5 Bay Area Places To Fall Into Autumn

Gizdich Ranch Apple Olallieberry Pie  (Connie Tcheng via Yelp)

More Fun in the Fall
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Looking for fall activities for families in the Bay Area? Read on for apple pies, pumpkin patches and, yes, Hogwarts-esque steam engines.

While most people revere summer as the season of exploration, it’s really autumn that beckons poetic discovery. Those crisp mornings are perfect for a walk with the sound of crunching leaves under your feet. It’s time for pumpkins, apples, cider and leaves in a 1970s pantone palette. If you’re not lucky enough to have grown up near the Northern California foothills like I did—where we would make annual trips to Apple Hill, the land of stands, shacks and orchards dedicated to everything apple—then you can create your own little piece of fall bliss within an hour from San Francisco.

This list includes apple orchards, places to get freshly made pies, chestnut groves, a steam engine that rides through old growth Redwood forests all the way to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and a pumpkin patch in your San Francisco backyard. Visit any of these five locations (or visit them all) for a chance to fall into autumn.

Skyline Chestnuts

22322 Skyline Blvd
La Honda, California
94020

The chestnut trees at Skyline
The chestnut trees at Skyline (Skyline Chestnuts)

If you follow them on Facebook, daily updates by third generation farmer Hans Johsens start popping up in October, alerting newcomers and regulars that it’s almost chestnut season at Skyline Chestnuts in La Honda. And you better make sure you’re paying attention because, as I’ve learned over the years, the chestnut season is short. By mid-November, it’s a wrap.

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Skyline Chestnut’s 120 pesticide-free heritage trees are rumored to have been planted by one of the Spanish settlers that occupied this area shortly after it was “acquired by United States in 1847.” Taken over by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District in the 1980s, the orchard saw several years of neglect when it became infeasible for the district to maintain the space.

Although the Johsens had no previous experience with chestnut farming, they took the orchard into their care in 2004 as a seasonal-only operation. But, the Johsens quickly realized the land needed much more attention than what they could give seasonally, and they have been restoring it to its rightful glory ever since.

Trek through their marked pathways amongst shaded canopies and the quintessential smell of autumn as you stalk shiny brown globes of chestnuts that lie on the ground. Or, if you’re lucky, you can spot some chestnuts still in their spiked armor and use the heavy gloves the Johsens provide to pry the nuts free. Get there early in the morning and you might be able to catch the idyllic orchard shrouded in some peaceful coastal fog.

Roaring Camp Railroads

5401 Graham Hill Rd, 
Felton, CA
95018

Steam engine cutting through redwood forest
Steam engine cutting through redwood forest (Roaring Camp Railroads)

Although this land was settled in the 1830s, for the last 55 years, Roaring Camp has been a staple visit in Felton, CA in the middle of the Santa Cruz mountains. The founder F. Norman Clark passed away in 1985, with his wife Georgianna (who took over as President of Operations) passing away in 2016, but their daughter Melani Clark is continuing on with her parent’s legacy and still serving as CEO of Roaring Camp just as she was back in 2012 when KQED Food had a chance to catch up with her.

The railroad operates every day except Christmas, and has a series of seasonal activities to keep the kids short attention span for longer than you’ve seen in a while. There’s a series of Hogwarts-esque steam engines that take you to various parts of Santa Cruz Redwoods. Their Santa Cruz Beach Train goes through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park all the way to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, on a route that used to carry lumber in 1875. Or, take the 1 hour round trip ride to Bear Mountain as you stay shaded under the canopy of our mighty “big trees” and autumn foliage.

They also have face painting, pumpkin patchin, gold panning (sifting through sand to find nuggets of gold) and barbecue. In October they have several events such as their Brewgrass festival, where local breweries and bluegrass meet, and their Harvest Fair where you can make your own scarecrow.

