These aren’t the jack-o-lanterns of your childhood.
Pumpkinferno, as the name suggests, is a fiery vision of thousands of beautifully hand-carved pumpkins laid out against the backdrop of historic Upper Canada Village. As you walk through the streets under the open night sky you encounter scenes of breathtaking beauty — from mythical and supernatural beings to wild and exotic animals.
Upper Canada Village is a historical recreation of what life would have been like in a rural Canadian town, set in the year 1866. You can visit the village any time from May to September, but then they close for the colder months. October is a special exception when they open their doors for visitors to enjoy the Pumpkinferno festival.
It’s a bit of a drive out to the village, which sits on the banks of the St.Lawrence, not far from Cornwall. From Ottawa it takes about an hour and a half of travel through pitch black countryside before you arrive at this lit-up little outpost. It appears like a mirage in the dark.
I recommend you buy your tickets online because it will save you a cold wait in a long line-up. However, having stood in that line, I can say that it is definitely worth the wait to get in.
This is essentially an art exhibition made of pumpkins. There are close to 6,000 pumpkins, carved and arranged into a variety of scenes and images. You begin the tour at a little bridge, which passes over an illuminated river churning with live carp. The tour is lined on both sides with a string of lights that guide you down a pathway.
You never know what to expect. Turning a corner, you might find yourself looking out over the water at gigantic glowing fish or a mesmerizing fiery tree.
They use the village space to its full advantage. A huge barn is transformed to look like Noah’s Ark, with Noah himself standing in the barn doors, glowing arms raised high. A giraffe pokes his head out of the ark, tigers prowl along the fence and flamingos spread out over the lawn.
Grapevines carved into stacked pumpkins creep over the slats of a wooden house. Small pumpkins lay scattered along the border of the pathway, paw prints glowing in the grass. There are fairies suspended in the trees and snails nestled against fence posts and gigantic flowers.
As you walk the tour you will hear birdsong floating out of the trees. It seems to fit seamlessly with this night-time show, even though it sounds like you’re in the middle of an aviary. It’s only when you approach Noah’s Ark that it really clicks — the muffled booming sound you heard in the distance was a recording of waves breaking on a shoreline.
Pumpkinferno is truly a multi-sensory experience. Carnival music spills out from the lane way lined with jack-in-the-box pumpkin heads. Their maniacal grinning heads seem to come alive with the music.
It takes a little under an hour to walk the entire tour. There is lots of space to enjoy the beautiful jack-o-lantern installations so you can take your time to look at things without feeling crowded in.
Make sure to dress warmly for the weather and bring gloves, especially if you want to take photos. When we went, it was cold enough to see our breath fogging in the air.
One of the most impressive parts of Pumpkinferno was a section dedicated to the twelve signs of the zodiac. Seen from afar, the zodiacs look like a burning wall of larger-than-life characters. There is so much work put into each image that you need a couple minutes to take it all in. The pumpkin carvings even include the constellations for each zodiac, sprinkled among fine pin pricks of stars.
My sign Capricorn was represented by a rather sly looking mountain goat.
Pumpkins carved into Japanese lanterns hang in the trees over the pathway leading to the last big crescendo of the festival. The entrance to Pumpkinferno’s outdoor café and painted pumpkins gallery is framed by a huge archway of dozens of jack-o-lanterns.
Everybody was stopping to either gawk at the sight of the entrance or take pictures in front of it. As I was snapping away my own photos I heard a little girl complain to her mother, “Can we stop taking pictures and actually go look at the thing?”
With a sheepish smile, I put my own camera down. Beyond the archway, there was a giant Chinese dragon sitting against the backdrop of the St.Lawrence River. His tail was made to look like a flame and the entire length of his twisted body glowed orange in the night.
In this open space, there are picnic tables spread out around heat lamps where you can warm up under the fiery gaze of the dragon. My parents and I bought hot chocolate at the cafe, which really helped put some feeling back in our fingers.
In tribute to the Halloween spirit of the season Pumpkinferno also has a few spooky displays. Ironically, the ghouls and monsters are set up right outside the village’s 19th century Lutheran church.
Dracula and his entourage leer at you from beneath the tall Gothic arches of the windows. At the back of the church, luminous bats nest in the tree branches.
Near the very end of the tour you will find a small gallery of individual pumpkins. They stand alone as a show of careful craftsmanship, some details as fine as lacework. Here, each pumpkin is a work of art.
It’s a great way to get inspired for carving your own jack-o-lantern. I already have some interesting ideas for mine.
I can’t recommend Pumpkinferno enough. If you’re looking for a way to make the most of fall or if you really love Halloween, this festival is a must.
I know that I will definitely be coming back next year to see what new ways they choose to light up the night with their fantastical pumpkins.