Apple orchards have turned into family entertainment meccas with ponies, mazes, trampolines and, oh yeah, apples.
Whether you're looking to take the entire family for the day, or escape with your main squeeze among picturesque views, here's a guide to picking the best apple (orchard) for you.
Take in the crisp fall air among stunning views of the St. Croix River Valley at Carpenter Nature Center in Hastings. The small apple orchard nestles among 425 acres of hiking trails, tall pines, oak savanna, restored prairies, wooded ravines, and river views. There are 10 miles of hiking trails, 3.5 of which are paved to accommodate those with mobility limitations. Apples, raspberries, cider, pumpkins, squash, wildflower honey and maple syrup are produced on-site using sustainable agriculture practices, and are for sale in the Apple Shack. Visitors can pick their own apples from the small orchard during the Apple Festival Oct. 13-14. (12805 St. Croix Trail S., Hastings; 651-437-4359; www.carpenternaturecenter.org)
Go for the apples. Stay for the corn maze. Covering 15 acres (possibly the largest in the state) and with more than six miles of twists and turns, the maze at Afton Apple Orchard in Hastings is a sight to behold. This year, the corn was cut into a theme saluting veterans and includes the symbols of each military branch. Teenagers flock to the maze on Friday and Saturday nights in October when the maze becomes "haunted" with masked characters leaping out from the corn stalks. Warm up by the bonfire and enjoy brats, caramel apples and milk shakes. (14421 S. 90th St., Hastings; 651-436-8385; www.aftonapple.com)
Owner Charlie Johnson jokes that his 8-year-old springer spaniel runs the orchard at Whistling Well Farm in Hastings, but there's some truth to it. With a serious case of selective hearing, Emmy is a bit mischievous, but a lot friendly. In addition to Sonny the donkey and a quirky flock of chickens, she's become somewhat of a legend with orchard visitors and inspired Johnson to write his first children's book, "Emmy, of Whistling Well Farm." The book is sold in the orchard's market, along with apples, honey from the orchard's bees, and other fall staples. The pick-your-own supply is limited, but the farm also has 2,500 fall mums for digging and 30 acres of pumpkins for picking. Visitors are encouraged to bring their own dogs as long as they're leashed. (8973 St. Croix Trail S., Hastings; 651-998-0301; www.whistlingwellfarm.com)
Get lost with a loved one in fields of pumpkins, rows of grapes and tree-lined trails at the brand-new Luceline Orchard in Watertown. There's plenty for kids to do -- petting zoo, corn maze, hay mountain -- and, with 155 acres of rolling hills and 80 acres of wetlands on the Luce Line Trail, there are endless spots to hide out with your honey. Visitors are encouraged to bring their walking shoes, bikes or horses, and pack a lunch to explore the wooded trails and meandering creek. Bird-watching has become a fast favorite among visitors. Next year, the orchard will begin making its own wine on-site. (2755 Rose Av., Watertown; 612-817-6229; www.lucelineorchard.com)
Some orchards specialize in doing a few things well: either pies, pick-your-own or petting zoos. Others do it all. For families looking for a place to entertain everyone, Apple Jack Orchards in Delano is the crème de la crème. You can't pick your own apples, but you can pick pumpkins and raspberries, bounce on a giant jumping pillow, ride ponies and try your aim at shooting field targets with rotten apples through a cannon. "It's perfectly safe, but an awful lot of fun," said manager Mike Dekarski. The orchard also has a bakery and cafe with soup, sandwiches, and apple-flavored desserts. New this year: Text your way through the 5-acre corn maze for a chance to win prizes. Then dive into fall's version of a sandbox, a giant pit filled with 18 inches of corn. (4875 37th St. SE., Delano; 763-972-6673; www.applejackorchards.com)
Notable mention: Minnetonka Orchards and Pleasant Valley Orchard in Shafer, Minn.
No restaurant. No bakery. No petting zoo. At Dassel Hillside Farm, an hour west of the Twin Cities, the apple crop is the main event. In contrast to what owner Karl Towsend calls "agritainment orchards," his niche is quality fruit for a good value. Apple connoisseurs drive the distance to get good apples and a lot of them. A Brainerd family recently filled their trunk with apples to share with everyone on their block. Townsend's crop fared well this year and he reports a healthy supply, particularly Honeycrisp and Haralson varieties. (24492 Hwy. 15, Dassel, Minn.; 1-320-275-2622; www.dasselhillsidefarm.webs.com)
Apple-flavored brats, pies and doughnuts are as prevalent as apples in the orchard business, but sit-down restaurants are rare. At Carlson's Orchard, Bakery and Restaurant in Winsted, Minn., the menu isn't fancy, but it's exactly what you're craving when you visit a farm on a cool fall day: homemade soups, salads and sandwiches on fresh-baked focaccia, all served by waitresses who've worked there for years. Converted from a 1932 dairy barn, the restaurant seats 120 and fills with customers -- many retirees and businesspeople -- from the neighboring farm communities from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Their favorites are the chicken salad sandwich with chopped apples, chicken wild rice soup, and crumb top apple pie and ice cream for 99 cents. The farm is enjoying its second-best crop ever, so visitors can pick their own apples, too. (11893 Montgomery Av. SW., Winsted, Minn.; 1-320-485-3704; www.carlsonsorchardbakery.com)
HOW 'BOUT THEM GRAPES?
Add a twist to your orchard experience by visiting one that shares space with a winery. Aamodt's Apple Farm in Stillwater operates alongside St. Croix Vineyards. The wine tasting room is connected to the apple room and the grape vines are intermixed with the apple trees. Vineyard manager Matt Scott said that while it's been a tougher year for apple crops, it's been excellent for grapes. He encourages visitors to pack a picnic lunch and enjoy a bottle of wine anywhere on the site. The wines are made mostly from grapes, but there's one apple variety and a port wine made from raspberries. New this year: Tipsy Pies by Rustic Pies of Stillwater are made with local spirits, including 2 Gingers Whiskey, Lift Bridge Artisan Ale and St. Croix Vineyards' Raspberry Infusion wine. (6428 Manning Av. N., Stillwater; 651-439-3127; www.aamodtsapplefarm.com)
Aimée Blanchette • 612-673-1715