The San Bernardino Forest's hidden treasure
This photograph shows Richard Stetson plowing his orchard in the 1930s. He was in his 80s and still worked with his trees.

The apple season is nearly over in the lower elevations, but there’s good news that may come as a surprise to Big Bear Valley fresh apple lovers.

There’s another apple ranch in the local mountains that’s been a well-kept secret for a century. It’s Stetson Creek Ranch, 4.9 miles east of Angeles Oaks off Highway 38. The old ranch is rich in history and apples. Through the years, the ranch has been a Boy Scout camp, Seventh Day Adventist equestrian camp and in the 1880’s was owned by the notorious cattle rustler, Jim McHaney, who hid his stolen cattle there.

Richard Stetson was a widower who moved there and built the pioneer structures from trees he harvested at the ranch. He planted the apple orchard with his children. An industrious man, Stetson owned livery stables, restaurants and hotels. He was twice elected the San Bernardino County tax collector. Stetson had contracts to carry the mail, and take the census.

When Helen Hunt Jackson was writing her novel “Ramona” around 1883, Stetson took her around the Inland Empire looking for local color. In 1914, Stetson and his daughter, Mary, met author Harold Bell Wright. Wright was writing a western novel “Eyes of the World.” The author was so impressed with young Mary that he used her as the model for the heroine of the story, Sibyl.

The Stetsons lived at their mountain ranch for most of the year, from the spring when the snow melted until after apple harvest when the weather turned cold. They left the mountain late each autumn to avoid the heavy snows that could strand them at their remote ranch.

Over the years, other apple ranches in the area have disappeared, but Stetson Creek Ranch still survives as a monument to a bygone era. Today, Stetson Creek Ranch is owned by Tere and Patti Messenger, who opened the bounty of historic apples as a U-Pick operation. The 42-acre ranch is surrounded on all sides by San Bernardino National Forest and is 2.2 miles off Highway 38. For those determined to taste the delicious old varieties of apples, the drive is worth the trip.

The ranch is open for U-Pick apples Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. throughout the apple season. It’s a chance to take a trip back in history and visit a genuine old area ranch, and taste the apples that great grandma used for her pies, apple sauce, cider and apple butter.

In all these years, the acres of apples have never been touched by chemical fertilizers or pesticides and thus are now what is considered organic. October is perfect apple weather when the apples grow large and colorful with the warm days and cold nights. The ranch could remain open weekends for the next month or so, depending on the apples and the weather.

The road to the ranch is at mile marker 24.91 on Highway 38. Start looking at the mile markers after you pass Jenks Lake Road, as you head down the hill. Then just follow the signs down Forest Service Road 1N86 (Hill Ranch Road) to the ranch. The dirt road is bumpy, so go slow. The road is at times steep and rocky, but guaranteed to be a trip the kids will love.

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