Across the country, the reddening foliage signals the beginning of autumn, the waning days before months of snowfall, and the commencement of that time when each month requires yet another layer of clothing to protect against fall’s crispness and winter’s biting winds.
Yet here in sunny SoCal autumn is, well, pretty much like summer. Sure, we still go to the pumpkin patch, we still like to play in piles of leaves, and we still designate the theme song of “Monday Night Football” as the soundtrack of the season, but life is a little different in the land where crisp autumn days average a nippy high of 80 degrees.
Despite the weather’s obstinate insistence that it remain summery perfection, autumn days can’t help but make me yearn for some hot cider and a fresh-baked apple pie. Yes, fall is a spectacular season for crops with the cranberry and corn harvests of the year coming into their prime. Sure, pumpkin flavors pop up everywhere in ice cream, pancakes, and lattes. Yet there is no more definitive sign of autumn than the arrival of the year’s apples at orchards nationwide. And with the spectacular apple orchards in Oak Glen, a tiny town that is, in theory, incorporated into the larger Inland Empire city of Yucaipa (about an hour’s drive east on the ever-scenic I-10 from Claremont), Southern Californians can get their apple fix locally. Better yet, Oak Glen is a spectacular oasis of Midwest or New England farm-life gentility nestled into the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, as if a Norman Rockwell town was uprooted and randomly placed in the sweaty heart of the Inland Empire.
Who knew that any crops, let alone apples, which don’t particularly enjoy the sun’s heat, grew in this region? In Oak Glen, the pace is slower and the higher-elevation air is cleaner and cooler, so not only are the apples happier, but the people who make a living off all the apples seem much happier as well.
On weekends, when most of the apple orchards and farms are open to visitors, it seems as if all of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties decide it’s apple picking time and converge on tiny Oak Glen Road, the main thoroughfare for all apple tours. Arriving from Yucaipa on the western end, the first stop is Wood Acres Apple Ranch, owned and operated by Jim and Pat Wood for the past 32 years. Though you can’t pick your own apples here, there’s mighty fine fresh cider to be had. The place is also charming: it’s truly a classic old American apple orchard, a dying breed even in Oak Glen, where many of the establishments seem to have fallen pray to tourism.
A debate over who makes the area’s premier apple butter, apple cider, and apple pie is about as pointless as debating who makes the best tacos in Los Angeles; there are just so many terrific renditions in Oak Glen. The offerings from Parrish Pioneer Ranch, just up the hill from Wood Acres, are certainly right at the top. Their most noteworthy dish is an L.A. adaptation of the American standard apple pie: a fried apple burrito. Whether it’s healthier than a Chipotle carnitas burrito is questionable, but it’s definitely delicious.
Next up: the real land of tourists where the battle for parking spots makes Midtown Manhattan seem an idyllic driver’s ed training ground. The Oak Tree Village sprawls over 14 acres containing every activity under the sun that could possibly entertain a five year old. For those who are here on a mission to find the best apple pie in all of Southern California, the wedge at Law’s Coffee Shop is the winner; coated in warm cinnamon sauce, it’s far richer and more apple-packed than the critic’s darling, the slice offered at the Apple Pan in West L.A. Calories might as well go out the window as the best meals to be had consist in these pies, though the diner food isn’t bad here. Make sure to go all-out apple and try the apple pancakes before 11 a.m.
The single greatest food or drink item I’ve ever sampled at a college dining hall is the fresh apple cider from Miller Orchards, always available at Stephenson Dining Hall at Oberlin College in Ohio where I attended my freshman year. The cider at Law’s comes awfully close to Miller’s version, making me wonder why the world always drinks apple juice instead of just fresh cider. The difference is like fresh heirloom tomatoes compared to canned tomato paste.
Best of all is Law’s classic coffeehouse atmosphere; the place has been around for 79 years, and with its formica-topped bar, looks like it hasn’t been touched since Hoover was in charge. But be warned, Law’s can get unbearably swamped on weekends – I have never seen a more hectic atmosphere for a waitstaff.
Next along the road is Snow-Line Orchard, whose main attraction is its freshly baked and fried miniature apple cider doughnuts, available in a half or full dozen. Coated with a two-inch layer of apple cinnamon sugar, the sack of doughnuts didn’t survive more than two minutes before being devoured. The fluffy texture is exquisite, but the flavor is somewhat plain, certainly not at all like cider. Snow-Line is the only orchard that allows extensive sampling, so make a meal trying their Empire, Pippins, and Matsus, all washed down with tiny tastes of plain, cherry, or the especially delightful raspberry apple cider.
Riley’s at Los Rios Rancho is to Oak Glen what Robert Mondavi is to the Napa Valley: the real touristy spot, complete with barbeque and all your picnic needs, where it seems every family stops. There is plenty of u-picking here for both apples and pumpkins. Riley’s original ranch is also in operation at the southeastern end of Oak Glen Road, which happens to be the only farm that charges for parking. Neither experience is negative; the former is simply more corporate feeling and geared to the masses.
Yet for the quintessential apple picking experience in Oak Glen, a visit to Willowbrook Apple Farm is obligatory. The six-year-old farm is small enough for apple-seekers to meet every member of the Swanson family, which owns the farm, along with family friends, Comet the pony, and Blossom, the incredibly well-groomed potbelly pig. The owner’s daughter’s former boyfriend happened to be my helper when I was pressing my own cider (he swore they were still friends).
Did I mention I pressed my own cider? Willowbrook is one of two places (Los Rios Rancho being the other) where you can complete the exhausting three-part task: it takes upward of fifteen minutes to grind, press, and push through 20 pounds of apples to make a single gallon of cider. I felt downright ripped after pressing my crop of apples for my gallon. But you’ll never get fresher cider than this, straight from the Staymen Winesap apples on the farm, the only variety that their trees produce.
It may still feel like summer beach weather, but I can now say for certain that it’s definitely autumn. After a visit to the apple town of Oak Glen, you’ll know it too.
*Apple Farms, all addresses in Oak Glen, CA*
Wood Acres Apple Ranch 38003 Potato Canyon Rd. Open Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Parrish Pioneer Ranch 38561 Oak Glen Rd. Open Wednesday-Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Law’s Coffee Shop 39392 Oak Glen Rd. Open daily at 8 a.m. Monday-Thursday until 3 p.m., Friday until 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday until 5 p.m.
Snow-Line Orchard 39400 Oak Glen Rd. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Riley’s at Los Rios Rancho 39611 Oak Glen Rd. Open Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Riley’s Apple Farm 12201 South Oak Glen Rd. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m.; weekends until 5 p.m.