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Orchard at Altapass – Blue Ridge Parkway

Tucked back in the rolling mountains of North Carolina sits a relaxing and scenic stop along the famous Blue Ridge Parkway; The Orchard at Altapass.

At milepost 328 in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, you’ll find an orchard that is unique to not only the mountains of North Carolina, but even has ties going back to the start of this great nation.

Aside from its rich history, the orchard is an amazing stopping point along the parkway for a multitude of reasons; it has everything from good food and live music to gifts, all the wildlife and breathtaking views you can enjoy, and fun activities for everyone that visits!  

Orchard at Altapass History

Orchard at Altapass

Photo courtesy of Orchard at Altapass

The Orchard at Altapass, despite being located at Mile Post 328 on the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway in the mountains of North Carolina, actually has a history that started well before the parkway (which began on September 11, 1935) came along. 

The orchard, as it is now, is only a small fraction of its original size and scope of operations. Originally, it was started in 1908 by the Clinchfield Railroad due to its location.

The orchard is located along the lowest point of the Eastern Continental Divide, which is the dividing line of where rain water eventually ends up; in the Atlantic Ocean on the Eastern side, or the Mississippi River on the Western side.

Due to this, the orchard is nestled in the valley and protected on all sides by mountains which act as a buffer and insulators to hold in warmer air and protect against freezing during the cooler springtime nights.

Originally, the orchard held over 30,000 apple trees planted across a massive 600 acres. However, it now only has about 3,000 apple trees across 70 acres. 

One cause of the decrease came just eight short years after its beginning. In July 1916, two hurricanes (a category 2 and a category 3) came together over Western North Carolina and led to over 10 straight days of rain that would devastate several mountain areas and leave marks behind that can still be seen to this day.

The converging of storms and their seemingly never-ending rainfall would later become known as the Great Flood of 1916 which broke records all over the Southeast US. One such record was for the highest amount of rainfall in an area within the continental US in a 24-hour period; which the area of Altapass claimed with a staggering 22.22 inches.

Because of this massive down pouring of rainwater, every part of Western North Carolina became inundated and triggered several deadly landslides and dam failures in the region [1].

South Depot Street, Asheville, NC during the Great Flood of 1916 [1]

However, despite the damage caused by this historic event, the orchard persisted and the act of replanting began. To this day, there are still several trees that are believed to be from that original replanting. That would make some of them 108 years old this year! 

What is an orchard, and why is this one special?

Orchard at Altapass

Photo courtesy of the Orchard at Altapass

Orchards are often large areas of land that are used to grow and raise one particular type of fruit bearing tree. In this case, it’s all apples!

The production of apples is one of North Carolinas top crops and is consistently in the top 10 list of apple producers in the US. Because of the climate, soil, and pollinators (more on a few of them below) that call NC home, there are around 200 apple orchards or commercial apple growers located here [2]!

Despite all these orchards though, there are several things that make the one in Altapass unique. The main one being the variety of apples that are grown here; heritage heirloom apples.

Apples

Some of which can be traced back to the beginning of our nations history when Europeans first began colonizing the area. 

On average, it takes around five years before apple trees begin to produce quality apples. Once they produce, most apple trees have a lifespan of about 70 years until they slow down. However, as mentioned above, there are some here that are well past that 70-year mark and still producing! 

All apples begin their life as just a small bloom in the springtime before spending the next few weeks to several months (depending on variety) growing larger and juicier until it’s time for them to be picked. During this harvesting season, another example of how this orchard sets itself apart is that it is a “Minimum Spray” orchard.

Minimum spray means that during the harvest season, they only spray their orchard 4-5 times and only using organic compounds. This is in contrast to some commercial growing operations, which conduct over 20 sprayings.

This means you get a healthier and a more environmentally friendly product and operation.

Finally, at the end of the season and toward the end of the year, when the cold weather returns to the region, the caretakers begin pruning the trees. During pruning, they take the time to shape and trim each of the trees so that they grow outward and downward, almost in the shape of an opened-up umbrella. 

Orchards also play many roles or exist for several different reasons. For example, some are for commercial growing, some are for fun events like apple picking, and some, such as the one here, play a very important role: preserving and protecting these historical heirloom varieties so that they can be enjoyed for generations to come.

While there are thousands of different apple varieties, the Orchard at Altapass focuses on growing the ones listed below. The ones in bold are some of the original heirloom varieties that the orchard has preserved. One example of which is the Limbertwig, a very hard to find variety that is native only to the Southern Appalachian region.


