Camping in the City? Campfire Nights at Houston's Nature Discovery Center
Who knew there was an ultra-easy overnight camping option for Houston families inside the loop? The Nature Discovery Center in Bellaire has launched Campfire Nights—a way to experience the great outdoors without leaving the city. Gather a group of no more than 10 people for an evening of staff-led outdoor activities that include night hiking, animal encounters, and plenty of s'mores. Stay for the overnight package, and you can cozy up in sleeping bags and tents right on the lawn, waking up to donuts and coffee waiting in the morning.
The Campfire Nights program is perfect for those who want to ease into an overnight camping experience, or for families who are looking for something fun to do outdoors without leaving town. We enjoyed this experience as part of a friend’s birthday party celebration, and it turned out to be just right for our elementary school-aged kids.
Kids enjoyed listening to Eric during the Animal Encounter.
What Should I Expect at the NDC's Campfire Night?
We pulled up to the renovated Nature Discovery Center right after 6pm on a Friday evening, just as the sun was beginning to set. Some of our friends were already enjoying the roomy new pavilion when we arrived. The pavilion consists of a collection of covered picnic tables and a movable fire pit in the center with bench seating around it. There was a spread of snacks and drinks laid out on one of the tables, all provided by the Nature Discovery Center.
Eric Duran, Head Naturalist, is accompanied by an event host during Campfire Nights. The event host refills snacks, helps prepare dinner, and keeps everything organized while Eric does a great job entertaining kids with his uncanny knowledge of the natural world around us.
Once all the guests had arrived, Eric gathered everyone around and began the first of the night’s activities: Animal Encounters! He brought out a real snake and some taxidermy animals for the kids to examine while he gave a lesson on their habits and habitats.
Afterward, everyone washed hands at the nearby outdoor hand-washing station to get ready to roast hotdogs on a stick! A kid-friendly feast of hotdogs, chips, and drinks was served (and cleaned up!) by the staff. If adults want a more well-rounded meal, you may want to bring your own vegetables to supplement the dinner. After everyone had eaten, the parents in our group decided to stay around the fire to socialize while Eric took the kids out for a night hike.
This was my children’s favorite part of the evening. After the sun goes down, the trees and natural habitat at the Nature Discovery Center take on a whole different personality. Eric handed out headlamps for the kids to strap onto their foreheads. The kids were very excited to explore the park after dark with their guide! Once back from the hike, the explorers had a blast making and eating s’mores by the fire pit while recounting their 30-minute nighttime adventure and all the critters they had encountered.
Explorers don headlamps for the night hike.
How Does the Campfire Night Overnight Option Work?
After indulging in s’mores, the kids continued to chat around the fire while the grown-ups set up the tents. The staff gave us an option of either pitching our tents on the large front lawn, or in a smaller grassy area closer to the pavilion. We chose the smaller area because it was near the restrooms. This made it easier for kids if they needed to go in the middle of the night.
Around 9pm, after the tents were set up and sleeping bags rolled out, we had everyone brush teeth, wash up, change into pajamas, and start winding down for the night. All the kids thought it was great fun to sleep in tents next to their friends. Camping in the city is not quite like being out in a more isolated location; you do hear traffic on the road nearby. Light sleepers may want to bring earplugs.
The next morning around 7am, the event host brought coffee and donuts to the pavilion, where the kids gleefully devoured the sweets while the adults gratefully gulped down the fresh coffee. Everyone was packed up and heading home by 9am.
An added bonus to this city camping experience is that if you live in town, you don't need to drive very far for the experience. This means that if, for example, Mom prefers to enjoy just a few outdoor hours with the family and then go home to sleep in her own quiet bed, that is totally doable. Everyone can spend the evening together, and when the kids are ready to get into the tent, one parent might go home to enjoy a night to herself while Dad has an overnight, adventure with marshmallows and flashlights.
Set up camping tents near the main building.
What Should I Pack for the Overnight Experience?
You’ll need to bring a tent for your family (or two depending on your sleeping arrangements), sleeping bags, pillows, pajamas, toiletries/washcloth, earplugs, and flashlights if you want them in the tent. My family planned to go straight back to the house in the morning, so we didn’t even need a change of clothes. We just made the short drive home in our pajamas!
What Are the Bathrooms Like?
The bathrooms were part of the recent remodel and are located in a separate building right by the pavilion. The building has emergency lights that turn on at night, so there’s no need to touch any switches. The tops of the walls are open to the outside, providing natural ventilation, which is especially appreciated during these times. Although there is a sink located inside the the actual bathroom, there are also extra large sinks that serve as a hand washing station in the open air outside of the actual restrooms. This is very helpful when there are several kids needing to wash their hands at the same time.
Bathrooms with hand washing station
Where Should I Park?
There are two parking lots associated with the Nature Discovery Center. One is closer to the playground by Russ Pitman park on Evergreen Street, and the other is near the main entrance on Newcastle Drive. You will want to park in the small lot on Newcastle Drive, since it is closest to the pavilion.
How To Register for Campfire Night
Register for their Campfire Nights through the Campfire Night Registration page on the website. Upcoming available dates are all on Fridays: March 26, April 9, and April 16.
Bee house on the trail
What Else Is There To Do at the Nature Discovery Center?
The Nature Discovery Center is a four-acre park and education center dedicated to teaching children about nature. Inside the center are two Discovery Rooms (currently closed due to COVID safety regulations) where children can interact with exhibits and play with educational toys, books, and puzzles to learn about plants, animals, and habitats.
There are some live animals such as bunnies, snakes, and frogs that children can observe and sometimes even pet during special programming hours. Outside, the kid-friendly pathways lead through four habitat zones within the park itself, including a pocket prairie with lots of butterflies in the spring. Russ Pitman Park, located at one end of the Nature Discovery Center, houses a playground structure and a nature-inspired play area with logs, bamboo, and other natural materials for kids to explore.
How Can I Support the Nature Discovery Center?
Due to the pandemic, the Nature Discovery Center had to cancel several camps and special programs that typically help with funding goals. The Campfire Nights program was created not only to provide a fun alternative for families to enjoy the park, but also to help support the center's mission at large.
There are several other ways you can support the Nature Discovery Center. Visitors can make a donation, become a member, adopt an animal, or shop its Amazon Wish List. The Nature Discovery Center also participates in the AmazonSmile program, in which Amazon donates a small percentage of every sale made through a special link located on the donation page of the center's website.
All photos by author