Things to Do This Fall in San Diego County: Pandemic 2020 Edition

Changing leaves, ripe pumpkins, crisp apples and spooky attractions signal that fall has arrived in San Diego, but this year will be different in the COVID era

Sept. 22 marks the first day of fall and, while the coronavirus pandemic may stop us from partaking in ALL of our favorite, local autumn traditions, there are still some ways to enjoy the season in San Diego County – with some new rules, at the very least.

Pandemic or not, the leaves will still change. The pumpkins and crisp apples will still need picking. And, you might even be in the mood for a Halloween spook or two (although some might argue 2020 has been scary enough, so all good there, thank you very much).

Some of San Diego’s fall activities focused on these things will go on but with pandemic-style changes. Here’s a round-up of some of those fall 2020 activities still happening around our county, with modifications, of course. Wear your mask, follow the rules, and enjoy responsibly, San Diego.

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, delicious snacks including nuts, candies, dried fruits, chocolates and homemade fudge.

This year, the farm’s beloved pumpkin patch is open to the public from Sept. 19 through Oct. 31 featuring a variety of pumpkins, gourds, and squash ripe for the picking.

As always, the patch will offer family-friendly activities to keep the kids entertained, including tractor hayrides, a straw maze, a bounce house, a petting corral and pony rides. The activities usually cost a few dollars each.

The pumpkin patch will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends. Admission is free and so is parking during the weekdays. On Saturday and Sunday parking costs $5, cash only.

As the season unfolds, Bates Nut Farm still plans to host some of its fall events, but it’s best to check the website ahead of your visit to see what’s still happening this season because the events will depend on COVID-19 restrictions.

Per the farm’s website, visitors will need to wear face masks during all events at Bates Nut Farm and practice social distancing. The staff is also busy sanitizing the farm and its store, implementing all pandemic safety measures there.

“All of these measures will allow for us to continue doing what we love, which is bringing you a quality fall experience, with as much comfort and friendly hospitality that we can!” a message from Bates read.

'Haunted' Hotspots

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.

This year, though, The Haunted Trail at Balboa Park has been canceled due to the pandemic.

The same group that runs The Haunted Trail operated the long-running Haunted Hotel in downtown San Diego, but that attraction was replaced last year by something called The Disturbance, a collective of creepy happenings in Mission Valley. This year, The Disturbance was also canceled due to the pandemic.

So, what’s a San Diegan to do to get some Halloween scares, you ask?

Well, believe it or not, the pandemic drive-thru trend continues here.

The Scream Zone at Del Mar Fairgrounds – now in its 23rd year – is turning its local fall-time attraction into something called “Drive-Thru Scream Zone: Road Kill” from Oct. 1 through Oct. 31.

The “Scaregrounds” attraction will take a new spin to comply with COVID-19 rules, offering fans – as The Scream Zone website puts it – “frights from the dis-comfort of their own automobile.”

“Vehicles will weave through a mile-long course transformed into a scene from classic horror films and the demented minds of the Scream Zone’s imaginative creators,” the website said.

Visitors can expect cameos from all of the classics: zombies, killer clowns, etc.

Tickets to the drive-thru nightmare cost $45 per standard car with up to four passengers, or $60 for standard cars with 5+ passengers, Sundays through Thursdays. Prices go up on Fridays and Saturdays: $55 per standard car with up to four passengers and $70 for 5+ passengers.

Julian Apple Picking

Once 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, to pick apples there, you have to wear a face mask.

Other go-to spots like Apple Starr Orchards will not be open for apple picking this season due to COVID-19, but pre-packaged fruit will be available for pick-up later this season. Julian Farm and Orchard, which specializes in U-pick berries, apples and pumpkins, has very limited berry picking this year and no apple picking on weekends, but there are still pumpkins.

Since U-pick action varies by orchard this year, it's best to check out this list of spots in Julian before making the trek east.

San Diego Gulls Hockey Season

The pandemic has jolted the world of pro sports, and hockey is no exception. In normal times, the American Hockey League season starts around mid-October, with the San Diego Gulls hitting the Pechanga Arena for home games.

After setbacks due to the pandemic, the AHL said on July 30 that it had revised the start date for its 2020-2021 season, and it would open no earlier than Dec. 4.

“The AHL will continue to work with its member clubs to monitor developments and local guidelines in all 31 league cities,” a statement from the AHL read.

This includes San Diego. And, so, the Gulls 2020-2021 schedule has not yet been finalized – but there’s still lots of time for that.

So, what might a pandemic-era season of San Diego Gulls hockey look like?

NBC 7 SportsWrap’s Derek Togerson said Gulls President Matt Savant is considering several possibilities, including reduced capacity, not having fans in the stands and even the kind of “bubble play” the Stanley Cup Playoffs have used successfully.

“Of course, it’s all going to be up to how the country is handling the pandemic, but the plan is to start Gulls games again on Dec. 4,” Togerson explained.

NBC 7's Derek Togerson spoke to Gulls Captain Sam Carrick about how he's keeping busy.

Ice Skating in San Diego

Sure, we live in sunny San Diego, but ice rinks do exist here, too.

One of those is the Rady Children’s Ice Rink, which, if possible under COVID-19 guidelines, plans to return to Liberty Station this fall, from November 2020 to January 2021.

“As with other public events, it will look a bit different this year,” a statement on the rink’s website read. “We plan to establish guidelines that will allow us to continue providing a fun, safe, and healthy public skating environment for our guests and staff.”

The rink’s website said more information on dates and ice skating times will be posted around mid-October, and via Facebook and Instagram.

Tickets, which include skate rentals and helmets, will cost $13 for kids and $15 for adults, and will help raise funds for the Thriving After Cancer Program in the Peckman Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Rady Children’s Hospital.

There are typically two other popular ice rinks in San Diego this time of year: the ice rink at the Viejas Outlet Center in Alpine and the seaside rink at the Hotel del Coronado. NBC 7 is working to find out if either of those will be open this season. We will update this story with those details.

No Activities, Only Decorations

Dia De Los Muertos in Old Town
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.

This year, however, the pandemic has altered those plans.

Sunny Lee, the executive director for the Old Town Chamber of Commerce confirmed that no activities will be held this year for Dia De Los Muertos, including the procession or popular face-painting area.

Old Town still plans to put up Dia De Los Muertos decorations and businesses will still put up their altars, but "that will be all," Lee said.

"We are looking forward to next year when we will hopefully be able to hold our event again," Lee added.

Modified to Better Fit 2020

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.

Surfin’ Santa has been a local tradition for 13 years but with the pandemic in the mix, this year's celebration will look much different.

A media relations rep for Seaport Village told NBC 7 there will not be a live parade led by Surfin’ Santa in 2020. Instead of a live appearance by Santa, a cardboard cutout will be used as a stand-in.

Seaport Village plans to set up a giant surfboard and 6-foot wave prop along with the life-size cutout of Surfin’ Santa so visitors “can still stop by and pose for a DIY photoshoot.”

And, on certain weekends, Surfin’ Santa – in the flesh – will make special appearances. Those dates have yet to be determined, the representative said.

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.

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