The "U-Pick 'Em" signs crop up along area roadsides in early June and stay well into the fall, pointing to a vast and sweet selection of tree fruit, from fresh cherries or peaches to the more exotic persimmons or Asian pears.
Friendly orchard owners spin stories while providing free advice on what to do with your harvest, and the small-town atmosphere extends to fellow pickers, too. It's amazing what you can find out about people while waiting for them to finish using the ladder.
Picking your own requires forethought. When you decide what fruit you want, call the farm to verify that the fruit is still on the trees, pack a picnic and get going early in the morning, before the sun gets too hot. And bring containers--low, flat boxes are best--because most places do not provide them. If fruit is layered thinly in a box, chances are it won't get crushed. If bags are used or boxes are overfilled, the weight of the top fruit will crush the juice out of the fruit below.
According to pick-your-own principles, you select and pay for only what you take home. You get to sample a lot in the orchard. Of course, it's just for research. How else could you make certain you were selecting the sweetest fruit?
Cherries are ripe starting early this month and can be picked in four areas--near Gorman, Pine Canyon, Leona Valley and Valyermo.
PJK Cherry Farm near Gorman is one of the easiest orchards to reach. Paul Kish says his cherries are crunchy and stay fresh for a long time. You'll find many varieties besides Bings, and his prices are at least half those in the supermarket, probably around $1 per pound. His 1,400-tree orchard (not all devoted to cherries) in a small valley is bordered by the Golden State Freeway on one side and rolling hills on the other. Once you've picked your fill, you can hike or fish at nearby Quail Lake.
Getting there: Go north on the Golden State Freeway, take the Quail Lake Road exit. Turn right, go under the bridge, then turn right again at Copco Drive, which runs parallel to the freeway. At the end of the public road continue a little farther to the entrance, and head toward the big barn. Call (818) 337-6498.
Pine Canyon Cherry Farm, about halfway between Gorman and Leona Valley, is another easy-to-reach destination, with delicious cherries and a 200-foot-tall pine tree at the orchard's entrance. Ruth Lewis, son Larry and daughter-in-law Linda run the operation. The Lewises provide ladders and buckets and advise pickers to wear sensible clothes.
Customers are asked not to wear high heels or to climb the trees to try to get the cherries at the top. "Cherry trees don't have bark, like other trees do. They have skin. If you break the skin, the tree becomes susceptible to infection," Ruth Lewis says. Besides, her organic farming plan includes leaving some cherries behind for the birds. The cherries from her 1,100 trees are priced to be competitive with nearby Leona Valley, at about 80 cents per pound. Once you're done picking, have fun at one of the three nearby lakes.
Getting there: Take the Golden State Freeway north, exit just before Castaic Lake at Lake Hughes Road, and turn right. For the next 22 miles, you will see wonderful scenery, lakes, trees and even a few waterfalls, if the weather is on your side. Lake Hughes Road dead-ends at Lake Elizabeth Road. Turn left: Pine Canyon Cherry Ranch is just around the corner on the right. Call (805) 724-1135.
Leona Valley is a rich destination if you're looking for cherries. It boasts 15 active pick-your-own orchards. The intersection of Elizabeth Lake Road and 90th Street is the heart of Leona Valley. Pick up a map at the general store here or just follow the signs to find orchards. Cherry season is a big event here--a parade Saturday inaugurates the season. Prices average $1 per pound. The growers supply ladders and picking buckets.
Some growers, like Big John's Cherries, go out of their way to make their orchards distinctive. John Mayfield travels to El Centro just before cherry season to buy several truckloads of watermelons to sell at his orchard. When someone asks how to tell which watermelon is sweet, he hacks one open with his machete and serves free slices to everyone present. Mayfield's nearly 300 trees bear 10 different kinds of cherries, so you can pick several varieties. Another treat at Mayfield's is the cherry/wildflower honey he extracts from his 200 hives. Call (805) 270-1735.
Getting there: Take the Golden State Freeway north to the Antelope Valley Freeway. Go east on the Antelope Valley Freeway to the Palmdale Boulevard turnoff. Turn left on Palmdale Boulevard, which turns into Elizabeth Lake Road, and drive west to 90th Street, which takes you to the general store. To go to Big John's, turn left at 90th Street and go to Leona Avenue and turn right. His ranch is just before the community Baptist church.