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Descanso Gardens’ Carved offers family-friendly fall festivities

Holding a parasol, a pumpkin-headed figure stands amidst a sea of jack-o-lanterns. The seasonal installation is part of Descanso Garden’s Carved experience, which runs until Oct. 29.(Eden Yu/Daily Bruin staff)

By Marina Suh

Oct. 26, 2023 3:08 p.m.

This post was updated Oct. 27 at 2:14 a.m.

This fall, Descanso Gardens’ Carved is providing a picturesque treat among the trees.

Nestled in the lush foothills of La Cañada Flintridge, Carved invites guests on a pumpkin-filled path through their gardens. The annual event celebrates all things fall with apple cider and countless jack-o-lanterns. This year, Carved will run until Oct. 29, with entry tickets for 30 minute time slots between 6 and 10 p.m.

The entrance is full of families and a bustling gift shop, with a coffee truck and hay bales adding to the fall atmosphere. In the garden, the trees are lit up with shades of indigo and orange. Their shadows provide a moving backdrop as the path winds through the camellia forest. Along the way, there is a gourd-covered monster rising from the pond and giant, comically posed spiders that knit spiderwebs and paint the landscape.

Further in, there is a hay-strewn clearing with twinkling lights. Here, guests enjoy pretzels and hot dogs while sipping on hot chocolate and fall-themed cocktails. A short maze of hay bales leads to a popular photo opportunity. On one side is a split-log bench with twisting sticks and mini pumpkins. Behind it, a wooden house with a corn husk roof holds hundreds of vegetables on its exterior: From curvy speckled swan gourds to the classic orange pumpkin, each is carefully arranged and held in place by thin wires.

Visitors mill around while children play in the hay with light-up toys from the merchandise booths around the garden. Matthew Marquez, a visitor from the San Fernando Valley, said he found out about Carved on TikTok. Although he generally enjoys the more frightful haunts, he said Carved provides a relaxing ambience.

“This is more like a family-friendly thing,” Marquez said. “You just want to walk through, have a drink and just relax.”

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On a stage across the clearing stands an ofrenda with a myriad of handwritten notes and pictures amid flickering candlelight and marigolds. There are drawings from children and faded photographs. Guests can add their own photos to the altar, and there are several messages written on the back of Descanso’s receipts. Behind the altar are three life-sized skeletons that hold guitars. Several visitors here take a moment to sit on the benches below the stage. With gentle guitar in the background, there is an atmosphere of deep respect and solemnity, but in the spirit of Day of the Dead, also one of celebration for the lives that have been lived.

The path then leads to a dense forest. The trees are lit up overhead, while countless glowing jack-o’-lanterns line the pathways, some dressed in frontier outfits. There are pumpkin children hoop rolling, a lady standing mysteriously with an umbrella, and a rustic-looking man holding the reins of a horse-drawn carriage – each of which is expertly crafted and posed in an unusually lifelike way.

As the music fades, the path continues along an oak grove with interactive, light-up platforms. In a pond, the tentacles of a gigantic kraken furl around a sinking ship. Ultraviolet light makes the scene glow neon. With a light display that mimics rain pouring on the ship and the sound of thunder crashing in the background, the immersive scene brings a new side to the spooky ambience of Carved.

Towards the end of the path, the rose garden shimmers with pale green lights. David Castaneda, a guest services supervisor at Descanso Gardens, said this has been further incorporated into Carved this year. Past the twinkling lights in the rose bushes, a large pavilion holds a lively crowd and 25 gigantic, intricately carved pumpkins.

Throughout the run of Carved, three artists will carve more than a hundred pumpkins, each of them following a certain theme, said second-generation pumpkin carver Cassandra Ponce. As they go bad within a couple of days, the pumpkins are continuously replaced throughout the event with a carving in the same theme, Ponce said.

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The pumpkins mainly consist of easily recognizable characters – some in theme with the fall season, some more general. Amid Frankenstein’s monsters, zombies and vampires, Rocket from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and Barbie provide a glimpse into this year’s pop culture standouts.

Having been with Descanso Gardens for a handful of years, senior illustrator Zach Faraday said he’s one of about two dozen professional pumpkin carvers in Southern California. Initially a portrait artist, Faraday said he finds pumpkin carving to be a more unforgiving art. Although the rotting of his work because of the ephemeral nature of the canvas was rough to see at first, Faraday said he has a great appreciation for the medium.

“It’s something that’s very temporary and I think that adds to the awe of the process,” Faraday said. “When you put something highly detailed on something that’s going to rot, it adds an extra element.”

The last stretch of the path glows softly from the light of hundreds of straw lanterns. There’s no music here, and the sounds of crickets and nocturnal wildlife swell before the entrance and the chatter of its crowds fade in. Along with the beautiful blooms illuminated by the flickering lanterns, this last walkway serves as a grounding reminder of the nature that hosts Carved. Although his carving career started because of a gig, Faraday said Carved has become one of his most anticipated experiences of the year.

“It’s one of those things that I always make sure to make time for,” Faraday said. “For me, it’s one of the more, if not the most, enjoyable job that I do.”

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