It's time your family knew the truth: Real fruit is not pretty. If your kids think that apples sprout naturally in cellophane bags, pre-buffed to a Turtle Wax shine, it's high time for a visit to Oak Glen, the Southland's largest apple-growing region.
Located in the foothills of Mt. San Gorgonio just outside Beaumont, Oak Glen lets city folks see, taste and even pick (yes, Virginia, they do grow on trees) apples in their natural, occasionally homely state. In addition to 15 working orchards, the community boasts a handful of shops and restaurants where you can pick up everything from antiques and collectibles to hot-from-the-oven apple pies.
According to Mary Trost, director of marketing for the Oak Glen Apple Growers Assn., this is the peak of the area's best apple season in eight years. Available varieties include Granny Smiths, Winesaps, pearmain and Arkansas blacks as well as Romes, red Romes (both great for baking) and red and golden varieties.
Every Oak Glen apple is free of wax and Alar and, depending on weather conditions, will be ripe for the picking through mid-- or possibly late November, Trost said. Apple sales continue into December at most ranches.
(If you can swing it, visit Oak Glen on a weekday, when there are still plenty of activities. Weekend crowds can be maddening.)
At the end of a delightfully lumpy dirt road sits Riley's Farm and Orchard, where 200 acres of apples, pears and a small raspberry patch await the would-be picker through mid-November. When you've picked your last, head for the farm's mercantile, housed in a turn-of-the-century packing shed, where your bounty will be weighed and priced.
The shop also sells the fruit in at least half a dozen other forms, including dried apples, apple butter, apple jelly and apple burritos, a tasty concoction of apple bits folded into a crispy, sweet tortilla. There's an old-fashioned candy counter, a grind-your-own-coffee bar and even a barrel-top checkerboard ready for a quick game.
Just across the way, you can try your hand at a manual cider press. (Don't worry. If you flunk out, you can still buy a few gallons at the mercantile.) If your pickin' gives you a powerful hunger, Riley's also offers, through November, a selection of sizzling barbecue.
Activities on the farm continue year-round: There are hayrides (by reservation), Christmas caroling, a spring Apple Blossom Festival and pear-picking in the summer. Every three months, Riley's stages a Living History presentation, re-enacting everything from Civil War skirmishes to fur-trapping. The next event, a Civil War battle to be capped off by a Blue-Gray Dinner Ball, is scheduled Nov. 17 and 18.
Riley's Farm and Orchard, at 12253 S. Oak Glen Road, Oak Glen, is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through mid-December; hours vary during the rest of the year. Information: (714) 790-2364. Pickers are encouraged to call ahead to find out what's ripe.
Just up the road from Riley's is the Los Rios Ranch, the granddaddy of the Oak Glen orchards, producing an average of 200,000 pounds of apples each year. Visitors can pick their own apples Wednesdays through Sundays through mid-November.
Los Rios also has an apple shed, a veritable apple supermarket where the fruit is sold bagged, boxed or caramel-dipped alongside fresh eggs, cider, jams and jellies. Follow your nose to the bakery next door and choose from fresh-baked apple pies, crisps and apple-sauce cakes. If you're after something with a mite more kick, visit the adjacent Oak Glen winery and sample a variety of hard ciders and fruit wines, many carrying the Oak Glen label.
For the kiddies, there's a tumbleweed farmyard filled with noisy peacocks, ducks and geese, a pen of miniature goats and ponies for weekend rides through mid-December. Los Rios will be offering free holiday decorating classes Nov. 10 and 17 and Dec. 15 and 22.
Los Rios Ranch, at 39610 Oak Glen Road, Oak Glen, is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. through Christmas, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. Information: (714) 797-1005. Again, it's a good idea to call ahead.
Orchards open for apple and cider sales only include Law's Cider Mill and Ranch (38392 Oak Glen Road) and Snowline Ranch (39400 Oak Glen Road), both open through mid-December; and McFarland's Ranch, (38500 Oak Glen Road) through late February.
Once you've stocked up on apples etc., check out the rest of the local sights including the 1927 Oak Glen School House, home to a small collection of local memorabilia, and Oak Tree Village, a cluster of antique and gift shops and restaurants. In the winter, the area offers a number of gentle sledding slopes, and in warm weather, picnickers can choose from several scenic spots.