An excursion to Leona Valley just north of Los Angeles offers a rural reprieve from the hectic city. And this time of year a special treat also awaits visitors: fresh cherries you can pick right off the tree.
Annually the 23 members of the Leona Valley Cherry Growers Assn. open their family-run orchards to the public during the brief cherry season. Pails and ladders are provided, but bring along containers to transport your tasty bounty home.
Mother Nature hit the valley with a late freeze this spring and some of the crop was lost. But many of the area's 7,800 trees are expected to bear fruit, and 16 U-pick orchards should be open at various times in the next two weeks or so.
Growers offer up-to-date information to help you find the ripe cherries. Guide maps and directions are available at the rustic Leona Valley Country Store; phone (805) 270-0613 before your trip to be certain that the orchards are operating.
Annual Cherry Parade
If you time your visit for Saturday you may also enjoy the quiet community's annual parade to celebrate the cherry season. Festivities begin at 11 a.m. at the west end of Leona Avenue.
Mountains provide a natural barrier to reaching Leona Valley from Los Angeles. The quickest route north is through the San Gabriels via Interstate 5 and California 14 (the Antelope Valley Freeway) to Palmdale.
Then take the Palmdale/Palmdale Boulevard exit and turn left to go west toward Lake Hughes. The highway becomes County N2 (Elizabeth Lake Road) and at 90th Street you'll see the Leona Valley Country Store.
For a more leisurely and picturesque route to Leona Valley, wander through Angeles National Forest on Bouquet Canyon Road. Join it by exiting Interstate 5 on Valencia Boulevard and going east toward Saugus. Continue 2 1/2 miles (crossing Magic Mountain Parkway/California 126) and turn left on Bouquet Canyon Road.
Drive carefully on this tree-lined road that wiggles for 25 miles along the narrow canyon. Some of the homes you'll see on the way began as vacation cabins in the 1920s and feature local stonework.
Live oaks, sycamores, willows and cottonwoods along the canyon floor are nourished by a year-round stream that's also a haven for rainbow trout and fishermen. Stretch your legs and relax at one of the small forest service picnic areas and campgrounds that dot both sides of the road.
After the road passes Bouquet Reservoir you may see backpackers hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail that runs from Canada to Mexico. And you'll cross the San Andreas earthquake fault before the road ends at Elizabeth Lake Road.
Then turn left and go a mile to 90th Street and the country store, a popular rendezvous for Leona Valley residents.
That's where visitors should stop for directions to the U-pick cherry orchards. The store's daily hours are 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. except Sundays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Many of the trees with ripe fruit this season are off the main road on side streets from 87th to 97th that lead up from Leona Avenue. Signs are posted for the orchards that are open.
Usual hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Hobart's Sweet Cherry Orchard on 95th Street is open from 7 a.m. until dusk.
The delicious Bing cherries are especially popular, and other varieties include Black Tartarian, Lambert and Royal Anne. The trees are pruned to low umbrella shapes for easy picking from the ground, but ladders are handy when lower branches become bare.
Lower Prices for Fruit
Picking cherries is a relaxing family affair, and orchard owners will give you easy instructions and buckets. After weighing, at prices much lower than in supermarkets, the fruit is transferred to your own containers to carry home.
You're certain to enjoy the scenery and serenity in this mountain valley where horses and other animals outnumber the residents. The little community is at 3,200 feet, so take a jacket or sweater in case the weather turns cool.
Hungry visitors will find home-cooked meals at the Leona Valley Country Inn on Elizabeth Lake Road across from the country store. Weekends the restaurant is open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; weekdays dinner only is served from 5 p.m.
Extend your outing to explore more of the remote foothills by continuing west on county road N2. It runs along the San Andreas fault and once was the main route of stagecoaches between Cajon Pass and the lower San Joaquin Valley.
These days along the road you'll find Lake Elizabeth Golf Club, a nine-hole course open daily to the public. Greens fee is $3, carts $5.50. Information: (805) 724-1441. Visitors also are welcome in the club's coffee shop.
A mile beyond is Elizabeth Lake with turnouts for picnicking and access for boaters (10 horsepower maximum) and fishermen.
Continuing to Lake Hughes
The road continues to the community of Lake Hughes with more places to eat. Across from a monument dedicated to the town's founder, Clarence Austin, a stone building houses a restaurant, bar, general store and deli with picnic supplies.
Jackie's Country Kitchen, with peanut butter pie as its specialty, is south on Lake Hughes Road. That scenic road winds through the mountainous Angeles National Forest and passes Castaic Lake State Recreation Area to join Interstate 5.
Use it as an alternative route back to Los Angeles, or continue west in the foothills along N2, turning left at Three Points to remain on that county road until it ends at California 138 near Quail Lake.
Continue west four miles and follow the signs to join Interstate 5 south to Los Angeles.
Round trip from Los Angeles to Leona Valley via Bouquet Canyon one way and the Antelope Valley for the reverse direction is 135 miles. Add 50 miles if you extend the trip along County N2.