Apple-A-Day Ratzlaff Ranch

13128 Occidental Rd, 
Sebastopol, CA
95472

The Ratzlaff orchard
The Ratzlaff orchard (Ratzlaff Ranch)

There is little known about this humble third generation family ran ranch in Sebastopol, overseen by Ken Ratzlaff since he took the reins from his father in the late 1960s. A testament to Ken himself, who is soft-spoken and seemed destined to be an apple grower. Ken’s grandfather purchased the land around 1924 and always intended it for apples and berries.

The Ratzlaff ranch has over 25 acres of land specializing in Gravensteins, Golden Delicious and Rome apples, and for the last 25 years has brought a league of cult followers that swear by their Apple-A-Day apple cider. The apples are taken at their peak ripeness and cold pressed into a cider containing no added sugars or preservatives, and that sweet liquid amber tastes like melted apples. The apple pulp from the pressing process is then used as compost for the orchard.

If you want to apple pick with minimal human contact, this is your go-to, but, their u-pick is only available in September and October. Grab a bag near the honor system shed and head out to the orchard, and you can also bring a picnic and sit under the shade. On your way back, purchase some apple bread or apple cider in the small cooler. This is a no-frills u-pick apple orchard where they don’t have mazes, trampolines, pony rides, bouncy houses, or kettle corn. It’s all about the apples, baby. Bring cash.

Gizdich Ranch

55 Peckham Rd, 
Watsonville, CA
95076

The 4-pound apple pie at Gizdich Pie Shop
The 4-pound apple pie at Gizdich Pie Shop (Connie Tcheng via Yelp)

You can spend an entire day at this fourth generation family-owned and operated farm in Watsonville. “Originally purchased by Vincent John Gizdich, a Croatian Immigrant, in 1937,” this 60-acre ranch is overseen by Noah Gizdich and relies on their combination of commercial cropping (selling to nearby Martinelli’s) and u-pick. Gizdich sells 17 varieties of apples — specializing in the Newtown Pippin, an heirloom variety known for tart crisp flavor that’s great for cooking — and six varieties of berries, including Olallieberries.

Opening in September for their u-pick season, you can wander and pick to your heart’s content at the rate of $2 per pound. Take a bite of those same orchard apples in Nita Gizdich’s baseball sized homemade apple dumplings drowning in a caramel-esque sauce. Or, a heaping slice of their fresh Dutch apple pie with a crumbly streusel topping, a la mode. The tender crust and juicy filling starts to co-mingle with the slightly melted ice cream, so your bites become a perfect spoon of creamy, sweet, saucy, crusty and tart. Don’t forget to nab one of their frozen pies for the road so your friends won’t be jealous. All the pies are baked on-site.

And don’t worry if you forgot the snacks at home, they have an on-site deli that sells picnic box lunches with filling sandwiches. Wash it down with their perfectly sweet and tart fresh pressed apple juice. You can also pre-order your four-pound apple Thanksgiving pies here, they sell around 6,000 pies during this time of year. This place is a true testament to the wondrous world of agricultural adaptation, and according to Nita Gizdich, they “just listen to our customers.”

Clancy’s Pumpkin Patch

1620 7th Ave, 
San Francisco, CA
94122

Pumpkins at Clancy’s Pumpkin Patch
Pumpkins at Clancy’s Pumpkin Patch (Jessica R via Yelp)

Sure, you could pet calfs, learn to milk a cow, wander in a hay maze, and be in massive open land while picking your own pumpkin from the vines at The Great Peter Pumpkin Patch in Petaluma. But, some of us don’t have cars to get there. For those who don’t have the luxury of a owning or being able to rent a car, but want to partake in the autumnal merriment, look no further than the Inner Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco.

Three generations deep into doing business with San Francisco residents, Clancy’s started selling Christmas Trees in 1949. 30 years later on the same lot, they started selling pumpkins and gourds of all sizes and varieties for decoration and for baking.

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Wander this one acre lot seven days a week in the month of October from 9:00AM to 9:00PM. Watch out for possible live turkeys, bring your little ones and your well-mannered four legged friends, and you could maybe even hitch a ride on a tractor-pulled hayride. And you never have to cross the bridge.

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