Try these Southern apple orchards with amazing views, but expect an unusual picking season
While you'll find an abundance of orchards throughout the South, there's something special about picking apples against the backdrop of an amazing mountain view.
Areas around the Blue Ridge Mountains excel at those sorts of scenes, though apple picking might look different this year.
A late freeze that crept across the country in spring walloped many Southern apple orchards. But after a year of pandemic pivots, farmers are ready. They're amping up retail options and leaning hard on other fall fun to supplement what's likely a short season.
Here's some of what to expect when you head out this fall.
Sky Top Orchard, Flat Rock, NC
David Butler was a high schooler when he planted Sky Top Orchard with his father 40 years ago. He's seen his share of weird weather. That's why, even though late freezes took their toll on many of his apple blossoms this year, he remains stoic.
"Nature sometimes gives you a bounty, and sometimes it gives you less than you want," said Butler, who runs the 100-acre orchard with his wife Lindsey. "There have been fires out west and freezes here, and I think it all goes hand in hand."
To supplement what he said might be a short season, the orchard's market will stock plenty of other produce, including pumpkins. Pie makers will be happy to know that a bevy of bagged apples should be available until Sky Top closes for the year on Dec. 1. U-pick will not be as fruitful. Butler expects that part of the fun to be over by the end of October.
"We've all been struggling to have enough U-pick to go around this year," he said of his fellow apple farmers.
Part of the short supply is due to the orchard's success. Once solely a commercial operation, Sky Top is now a full-fledged agritourism hot spot, with the parking lot often full of license plates from all over the Southeast. "This is a place for people to get out and see the mountains," Butler said.
And there's plenty to see. Perched atop scenic Mount McAlpine at an elevation of 3,000 feet, the views are stunning and the apples are generally abundant.
October usually brings Pink Lady, Arkansas Black, Fuji and Gold Rush apples. To find them later in the season, you should hop on a tractor-pulled trailer or hoof it to the exterior of the orchard to locate the trees that still have fruit.
But there's no trekking involved to snap up a hot cider doughnut, though you may have to wait in line. There's also a small train for kids and a gaggle of barnyard animals ready to be fed whether or not apples remain.
You can also enjoy Sky Top's own cider, which can be had fresh, frozen or hot or even hard, which makes an afternoon of mountain viewing even better.
Sky Top is open daily at 1193 Pinnacle Mountain Road, accessible from US 225.
More orchards to try
Orchard at Altapass, Spruce Pine, NC: This orchard on the Blue Ridge Parkway is as scenic as it is rich with historical details. Built at the turn of the 20th century by the Clinchfield Railroad, the orchard faded with the decline of rail travel through this high mountain pass on the Eastern Continental Divide.
The current owners revived it in the '90s and now thousands of visitors annually make the trip to enjoy fresh air, walking trails and a butterfly garden that attracts migrating monarchs.
In October, you can still catch heirloom apples including the tart York Imperial, perfect for baking pies and making applesauce.
You'll have to schedule your picking time, but executive director Beth Hilton said there should be plenty of apples to go around this year. "We are one of the lucky orchards this year and had the biggest crop of apples we have had in four years," she said. "The freeze hit us a little bit, but only served to thin out the heavy crop for us."
Check the orchard's calendar of events to see if you can catch some live music on your visit.
The Orchard at Altapass is open through Oct. 31 at 1025 Orchard Road near Spruce Pine at mile marker 328.3 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Visit www.altapassorchard.org or call 828-765-9531 for more.
Carter Mountain Orchard, Charlottesville, VA: Just minutes from downtown Charlottesville, this orchard boasts stunning views of the mountains and city, U-pick apples, pumpkins, a bakery, a wine shop and a hard cider cellar, courtesy of Bold Rock Cider Co.
There's more good news. The orchard's trees were largely spared the worst of the late-spring freezes, so there are plenty of apples to go around, said retail and hospitality manager Cynthia Chiles. "Carter Mountain Orchard has a full crop of apples this year," she said.