Arkansas Black

Gala

Hawkeye

Pippin

Stayman Winsap

Aunt Rachel

Ginger Gold

Hewes Crab

Red Astrachan

Transparent/Lodi

Autumn Gala

Gold Rush

Jonagold

Red Blaze

Virginia Beauty

Candy Apple

Golden Delicious

Jonathan

Red Delicious

Virginia Banana

Crow Egg

Golden Russet

King Luscious

Rome Beauty

Wolf River

Early June

Greening

Limbertwig

Roxbury Russet

Yates

Florina

Grimes Golden

McIntosh

Sheepnose

York


Pollinators abound!

Another distinguishing difference of this orchard is their approach towards local pollinators, such as honey bees and several types of butterflies. They recognize that without them, there would be no orchard; or for that matter, no humanity either.

They have started several programs and placed additions around the orchard to ensure these pollinators have plenty of options for habitats. One example is the transparent observation beehive inside the visitor’s center. Don’t worry, it’s entirely enclosed with only a small tube that goes through the wall for the bees to come and go safely.

Viewable beehive

Photo courtesy of Orchard at Altapass

There are also several other beehives located around the property. However, there is just something fascinating about being able to watch the inner workings of a beehive and all the activity that goes on inside of one. Also, it’s right next to the fresh honey that’s for sale, and what’s better than watching bees make honey? Eating some while watching them make more! 

Bees alone are not the only pollinators that the orchard has worked hard to ensure the safety of; butterflies are the other main attraction and big stars at the orchard.

They have planted butterfly friendly plants such as milkweed all around the orchard and even have an established butterfly garden which is full of pollinator friendly plants, flowers, and bushes.

On top of these efforts, every year they lead a program to help protect the Monarch Butterfly, which is on the brink of being declared an endangered species again. The staff constantly search the property and when they discover monarch eggs, they remove the entire plant and place it inside for protection. Once they are then placed in the enclosure, visitors can observe and learn more about them, and if lucky, see multiple stages at the same time! I did this last year and got to observe several of them shortly after they emerged from their chrysalis’ (the butterfly equivalent of a cocoon).

I then got to see and learn something new; did you know that monarchs have furry edges along their wings? I had no idea until then! 

 

Ensuring their protection until they emerge as a gorgeous, golden-orange butterfly is not the end of their program though. Once a butterfly is ready to go free, the orchard tags their wing (it does not hurt or bother them) so that it can be traced on its long journey south. 

Some of their monarchs have successfully made the trip from the orchard in Altapass all the way down to Mexico, a staggering distance of over 1,000 miles!


Things to do at Orchard of Altapass

Hiking trails at Orchard of Altapass

Photo courtesy of Orchard at Altapass

There are so many fun activities here and something for everyone (and even the pets) to enjoy no matter the age!

Walking Trails

Come and just enjoy the outdoors and walk one of the many trails that are located throughout the orchard. See some of the heritage heirloom apple varieties and many other sights along the way. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even take a hike down to the original form of transportation (before the Parkway), the train tracks! Trail maps and detailed information about each trail are available at the Red Barn and online. Also, it’s free!

Map of trails, buildings, and sights around the orchard. (Taken from website)

Photo opportunities

No matter where you look there are plenty of wonderful photo opportunities! There are several peek-through standing props placed around the orchard for fun and creative pictures. On top of these, there is the natural beauty that can only be found in the mountains of North Carolina and particularly along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Which leads me to one of my personal favorites; taking in the view of the setting sun while relaxing on the back-porch area! Be sure to bring your camera! 

Dining

The on-property restaurant, The Apple Core Grill, serves several types of sandwiches such as BBQ, Chicken Salad, Pimento Cheese, and even hotdogs. Also, in the general store, there are more options available including: fresh baked apple pies (my recommendation), Hershey’s ice cream, homemade fudge, fresh honey, and so much more!

Apple Picking

Come take a guided tour among the orchard with some of the many knowledgeable staff who will guide you to some of the freshest and tastiest apples in the orchard. Get your chance to see and pick the apples you want (and maybe enjoy one or two along the way). Be sure to bring your close-toed shoes and questions for this fun experience! (Prices range from $10, $15, to $24 depending on size of bag or basket you choose)

Prebagged Apples

Don’t have time for picking your own? Weather isn’t cooperating? Or if you just want some apples to take home with you- There are several varieties that are already picked, bagged up, and ready to go available for purchase. (Prices range from $8 for a half peck, $14 for a full peck, to $45 for a full bushel)

Live Music

Live Music at Orchard at Altapass

Photo courtesy of Orchard at Altapass

Throughout the season, there are constantly unique artists and bands playing at the music and events pavilion.

Be sure to check the website and Facebook page to get the most up-to-date information. 

