Where: Apple Hill Orchard and Cider Mill, Morganton, NC
Quality (1-10): 9
Child-Friendly: Yes! Educational tours are geared for young children. Staff great with children.
Length of Visit: Hour and a half for tour. Add extra for picnic and/or picking apples.
Cost: $6/person, under 2- free (tour)
Amenities: Clean bathrooms on premises, picnic tables, store with drinks and food.
Popularity: Very popular for school groups and pickers.
Best Time to Go: Educational tours are weekday mornings, either 9 or 11:30. If not doing a tour, the afternoons are probably quieter.
Helpful Tips: You must call and arrange for tours in advance. Always a good idea to call ahead to any farm when doing a U-pick to confirm availability.
Warning: Fruit trees always mean lots of bees flying around and on the ground. Come prepared if allergic reactions are an issue just in case.
Although I’m a pretty equal opportunity season lover, I have to admit that I do play favorites with Fall. The leaves, the chill, the colors, the sweaters, the boots, the apples. The fresh apples. Having been born in and spending a lot of my young childhood in Henderson County, NC, I’m pretty familiar with apples. It’s kind of a big deal there. My earliest memories are of a house we lived in on top of a hill in the middle of an apple orchard. But the real reason I like the apples so much is because they are fresh. Did you know that the apples we are buying from the store during the spring and summer are either domestic apples from the previous fall or imported apples from somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere (usually Chile). Now, there’s nothing wrong with stored apples (they keep amazingly well in the right conditions) or imported apples. That’s how we get to keep eating apples year-round and my kids probably all eat an apple a day. But the difference in the taste (and the health benefits) of a fresh, local apple is pretty amazing and makes such excursions worthwhile.
Thanks to a lovely, organized friend of mine, we were able to have a group tour at Apple Hill Orchard in Morganton, NC last week. This picturesque orchard, located in the South Mountains, is easy to find and just 4 miles south of I-40. Arriving at 9 in the morning, just as the last of the mist cleared away from the mountains, we gathered our group of 17 kids and 7 adults and waited for the staff to get organized. There were several school groups there that morning so they had to get everyone set up in rotations. It seemed like they were a bit busier than usual and we wondered if they were scheduling more tours than usual to make up for the low yield crop this year. Last spring, there was a late frost after the trees had already budded, so the resulting fall crop was so little they were unable offer U-pick this year. They are planning on installing some type of windmill system that will prevent frost on the trees, so hopefully next year we can go back and pick apples to our heart’s desire.
Our tour began with a lesson on honey bees and their contribution to the orchard (they rent bees from local keepers). Then, the kids got to go into the refrigerated building where they store the apples and learn the best way to keep them (cold, dark and damp). After that, they had a little lesson on apple varieties and apple picking. This is when my friends precious little son picked up one of the demonstration apples and started eating it, much to my amusement and the apple lady’s consternation. (I’ll confess that her consternation also added greatly to my amusement.) Some approved apple and cider tasting happened after that and then everyone got to fill their little 1/2 peck bags with 6 apples.
Next came the best part of the tour: the wagon ride. So we all climbed onto the nice, roofed wagon outfitted with benches that is pulled by a classic green tractor and had a ride around the orchard. In addition to the wild turkeys and pretty mountains, we saw the variety of apple trees and learned a bit about how they grow.
After arriving back at the mill, we were given a tour of the sorting room, where, you guessed it, they sort the apples and then we saw the cider room where they make and bottle the fresh cider they sell. After a picnic lunch (lots of picnic tables available outside) we browsed the cider store, bought apple doughnuts, fudge, cider slushies, and apple butter. Oh, and apples. Right now you can get a bushel of apples (about 80 apples) for $0.70/pound (about $28). The price per pound gradually increases as the purchase amount decreases (e.g., $0.80 per pound for a 1/2 bushel, etc.). My friend and I split a bushel as we wanted the best price per pound but we weren’t sure where we would put 80 apples each. However, now that my 40 apples are half way gone, I’m thinking I might need to go back and get another bushel! So, although a little rushed this year, the staff at Apple Hill Orchard are extremely friendly and they run a quality operation. Although we probably won’t need to do the tour again, we’ll definitely come back next year for picking and the wagon ride.