Oak Glen: A slice of apple heaven
Sept./Oct. 2014 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Christine Souza
Photos by Melissa Jewel
Visitors attracted to area's beauty and bounty
Oak Glen's brilliant display of fall colors and the region's apple harvest draw visitors from throughout Southern California.
Against the picturesque backdrop of changing leaves each fall, people of all ages travel to Mert and Shirley Hudson's historic apple farm in Oak Glen, about 80 miles east of Los Angeles, to find their favorite apples and apple treats.
The Hudsons acquired the beautiful Snow-Line Orchard about 35 years ago and have since grown the business—which now includes two of their sons, Scott and Michael, and daughter-in-law Linda—into a must-see destination.
"Part of what makes us unique and special is the history behind it, because Snow-Line's been in operation for 116 years and we're only the fourth family to own it," Linda said. "We try to maintain that historical look that the people remember. People say, 'My grandparents used to bring me here and now I'm bringing my grandkids.'"
The area's Snow-Line Orchard is a multigenerational, family-owned business managed by Linda and Scott Hudson.
San Bernardino County's top agricultural products are milk, eggs and cattle, but apples are king in the scenic Oak Glen apple-growing region, with its 5-mile loop of 30-plus ranches, farms and businesses offering apples, cider, fresh-baked treats and events for the entire family.
Visitors are drawn to this charming mountain community in large part because it is one of the few places in Southern California with trees that display vibrant fall colors. The scenery is "like that of New England," according to the website of the Oak Glen Apple Growers Association, which celebrates its centennial this year. The site describes year-round activities and a mile-high climate that is an inviting 10 to 15 degrees cooler than it is in the valleys.
"The Glen has been a destination point since the 1950s—and it has stayed that way, much like Apple Hill up north and Julian down south," said association president Devon Riley.
The man who established the Hudson family's apple orchard in 1898, Isaac Ford, was inspired by the beauty of Oak Glen and often traveled the area on horseback, Mert said, explaining, "He's who named it Oak Glen because of all of the oak trees."
Soon after that, in the early 1900s, local apples were shipped to markets elsewhere in the U.S. and Europe. Once grocery stores became more prominent after World War II, apple growers started marketing directly to local consumers. Oak Glen then became the travel destination that it remains today.
The region welcomes thousands of visitors each year, and Snow-Line Orchard shows a simpler way of life as it tempts them with 36 apple varieties presented throughout the harvest season. The Hudson family also makes homemade apple cider, miniature fruit pies and the star attraction: apple-cider miniature donuts.
Apple a day
But it all starts with the apple. Snow-Line offers a number of heritage varieties—those rarely found at grocery stores—such as Arkansas black, Gravenstein and Pippin, and younger varieties including Jonagold (a cross between a Jonathan and a Golden Delicious) and Honeycrisp.
Customers can sample Snow-Line apples and learn about the different varieties.
"The hottest apples right now are Honeycrisp and Jonagold," said Mert, who proudly describes himself as the apple grower. "It's the texture and the sweetness of the Honeycrisp, and the Jonagold: You can use it for cider, baking, eating, everything; it's just an all-around good apple."
A more surprising variety is called the Pink Pearl, said Linda, who manages the family farm with her husband, Scott: "With a Pink Pearl, the inside is actually pink. It has a bit of a tart taste to it, but as soon as you cut it open, the little girls all go, 'Oh, a pink apple!'"
Oak Glen tourists can sometimes press their own apples, and Snow-Line Orchard features a tasting room where visitors sample a wide assortment of in-season apples and three types of cider: apple, cherry-apple and raspberry-apple.
"At the peak of the season, we might have 24 apple varieties and people come to realize that they all taste different," Scott said. "People want an education; they want to know what is good for cooking, baking and eating."
Snow-Line Orchard is truly a family affair, with founders Shirley and Mert Hudson, seated center. Their eldest son Scott and his wife Linda, standing behind, manage the business. Other Hudson family members include, from left, David and Natalie with children Matthew and Emilie; Randy; and Michael and Sonja with daughter Madison.
With apple cider increasing in popularity each season, the Hudson family is constantly developing new flavors.
"Every year, I keep making more and more cider—about 18,000 gallons last year," said Scott, who produces the cider without water, sugar or preservatives.
Kicking things up a notch, Snow-Line is obtaining licenses to make and sell hard cider and other alcoholic beverages. Michael handles this part of the business.
"We're looking to produce something that you would get in the 'olden days,' something that would hold true to its roots as more of an artisanal beverage and that you would find on the farm," he said. "We're also going to start making wine, like a raspberry pinot noir and a blackberry merlot."
Apple and other fruit-flavored ciders are produced at the farm's cider mill.
But Snow-Line Orchard's popularity was fueled by a much less artisanal item—the donut—and Mert credits the late TV personality Huell Howser for the boost in business. The day after Howser featured Snow-Line on his public television program, "California's Gold," 200 people waited in line for their share of the hot-from-the-fryer treats.
"We use cider in our apple-cider donuts. They are small and we sell them by the dozen," Mert said. "They melt in your mouth. We sprinkle them with sugar and cinnamon. They taste good, real good."
Kathy Ball, from Rancho Cucamonga, discovered Snow-Line Orchard years ago and often returns to the scenic spot with friends.
"Every time I've gone there, I've brought people that are from Southern California but that have never been there before, and they are just blown away," she said. "It is worth fighting the crowds for their apple-cider mini-donuts."
Linda Hudson makes miniature fruit pies and other baked goods.
Visitors are also invited to stroll around Snow-Line's property or take a guided tour to learn a history of the Oak Glen area and how apples are grown.
"To be able to get good, ripe produce is something that we educate them about," Linda said. "We show them how apples are sorted and we take them to the grader and talk about bushels and pecks and how things used to be 100 years ago.
"Our customers have become family to us," Linda continued. "Sometimes we don't know their names, but we know their faces and we watch their kids grow up."
Shirley added, "The people that come here for the first time, once they come here, they always come back."
Oak Glen's apple harvest season usually begins in early September and continues until late October. In addition to celebrating all that is apple, visitors can hike through The Wildlands Conservancy trails, see the historic Oak Glen School House Museum, shop in unique stores and much more.
Apple Hill: 50 and fabulous
Apple Hill in El Dorado County, less than an hour's drive from Sacramento, offers breathtaking orchard and vineyard views year-round, as well as seasonal fresh apples, baked goods, pumpkin patches, hay mazes and more.
"Apple Hill is a good experience. We are in a beautiful area and located within 40 miles of 3 or 4 million people," said Ed Delfino, an Apple Hill farmer in Camino since its founding in 1964 and owner of apple farm Kids Inc. "Being here for 50 years, we've had families that have come here that are now in their third generation."
Known in the 1950s as a large pear-growing region, the area's orchards became infected with a disease that forced farmers to look for alternatives. To learn more about the apple business, Apple Hill's five founding farmers, including Delfino, traveled to San Bernardino County to visit Oak Glen. The visit inspired them to create a similar experience for families in Northern California.
"Oak Glen had a large population fairly close to the apple farms and we saw potential. We thought that we would have success," said Delfino, who was the county agricultural commissioner at that time. "I'm the last survivor (of the founding farmers), but we were right. It took 50 years for it to evolve, but it is really very satisfying."
During the years, Apple Hill has added other products such as Christmas trees and wineries, and expanded to include more than 50 farms visited by at least 750,000 people annually, according to Delfino. The peak season runs September through November.
To assist visitors, the Apple Hill Growers Association has developed "The Official Apple Hill Growers App," with information on each farm, such as hours, events, bake shops and petting zoos. Learn more at www.applehill.com.