As travelers descend into Wenatchee Valley, the rugged Cascade Mountains’ evergreens give way to orchards festooned with angelic apple blossoms or glossy fruit. A landmark, apple-shaped sign greets visitors: Welcome to Wenatchee — Apple Capital of the World.
“The apple industry has a long history in Washington going back to the late 1880s and it continues to grow,” says Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission. “Annually, we produce about two-thirds of all the apples grown in the United States.”
Agriculture is the economic backbone of Eastern Washington. In season, a colorful variety of apples hangs from trees like holiday ornaments — Red Delicious, Pink Lady, Pacific Rose and more. According to Fryhover, about 130 million bushels of fresh fruit are harvested yearly, generating upwards of $3 billion. Washington apples represent 95 percent of the nation’s exports to 60 countries from the United Kingdom to Sri Lanka, Nicaragua and the Philippines.
Apples abound in Wenatchee Valley. A meal almost always comes with an apple option, and art galleries display local landscapes and orchards. The Apple Blossom Festival, founded in 1919, is an annual tradition with old-school charm including a grand parade, classic car show and Apple Blossom royalty.
“This isn’t corporate America. The apple industry is unique in that most people here are second, third or even fourth generation. They invest back into the land. They strap up their boots every day and are hardworking, make-it-happen kind of people,” says Fryhover.
At 12 years old, Fryhover started working in the cherry industry, another powerhouse crop along with pears. Wenatchee Valley offers prime fruit-growing conditions thanks to a dry climate irrigated by local rivers such as the Columbia.
Business, however, has not always been as fertile. According to Tim Smith, a Washington State University Extension regional specialist, apple growers hit hard times in the 1980s. Today, business is booming again thanks to forward thinking. Crops diversified, with a dozen favorites now on the market with more to come. The Washington State University Breeding Program — one of few in the nation — propagates apples tailored for Washington’s climate. A new variety will be on the market in five to seven years.
“The breeding program started over 20 years ago,” says Smith. “We use modern techniques to help speed up the (breeding) process. It’s not genetic manipulation, but an expedited version of selecting the best parents to cross to create superior trees and fruit.”
Like many, Fryhover is most proud of connecting people with wholesome food. A grandmother from the East Coast sent a photo of her little granddaughter grasping a huge apple, laughing with delight after taking a bite.
“I distinctly remember looking at that picture and thinking that was the truest meaning of the Washington apple industry,” says Fryhover.
Guests are welcomed with a complimentary can of apple juice at the Washington Apple Commission Visitor Center. A 15-minute video overviews apples from seed to store and international posters celebrate apples from countries such as Indonesia — Apel sang juara — The Apple Champion. Learn about the “Best Apple Flavors on Earth” with a display of favorites ranging from Granny Smith to Winesap. For historical insight, the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center hosts an Apple Industry Exhibit, which showcases an operational 1920s apple sorter and antique cider press. Kids love the wall of 200-plus antique apple-box labels that burst with color. Expect to buy a souvenir label from the gift shop!
Insider tip: Two quarters rev up the museum’s model train to travel through a miniature Cascade Mountain range.
Lemolo Cafe & Deli is a crayon-explosion of color. Located in historic downtown, the cafe has wooden chairs painted in a cheery rainbow of colors from yellow to purple and green. Outdoor paraphernalia hangs from the walls — including a full-size snow monster — but it’s the food that captivates. Try a “Roast Beast & Swiss” sandwich or apple-onion soup. Saddle Rock Pub & Brewery is a pizza must. The menu touts that “We believe our home is worthy of its very own pizza.” The resulting “Wenatchee” pizza is flavorfully unique with heaping portions of Fuji apples and bacon. Satisfy a sweet tooth at Owl Soda Fountain & Gifts, a local institution since 1926. While the jukebox spins, enjoy a sundae or sip on a green apple phosphate — a Leprechaun-colored soda, fizzy and delicious!
A new addition to downtown Wenatchee is Pybus Market, which opened in May 2013. The refurbished steel warehouse now houses an indoor market with sit-down restaurants, fresh food vendors, artisan products and more. Standouts include ICE for a scoop of gelato and South for a modern Latin meal. Swing by Auvil’s “Gee Whiz” Select Fruit whose counter is papered with toddler artwork of fruits and veggies. In season, Auvil’s sells its own apples and cherries. The homemade apple crisp and caramel apples receive year-round raves. During summer, an outdoor farmers market fills the parking lot. Burn off treats with a walk on the nearby Apple Capital Loop Trail, a riverfront, 11-mile path with picnic tables and scenic views. For an afternoon trip, head to Ohme Gardens, about 10 minutes from downtown Wenatchee. Located on a bluff overlooking the valley, Cascade mountains and Columbia River, there is almost a mile of pathways to enjoy the manicured gardens first planted in 1929.
Insider tip: Everyone should experience the annual Apple Blossom Festival in April and May. Throngs of people attend the grand parade, which includes local cowboys on horseback and Apple Blossom royalty perfecting their waves.
No trip is complete without mementos. Historic downtown Wenatchee is home to modern boutique shops such as Simply Unique, where you can fall in love with everything from an antique cookie jar to farm-style gas can. Send folks back home a card from Pickle Papers or a t-shirt with “Locally Grown” stamped inside Washington’s outline from Tumbleweed. A new addition to the downtown core is Amanda’s Book Store. Opened by a father-daughter duo, the used book shop is also overseen by Oscar Wilde the cat. Browse over 18,000 volumes including local authors.
The City of Cashmere is the geographic center of Washington and a 10-15 minute drive from Wenatchee. The town retains its rural vibe and is home to the world-renowned Aplets & Cotlets Factory. Drop by for free samples, a factory tour and heaps of freshly made fruit candies.
For apple fanatics, the Cashmere Cider Mill is a must-stop spot. Visitors from around the world — Australia, Africa, Europe and Asia — flock to the family business housed in a refurbished barn. Guests are welcomed by Truffle and Snickers, the Shih Tzu greeter dogs. “I’m passionate about health and wanting to connect families, food and farms,” says owner Marcia Green.
Customers choose their favorite award-winning ciders at the Cider Mill’s regular tastings. The Classic, made from Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples, is a perennial favorite, or branch out with blends using lavender, pears, cherries, huckleberries and more. A yearly Heritage Release uses only heirloom varieties. For something decadent, the apple butter milkshakes are better than pie in a cup! Lucky visitors sometimes snag homemade treats baked by Green’s daughter.