Pandemic or not, the pumpkins -- oh, they're coming. The first day of fall is on Sept. 22, 2021, so we're taking a look at some things to do this season in San Diego County (albeit with some modifications for our lives in the COVID era).
The bad news: This marks our second fall season in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. The good news: COVID-19 protocols are a bit more relaxed than they were at this time in 2020 (remember the red tier?).
Fall traditions like apple picking, pumpkin patches, and Halloween scares await. Here are some autumn ideas.
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Bates Nut Farm
Nothing says fall in San Diego like a visit to the Bates Nut Farm in Valley Center. The picturesque North County family farm opens its doors to visitors year after year, offering a beautiful setting for picnics, leisurely strolls and, of course, scrumptious snacks including nuts, candies, dried fruits, chocolates, and homemade fudge.
What to Know
- Prime Time for Fall Activities at Bates Nut Farm: Sept. 18 to Oct. 31, 2021
- Hours: Monday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
- Address: 5954 Woods Valley Rd. in Valley Center (San Diego's North County)
This year, the farm’s beloved pumpkin patch is open to the public from Sept. 18 through Oct. 31 featuring a variety of pumpkins, gourds, and squash ripe for the picking.
The patch will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during its fall run. Admission is free and so is the parking on weekdays. On weekends in October, parking costs $8 per car.
Throughout October, the patch will offer family-friendly activities to keep the kids entertained, including tractor hayrides, a straw maze, a bounce house, a petting zoo, and pony rides (cost: $9 each).
This year, the farm’s fall calendar includes family-friendly extras like truck and tractor shows, as well as costume contests for both pets and humans (Oct. 23 and Oct. 24, respectively).
The venue’s 30th Annual Scarecrow Contest is set for Oct. 9, too. Participants get to design and build their own scarecrow, which will be on display at Bates Nut Farm through Halloween. Each entry gets a free jack-o-lantern pumpkin; the winning scarecrows are added to the farm’s collection.
While a face mask isn’t required at Bates Nut Farm this year, you can always pack it and wear it, if that’s how you feel most comfortable.
As the spooky Halloween season approaches, some San Diegans like to flock to spine-tingling attractions like The Haunted Trail at Balboa Park, the mile-long trail that takes thrill-seekers through a twisted grove of pines and gnarled oaks.
Last year, the pandemic canceled the attraction altogether. This year, though, it's back on, running from Sept. 24 to Oct. 31.
What to Know
- The Haunted Trail 2021 - Dates/Hours: Sept. 24 to Oct. 31; times vary (check the calendar here), but it usually opens each night between 6:30 p.m and 7:30 p.m. and runs through 10:30 p.m. or 11 p.m.
- Address: Balboa Drive and Juniper Road in Balboa Park
At the same location, thrill-seekers can also take part in "The eXperiment," a 3,500-square-foot maze featuring all sorts of scary icons, from Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers to Chucky and that little girl from "The Ring."
Meanwhile, over in Mission Valley, there's a little something called The Haunted Hotel Disturbance. Last year, this collective of creepy happenings was canceled due to the pandemic but this year, it's back on, happening from Oct. 1 to Oct. 31.
What to Know
- The Disturbance - Dates/Hours: Oct. 1 through Oct. 31; times vary (check the calendar here), but it opens almost every night at 7 p.m. and wraps by either 10:30 p.m. or 11 p.m.
- Address: 1288 Camino Del Rio North (the west parking lot near the Target store)
By the way, if you're looking for that traditional haunt up in Del Mar -- the long-running Scream Zone at Del Mar Fairgrounds -- well, that's not happening this season.
This website for the spooky attraction said the event is "resting its crypt for the 2021 season," taking a break this time around (which would've marked its 24th season).
"Horrifying, we know," the site quipped.
The event plans to return in 2022 and as the site said, "the anticipation may kill you."
Last year, the Scream Zone was the only option for a "haunted" attraction in San Diego amid the pandemic. True to the drive-thru trend of the times, the attraction morphed into something called “Drive-Thru Scream Zone: Road Kill," putting a COVID-era spin on its offerings to comply with coronavirus restrictions at the time.
Julian Apple Picking
Right as the leaves start to turn, San Diegans often head east to the little picture-perfect mountain town of Julian for apple picking season, which typically runs from late August through October.
Popular "U-Pick" businesses include Volcan Valley Apple Farm (1284 Julian Orchards Dr.). This year, Volcan Valley Apple Farm is open Friday through Monday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. You pay $15 for a bag that you can fill with apples (about 6 pounds), and this includes admission. Kids age 5 and under get in free. The farm’s Facebook page said it features seven varieties of apples, most ripening through mid-September.
Julian Farm and Orchard, which specializes in U-pick berries (strawberries, raspberries), apples, and pumpkins, opened its 2021 season this past weekend. The orchard also offers seasonal activities like hayrides, apple cider-pressing, bouquet-making, and even ax-throwing. There’s a $10 minimum purchase of tickets per person to enter (which can be used for activities, picking, and merch); parking is free.
The U-pick season last year was heavily impacted by the pandemic, with many farms and orchards canceling or down-sizing their offerings. The action varies each year though, so it's best to check out this list of spots in Julian before making the trek east. Call ahead to see what’s open and when, and then plan accordingly.
NEW This Fall: SeaWorld San Diego's Howl-O-Scream
For the first time ever, SeaWorld San Diego is adding a Halloween-themed twist to its fall nights. Howl-O-Scream is the park’s new “Horrifying Halloween Nighttime Event,” happening on select nights from Sept. 17 through Oct. 31.
