Oak Glen: A slice of the past in apple country

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Jamie Lee Pricer

Red Wing Pond in the Oak Glen Preserve reflects the San Bernardino Mountains.
Photo by Jamie Lee Pricer

An easy hour’s drive from the Coachella Valley takes you to Oak Glen, Southern California’s largest apple-growing region, with a heritage that dates back to 1867 when the first orchards were planted.

Replete with apples to pick or buy, shops, restaurants and tourist activities, the climate draws desert dwellers. Temperatures read about 20 degrees cooler in the 4,000-foot elevation hilly country than in the desert.

A mid-week jaunt in early October found few visitors — Oak Glen bustles on weekends — and deciduous trees stubbornly green with nary a hit of fall color yet.

The fruit: Oak Glen produces about 50 varieties of apples that ripen from late August through December. Gala, King David, Rome, Bellflower, Spartan, Beverly Hills, Delicious, Banana and Parkdale Beauty were among types available in early fall. At one stand, apples were priced by paper bag pecks — $10 for ¼ peck, about enough to make three pies. A box of seconds meant for juicing or cooking, $25. U-pick signs advertised $2.50 per pound.

Also, at the right time of the year, you can buy or pick raspberries, pears, strawberries and pumpkins. You’ll also find a smattering of organic vegetables grown here.

Try it out: Mom’s Country Orchards offers samples of apples, apple butter, honey, jams, preserves, sauces, relishes, pickles, caramel dip and topping.

Shopping: Hub of much visitor activity, Oak Tree Village offers a restaurant, bakery, artisans, animal park, crafts, a candy kitchen that dates back to the 1940s and a palette of shops, including one that specializes in dark glasses for dogs, including the ever-stylish aviators. You’ll also find Christmas decorations year-round here.

Pack your lunch: Oak Glen is hard to beat as a place for picnics under shady trees. You’ll find a few tables at Mom’s Country Orchards and outside Oak Tree Village and dozens of spots at Los Rios Rancho. The schoolhouse museum which dates back to 1927, offers lovely sites and playground apparatus for kids.

The new deal: Adjacent to Los Rios Rancho on the south side of Oak Glen Road, take time to explore the Southern California Montane Botanic Garden opened by the Wildlands Conservancy in the 2,100-acre Oak Glen Preserve. The wildlands include oak woodland, conifer forest, chaparral grasslands, wetlands, springs, ponds and two year-round streams with riparian corridors.

The conservancy has signed more than 100 native species. The preserve itself lies in the San Bernardino Mountains that because of glacial succession is the most botanically diverse range in the U.S. with almost 1,600 plant species. Nature trails are open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. You can take dogs on a leash.

If you go

Directions: From the Coachella Valley take Interstate 10 west. Exit at Beaumont Avenue. Turn right. As you drive uphill, Beaumont Avenue becomes Oak Glen Road, which will take you through the apple country. If you continue on Oak Glen Road, it will loop down through Yucaipa and to I-10.

Schedule: Seasonal activities year-round; weekend visits more likely to guarantee full course of activities. Now — apples, u-pick pumpkins. Upcoming — Apple Butter Festival on the three-day Thanksgiving weekend; Riley’s Farm Apple Butter Hoedown, Nov. 29, a feast of pumpkin stew, home-baked bread and salad. Dance off your meal to the sounds (and calls) of Riley’s Mountaineers old-time string band. $18, kids 3-12, $25 adults. (866) 585-6407, www.rileysapplefarm.com

More: www.oakglen.net