, all the oaks notwithstanding.
At nearly a mile high, Oak Glen and neighboring Cherry Valley have the brisk climate to produce 26 varieties of apples, from the popular Red Delicious to the more exotic Arkansas Black. Also grown there, in lesser numbers, are pears, cherries, raspberries, chestnuts, gourds, Indian corn, pumpkins, quinces and winter squash.
Depending on the weather, the leaves change in late October, and the apple season, which began in September, extends to early December. This year, warm weather has delayed the process, so the leaves should be changing through November. Only fools and strangers bet on the exact week.
But visitors in the next few weeks will experience all the trappings of fall: majestic, leafy oaks, piles o' pumpkins, scarecrows, weathered fences, acorns underfoot, hot apple cider and enough other apple products to keep the doctor away at least until spring. These include apple fritters, apple dumplings, apple tarts, caramel apples, apple candy, candied apples, apple cake and, of course, apple pies. Most of the orchards are situated along Oak Glen Road's "loop." There are outlets about every mile or every few hundred yards, depending on where you are on the loop, which can be approached either from Yucaipa to the west or Beaumont to the south.
Another attraction, at least to those of geological bent, is the presence of the huge Banning Fault, which runs through the valley and intersects with the southern leg of the San Andreas. Although the folks in Oak Glen are happy to answer any questions about oaks or apples, they are decidedly quiet when it comes to the geological strata. They acknowledge it, but reluctantly, as you would own up to having a weird relative. It's as if the townspeople would like to say, all at once: "It's not our fault! How do you like them apples!"
Can you blame them? This is darn near paradise up here.
Settled in 1866, the glen is spread over rolling hills 5,000 feet up along the Riverside and San Bernardino county border in the shadow of 11,485-foot Mt. San Gorgonio. Fifteen ranches grow a total of more than 360 acres of apples. Several orchards offer "U-pick" outings (most of which are now closed, due to the warmer-than-usual weather), and some have quite elaborate stores.
One such operation has two locations: Snow-line Orchards in Oak Glen and Four Oaks Ranch in Cherry Valley, about a 15-minute drive from Oak Glen.
The apples grown at Four Oaks are sold at both places and are pressed into cider at Snow-line in a 100-year-old cider mill. Four Oaks has an open, mountaintop feel to it, with scenic vistas; a small zoo with ponies, hogs, goats, ducks and guinea hens; a U-pick orchard, and a U-squeeze cider shack. The U-pick orchard is nearly picked out, but the cart rides out to the orchards will continue in any case. The apple store and cider shack at Four Oaks will remain open through this weekend, and operations will then move to the Snow-Line store.
Snow-line is nestled in a tree-lined hollow and has a shaded picnic area under what the owners say is the oldest chestnut tree in California. There is no U-pick operation here, except for the chestnuts, which are usually scarfed up by curious picnickers before the farm workers can get to them.
Owners Mert and Shirley Hudson have been leasing and running Snow-line for 15 years, ever since Mert, 56, retired after 22 years in the Army. For the past 8 years they have been assisted by Mert's parents, Mason and Irene Simpson, who are known around the valley as Ma and Pa Apple.
"Instead of being retired, I'm tired," jokes white-haired Mason, 78, as he and his wife bustle around Snow-line's apple store clad in red aprons, offering apple slices to customers and discussing the relative merits of the various types. He encourages visitors to ask him questions, saying as he points to his son, "What I don't know about apples, he does."
Cider is pressed in an old, red, corrugated steel-walled building two or three days a week and stored in 400-gallon redwood tanks. Five varieties go into the blend, Mert Hudson says. The apples are grown at the family orchards at Four Oaks Ranch, where the Hudsons eventually plan to move all their operations.
Other family members run the store and orchards at Four Oaks: Rhonda Bowen, 26, the Hudsons' daughter, works the cash register as her husband, Joe, 27, and her brother Michael, 17, take visitors out to the orchards in a tractor-pulled cart and help them make their own cider in the cider house.
