America's Best Apple Picking Farms
As your horse-drawn wagon bumps and rumbles through the fields of southern Vermont, you notice a dusting of frost on the grass-covered hillsides. It’s still morning at Dwight Miller Orchards, where the apple trees overlooking the pastoral Connecticut River Valley are heavy with low-hanging fruit—crimson Empires, Honeycrisps, and Macouns.
Reaching into the fragrant, scraggly branches, tugging the apples free as the sun starts to burn off the chill…could there be a more perfect autumnal ritual? Even for those of us who grew up far from the countryside, the first nip of crisp fall air and hint of color in the trees seem to awaken some primal urge to harvest. And so we head to the fields and orchards to do what comes naturally: pick apples.
Happily, the perennial lure of apple picking does more than feed our own romantic seasonal cravings—it helps sustain an important part of the apple-growing industry. According to Todd Hultquist, spokesperson for the trade organization U.S. Apple, only about five percent of the country’s 7,500 orchards offer the option of picking your own (often called PYO or U-pick). But these are mainly small family-run operations that—along with selling their produce via farmers’ markets—make the bulk of their income from agritourism. In other words, from pickers like us.
Americans’ newfound interest in all things local-food-related has been good news for growers and has, in turn, created even more varied opportunities for would-be pickers. Some PYO orchards—such as Dwight Miller and Bear Swamp Orchard in Massachusetts—have gone organic in recent years, allowing eco-conscious pickers and foodies alike to indulge in pesticide- and hormone-free apples. Other orchards, like Jones Creek Farms in Washington, Weston’s Antique Apples in Wisconsin, and Minnesota’s Deardorff Orchards, grow heirloom and specialty apple varieties not easily found in stores. (When’s the last time you spotted a Sweet Tango or Strawberry Chenango apple in your regular supermarket?)
Every PYO orchard on our list, though, has something special to recommend it—whether it’s centuries of family history in the business (like Stribling Orchard in Virginia), or breathtaking locations, like Sky Top Orchard, which straddles a panoramic peak in North Carolina, or Oregon’s Kiyokawa Family Orchards, which distracts pickers with its views of the snowcapped Mount Hood.
No matter where you end up, you’ll likely find it well worth the trip just to be able to eat an apple straight off the tree.
Dwight Miller Orchards, East Dummerston, VT
One of the largest certified organic farms in the Northeast, this orchard was also one of the first to undergo the process of switching from conventional to organic practices, in 1996. It was arduous, according to orchardist Read Miller, whose family has been farming the same land for eight generations—“since before Vermont was a state,” he says.
What to Pick: Macouns (a cross between McIntosh and Jersey Blacks); Empires (a hybrid of McIntosh and Red Delicious); and Honeycrisps, a relatively new hybrid whose crispness and sweet-tart balance make it an ideal apple to eat raw.
Most Unusual Offering: A richly diverse array—including berries, other fruit trees, field crops, sugar bush, pigs, and chickens—all organically grown.
Bells & Whistles: A farm stand with house-made cider, maple syrup, and seasonal organic fruits and vegetables; a pen of piglets; horse-drawn wagon rides to the hill overlooking the Connecticut River.
Liberty View Farm, Clintondale, NY
Liberty View’s growers are devoted to sustainable farming practices at their site amid the breathtaking hills and dales of the Hudson Valley. The orchard is Certified Naturally Grown—a designation many smaller farms consider a more transparent, less-expensive alternative to organic certification.
What to Pick: Orchardist Billiam van Roestenberg grows only Empire and Cortland apples and makes sure the fruit you pick is at its prime. He insists, for example, that his Empires be picked only after the first frost—which converts the apples’ starch to sugar and gives them a shocking burst of sweetness.
Most Unusual Offering: For $50, Liberty View lets you lease an apple tree for the season (for yourself or someone else) and harvest it as many times as you like.
Bells & Whistles: Livestock, including egg-laying heirloom chickens and 18 Nigerian Dwarf milking goats; extensive flower and vegetable gardens; and a farm stand.
Deardorff Orchards, Waconia, MN
Orchardist Lin Deardorff is a cold-weather apple specialist. The location of his farm (in USDA Zone 4a) means that each of his 4,000 apple trees must be able to withstand temperatures of up to 35 degrees below zero. His nine hybrid varieties were propagated by the University of Michigan Horticultural Research Center with that goal—plus tastiness—in mind.
What to Pick: Honeycrisps—crunchy, sweet, and perfect for snacking—are Deardorff’s most popular variety. This year he’s also offering PYO Sweet Tango apples, a brand-new cross between Honeycrisps and Zestars that’s ultra-juicy and a mix of sweet and tart.
Most Unusual Offering: The brand-new on-site Parley Lake Winery, which uses grapes grown on the property and offers regular wine tastings.
Bells & Whistles: Rides to the picking orchards on a tractor-pulled wagon; horses, rabbits, and miniature goats; a hot dog stand manned by Deardorff himself.
Stribling Orchard, Markham, VA
Owned and tended by the same family for nearly 200 years, Stribling was one of the first PYO orchards in the Shenandoah Valley. Its striking historical buildings—including a main house that dates to the 1700s—and lush 270-degree views of the Blue Ridge Mountains have earned it a long and loyal following.
What to Pick: Jonagold, Fuji, Rome, and Stayman Winesap—whose tartness makes it perfect for pies—are just a few of the orchard’s many varieties.
Most Unusual Offering: Several picnic areas, including one hilltop option with spectacular valley views, are scattered around the property. If you forgot your picnic basket, there’s an on-site shop selling honey, jams and jellies, and pies and breads baked on the premises.
