The rising autumn sun over the eastern Sierra, the sparkling apples gently swaying on tree limbs, the smell of freshly cooked pies permeating through the early morning air all greet visitors to a new day at Apple Hill, where a group of about 50 orchards and ranches dot the fertile hills.
Located near Placerville, Calif., which is centrally located to visitors from either the San Francisco Bay Area or western Nevada, Apple Hill features orchards and farms dedicated to the apple gods, while artists from all walks of life and backgrounds design and make some of the finest made items in the West.
Apple Hill started with a handful of orchards and farms in the 1960s and celebrates its 50th anniversary next year. During the years, the area has become equally popular for Northern Californians taking the short drive to the Sierra foothills or for Nevadans traversing the high passes around Lake Tahoe on U.S. Highway 50.
For many Fallon residents, the three-hour trek has become an annual trip for both the area’s civilians and military families. Organized by Naval Air Station Fallon’s ITT (Information, Tickets and Tours) office, the one-day trip allows people to buy crafts and food, and for some, to sample apple wine and various pastries.
“This is definitely one of our most popular trips behind our Victorian Christmas to Nevada City,” said Sharilyn Yarsley, manger of Tickets and Tours. “We’ve been doing this tour for 10 years.”
When the word goes out in Churchill County that ITT has begun taking reservations for Apple Hill the tour fills up quickly for its late October excursion. First and foremost, Yarsley said travelers primarily enjoy the two most popular farms —High Hill Ranch and Boa Vista Orchards — and they are usually the first stops on the itinerary. Most visitors to High Hill Ranch, though, immediately fall in love with the scores of small shops, many of which that carry handcrafted items.
A handmade passion
“This ranch requires everything to be handcrafted by the artistswho show,” said Victoria Cretz, whose display has clocks and shadowboxes, among other items. “My husband and I make all the miniatures here. Yesterday, we sold two showdown boxes to two women from Merced (Calif.)”
Tom and Victoria Cretz have been showing their crafts at Apple Hill for 12 years, while some of their friends have been regular vendors for more than two decades. For many years, however, the Cretzs drove an hour from the Bay Area to Apple Hill, but when both of them retired in January, they relocate to the foothills.
“We’re here sun, rain, snow, hail. We’re professional crafters prepared to sell,” she said with a laugh.
Although the ranch is open seven days a week, Tom and Victoria Cretz sell for at least four days, but for them and other crafters, October and the first two weeks of November are the prime months for showing their items and selling that special craft for a holiday present.
“We show to many people, especially in October, our prime month,” Victoria Cretz said.
To illustrate her point, Victoria Cretz shedded light on October. She said many Californians travel to Apple Hill during the three-day Columbus Day holiday in early October, while scores of Nevadans visit on the Nevada Day holiday held on the last Friday of the month.
Around the corner from the miniature crafts, David and Faye Soares have been enjoying their time at Apple Hill. David stained glass for more than 25 years and later learned how to blow glass. Faye, who was laid off as a florist, was already an accomplished artist, something she learned and refined as a young girl.
“We had to reinvent ourselves,” David said, after they found themselves both out of work.
Faye, who has been painting since she was 10 years old, attended art schools in her younger days and developed a love to paint portraits.
“Animals sell,” she quipped. “Everyone loves the pets.”
“Lots of dogs come here and bring their people with them,” he said, grinning.
Faye said they see many people in October when the weather produces sunny, clear skies and warm temperatures, and in November when the weather begins to turn colder with more chances for rain, others visit the ranch to look for holiday gifts and food.
“In October, people are getting over the back-to-school shock and they want to get out and do something,” David said. “Plus, you have the apples and different things to do up here.”
In addition to looking at crafts and eating a variety of foods, families can visit either the pumpkin patch or a fishing pond. Hayrides slowly take families around the ranch property..
Not quite 10 in the morning and the lines snake into the Fudge Factory, a business that has been at High Hill for 28 years.