Situated high on a ridge, the ranch affords a spectacular view of the valley. Joe Bowen says that "on a clear day, you can see Lake Perris."
Visitors to the apple store pay from $15.50 to $20.50 per bushel (38 to 42 pounds), depending on the variety. Peck bags (10 pounds) start at about $4. Prices are slightly lower for the U-pick apples.
It is easy to get acquisitive out there among all those glorious apples just aching to be picked. The Bowens ask U-pick customers to look the apples over carefully before picking, so they don't wind up tossing them on the ground because of real or perceived flaws. "One guy kept picking them and throwing them away," Joe Bowen says. "We told him, 'You can't do that.' We just ask people not to be wasteful, to keep what you pick within reason." Ladders aren't needed at this orchard; the trees are semi-dwarf and some of the fruit is even within the reach of toddlers.
Customers who make their own cider in the cider shack are given crates full of apples that are specially blended. The six small wooden presses are operated with crank wheels, which grind the apples into must, or pulp. Then another wheel is turned, pushing the pulp down into a basket until the juice runs into a wooden box, where it is poured into a bottle after being filtered with a cloth.
People aren't the only critters to appreciate the orchard's bounty. Four Oaks would have a healthy crop of pears "if it wasn't for those bears," says Joe Bowen, pointing out some bear droppings as proof. The black bears don't really bother anyone, because they come out at night to feast, but they have been getting more numerous lately, Bowen says. More noticeably present are the bees, especially around the cider shack. But they generally aren't a problem unless visitors rile them up by swatting at them. Orchard operators don't mind the bees and in fact even import them in the spring to pollinate the trees. Apple blossom honey is sold at most of the apple outlets in Oak Glen, including Four Oaks.
Oak Glen has several other large orchard outlets of note.
Riley's Farm and Orchard is the first major outlet along Oak Glen Road up from Beaumont. Riley's has a century-old packing shed and offers apple and pear products, wagon rides, scenic trails, U-pick apples (now closed) and U-press cider.
The farm will be having a hoedown all day today and Sunday with music, square dancing, hayrides, ribs and corn on the cob. Riley's is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through mid-December.
The largest orchard in Oak Glen is 320-acre Los Rios Rancho, on Oak Glen Road, with 150 acres of apples. Founded in 1906 by Howard L. Rivers, it is still operated by the Rivers family. Los Rios has 16 varieties of apples for sale in a modern, though rustic-flavored, building. A gourmet specialty shop sells apple products, nuts, jams, jellies and other fruits and vegetables, and a bakery dishes out apple pastries, pies and cakes. The ranch has a U-pick orchard (now closed), three shaded picnic areas, a cider mill and a winery with a tasting room that has samples of hard cider, apple wine and berry wines. Los Rios is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily until January, when it will be open on weekends.
The Parrish Pioneer Ranch, open year-round from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, is a tree-shaded (those oaks again) complex of shops, a restaurant and an apple barn. The ranch was founded in the 1860s by Enoch Parrish, who, local history says, planted the first apple tree in the glen. The old equipment and horse barn is now the Green Apple Restaurant, and the Parrish House, built in 1876, is an antique store. There is also a small zoo with emus, goats, a llama and various fowl.
Just down the road from Parrish Ranch is Oak Tree Village, which has shops, a restaurant, a bakery, a wildlife museum and an animal park with deer that children can feed. The village is open year-round from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and has apple products, leather goods, arts and crafts, jewelry, toys, blown glass, Christmas decor and lots of country stuff.
Another attraction in Oak Glen is an old stone schoolhouse built in 1928. Now a museum, it retains the one-room schoolhouse facilities of yesteryear, a butterfly collection and exhibits about the area's bear population and the growth of the apple industry. The schoolhouse is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until Thanksgiving. Admission: 25 cents.
Right next to the schoolhouse is a well-equipped, tree-shaded playground. It is the perfect place to uncap a bottle of cider and kick back while the kids are testing the laws of physics.