What to Know
- Howl-O-Scream - Dates/Hours: Select dates, from Sept. 24 through Oct. 31; starts at 7 p.m. on all dates and ends at 12 a.m. on September dates and 1 a.m. on October dates, and 11pm on Sundays (and select Thursdays).
- Address: SeaWorld San Diego (500 Sea World Dr.)
- Tickets: Start at $39.99 (prices go up on Sept. 24) to $79.99. You can buy tickets online here.
The event will feature scare zones, haunts and thrills scattered throughout the amusement park, and is intended for park-goers age 13+ only. It’s a separate ticketed event that is not included with admission into SeaWorld; tickets start at $79.99.
San Diego Gulls Hockey Season
The last time the San Diego Gull played at Pechanga Arena was March of 2020. During the coronavirus pandemic, they played in Irvine, California, at the Ducks training facility without anyone in the stands.
The team’s 2021-2022 season will be different.
Though we’re still in a pandemic, pro sports are back in action.
Tickets for Gulls games went on sale earlier this month. The club said it’s more than ready to play some hockey in front of fans.
What to Know
- San Diego Gulls 2021-2022 Season: Oct. 16 through April 23
- Venue for Home Games: Pechanga Arena San Diego (3500 Sports Arena Blvd.)
- Tickets: Most games start around $22; get ticket pricing info here
The team will start its season in Ontario against the Reign on Oct. 16. On Oct. 22, they finally come home, with a home opener against Stockton.
Like NBC 7 SportWrap’s Derek Togerson reports, it’ll take a little while for things to get fully back to normal in the pro hockey world, so the Gulls will play 64 of their 68 games against the Pacific Division. The season runs through April 23, 2022.
Check out this calendar for home game opportunities.
Dia De Los Muertos
With San Diego's proximity to Mexico, there’s a lively cultural event that always signals that fall is here: Dia De Los Muertos in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.
Each fall, Old Town celebrates Mexican culture and those who have passed away with a giant Dia De Los Muertos party. The festivities usually take place over the first weekend of November and include a traditional candlelight procession that starts at the Old Town entrance at San Diego Avenue and Twiggs Street and ends at the historic El Campo Santo Cemetery.
Along the way, participants walk to altars set up at shops and museums within the landmark, leaving gifts and prayers for loved ones who have entered the spiritual realm.
Last year, however, the pandemic altered the tradition. The landmark put up decorations for Dia De Los Muertos 2020, but no activities were held, including the procession or popular face-painting booths.
Will the event return in 2021?
NBC 7 has reached out to the Old Town Chamber of Commerce for details; we will update this section as soon as we hear back.
For now, just know that Old Town businesses will likely still put up their altars.
Ice Skating in San Diego
Sure, we live in sunny San Diego, but ice rinks do exist here, too – at least in non-pandemic times.
One of those is the seaside rink at the Hotel del Coronado.
Dubbed Skating by the Sea, the rink was closed last season due to the pandemic but this year, it looks like it’s back on. The Del’s website says the season is from Nov. 22, 2021, through Jan. 2, 2022. Tickets cost $35 (for 90 minutes of ice skating) and benefit Make-A-Wish San Diego.
Advanced reservations are recommended; the hotel says there will only be a limited amount of walk-up tickets available.
What to Know
- Skating by the Sea - Dates/Hours: Nov. 22, 2021, to Jan. 2, 2022; skate session times vary, but usually 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays. Check out the schedule here.
- Address: Hotel Del Coronado (1500 Orange Ave. on Coronado Island)
- Tickets: $35 for 90 minutes of skating
Now, there are typically two other ice skating rinks in San Diego this time of year: the Rady Children’s Ice Rink at Liberty Station and the rink at the Viejas Outlet Center in Alpine.
The Rady Children’s Ice Rink canceled its 2020 season out of an abundance of caution during the pandemic, so it remains to be seen if it’ll return this year. Usually, the rink’s skating schedule is posted around mid-October, so we’ll keep an eye out for updates. Tickets, which include skate rentals and helmets, help raise funds for the Thriving After Cancer Program in the Peckman Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Rady Children’s Hospital.
The Viejas ice rink will return, according to the outlet center’s website. It plans to reopen on Nov. 12, but dates, hours, and pricing information isn’t available just yet.
Surfin' Santa at Seaport Village
It might not get more San Diego than the Surfin’ Santa tradition at Seaport Village. In true Southern California fashion – sporting board shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and flip-flops – Surfin' Santa usually makes his grand arrival at Seaport Village in late November, via a flashy waterfront entrance.
He then poses for free photos on his surfboard with visitors before leading a big parade along the boardwalk at the waterfront landmark.
Up until the pandemic in 2020, Surfin’ Santa had been a local tradition for 13 years. Coronavirus changed the celebration, canceling the parade led by Surfin’ Santa down the boardwalk. Instead of live appearance by Santa, a cardboard cutout was used as a stand-in.
Will Surfin’ Santa ride again this fall? We can only dream.
UPDATE: NBC 7 asked organizers of this event for an update, and they said Surfin’ Santa is a go this year – set for Nov. 27 at Seaport Village.
As of Sept. 23, details were still being ironed out regarding COVID safety precautions. The format of the parade is still to be determined and photos will Santa will look a bit different again this year due to the pandemic. Organizers said Surfin’ Santa will post from a decked-out lifeguard chair, so as to keep a safe distance from those who want their photo taken with him. The life-size wave prop will also be on display for some prime selfie opportunities.
Of course, this is just a sampling of autumn activities in San Diego and pandemic restrictions may shift some of these plans in the coming weeks and months. What's your favorite fall tradition in our city? Leave us a comment below.