7 spooky Bay Area adventures, from a haunted forest to a tarantula fest

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It’s that special time of year, when the nights get darker, grotesque gourds proliferate, and we pay money to get lost in mazes of corn – so much corn. Yes, Halloween season is upon us, and with it, an abundance of creepy and supernatural ways to celebrate this most ghastly of holidays.

California has no shortage of ghastly history and eccentric wildlife, so it’s fitting that these adventures and day trips feature a ghost story from the Great Earthquake, a forest pervaded by turn-of-the-century tragedy, a nocturnal bat-watching excursion and a tarantula festival.

Whether you favor chilling tales or strange sights, here are seven spooky places to explore in October and beyond.

The ghostly Lady of Stow Lake, San Francisco

Every parent’s nightmare haunts Golden Gate Park’s popular Stow Lake. You turn your attention from your child for just a moment, and then that child is gone.

According to legend, the Lady of Stow Lake ended her life after suffering this ordeal. And ever since, the apparition of this distressed mother has appeared on foggy nights, desperately searching the shores of the lake, even approaching passers-by to ask, much like “mad” Carlotta Valdes in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” “Where is my child?’ Have you seen my child?”

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - May 15: Boaters paddle under the stone bridge at Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park, Saturday, May 15, 2021, in San Francisco, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Boaters paddle under the stone bridge at Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Like many San Francisco ghost stories, this one dates back to a time before the 1906 earthquake. A young woman took her baby for a walk along Stow Lake, which was completed in 1893. She ran into a friend and began chatting. When the mother turned to check on her baby, the buggy was no longer beside her. Panicked, she ran around the lake, screaming for her lost child.

Perhaps believing her baby had drowned, the woman ran into the lake and was never again seen alive. In another version of the story, the mother and baby went for the boat ride. When the mother’s attention briefly shifted, her baby fell into the water. The mother jumped in to rescue her baby, but both drowned.

A sighting of the woman’s ghost was first reported on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1908. Mounted police stopped a car speeding through the park. Its terrified driver and other occupants told the officer that a “thin, tall figure” in a “luminous white robe” had approached their vehicle.

“It seemed to shine,” the driver said. “It had long, fair hair and was barefooted. I did not notice the face. I was too frightened.”

Over the years, investigators have looked into whether the legend has origins in a real-life tragedy, but the search has been hindered by the earthquake’s destruction of so many official records. And details are scanty if you want to search for the phantom yourself. Published accounts of sightings don’t identify a specific location; they only suggest the distressed Lady of Stow Lake could turn up along the shoreline or at the Pioneer Mother Memorial nearby.

Take a stroll and who knows? You might glimpse a ghostly specter, or you might simply spend a splendid day in beautiful surroundings talking about one.

Details: Stow Lake Road, which is off Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, circles the lake and offers street parking. Two bridges grant access to the lake’s island, where you can visit Huntington Falls and the picturesque Golden Gate Pavilion or hike to the top of 430-foot Strawberry Hill. The boat house also rents pedal and row boats, and its cafe serves breakfast and lunch. https://stowlakeboathouse.com/

Co-owner John Emberton shows off a female albino snake at East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Co-owner John Emberton shows off an albino python at East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

The pythons of the East Bay Vivarium, Berkeley

Some folks might not think an albino reticulated python that’s pushing 18 feet and 100 pounds, and eats whole rabbits and chickens for breakfast, is “cute.” They’re wrong. Lemondrop, as the East Bay Vivarium’s resident slitherer is known, has the enchanting personality and languorous grace of an animal who just wants to be loved. Heck, if you were to stumble on it in the jungle, it might even try to give you a hug!

Billed as the nation’s oldest reptile shop, Berkeley’s vivarium is full of scaly friends who’d like to make your acquaintance. Beady eyes track you around the store, tongues flick out to smell you through cages. There’s a giant African spurred tortoise named Dusty Rhodes, after the professional wrestler, and Boris, the 6-foot Asian water monitor.

“He’s just a big, giant lizard who’s pretty mellow – unless it’s feeding time,” says owner Kevin Luzzi.

The vivarium has many creepy touches that make it a true Halloween delight. Cages are artfully decorated with human skulls. A large glass-topped freezer, akin to what you might find in an ax murderer’s garage, is packed with dead rats. And the helpful staff is always ready to provide extra information on the creatures.

“You should look up ‘crocodile monitor skull’ online,” one dude said on a recent visit. “The teeth are crazier than any other lizard species in the world – trust me.”

The store isn’t meant to be a free zoo, so if you aren’t interested in purchasing a lizard or snake, consider picking up a rare plant or betta fish. (Or maybe a frozen rat – they won’t ask what you’re going to do with it.) And for folks who really crave the reptile experience, know the shop offers traveling shows for birthdays. How is that better than hiring a clown?

