You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
Generally speaking, I don’t like donuts. But when fall comes around, I make an exception, or perhaps an exception is made for me. Apple cider doughnuts are airier, crispier, and all around tastier than their year-round counterparts. And they also have an advantage in where they’re typically enjoyed. Where normal doughnuts are mostly food for office workers who don’t like to cook breakfast, apple cider doughnuts are found in orchards and farms, places where people go to take it easy on the weekend. There’s a formula, both for the doughnuts, and the places that sell them, but each is just a little different. Over the past few weeks, I visited as many as I could. I ate a lot of doughnuts, and I think I’ve developed the definitive guide to apple cider doughnuts around Madison.
I know that no one should care about the methodology I used for my one-man doughnut contest. But I figure, if you know where I’m coming from, you’ll be better equipped to adapt my findings to your own needs. So, first and foremost, my goal here is to find the best apple cider doughnut. I don’t have hard, empirical criteria, but I want a doughnut that’s fluffy on the inside, with just a bit of a crunch on the outside, from big granules of cinnamon sugar. I want it to taste like apple cider, and I want it to be warm, whether I buy it at 8am, or ten minutes before close.
I asked the people of Reddit where they prefer to get their donuts, and received seventeen unique answers. Because of this, I decided to exclude bakeries from this competition. If I’m asking you to drive the better part of an hour to try a pastry, you should at least have something to do after you’ve swallowed the last bite. Still, some of the suggestions I got will be a bit too far-flung for most of my listeners, so I have to take into account what’s realistic. Ultimately, for this story, I ended up with one flat-out best doughnut, one overall best experience, and one honorable mention, for those willing to go a bit farther. I also have opinions on the other dozen farms I visited, but y’know, I have to cut something for time.
Let’s start out with the overall best experience, not the best doughnut. Wisconsin is blessed with choice in this area. Even if you live in the biggest of our cities, you’re never too far from a family farm, whose operators are willing to share with you a slice of their life. At least, that’s the conceit behind agricultural tourism. You can go out to the orchard for a day, hand-pick some apples, and savor a taste of slow-paced, agrarian life. But how many fruits can you pluck off the stem, pretending you know what makes one better from the next, before you realize that farm work isn’t fun, it’s work, and you’re doing it poorly? This is why the best agri-tourism farms build an autumnal theme park, filled with apple cannons and corn mazes, things we don’t have space for in the city. Sutter’s Ridge Farm, southeast of Mount Horeb, has just about everything.
The strength of Sutter’s Ridge is its variety, the sheer scope of activities it offers. Obviously, they have the usual apple picking, late-season raspberries, and a pumpkin patch. When you’re done pretending like you can forage for food, you can get to the real activities. There are fun things to do for people of all ages, and new objects are added every year. Like any good fall farm, Sutter’s ridge has a corn maze. It’s not the most elaborate I’ve seen, but you can make it more complicated by finding waypoints throughout the maze, and stamping proof of your progress on your maze map. A run at the maze is worth the five dollar admission.
A different five dollars, or an eight dollar combo pass, will give you access to the Sutter’s Ridge activity zone. Everything here is clearly hand-made, and I love it all. They have a playground, a petting zoo, hand-pumped rubber duck races. There are slower pedal tractors for the little kids, and pedal kart track for everyone else. A year or two ago, they added what I can only describe as racing hamster wheels, where you run inside a giant plastic wheel from one end of a track to the other. There are hand-made yard games, all kinds of play structures, something new every year. And if you’re a parent, you don’t even have to engage with any of it. You can sit back, eat a doughnut, and monitor everything from a single vantage point.
Upon hearing the name “Sutter’s Ridge,” or its proximity to Mount Horeb, you might assume that this farm is on a hill, and you’d be right. Sutter’s Ridge sits on terrain typical of southwest Wisconsin, where flat ground is a rare commodity. The entire activity area is on a gentle, grassy slope, and above it sits the “Apple Cabin,” a rustic building in which you can buy doughnuts and cider, among other things. A porch wraps around much of the cabin, and offers a great viewing angle of the activity zone, and even the entrance to the corn maze.
Now for the Doughnuts. Sutter’s Ridge elevates theirs, simply by serving them warm. I don’t know why this is so uncommon, but of the fifteen farms I visited, only a few serve their doughnuts above room temperature. The Sutter’s Ridge doughnuts were a bit chewy, but they have a wonderful cider flavor, and the warmth is just perfect on a cool fall day. To do everything this farm has to offer will take hours, and when you’re done, you’re across the street from Donald Park, one of my favorites in the Dane County system. As a package, that’s really hard to beat, and it would take a really good doughnut to make me consider going anywhere else.
