It’s apple picking season

Yucaipa's Oak Glen, the hub of apple farming, is filled with fresh red apples trees ready for picking. Photo by Judy Abel.

The best time to be in Malibu is in the fall. The summer crowds have gone, and Pacific Coast Highway is sleepy by early evening and especially clear on the morning drive to get the kids to school. But fall, and right now, that is the perfect time to get away from Malibu for just a day to go apple picking. 

Apple picking season started Labor Day and runs through Thanksgiving unless supplies run out, so the best time to go is now. Although there are a handful of orchards in locations closer to Malibu, such as Moorpark, the heart of apple growing in southern California lies two hours east in Yucaipa in the little hamlet of Oak Glen, tucked away in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. I’m not going to lie to you. The drive on the 10 isn’t beautiful. It’s pocked by urban sprawl. But if you have a good companion and good tunes to listen to, the drive time will fly by. 

If you have an electric car with a 300-mile range, you can make it from Malibu to Oak Glen and back. If you need a charger, there are none in Oak Glen. Roughly 40 miles from Oak Glen in Rancho Cucamonga there’s a wide variety of EV chargers and plentiful spots at the Victoria Gardens outdoor shopping mall. I also recommend apple picking for day trippers or for a fun detour for those on their way to other nearby destinations such as Big Bear, Lake Arrowhead, or Palm Springs. There are few overnight accommodations in Oak Glen and few activities to keep you busy for more than one day.

The picturesque community has orchards lining a five-mile stretch of gently winding Oak Glen Road. Many will have “U Pick” signs in front. Not all orchards are open weekdays which are less crowded. On the weekends, expect bustling activities such as hayrides, cider tastings, and farmer’s market shopping that all supports the local community. 

Oak Glen could use some support too. On Sept. 12, a flash flood sent a torrent of mud and debris through the town. One person died just to the north in Forest Falls. Sixteen homes were damaged or destroyed in the heart of town. They are still cleaning up. You’ll notice the hillsides surrounding the community scarred from a 2020 fire that contributed to the disaster.

Spanning more than 100 acres is Los Rios Rancho, one of the largest orchards in town that allows the public to pick apples and other produce when available. Golden Delicious apples were available for picking this week. Jeremy Hall works at Los Rios Rancho, driving a tractor and on orchard patrol. 

“The Golden Delicious, I think we’re going to have for a few more weeks. We open certain parts of the orchard, so you have the ones that are ready now. Because it’s Golden Delicious, I look for something that’s super super, yellow, or light yellow.”

In the sunlight, the fruit looked like little glimmering gems against the blue sky.

Other varieties of apples grown include red delicious, double red delicious, Jonagold, Spartan, and Granny Smith. On the weekends, Los Rios Rancho opens a botanical trail where even more varieties are grown. 

For a brief window between late September and early October, you may get lucky and find the rare Arkansas Black apples. 

“They almost look like plums, but they have a sweeter taste, and they are super, super, dark purple.” Hall thinks this year’s crop of Arkansas Black will be ready in just a few more weeks since he recently tasted one, and it wasn’t ripe yet.

Once you select which orchard you’ll be picking from, you’re given a bag and, if you wish, a tool called a grabbing picker or basket picker to extend your reach to fruit on tall branches. The preferred technique is to twist and not pull on an apple. Pulling on an apple can result in branch breakage, which takes five years for regrowth. 

By the way, there’s a lot of wildlife, including bobcats, deer, and bears, near the orchards. It’s not recommended to bring dogs who can get tangled in stickers and foxtails. 

“We don’t want dogs to get something in their paws,” Hall explained.

You might encounter a bee or two, so dress accordingly. However, you’ll likely come back home with ten pounds of apples. At $4 a pound or $2.50 per pound for 10 pounds or more, it’s more economical.