“Heyrides”

Heyride at Orchard at Altapass

Photo courtesy of Orchard at Altapass

Similar to a normal hayride, however, this one is missing the “hay” on the wagon. During these, you are treated to a 45-minute ride that is packed with stories of local lure and history, including those about the first settler of the orchard: Charlie McKinney.

This is a great educational experience and way to learn more about the orchard, its history and mission, the apples, and the wildlife found there.

Reservations are recommended, but not required (call ahead). These occur from June to October on Saturday’s at 12:30p and 2:30p, and Sunday’s at 12:30p (also at 2:30p from September to October). (Prices are $7 a person; kids 4 and under are free)

General Store

Make this both your first and last stop of your trip, get your trail maps here, see the enclosed beehive, explore the model train set up, and get a overview of the orchard before going exploring or apple picking.

Then come back for some great food, delicious deserts, fresh honey, and find some unique gifts to take home for friends and family.

Finally, finish your visit off by spending some time on the back deck taking in the awe-inspiring views of the mountains and valleys that surround you. 

Know before you visit

Here are a few tips to make your visit the Orchard at Altapass more enjoyable!

  • The orchard is mostly outside, so be prepared for the weather and plan ahead if necessary. 
  • Pet/animal policy: All pets are welcome as long as they are leashed and well behaved. Also, please remember to clean up after them. 
  • The orchard has some steep areas, roots, and uneven ground, so watch your step. However, there are still several areas that are easily accessible and allow for the use of wheelchairs, strollers, etc. 
  • While the orchard has a set season and hours of operation, the walking trails located around there remain open year-round! 
  • Don’t be surprised if you see or learn something new. 
  • Most importantly, HAVE FUN and enjoy making memories!


Orchard Information

Address:

Orchard at Altapass, Altapass Foundation, Inc

1025 Orchard Road

Spruce Pine, NC 28777

Milepost 328 on the Blue Ridge Parkway


Website: httpwww.altapassorchard.org 

Phone: (828)-765-9531

Opens: May 4th, 2024

Closes: End of October. However, the walking trails stay open year-round! 

Hours:

Weekends only in May (10a-5p)

Starting in June, Wed-Sun (10a-5p) 

(The Apple Core Grill opens June 1st and operates on Saturday’s and Sunday’s from 11a-4p with more dates to be announced)

How to get to the Orchard at Altapass

From Spruce Pine/Marion: Follow NC Route 226 North, toward to the Blue Ridge Parkway, turn right across from the NC Museum of Minerals, then make a left onto the Parkway. Go 3 miles to Orchard Rd. Turn Right (VERY TIGHT TURN), then right again at the intersection. Follow the signs to the Orchard.

Note: If you are driving an oversized vehicle such as a motor home or attached trailer, please continue past Orchard Rd. to the next overlook (North Cove Valley Overlook, about a half mile away), turn around there, then come back making a left onto Orchard Rd. 

Special thanks

I need to do a special thanks to Sam McKinney, the Mission and Sustainability Manager, who has graciously assisted me with compiling extensive amounts of information and helping make this article happen. 

Also, listed below are just a few of the individuals who need special mention for their work, assistance, and dedication in making sure that the Orchard at Altapass stays one of the top attractions to visit along the parkway: 

Beth Hilton: Executive Director

Alicia Sillman: Retail Operations Manager

Germaine Galjour: Bees, Blooms, Butterflies

Michael Fortner: Field Lead

Ramiro Chavez: Field Specialist

Kit Trubey and Bill and Judy Carson: Founders 

Sources

  1. Neufeld, R. (n.d.). Visiting Our Past: A harrowing tale of the great flood of 1916. The Asheville Citizen Times. Retrieved March 14, 2024, from https://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2020/07/12/visiting-our-past-harrowing-tale-great-flood-1916/5414920002/
  2. Apple Facts | NC Apple Growers Association. (n.d.). Ncapplegrowers.com. Retrieved March 14, 2024, from https://ncapplegrowers.com/apple-facts/#:~:text=How%20many%20apple%20producers%20are
About the author

Philip Kay is a native of North Carolina and has spent the last 15 years living in Western North Carolina in one capacity or another; from attending and graduating Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, to living and working in Asheville, to now living and working in rural Mitchell County.

He is an adventurous photographer specializing in landscapes, nature, and astrophotography and his photos have been displayed as far away as Berlin and Amsterdam. While he has had a camera in his hand since he was just a young boy, he took up the professional level calling and started PKayPhoto as a way to escape the pressures and stress of an extremely demanding job and now advocates for others to do the same.

The world is a beautiful place; I’m glad I get to see it twice- once by viewing it first hand and again through the lens of my camera.


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