Luckily for all of us, Alpine Ridge Orchard makes some really good doughnuts. This farm, a few miles west of Brooklyn, is a relative newcomer to the agri-tourism game. Unlike most of the entrants in this comparison, their farm is less than a decade old, and they only started making doughnuts in 2019. Alpine Ridge doesn’t have the usual farm store. Instead, they sell their hot food out of a trailer, but maybe it’s good that they don’t have the space to let their doughnuts sit. Despite going near closing time, these were the freshest doughnuts out of any of the farms I tried. A darker brown, with a bit of crunch, on the outside, soft on the inside, perfectly warm, with tons of cinnamon and sugar. These immediately took the top spot on my doughnut list, and no one really came close to dethroning them.
Unfortunately, I can’t give the top experience spot to Alpine Ridge, as they’re just too new. They have a corn maze, and some animals to interact with. They do have a pen full of golden retriever puppies at the moment, which is an easy way to win points with me, but it’s not enough. They haven’t built up the activities side of their farm yet, and I’m not sure whether they’ll ever match the likes of Sutter’s Ridge, Schusters in Deerfield, or Skelly’s in Janesville. Their property is kind of small, but that doesn’t mean they’ve tapped their full potential. For now, the food is excellent, and I’ll be interested to see where Alpine Ridge is in another ten years.
So, that’s the best doughnut, and best overall fall farm that sells them, in Dane County. Overall, I was surprised how consistently good they were. The only stale, or maybe overcooked doughnut I got was at Schusters, which is too bad, because otherwise, they’re rightfully a favorite for Madison families and field trips alike. Other than that, you can go basically anywhere in the area, and get a similarly good example of a fall-favorite treat.
If you’ve tried them all, and want something different, I have one more recommendation. Several people on Reddit insisted I drive to Illinois, and try the doughnuts at Edwards Apple Orchard. The Edwards family operates two farms, each about ten miles east or west of Rockford. If you’re bringing kids you should head for the east one, by Poplar Grove, but whichever one you visit, be prepared to wait in some lines.
Each Edwards Orchard is centered around a huge barn, inside which you can buy basically any decoration or food tangentially related to the concept of autumn. Conveniently, the line for fresh doughnuts snakes through this mega farm store, giving you plenty of time to browse, and make impulse purchases. It took me a full ten minutes to get through the lines to get and pay for my doughnuts. Part of this comes down to how staggeringly popular the Edwards Orchards are, part of it is Chicagoans’ innate ability to create traffic wherever they go. Seriously, when I went, there were multiple county sherrifs, whose whole job that day was directing traffic around the parking lot.
Is the Edwards Cider doughnut worth navigating a county fair’s worth of people to experience? I’d say at least once it is, yes. Besides being hot and fresh, their doughnuts taste distinctly buttery. I’m surprised no farm in Wisconsin offers something similar, this should be right up our alley! Regardless, I still prefer the classic, Alpine Ridge is still my number one. These heavier, buttery cider doughnuts are a bit too rich to eat one after another as you stroll around a corn maze.
In any case, that’s not really an issue at Edwards. They have a few family activities, but the focus is on the store, and I don’t think they have enough to keep a child entertained for a full afternoon. Luckily, if you visit the location in Poplar Grove, they’re just a few minutes away from the Lindberg Pumpkin Patch, which has plenty to do. I’m running out of time, but if the phrase “Halloween bouncy houses” doesn’t interest you, I don’t know what else to pitch.
It’s been a lot of fun cataloging cider doughnuts. In the online version of this story, I’ll link the websites of all the farms I mentioned. Also, I’ll link the Reddit post, where members of the community shared their favorite doughnut spots. I’ll try to go back through that post, and comment my opinion of each of their picks.
If you’d like to suggest a topic for Parks and Landmarks to cover, please send it my way, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell me about your favorite underrated spot outdoors, or whatever you feel is related. This segment’s title is intentionally broad, so just go for it. I’d love to hear from you guys. Again, that’s s-e-a-n dot b-u-l-l at w-o-r-t-f-m dot org. For WORT News, I’m Sean Bull.
Best Overall Experience:
Sutter’s Ridge https://www.suttersridge.com/
Alpine Ridge https://alpineridgeorchard.com/
If you’re bored with Wisconsin doughnuts:
Edward’s Apple Orchard https://edwardsorchard.farm/
Lindberg Pumpkin Patch https://lindbergpumpkinpatch.com/
The Reddit Post, with everyone’s doughnut suggestions: