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Picking and grinning during North Georgia apple season

R.J. Meyers (left) and his sister Grace pick apples at Hillcrest Orchards in Ellijay on September 14, 2014. (Photo by JONATHAN PHILLIPS)
R.J. Meyers (left) and his sister Grace pick apples at Hillcrest Orchards in Ellijay on September 14, 2014. (Photo by JONATHAN PHILLIPS)

Story by Suzanne Van Atten

Georgia may call itself the peach state, but come fall it’s all about apples. Ozark Gold, Red Delicious, Rome Beauty and Granny Smith are just a few of the crisp, juicy varieties that flourish in the North Georgia Mountains.

Ellijay is the heart of Georgia’s apple country, thanks to its loamy, acidic soil and cool nights, which produce flavorful fruit. Fall visits provide opportunities to pick them ripe from the tree or taste their tart goodness laced with cinnamon and brown sugar in a fresh-baked pie.

Pick-your-own orchards, called “u-pick” for short, are a big draw in North Georgia, and early fall is prime time for optimum apple picking, says Karla Haege, tourism manager for the Gilmer County Chamber of Commerce.

“If you want to do u-pick, I highly advise you pick your apples in September. You get better varieties, it isn’t as crowded, and it’s a lot more fun,” she says. “Don’t wait until October to pick apples. Pickings get slim.”

Lucky for latecomers — and those who prefer someone else do the work — the North Georgia Mountains are dotted with apple houses selling the freshly harvested crop, as well as baked goods, cider and more throughout the fall and, in some cases, year round. In addition, seasonal festivals celebrate the fruit’s sweet glory in the North Georgia Mountains.

Mercier Orchards

If there were an amusement park designed around the theme of apples, it would look a lot like Mercier Orchards. This sprawling operation covers every aspect of the apple. Visitors can take tractor tours of the orchards, pick their own apples (as well as blueberries, strawberries and peaches), dine on waffles topped with cinnamon apples in the café, snack on apple cider donuts from the bakery, sip on apple wine at the winery, and take home a sack of apples from the market. Mercier also hosts a variety of special events, including concerts, cornhole tournaments and seasonal festivals.

But what really sets Mercier apart is its distinction as the only orchard in the state that produces its own hard cider, from plant to bottle, right on site. Flavors include Grumpy Granny, a tart, dry cider made from Granny Smith apples, and Black Bee, made from Arkansas Black apples and clover honey.

8660 Blue Ridge Drive, Blue Ridge. Open daily, 7 a.m.-7 p.m., except major holidays. U-pick is 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, May-November. Wine and cider tasting is 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 12:30-6 p.m. Sunday. 706-632-3411, 800-861-7731. mercier-orchards.com

Apple Pickin’ Jubilee

Return to a time before screens captured our attention and enjoy a day of old-fashioned fun at Hillcrest Orchards’ Apple Pickin’ Jubilee. Here you can milk a cow, watch a pig race, ride a pony, bob for apples, play Hillbilly Mini Golf and visit the Moonshine Museum. New this year is an apple tree maze and duck races. Other attractions include musical entertainment, cloggers and festival fare such as funnel cakes, barbecue and ice cream.

But the main activity is picking your own apples, be it from the trees in the orchard or from the bins in the market, where you can also buy honey, cider, apple fritters, apple butter and more. The festival spans eight weekends in September and October.

Hillcrest Orchards, 9696 Ga. 52, Ellijay. 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Sept. 8-Oct. 28. $12. 706-273-3838. hillcrestorchards.net

B.J. Reece Orchards

When you’re done picking a sack of tree-ripened apples from 20 different varieties, be sure to allow time to play with the baby goats in the petting zoo, arguably the biggest attraction at Reece Orchards. You can also take a wagon ride, watch a milking demonstration, ride a zipline and shop for baked goods, cider, jams and other items in the market. In addition to apples, Reece Orchards also grows peaches, nectarines, Asian pears and a variety of vegetables.

9131 Ga. 52 East, Ellijay. July 14-Dec. 22. 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1-6 p.m. Sunday. U-pick is 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily through Oct. 31. $2 Monday-Friday, $5 Saturday-Sunday 706-276-3048. reeceorchards.com

Georgia Apple Festival

For a full-immersion experience in all things apple, nothing fills the senses — and the belly — like Ellijay’s Georgia Apple Festival, spanning two weekends in October. The food is biggest draw, with 30 vendors serving apple dumplings, caramel apples, fried pies, apple fritters, apple-flavored fudge and more.

Once you’ve had your fill, check out the 250 arts and craft vendors selling artisan-made items, as well as craft demonstrations, live music, cloggers and children’s activities, including camel rides. Rounding out the fun is an antique car show Oct. 13 at Ronnie Thompson Ford on Ga. 515 in East Ellijay and a parade starting 10 a.m. Oct. 20 in historic downtown Ellijay.

Ellijay Lions Club Fairgrounds, 1729 S. Main St., Ellijay. Oct. 13-14, Oct. 20-21. 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. $5; free for children 9 and younger. 706-636-4500. georgiaapplefestival.org

Insider tips

When picking apples, start from the outside of the tree and work your way toward the trunk. The fruit farthest from the trunk ripens first.

To prevent bruising, place apples gently in the basket. Don’t wash them until you’re ready to consume them to prevent spoilage.