The only thing limited picking time, it seems, are crowd sizes. This year, management will work to mitigate the crush in the fields by offering 2-hour ticketed entry slots during peak apple picking times. More about that here.
Carter Mountain Orchard is open year-round at 1435 Carters Mountain Trail.
Stepp's Hillcrest Orchard, Hendersonville, NC: This orchard is open daily in Hendersonvile, North Carolina's apple capital, through the end of October. That's despite the fact that a late freeze knocked out about 75% of the orchard's crop, consistent with some other apple operations in the area.
As a result, expect smaller baskets, a shorter season and the potential for periodic closures to allow more apples to ripen. But there's plenty to do whether or not apple picking is on the agenda.
Stepp's agritourism offerings include a 5-acre corn maze, a tractor pull and apple cannons for launching bruised and unwanted apples into the sky. To eat and drink: cider slushies, pumpkin and cider doughnuts, a variety of other baked goods and an on-premise food truck on weekends. 170 Stepp Orchard Dr. 828-685-9083.
Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge, Georgia: This scenic 300-acre orchard is situated high on a mountain just 15 miles from the North Carolina and Tennessee state lines.
There are more than enough bagged apples to enjoy through the end of the year said Tim Mercier, son of orchard patriarch Bill Mercier. U-pick isn't exactly happening — at least not officially.
"We're allowing people to walk into the orchard where they can pick what they find, but we're not making it an organized event this year," Mercier said.
Mercier's orchards range in elevation from 1,800-2,100 feet. Paradoxically, the higher-elevation orchards fared best in the freeze. Those trees will help stock the orchard's extensive market operations, which this year will also be abundant with pumpkins, hard and soft cider, wine and pies — so many pies.
"Our farm market is a big part of our operation," Mercier said. "We'll make over a million fried pies this year, probably 20 types. Our bakery is one of our most popular things and our market is large and full of all kinds of fall products."
Mercier Orchards is open year-round at 8660 Blue Ridge Dr.
Grandad's Apples n' Such, Hendersonville, NC: This ridiculously picturesque 100-acre apple orchard pulls out all the stops for fall, with a pumpkin patch, a country store full of fall decor, jams and other good things to eat, an apple cannon and a corn maze.
The bakery is a veritable smorgasbord of apples, with turnovers, pies, apple dumplings, cider slushies and more on the menu. As seems to be the fall fashion, there's also a corn maze.
Yes, the freeze hit here too, which has limited the types of apples available for U-Pick. But Grandad's should have enough to go around until the orchard closes to the public Oct. 31. Grandad's is open daily at 2951 Chimney Rock Road.
Justus Orchards, Hendersonville NC: This 4th generation orchard and farm has animals, a bakery and an apple cannon target range where you can try your hand at taking down Bigfoot — or at least his likeness.
Kids will find plenty to do, from the expansive jumping pillow to the stocked playground, complete with climbing wall, slides and sandboxes. You'll also find a petting zoo, weekend concerts and hayrides.
Though some apple trees did suffer from the late frost, this Hendersonville orchard has been largely able to accommodate crowds, though supplies can be limited. On a recent weekend, Justus closed U-pick to the public on a Sunday afternoon to give the trees a chance to recover.
Should you find yourself in the same predicament, the farm store has an abundance of already-picked apples for all of your baking needs. Justus Orchard is open daily through early November at 187 Garren Road.
Here's what to do with your apples
Milton Family Apple Butter: The king of fall apple recipes, this one uses a half-bushel of apples.
Old-fashioned applesauce: The original solution for too many apples.
Rustic Apple Galette: This easy-to-make apple dessert begs for ice cream.
Green tomato and apple chutney: This kicky chutney is excellent on seafood and meat.
Nancie McDermott’s Old Fashioned Apple Pie: Nothing says fall like a perfect apple pie.
Mackensy Lunsford covers food policy, restaurants, agriculture and other food-related topics for the USA TODAY Network's South Region. She's the editor of Southern Kitchen and correspondent for The American South.
Reach me: email@example.com