Bells & Whistles: A Columbus Day weekend fest with live music and local crafts; an animal menagerie including horses, donkeys, goats, sheep, and pigs.
Sky Top Orchard, Zirconia, NC
Sitting squarely atop Mount McAlpine in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Sky Top is aptly named—with an elevation of 2,900 feet, it’s one of the highest peaks in the area. From the grounds, you can see the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Pisgah National Forest, 10 miles away.
What to Pick: About 25 different apple varieties are grown at Sky Top. According to orchardist David Butler, the combination of warm days and cool nights on the mountaintop allows the fruit to thrive. Among the best PYO offerings are the Honeycrisp, Gala, and Arkansas Black—a tart and tough-to-grow late-season heirloom.
Most Unusual Offering: The orchard’s stainless-steel cider press is run weekly; cups of fresh cider (cold and mulled) and half-gallons can be purchased on-site.
Bells & Whistles: A barn full of peacocks, turkeys, chickens, sheep, and goats; ponds with ducks and geese—one with a bamboo-forest nature trail around it; and a Plexiglas-enclosed live beehive.
Jones Creek Farms, Sedro Woolley,WA
Orchardist Les Price grows an incredibly diverse crop in this “backyard region” of Seattle—some 150 varieties on just four acres. Price attributes his success to equal parts curiosity (he once worked as an experimental researcher at the University of Washington’s School of Agriculture) and generosity (he and his wife, Talea, insist that visitors sample unusual apple varieties—which they often then develop a taste for).
What to Pick: Among the best heirlooms are the Sunrise—a cross between McIntosh and Golden Delicious—and the Calville Blanc d’Hiver, a 17th-century French variety that’s perfect for tarte aux pommes.
Most Unusual Offering: Guided ethnobotany tours from Price or his wife, which look at the history of apples, their uses in various cultures, and some of the qualities of the world’s most prized apples.
Bells & Whistles: A PYO pumpkin patch; hayrides; ducks, geese, and chickens.
Weston’s Antique AppleOrchard, New Berlin, WI
Originally planted by orchardist Ken Weston’s grandparents as a hedge against the Depression, this orchard grew to inspire such respect that it once hosted Julia Child for a visit. Weston’s offerings have grown over the years to include more than 100 apple varieties, many of them rare.
What to Pick: Among the orchard’s most unusual heirlooms are the Old Church and Lemonade apples, two of about a dozen varieties that grow nowhere else on earth; another, the Strawberry Chenango, is “so fragile you have to pick it with gloves,” Weston says. “It smells and tastes just like a rose.”
Most Unusual Offering: The orchard’s 16 lush, panoramic acres and 1901 Dutch farmhouse are part of the New Berlin Historic Settlement, a National Register rural landmark. Apples aside, the orchard is worth wandering just for the scenery.
Bells & Whistles: Regular horticulture and grafting classes; a petting zoo; open-farmhouse tours; barrel rides for kids.
Alyson’s Orchard, Walpole, NH
Set atop an elongated ridge overlooking the Connecticut River, this 450-acre property is as prized for its gorgeous grounds as it is for its apples. The views, wooded surroundings, and sweeping manicured lawns have made it a popular spot for weddings.
What to Pick: Originally started as an all-McIntosh “retirement hobby” for Susan and Robert Jasse in 1981, the orchard has since diversified its PYO offerings to include heirloom varieties like Black Oxfords, Gravensteins, and Winesaps.
Most Unusual Offering: Poke around the wooded edge of the property, and you’ll find an extraordinary rope swing. From its seat, you’ll be treated to views of the river below and the rolling hills of southern Vermont.
Bells & Whistles: A farm stand selling fresh fruits and vegetables, jams and jellies, and apple cider and wine made from orchard produce; weekend wagon rides to and from the orchard; a kids’ playground; duck ponds; weekend wine tastings.
Kiyokawa Family Orchards, Parkdale,OR
The history behind this farm, set in the lush Hood River Valley east of Portland, is part of its particular charm; it was established in 1951 by Mamoru Kiyokawa, a first-generation Japanese resident who spent much of World War II in an Oregon internment camp. The orchard’s arresting view of nearby, snowcapped Mount Hood is also a big draw.
What to Pick: As well as 25 varieties of PYO apples (including Mountain Fuji, Rome, and Mutsu), Kiyokawa’s son Randy, who now runs the orchard, offers three acres of Asian pears for the U-pick crowd.
Most Unusual Offering: The orchard hosts four annual fall festivals: Desserts Galore (Sept. 19–20), The Honeycrisp Harvest (Oct. 3–4), Fiesta Days (Oct. 17–18), and an Heirloom Apple and Asian Pear Tasting (Oct. 24–25).
Bells & Whistles: Hay wagon rides; a kids’ play area; self-guided and guided orchard tours; picnic areas.
Bear Swamp Orchard, Ashfield, MA
An ultra-green picking experience can be had at this intimate orchard in western Massachusetts that has offered PYO only since 2008. Orchardists Jen Williams and Steve Gougeon eschew even the use of broad-spectrum pesticides approved for organic orchards. There’s no lawn-mowing here either: grass is kept cropped by a flock of recently acquired Shetland sheep.
What to Pick: The Freedom (a little-known apple variety that’s firm and sweet with a hint of tartness); the Liberty (sweeter and softer); and the Northern Spy, a tart late-variety apple perfect for pies.
Most Unusual Offering: The three-acre, 300-tree orchard borders the Bear Swamp Reserve, where you can hike miles of trails and get a bird’s-eye view over the apple trees.
Bells & Whistles: An on-site cider mill; free-range chickens; a farm stand selling apple products, eggs, and maple syrup made on the premises.