“Every little boy wants a dinosaur,” says Luzzi.

(Tip: Little girls do too.)

Details: Opens at 11 a.m. daily at 1827 Fifth St. in Berkeley; eastbayvivarium.com.

A layer of fog surrounds the old cemetery at Antioch's Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)
A layer of fog surrounds the old cemetery at Antioch’s Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group) Anda Chu, BANG File Photo

Spooky activities at East Bay parks

The invisible flutter of bats in the air, tarantulas scurrying from dark holes, the sudden growl of a coyote following your trail… sometimes nature provides the creepiest experiences of all. And there are plenty of ways to enjoy spooky nature this October, thanks to a packed schedule of activities from the East Bay Regional Park District.

The details on these events and others – dates, times, parking, fees, registration – are posted at ebparks.org/calendar, but here’s a spooky sampling of hair-raising sights. (Note that some fill up early, so plan ahead.)

Make (Not So) Scary Scarecrows: 11 a.m.-noon Oct. 8 at Fremont’s Ardenwood Historic Farm. Farmers have long used scarecrows to protect their crops. Learn about that agricultural history and popular lore, then make your own scarecrow.

Cemetery Stroll: 2-3:30 p.m. Oct. 14 at Antioch’s Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve. Costumed docents will lead this guided walk to Rose Hill Cemetery, where you’ll hear stories of miners and tragic tales.

Haunted Railroad: 7-9:30 p.m. on Oct. 20-22 and 27-29 at Ardenwood. Take a spooky — but not scary — nighttime train ride ($15) through a haunted forest at this event designed with kids in mind.

Tarantula Hike: 9:30-noon on Oct. 21 at Black Diamond Mines. Join a 2-mile, naturalist-led hike to learn about these fascinating creatures.

Bats on the Bay: 5:30-7 p.m. on Oct. 29 at Fremont’s Coyote Hills Regional Park. Join a naturalist-led, half-mile hike to learn about the scientific side of these iconic — especially at Halloween — animals.

Regina Benson, left, of Mount Diablo Interpretive Association, holds a tarantula as kids look on during the Bay Area Science Festival at Cal State East Bay-Concord in Concord, Calif., on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. The event featured lectures, games and several activities for kids interested in science. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Tarantulas can be found throughout the Diablo mountain range and their mating season — when they’re most active — happens each fall. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group

Creepy crawlies at a Tarantula Festival, Morgan Hill

For more than 40 years, Henry W. Coe State Park has celebrated its most famous residents each fall — initially with a tarantula-spotting hike, and more recently with a barbecue and full-on Tarantula Festival recognizing these furry-legged spiders, whose mating season runs from late August through October.

The California ebony tarantula — or Aphonopelma eutylenum — is native to the Diablo range, which runs from Martinez to San Benito County. As you might guess, these spiders tend to have the largest populations in areas where highways don’t cut through — places like Morgan Hill, says John Verhoeven, a ranger at Henry W. Coe. During their mating season, the male tarantulas go “questing” for the females, who stay put in their webbed dens.

This year’s Tarantula Fest will feature tarantula hikes, geocaching, a raffle and other activities. Arrive on the early side, if you want to partake in the food, Verhoeven says. The event often starts winding down by 2 p.m.

Details: Admission is free, parking is $8 per car and food — burgers, veggie burgers and hot dogs — will be available for purchase. The festival runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 7 at Henry W. Coe State Park, 9000 E. Dunne Ave. in Morgan Hill; coepark.net/fall-tarantula-fest.

To celebrate 100 years as a tourist attraction, the Winchester Mystery House has a lineup of events starting Friday, June 30, with a proclamation ceremony to recognize the date as Winchester Mystery House Day in San Jose. (Photo courtesy of Winchester Mystery House)
The Winchester Mystery House celebrates 100 years as a tourist attraction this year. (Photo courtesy of Winchester Mystery House) 

Haunted tours at Winchester Mystery House, San Jose

Yes, it’s a tourist attraction that’s celebrating its 100th year. But it’s full of new surprises.

The Winchester Mystery House’s new “Walk with Spirits” tour ($20-$42) highlights areas throughout the mansion where visitors and staff claim to have witnessed paranormal activities. You’ll learn about the historical Spiritualist movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries and some of the influential Bay Area residents who were part of it, from Jane Stanford (yes, that one) to Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune. According to lore, an East Coast psychic told Winchester that the only way to avoid being haunted by the ghosts of Winchester rifle victims was to move West and inhabit a different kind of hell: perpetual home renovation. The tour includes a reenactment of a Victorian seance and a lollipop test said to gauge whether spirits are present in the basement of the mysterious house.

Prefer something even spookier? This year’s “Unhinged: Homecoming” ($65-$70) offers an immersive haunted house walkthrough with two routes, according to tour guide Brenda Ellis. An R.I.P. option ($90-$100) includes both.

