Locals and tourists alike flock to California’s farms for some of the world’s best fruit. Early summer means u-pick peaches, plums, nectarines and cherries are just a delicious day-trip away from the San Francisco Bay Area.
By Darya Mead
Dreams of picking fruit, fresh off the tree dance in my head, particularly in summer. One of my happiest memories was wild camping in Provence waking up in our tent under a reine claude plum tree. We ate so many as we noshed on our fresh croissants and coffee.
Somehow, I always used to miss the fruit picking season near my home in San Francisco. Maybe it’s because family life was always so crazy in May and June when the stonefruit is ready. Or maybe it’s because my East Coast roots that tell me summer fruit comes a bit later.
I had wanted to pick stone fruit since I moved to California more than twenty years ago. In the interim, I had picked blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, apples, and some cherries from my urban backyard trees. Yet the lure of fuzzy pink peaches, iridescent plums and comedian Mel Brooks’ favorite, nectarines (“I love a nectarine; It’s half a peach, half a plum, it’s a hell of a fruit!”) remained tantalizing.
Finally, a few years ago, my California fruit-picking dreams came true! Now, I commit to an annual day trip to the orchards with my teen boys, BFFs, mother, and this year, my cousin’s 3½-year-old twins. We pack a picnic, drive to the East Bay, and pick perfect fruit in the searing early summer heat.
There are many “u-pick” fruit orchards between San Francisco and Sacramento. Each one offers different varieties of fruit and ambiance. In 2019, we visited Vornhagen for cherries and Farmer’s Daughter Produce and U-Pick Farm for peaches and nectarines.
We arrived at midday in Brentwood, California, about an hour from San Francisco. At Vornhagen. a lovely couple greeted us and tables with umbrellas awaited our picnic prior to picking. Cherries are fun to pick with little ones because some hang low. The twins ate their body weight in fruit (I warned mom of the consequences).
At other farms, college kids manned the orchards. One kid told us that we were “late” for u-pick and that we’d have to go deep into the orchard to find ripe and ready fruit.
We got some buckets and a wagon and headed off down one of the lanes. All we saw were small, shriveled nectarines clinging to the tree. I was crestfallen. I ate one; it was sun-kissed warm and juicy – it actually tasted great – but this could not be the state of the entire u-pick orchard, could it? Had I missed the season, yet again?!
Then, limping through the lumpy lanes a few rows to the left, the sky parted and angels sang: Peaches!
They were firm, pink, yellow and orange, plump and waiting for us. We filled a bucket and a half, the whole time trying to get the boys to not treat the fragile fruit like balls. I later found some plums ready to be picked and a few nectarines, too!
My friend and I were so overjoyed, we took oodles of pictures: Selfies with the peaches, closeups, filtered shots, action shots, you name it. I relished the experience and even though u-pick isn’t “cheaper”—our haul was more than $50—we agreed it was a splendid experience.
Lunch under the fruit trees, a delightful conversation with an elderly Afghani woman waiting for her grandkids to pick, and the promised swim at Cull Canyon in Castro Valley rounded out a perfect afternoon.
Back home in the city, we have been enjoying our cherished stonefruit for breakfast, smoothies, snacks and dessert. In past years I’ve made tarts, a clafouti, and jam.
Every time I look at the overflowing fruit bowls, they make me smile. I do think even my big boys were charmed – and I know the twins loved the outing given their cherry goatees!
U-Pick Your California Fruit!
The Golden State is ripe with u-pick fruit farms. Call in advance to be sure the farm still has fruit to pick – and what operations are like during the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak. Here’s a sample of spots to aim for near the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento.
- Brentwood Stonefruit – About an hour east of San Francisco, this northernmost San Joaquin Valley spot is famous for its stonefruit: Cherries, peaches, nectarines, plums, and apricots. Best in May-June. Click here for farms and a trail map.
- Patterson Apricots – South of Brentwood, Patterson is now California’s home for heirloom apricots. If you’ve got a soft spot for these short-season beauties, check this blog for a list of the best NorCal farms still growing them.
- Stockton Blueberries – The Delta breezes make berry farming great in early summer. Check this article for farms in the area.
- Santa Cruz Strawberries – Summer drives should always include stops in Davenport for some u-pick berries at Swanton Berry Farm.
- Summer Apples in Sebastopol – Head to the North Bay for the best early season apple, the Gravenstein. Pick ‘em and all apples at Apple a Day Ranch.
- Autumn Apples in the Sierra Foothills – About a half-hour east of Sacramento, the Apple Hill folks market more than 50 farms, offering u-pick lovelies and all manner of foodie-tourist attractions year-round. Click here for more info.
- October Pomegranates – California’s newest orchard crop is now pumping out purple-y happiness in autumn. While most pomegranates are grown farther south, NorCal families can pick theirs at Blue Ridge Pomegranates in Winters.
- Winter Mandarins In Placer County – The sweetest, smallest oranges are there for the pickin’ at some of the mandarin farms about a half-hour northeast of Sacramento in the Loomis-Auburn area. Click here to find out more from the Mountain Mandarins association.
Darya Mead – June 2019
Growing up in NYC and attending the UN International School gave Darya a head start as a global citizen. But her extensive travel and media experience now takes a back seat to raising two boys in San Francisco. Darya loves the outdoors, cooking, teaching yoga and the fact that her boys have taught her to be a sports fan. Follow her travels on Triporati.
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