A fall weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia promises an endless selection of activities to fill your itinerary. You may find yourself hiking Humpback Rock at sunrise, or cheering on the Hoos at the University’s football stadium. You may find yourself touring vineyards or breweries, hopping across the Monticello Wine Trail with a picnic basket full of snacks and charcuterie in hand. Or, hopefully, you will find yourself at Carter Mountain, gazing out at miles of apple trees, framed against a backdrop of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
But at Carter Mountain, the sweeping Blue Ridge views merely provide an idyllic setting for the magic that awaits inside the ruddy red-walled barn. With its welcoming red hue and charming green tin roof, the building may look unassuming, but one lap around the perimeter will reveal various levels and entry pockets: An outpost of Prince Michel Wineshop, where you can sample fine local wines, many bottles made exclusively with Carter Mountain’s very grapes; on the lower level, the Bold Rock Hard Cider Cellar, where you can taste the region’s signature hard cider made with Carter Mountain’s apples; the Mountain Grill, which offers farm-to-table outdoor dining (we’re talking house-smoked Apple Wood Pulled Pork BBQ sandwiches). And the Country Store and Bakery, where you can shop around for their top-selling apple butter, local crafts and harvest décor, and of course, translucent packages of apple cider donuts.
The Chiles Family Orchards have been family-run for over one hundred years, now owned and operated by the Chiles family’s fourth generation of growers. Today, the Chiles family runs three local orchards—Carter Mountain, Chiles Peach, and Spring Valley—and each property offers a distinct pick-your-own specialty. At Chiles Peach Orchard in nearby Crozet, Virginia, you'll find pick-your-own peaches, strawberries, and pumpkins; at Spring Valley Orchard in Afton, Virginia, pluck sweet cherries right off the branches in the May to June season. And at Carter Mountain Orchards, wander the rows of apple trees and pick from twelve varieties of apples. But the fun only begins there.
No trip to Carter Mountain is complete without a box of apple cider donuts. They’re the perfect treat to end a day spent apple picking and pair beautifully with a jug of house-made apple cider. But these sugar-dusted donuts are anything but ordinary: Much like the area’s cult-favorite hard cider, the donuts have achieved local fame that keeps crowds flocking to the orchard each fall.
Fourth-generation grower Cynthia Chiles explains that the recipe for their apple cider donuts is quite simple: The seasonal treats are made with donut flour, and apple cider serves as the only liquid element. The mountaintop orchard has been making their signature apple cider donuts the same way for over 30 years; Chiles says that they originally learned the recipe from “a fellow apple farmer, and have used it ever since!” The donuts have become a Charlottesville staple, drawing crowds of locals and students to the orchard each fall.
But what makes these donuts so special? First off, they’re made with fresh-pressed apple cider made from the orchard’s very own apples, giving them that distinctive apple-spice taste that we crave in fall desserts. They’re formed into perfectly round ring-shapes thanks to the help of the “donut robot” machine, and they’re fried in vegetable oil just long enough to achieve a glistening, crispy coating while still maintaining the fluffy, airy inside texture. The donuts are then rolled in a cinnamon-sugar mix to create a coating that shines like a dusting of crystals. They’ve reached the perfect ratio of cakey, light dough to pops of sugar that melt on your tongue. But the cherry on top? You can pair your donut with homemade vanilla or peach soft serve (made with sister property Chiles Peach Orchards’ fresh peaches).
There’s no better pairing for a fresh apple cider donut than a glass of fine Virginia hard cider from the on-site Bold Rock taproom (or, for the kids, a cup of fresh apple cider from the barn). Hard apple cider is all the rage in this small town, and Bold Rock is at the helm of the movement. The brand’s motto, “Crushed and crafted in the Blue Ridge Mountains,” speaks to the essence of the cider—it’s distinctly local, rooted in its environment, and channels the rustic spirit of the Blue Ridge. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed (no pun intended) to find Bold Rock’s artisanal cider outside of Virginia; displaced Charlottesville residents and former students are known to travel back hundreds of miles just to stock up on six-packs of this local brew.
On a visit to the taproom, you’re sure to find yourself caught up in an argument about which Bold Rock flavor is best, and each Charlottesville native will likely express a strong opinion—the Virginia Apple vs. IPA rivalry gets almost as heated as an Alabama-Auburn match-up—but there’s really no way to go wrong. Be sure to taste the original Virginia Apple cider, then try any specialty seasonal flavor on tap—this fall, Bold Rock debuted Harvest Haze, a cider infused with mountain apples and pumpkin.
Come to Carter Mountain for apple picking and fresh cider donuts, but stay for the community. Carter Mountain has become a hot-spot for locals, students, and tourists alike, all of whom can be found at the orchard year-round. Throughout the summer and the fall, Carter Mountain hosts “Sunset Series,” a weekly Thursday-night event where locals and students gather on the hilltop to listen to live music, drink cider, and watch the sun set over the rows of apple trees from the venue’s prime vantage point.
When you’re planning your fall travel schedule, be sure to include a stop in Charlottesville, Virginia, to taste Carter Mountain’s signature apple cider donuts. (And don’t forget to pair it with hard apple cider.) Can’t make it to Virginia this year? Don’t worry, you can still fry up your own Apple Cider Donuts at home.