You can see the grounds of the Pumpkin Park at Uesugi Farms from the road. But to actually get there by car? That takes a journey.
Once you turn off Monterey Road between San Martin and Morgan Hill to enter the park, you’ll soon find yourself in a transition, a bit like the transition between black-and-white Kansas and full-color Oz in The Wizard of Oz.
A long straightaway is decorated by thousands of marigolds in every possible shade between yellow and orange. Then, you veer into a cornfield straight out of Field of Dreams, creating a feeling of magical where-are-we? disorientation, before you finally reach the vast parking area.
It’s a clever design, meant to give visitors a transportive feeling when they reach the Pumpkin Park, a festival ground that features everything you would hope to find—much like the similar Swank Farms pumpkin patch near Hollister—in a celebration of all things autumn.
On Saturday, Uesugi Farms hosts the highlight of its fall season at the Pumpkin Park with the 28th annual Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off, when mind-bogglingly large pumpkins from all over northern California will compete for which is the heaviest. The winner of the contest wins a prize of $7 … per pound. (For the fattest pumpkins that can reach weights of close to 2,000 pounds, that’s a nice payday).
The Pumpkin Park’s manager Crystal Melton has been on the job for 11 years. She never knows exactly what to expect during the weigh-off—back in 2013, the park hosted the official World’s Largest Pumpkin. But, she said, she’s been getting messages from various growers that 2018 has been a very good year from big-boy pumpkins.
“These pumpkins are like gold to people,” she says. “It’s craaaa-zy what they do.”
The mega-pumpkins—many of which are coming from as far away as Napa County—will be loaded onto trucks and transported bright and early Saturday morning for a 9am check-in at Uesugi Farms. The weigh-in itself takes place at 1pm.
As its name implies, pumpkins are the central currency at the park, though the ever-present marigolds are a strong second. Visitors can take a wheelbarrow to the pumpkin patch to pick out their favorite specimens. Then they can tour the various attractions, including the two-acre Kayla’s Corn Maze, that actually features guides on staff to rescue those who get lost inside.
“We’ll give you a cheater map with the lay of the land,” said Melton, “how to get in and out, where to go left or right. We have trivia questions inside that will tell people which way to go and people still manage to get all twisted up and lost, so they’ll call us to have someone go find them.”
There are also several rides open to visitors from train rides for kids to the signature attraction Pumpkin Pete’s Signature Hayride, a 15-minute narrated tour of the entire farm property through the sunflower and marigold fields that are otherwise inaccessible.
October is generally the season when most people begin to think of Halloween, but the Pumpkin Park is more about evoking a non-Halloween celebration of the fall season. Other than the towering, super-sized, inflatable jack-o’-lantern that can probably be seen from Fresno, there is no Halloween imagery or scary figures at the Park.
Instead, there is live music on the weekends, a variety of fall-themed yummies including barbecue, corn-on-the-cob and many treats flavored with pumpkin spice (lovers of pumpkin pie are encouraged to take a spin with the pumpkin ice cream).
The Pumpkin Park is only a one-month operation, opening Oct. 1 and closing up for the year after Halloween, open every day. The park employs close to 200 people and can attract 10,000 or more visitors per day over the course of the month of October.
Down in Hollister, Swank Farms is open—its annual Fall Festival runs Thursdays through Sundays (plus Halloween, which is a Wednesday this year). Swank’s festival features a wide variety of attractions and activities, all themed on the harvest season—pig races, a bee garden, mazes both for children and former children, a cow train, pumpkin slingshots and corn cannons.
Unlike the Pumpkin Park, Swank Farms does embrace Halloween with its “Gorechard” attraction, a haunted tour through the farm’s cherry orchard which is open from sunset to 10 pm (weekdays) or midnight (weekends) during the October festival.
Uesugi Farms’ Pumpkin Park features free admission to the park, though parking is $7 on the weekends and there are tickets to purchase for the rides. Hollister’s Swank Farms features a $21.95 admission fee for its daytime tickets; $29.95 for nighttime tickets; and $39.95 for the Gorechard haunted attraction (discounts are available for each pricing level online).
The fall season comes on much more dramatically in other parts of the country. Perhaps that’s why Californians are especially keen to experience the sights, tastes and colors of autumn, which accounts for the enduring popularity of places like Uesugi Farms and Swank Farms. Whatever the appeal, the crowds seem to keep coming.
“We get so busy on weekends,” said Pumpkin Park’s Melton, “to where our traffic trying to get in is backed up as far as the eye can see. I have families every year who come up to me and say ‘this has been a tradition in our family for years. I brought my kids here, and now I’m bringing my grandkids here.’ Our goal is that we just want to create those memories for families. It’s so neat to be such a big part of other people’s lives.”