Forget pumpkin spice, get a real taste of Fall in Ellijay, Georgia
Pouring a bit of high-fructose pumpkin spice flavor into your morning coffee as you rush out to face yet another day on the grind is no way to celebrate the beginning of Fall. Sure, it’s convenient, but to take in the season, to really grab hold of it and take in every drop of the spice of the fall, you have to eat an apple.
Now this can’t be any old apple. A grocery store variety cannot do. What you find on the shelves have spent days in a refrigerated container as they are shipped from places like Chile and they taste like it. For a proper introduction to fall you need to bite into an apple—preferably a tart variety—ripened under the harvest moon and still warm from the sun. And for this, the apple houses in Ellijay, Georgia do perfectly.
Ellijay is the apple capitol of The Peach State, home of the Georgia Apple Festival. The downtown has that gem of a small-town vibe that comes with antique shops and cafes. The Appalachian Trail begins in the neighborhood of the town. Mountain biking is also big there, according to Karla Haege, communications manager for Gilmer County Chamber of Commerce.
The area’s newest attraction, Haege said, is a bigfoot museum in Cherry Log, Georgia called Expedition: Bigfoot! But my wife and I were looking for something slightly easier to find when we made the trip on a September weekend: an apple tree in Apple Alley.
Traveling to Ellijay will take about an hour-and-a-half drive and you must go over the mountains. Grab a coffee (sans pumpkin spice) and some music you haven’t listened to in a while. After leaving the interstate in Dalton and driving a few minutes, the mountains loom close. We passed country roads and gas stations that double as convenience stores. The Georgia Department of Economic Development’s tourism website named this route one of the top scenic drives in the state. Haege recommended traveling to Ellijay via Georgia State Route 52 over Fort Mountain, but our GPS didn’t take us that way.
U.S. Route 76 leading into Gilmer County, in which Ellijay rests, was recently paved. “Low or soft shoulder” the orange signs warned. The road winds by pine and rock outcrops and while it was still late summer in North Georgia with the cell phone saying its 85 degrees, the trees were beginning to show hints of the coming reds and yellows.
We visited R&A Orchards where a tractor ride into the orchard drops you off at a shed where you pay cash for plastic bags that either hold a half-peck ($8) or peck ($16) of apples.
By then, it was time for that apple. It was a Rome Beauty, powdery and dull, but a shine on the sleeve made it glisten. The Rome Beauty is both tart and sweet. Fall is coming, with its bonfires and falling leaves. The taste is a raincheck. The orchard smells of dust, dry grass and spoiling apples the trees dropped on the ground rough with long grass and bits of branches from the pruning season.
The trick to picking your own apples is to be choosy. Unlike the store where you’re just looking for apples that pass muster for color, that are not bruised and are blemish free, you’re looking for perfection here. Get close, reach high, examine before you carefully twist the apples from branches. The Rome Beauties were huge, the size of softballs. As the bag filled, the care grew. Bruised apples go rotten.
Back at R&A’s apple house, yellow mums sat out in front and phalanxes of apples in plastic bags rested inside. R&A sold cook books, honey sticks on the counters and fudge. But the key to the season is everything apple: dried apples, caramel apples, apple cider, cider donuts. Forget trying to cut back on sugar.
Ellijay’s peak season is October when about 35,000 to 50,000 people will attend the Georgia Apple Festival, which is scheduled to run Oct. 8-9 and 15-16 this year.
“There’s an apple experience for everybody,” Haege said. Twelve apple houses operate in the area, according to the chamber. Got active kids? Haege suggested Hillcrest Orchard’s Apple Pickin’ Jubilee because it offers everything from cow milking to an apple tree maze, a maze which is “one of two in the nation and the only one in the southeast,” she said.
That drive away from the daily demands, Apple Alley, that apple—it beats just a flavor in a cup of coffee.
Daniel Jackson is an independent journalist who studied Communications at Bryan College and covered national events with an internship at the Washington Times. He joined The Pulse in 2015 and has become a regular contributor and feature writer.