Details: Open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., until 7 p.m. on weekends at 525 S. Winchester Blvd. in San Jose; winchestermysteryhouse.com.

A Minotaur sculpture at Arata's Pumpkin Farm in Half Moon Bay.
A Minotaur sculpture at Arata’s Pumpkin Farm in Half Moon Bay. (John Green/Bay Area News Group) (John Green/Bay Area News Group)

Get lost in the mazes of Half Moon Bay, Livermore

Few things are spookier than getting lost in a real-life maze. Here are three:

Arata’s Pumpkin Farm, Half Moon Bay: This maze draws its inspiration from the Greek myth – and even has a minotaur on-site. But, says Chris Gounalakis —  Half Moon Bay’s own Daedalus, if you will –  “Our minotaur is a nice minotaur.” Instead of eating youths and maidens, this one passes out golden pumpkins to children navigating the labyrinth’s twists and turns.

While this maze has a smaller footprint compared to other, larger corn mazes, it’s deceptively tricky, Gounalakis says. Once you enter the maze, with its hay bale walls that soar five to six feet high, you’ll have to keep trying until you find the exit. The farm also offers a haunted barn, a petting zoo and pony rides.

You’ll find the Minotaur’s Labyrinth Hay Maze (open daily, $18 during the day, $25 at night) at Arata’s Pumpkin Farms, 185 Verde Road in Half Moon Bay; aratapumpkinfarm.com.

G&M Farms, Livermore: Now in its 20th year, Livermore’s G&M Farms corn maze is built in an elaborate pattern depicting a friendly-looking corn-shaped character with the message “We Grow Memories.” This year’s maze ($9-$10), which runs through Oct. 29, is open Wednesday-Sunday at 487 E. Airway Blvd. in Livermore, and offers spookier “haunted” sessions from nightfall to 9 p.m. on Oct. 21 and 28; gmfarms.com.

Cool Patch Pumpkins, Dixon: To say this maze is big is an understatement. At one point, it held the Guinness world record. This year’s 33-acre corn maze design is the result of a partnership with Nine Line, a pro-gun, veteran-owned apparel brand. Wear good walking shoes and be ready for uneven surfaces – the furrows used for planting the corn make the maze a rough ride for strollers or wheelchairs, according to maze designer and social media manager Tayler Cooley.

The maze ($22) is open daily through October at 6150 Dixon Ave. in Dixon;  coolpatchpumpkins.com.

The Ghosts of Sutro Forest, San Francisco

Walk a few feet into Mount Sutro Forest, and you’ll be hard pressed to believe that you’re in the middle of a major metropolitan area. This 61-acre open space reserve, which rises 900 feet above UCSF’s bustling medical center, feels like the enchanted setting of a fairy tale, as you’re quickly engulfed in a landscape of towering eucalyptus trees and a floor that’s thick with lush ferns, twining ivy and blackberry brambles. (Those brambles also carry very big, sharp thorns, so don’t let the fanciful setting distract you too much.)

Mount Sutro Forest, an open space space preserve in the middle of San Francisco, developed a reputation for being haunted because of the numerous tragic deaths that occurred there at the turn of the 20th century (Martha Ross/Bay Area News Group)
Mount Sutro Forest, an open space preserve in the middle of San Francisco, developed a reputation for being haunted because of the numerous tragic deaths that occurred there at the turn of the 20th century (Martha Ross/Bay Area News Group) 

When the fog rolls in, the tangled, topmost tree branches convey the appearance of spectral creatures, not unlike Harry Potter’s Dementors. Even on clear days, certain turns — especially along the aptly named Mystery Trail — lead to dark, damp corners of foliage that exude the feel and smell of an imagined crypt.

Mount Sutro Forest’s reputation as a haunted place stems from the numerous tragedies that unfolded here at the turn of the 20th century, according to OutsideLands.org, a San Francisco history site. The forest became a magnet for people in despair. One of the distressed was a once-wealthy businessman who fell on hard times, lost a child and ended up in the city’s Almshouse, which is now the site of Laguna Honda Hospital.  Another was a baker, who suddenly sold his Church Street business, became withdrawn and disappeared from his home in November 1904.  His wife searched the city for weeks before finding his body.

Sadly, some who died in the forest were never identified, including a man in a chinchilla coat.  If you really want to scare yourself before your forest hike, read up on the poor mushroom hunters who stumbled upon him – or what was left of him – in 1903.

Details: Owned by UCSF, the forest offers numerous, well-marked paths, accessible from trailheads that start from the campus and surrounding neighborhoods. For an easy walk to the top of Mount Sutro, catch the East Ridge Trail from a trailhead along Johnstone Drive, on the forest’s southern end. UCSF has a trail map, and more ghost stories can be found at OutsideLands.org.

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