SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT (publ. 9/28/2013, page A4)
A Food & Wine guide incorrectly reported the location of Apple Hill. It is in El Dorado County.

Apple Hill is a tradition for the tens of thousands of Bay Area families, who head for the El Dorado County orchards each fall to pick up pie, cider and apples by the bushel. Families ramble through hay mazes, picnic under the trees and pull red wagons full of pumpkins and other harvest fare.

It's a whiff of autumns past, with the leaves drifting lazily downward and mellow sunshine warming the orchards.

Apple lovers browse the delicious, crisp offerings on Apple Hill.
Apple lovers browse the delicious, crisp offerings on Apple Hill. (Apple Hill Growers Association)

Almost every year since my almost-all-grown boys were tiny, we've made the trek to the apple orchards dotting the Sierra foothills of Camino and Placerville. Known properly as the Apple Hill Growers Association, a collection of more than 50 orchards, tree farms, wineries and bakeries, Apple Hill remains one of our favorite places in California.

Even more than the apple cider doughnuts or the architecturally impressive slabs of apple pie, it's the sweet, tart aroma of the apples that we remember.

That might be because, in our unbridled enthusiasm for the experience and the fruit, we tote bushel after bushel of apples back to the Bay Area. Ask my youngest son what he first recalls when he thinks of these autumn adventures, and he says without hesitating, "the way the car smells on the ride home."

Each fall, Apple Hill works a simple kind of magic. The growers offer their harvest, along with a chance to untether yourself from your electronics for a day and pretend that you live in a simpler time.

You can wander from orchard to orchard, buying apples, drinking cider and sampling doughnuts and those sky-high pies. It's not just the aroma of apples or the clear fall mountain air, says my son. You walk into a bakery, he says, and "it smells like grandmothers baking for the holidays."

After a deliciously arduous day of apple picking, families enjoy a picnic under the trees nearby.
After a deliciously arduous day of apple picking, families enjoy a picnic under the trees nearby. (Apple Hill Growers Association)

Apple Hill offers more than apple-based desserts. Some growers offer picnic tables, live music or pumpkin patches. You may feel ambitious enough to stop at the u-pick orchards. And while your kids may identify their favorite orchards by the farm critters -- "it's the one with the llama" -- the association also caters to adults with craft booths, a brewery, a spa and wineries.

Actually, the growers might have done a bit too well in luring the rest of us with the siren's call of apple pie, bushels of fruit and uncomplicated fun. Hillside roads can slow to a crawl on October weekends, and business can be hectic. The association offers shuttle buses to ease the burden, which probably work best if you're more interested in sampling than in carting home bushels of apples.

In any case, think about bringing along an empty cooler or two to tote home your fresh apple cider, frozen pies and more. We've been known to buy our Thanksgiving apple pie on these October pilgrimages. If you do happen to buy more apples than you'd ever imagined possible, they should keep well. We stuff as many apples as we can into the refrigerator and store the rest in our garage. Then, we munch and bake away.

Visiting Apple Hill

Plan your trip to Apple Hill's 50-plus orchards, bake shops and wineries in Camino, Cedar Grove, Placerville and Pollock Pines by going to the growers association website at www.applehill.com. Download the big map, find orchard hours and get the lowdown on pies, ciders, fritters, doughnuts and more.

Apple Inspiration

All those gorgeous Granny Smiths, Braeburns and Pink Lady apples are hard to resist, but what do you with all those bushels when you get home? Here are a few ideas:

  • Take a page from Kim Laidlaw's cookbook, "Williams-Sonoma Home Baked Comfort" (Weldon Owen, $34.95, 224 pages), and make an Apple Whisky Cake that dresses up or down. Top it with dollops of softly whipped cream for a dinner party, or tuck squares of the moist cake in your lunchbox for a workday treat.
  • Several Apple Hill farm stands are known for their highly addictive, cinnamon-sugar dusted cider doughnuts. Make your own with Stephen Colluci and Elizabeth Gunnison's instructions from their new, doughnut-centric cookbook, "Glazed, Filled, Sugared & Dipped" (Clarkson Potter, $17.99, 160 pages). Colluci, a pastry chef, is known as "Mr. Doughnut" at Tom Colicchio's Colicchio & Sons in New York City, where Colluci makes bombolini, zeppole, beignets and other variations on the doughnut theme.
  • Use up an abundance of apples by making homemade apple-cider applesauce. Then use the applesauce and fresh, juicy apples to moisten a memorable, streusel-topped coffee cake from the new "Martha Stewart's Cakes" cookbook (Clarkson Potter, $24.99, 352 pages).