There’s something about driving along quiet roads with the wind in your hair, the smell of crisp leaves and the excitement of going apple picking. Such is my family’s yearly tradition. We almost didn’t do it this year, but my daughter asked if we could visit an orchard. It had been a few years since we visited what I believe is the best all-around orchard and market in Virginia. Marker-Miller Orchards in quaint Winchester is farmed by fourth and fifth generations of the Marker and Miller families.
On any given fall day, Marker-Miller Orchards has a line of cars stretching down the country road. Have no fear though, good things come to those who wait. The property is teaming with giddy children, families and visitors from all over the east coast because the crops and the offerings in the farm market are that good.
Over a dozen yellow and white peach varieties along with plums, apricots, red raspberries, blackberries and tomatoes are available for picking in July. In August, peaches, berries and tomatoes continue, but look for the first crop of apples in the form of Ginger Gold and Gala. Pears are making their debut here in 2017, while fall ushers in with over a dozen apple varieties, pumpkins and winter squash.
Pick-your-own apples begin September 1st annually, but I was surprised to know that apples actually emerge as early as August and continue until November. We visited at the end of September and while most trees appeared to have been picked, there are a total of 325 acres of apple trees. I had no problem picking my fill of Golden Delicious, Red Delicious Ida Red, Crispin and Rome apples. It also helps that the trees are short enough that picking poles are not present.
The popularity of apple picking has grown at Marker-Miller so that the new procedure is to pay in advance outside at the packing shed. You purchase the amount you want and in return they give you the bag or box along with a map and picking instructions. Each row of trees is clearly marked by the apple variety making it a no-brainer. The ground is pretty level so it doesn’t require a lot of walking or strain.
PYO (pick-your-own) prices for orchard goodness is $8 for a half peck, $11 per peck and $16 for half a bushel. Basically, a half peck is the equivalent to 10 pounds of apples making these prices fantastic versus buying them from a grocer. While I purchased a bag for a half peck load, I noticed people dragging wagons filled with bushels of apples. My kiddo couldn’t resist snagging a piece of fruit from the tree asking if she needed to wash it first. I chuckled and told her that it was okay to eat it right from the tree.
After we picked ’till our hearts content, my daughter made a B-line for the giant playground. I mean, this is where the party is at. We’re talking a wooden ship aptly named “The Jolly Cobbler,” a castle and tractor, which all have features like swings, slides, rings and ladders. Tikes can enjoy a small sandbox, toddler play structures and spring rockers. A variety of cute cutouts like “apple of my eye” and a ruler measuring how tall you’ve grown since you last visited the orchard make a cute addition.
There are portable toilets adjacent to the playground, real bathrooms inside the farm market and a baby changing station in the employee restroom. A must is the new addition of the giant half eaten apple that sits in front of the “Paxton” stone house. The cow barrel train has expanded with some cows accommodating both a parent and child. Each part of the train includes seat belts and is labeled with an apple variety. For $2 per person, the tractor slowly chugs along with the train for approximately 7 minutes, which is longer than most places allow. Another reasonable activity is the 25 minute wagon ride, which is also $2 per person and free for ages 4 and under. Take in the scenes aboard a hay bale, see what farm life looks like and wave to barnyard friends. Both the cow barrel train and wagon runs weekends in September & October.
The farm market and bakery are phenomenal here. Other varieties of pre-picked apples can be found here along with freshly picked vegetables, cookbooks, pancake mixes, jams, and baked dog biscuits (which my pooches love) and apple housewares. One thing I always forget is to bring a cooler so I can grab some pints of Trickling Springs ice cream, local cheese and eggs. Country ham sandwiches are a must along with Virginia’s Rt. 11 chips. Three words to remember…Apple Cider donuts! I gasped when I saw a lone donut left in the case. Five minutes later, a lovely lady returned with several dozen warm goodies. The donuts are so good that they never stay long. Thankfully, the staff knows this and restocks the case often. You can also find cookies, turnovers, apple pies, bread and rolls that are also made on the property.
Any time the orchard is open is a great time to visit. However, head there early if you want to enjoy everything peaches at the Peach Festival in August or the Apple Harvest Festival in early October. Additional activities include live music and food vendors. Sample fresh salsa, indulge in cotton candy and adults can even try a complimentary taste of vino from the Peaks of Otter Winery. Every weekend in October local craft vendors set up outside the market. On the weekends, you can smell the burgers and hot dogs grilling at Blue Ridge BBQ Co. Prices are reasonable and can even be made into combos adding fries or potato salad and a beverage. There is a large covered pavilion or if a rocking chair becomes available, enjoy your food, watch your children play and take in the majestic mountain view.
Open June to October, Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In September and October they are also open Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. During the month of November, hours are Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. They regularly update Facebook, which is great, because they let you know what apples are available to pick. Marker-Miller is an orchard and not a fall festival. Having said that, it’s a wonderful experience the whole family will love. There is no admission fee to visit Marker-Miller Orchard so what are you waiting for?
Photos by Kathleen Molloy.