“Dad was into wine, mom into candy,” said daughter Seanna Hartsell of her family, the Reinders. “My mom was looking for a business and what Apple Hill had to offer.”
The rest has been a sweet journey.
Harstell said October and the first two weeks of November are busy for them. Sometimes, the line extends past the door and winds around the corner on a narrow walkway.
“We use our own fruit, which is organic,” Hartsell explained. “If we run out of something, we don’t buy from others. We use what we grow.”
Hartsell said the shop offers 74 flavors of fudge but keeps 27 flavors on hand for patrons to choose.
Candy-coated apples … Hartsell said they come in 17 flavors. And what about other treats?
“We have sugar free candy and now bacon bars,” she pointed out. “They are going over like crazy. We can’t keep them in.”
Cider, pies and crafts
Down the road at the Boa Vista Orchards, visitors can peruse the grounds for fresh fruits and vegetables, taste homemade apple cider and pies and sample wine, jams, jellies and fruit butters.
“My family has been here for 25 years, selling a variety of items like rocks, fossils and gems,” said Anne Sutley, who on this day, was helping a friend sell scarves at another booth. “My father, brothers all first came here when they (Boa Vista) was attracting crafters.”
Sutley said Apple Hill is a dream for many crafters because of the wide-open spaces, hundreds of acres and thousands of visitors week after week. Sutley, though, is extremely proud of Boa Vista and the owners.
“They treat us well,” she said. “They have apple cider and pies and have won awards for those items.”
Like the other crafters at High Hill Ranch, Sutley said Boa Vista becomes busy near the end of September and into October. November is also a big month for Thanksgiving items.
Abel’s Apple Acres became the day’s third stop. This smaller location features a handful of crafters, but it also includes numerous attractions for the family such as a corn maze, petting zoo, horse rides and games.
Jack and Cathy Miller run a small booth complete with wooden rocking horses and tables of lined up handmade winter hats. They both have a special place in their hearts for Nevada visitors because the Millers travel to Sand Mountain east of Fallon at least twice a year with friends.
“We go with a couple of friends in trailers, and we bring quads and motorcycles. We love being there,” said Jack Miller.
The Millers, who have been selling at Abel’s Apple Acres for five years, said this is the best ranch in the area.
Cathy Miller hand knits stylish hats for the winter, and her clientele keeps growing.
“I feel 90 percent of the families who come here have a good time,” she said. ‘San Francisco is a big area for shoppers coming here, but we also ship to many people to all places in the U.S., and we have shipped hats overseas.”
Jack is a magician with his hands. He hand carved 20 rocking horses before the season began in September, but now only two rocking horses remain.
‘A good trip’
First-time visitors Brian and Maki Ohlandt of Fallon said they enjoyed looking at the homemade arts and crafts, especially at High Hill Ranch.
“The prices are reasonable, and I like the food samples,” said Brian Ohlandt, adding that he savored a tri-tip sandwich for lunch that he found both tasty and fairly priced.
The Ohlants enjoyed their one-day trip to California, and they hope to travel to Nevada City’s Victorian Christmas in December.
Brian Ohlandt said he loves Northern California, considering since he is a native of Napa, a three-hour west of Apple Hill.
Shirl Thomas bought sauces and apple butter at one stand and wanted to stay longer.
“I wish we could have spent more time here, but it was all good,” she said. “This was my first trip, and it will be an annual trip to Apple Hill.”
Jan Kelly called the day at Apple Hill “a good trip.”
Both she and Colleen Palludan, both retired teachers from Fallon, said they enjoyed the trip, especially when someone else drove.
“We could have spent a little more time at the first two stops, but they took us to the best ones first because they get crowed quickly,” Palludan said.
During the day, though, the visitors saw several more ranches of all sizes, but the number of lines also increased in the afternoon.
That, though, didn’t deter Kelly.
“The others were also nice,” she said.