Oregon's Fruit Loop and Idaho's Gem County let you harvest regional fruit from early summer crops.
Pluck a ready-to-burst cherry straight from its tree and you start to understand how nature provided for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Standing beneath skyward-arching branches, surrounded by the drowsy drone of bees and the sweet scent of ripening stone fruit, you're instantly connected to the season and the earth. When you bite into the cherry's flesh, its juice spills onto your tongue, delighting your taste buds and leaving a telltale trace of color.
Picking your own fruit at an orchard or farm lets you savor cherries, strawberries, peaches, and the like at their mouthwatering prime. It's a vast improvement over store-bought produce, which is often harvested prematurely to endure the shipping process—a method that can impact the fruit's flavor. As Barb Stuckey, author of Taste: Surprising Stories and Science about Why Food Tastes Good, explains, when fruit is allowed to ripen fully on the stem, natural sugars increase and aroma compounds mature, intensifying its sweetness and bouquet. Because our sense of smell influences the way we perceive taste, that extra fragrance helps us experience a fruit's unique qualities.
Ready to fill your basket? You can find a cornucopia of u-pick options across the West. Hood River in Oregon and Gem County in Idaho are two distinct regions that yield early summer crops. Each merits a full day's pleasure hunt, whether you plan to visit a single farm or several.
Oregon's exceptional berries
An hour's drive east of Portland, the 35-mile Fruit Loop winds through picturesque Hood River Valley, linking farms, fruit stands, and wineries. Besides their surreal beauty, neighboring Mounts Hood and Adams provide a geology and geography that help certain crops thrive. "Volcanic ash from the mountains has created wonderful soil," says Jean Godfrey of Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers. The nutrient-rich loam, paired with a moderate climate, serves as a red carpet for fruit trees.
Conditions are ideal for pears and berries, including the Oregon-bred Hood strawberry. "It's a very dense, juicy berry that's good for jam or fresh eating," explains Carrie Kennedy, whose family grows Hoods at the Gorge White House, a 100-year-old farm. Visitors can handpick two kinds of strawberries (starting in May) and three types of blueberries (starting in June), plus blackberries and raspberries that practically drop off the vine when ripe. Berry fans can also sample house-made blueberry and mixed-berry hard ciders or blueberry, sausage, and goat cheese pizza.
Given the sheer number of inviting stops along the Hood River County Fruit Loop—more than 30, including perennial favorites such as Montavons Berries and Draper Girls Country Farm—u-pickers can expect to return home with bounty to share.
Idaho's superior cherries
Named for its fire opals and water agates, Gem County in southern Idaho also produces edible jewels. Once a national supplier of cherries—think bloodred bings, blushing golden Rainiers, and tart Montmorencies—the town of Emmett holds an annual Cherry Festival (June 17–20 this year), kicking off cherry season with parades, bake-offs, pie-eating contests, and pit-spitting competitions.
The region's recipe for success? Warm days and cool nights, which increase sugar content and produce tastier fruit. "It's also a dry climate," says Leah Clark of Idaho Preferred, a program that promotes local food and agriculture. "So we rarely have issues with mold and mildew. The fruit can hang on the tree longer to ripen."
Crops flourish along the sandy southern slope of the Emmett Valley, about 35 miles northwest of Boise, where more than half a dozen operations offer u-pick cherries and other tree fruit, plus informal picnicking in orchards rife with history. "My grandfather homesteaded this property back in 1890," says Harold Williams of his popular stop for cherries and peaches, Williams Fruit Ranch. "It was the first commercial orchard in the valley."
A relative newcomer by comparison, Tyler's Rocky Point Orchard opened for u-pick in 1995. "Our first day, we had nine customers," says manager Scott Tyler. "Now we'll get several hundred." He attributes the upswing to Boise's population boom, which includes foreign-born residents accustomed to getting produce straight from a farm. "In one afternoon, you might hear 10 different languages out in the orchard," he says.
Whatever your native tongue, your taste buds are bound to thank you for going the u-pick route. This summer, skip the supermarket and head for the fields.
For nine more u-pick places in the West, click here.
Photography by Robert Crum/Corbis (basket); courtesy of Gorge White House (strawberry)
This article was first published in May 2015. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.