During the time when my husband and I were writing The Best of Georgia Farms Cookbook and Tour Book, we spent a lot of time touring agricultural areas all around the state. One area I particularly liked visiting was Apple Alley in the North Georgia Mountains during harvest time. From late August to December, the roadside stands of North Georgia overflow with fresh local apples. Some 20 orchards in the mountains offer harvests of Granny Smiths, Solid Golds, Rome Beauties, Arkansas Blacks and more than a dozen other varieties.
Gilmer County is the heart of apple production in Georgia. The county produces 400,000 bushels a year, about 70 percent of the state’s annual harvest. Numerous apple houses and outlets are located along a 10-mile stretch of scenic mountain highways near Ellijay and Blue Ridge known as Apple Alley. A couple favorites of ours are Hillcrest Orchards and Mercier Orchards.
Hillcrest Orchards on Georgia Highway 52 east of Ellijay is a 75-acre orchard with an impressive number of first place ribbons for apple varieties from the Georgia National Fair. Heward Reece started the orchard back in 1946 with 15 acres, selling apples from his garage. In the retail outlet section, bushels of apples crowd the floor, along with apple bread, apple cider doughnuts, apple fritters, old-fashioned cider, jams and jellies. In the warehouse, a 10-minute video about apple growing discusses how Hillcrest rents bees to cross-pollinate the orchard flowers in the spring and how the orchard has replaced much of its standard-sized trees with dwarf ones, which are easier to handle and harvest. In the back of the warehouse outlet is a large apple sorter and washer.
On weekends in September and October, Hillcrest hosts its Apple Pickin’ Jubilee. You can pick your own apples, milk Buttercup the Jersey cow, see live honey bee demonstrations, cheer at the Pork Hill Downs Pig Races, ride around the orchard in a mule drawn wagon, and enjoy lots of good food, live music and games, such as apple bobbing and corn shelling. There’s also a petting farm and play area for the little ones.
Mercier Orchards on Blue Ridge Drive (Highway 5) in Blue Ridge is the largest and one of the oldest apple producers in the state. It’s known as Southern Living Magazine’s “favorite roadside apple market.” Three generations of Merciers have worked the orchards since 1943. A good Mercier harvest can bring in 100,000 bushels — 20 varieties, including Gala, Red and Golden Delicious, Jonagold, Rome, Stayman, Granny Smith, Braeburn, and Fuji. For months, the packinghouse in the rear of the outlet warehouse churns out apples earmarked for out-of-state delivery. Then in mid-autumn, the Merciers, like all the other growers in North Georgia, cater their roadside stand to the tourists streaming into the mountains for fresh apples and fall foliage. Mercier also sells apple products, such as breads, slushees, doughnuts, heavy cider, jams, jellies, relishes and their famous fried apple pies.
October 16 – 17 is the last weekend this year for U-Pick apples; but this year, Mercier Orchards is hosting its first annual Halloween Festival/U-Select Pumpkin event, S.P.O.O.F (Spooky Pumpkin Old Orchard Fest) on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in October. Depending on which day you go, you can take a hayride, select your pumpkin, or hear the “great story of Orchard History.” There are other Halloween activities, including apple fishing, a bouncy house, face painting, and a Spook House.
Read more of Sherri’s travel adventures at Brown’s Guides.