Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.

Sleep under the stars

Camp outs let families explore the night life together

Want to take your children on their first camping trip? Good luck to you. Camping can be a lot of fun. The frogs. The s’mores. The great outdoors.

But it can also be fraught with trouble. What if it storms and you’re six hours from home? What if you forgot your daughter’s favorite teddy bear and she won’t sleep without it? What if mosquitoes and chiggers attack and you forgot the bug spray? What if your children decide that, after all that begging to go, it’s just not for them?

Several Maryland nature centers and parks have come up with a solution:

The (supervised) family camp out.

At a half-dozen places around the state, you can get your feet wet with the camping experience without committing to a weekend in the woods. You won’t be alone — several other families will be there with you.

You won’t have to think of activities or entertainment; a staff of naturalists will be on hand to lead hikes, point out bird calls and demonstrate the proper technique for roasting marshmallows.

And, if you forgot something important, you won’t have far to go to get it.

Family camp outs typically charge less than a family dinner at a fast-food restaurant. They range from $7 per family at Marshy point Nature Center, in eastern Baltimore County, to $40 per family at Irvine Nature Center in the western part of the county.

Most places have two a year, in the spring and fall, but some — including Cromwell Valley and Oregon Ridge near Towson — also do a summer event.

The camp outs usually start at about 6 p.m. with dinner — families bring their own or roast hotdogs over the fire — and some get-to-know-you games.

When it gets dark, take a night hike to identify frog calls, owl hoots and other nocturnal sounds. If the nature center has a stream, there may be a quick peek to see if the salamanders are active.

Often, a staff member brings a telescope, so the children can take turns looking at the stars. Then, bedtime stories and back to the tents.

The bargain price usually includes breakfast — either doughnuts and bagels or something cooked over the fire. Then, it’s back home for showers and the day-to-day rhythms of weekend sports schedules and play dates.

Cromwell Valley has one of the area’s longest-running family camp outs; the 426-acre park has been hosting them since the mid-1990s, shortly after Baltimore County acquired the land and established the park.

Leo Rebetsky, the park’s manager, said camp outs typically sell out after Cromwell releases its calendar. (The summer one is less popular than those in fall and spring.) They create a waiting list after 60 families register.

“It is an expensive program for me to run, because I basically have to pay people to sleep here overnight,” Rebetsky said. “But we’re all about getting kids outdoors, so I’m willing to try to save money in other areas so we can still offer these programs that we feel are worthwhile to participate in.”

The Cromwell campers fall into two categories, Rebetsky said: Families camping for the first time, or families who return every year. Some even make a circuit, hitting the family camp outs at Oregon Ridge and Marshy Point to do several a year.

At Marshy Point, manager Kurt Dreier said he plans to keep his low prices. So long as he can cover the cost of hot chocolate and hot dogs, he’ll be fine.

“We are in one of the poorer sections of the county,” he said of the center’s location near Middle River, which has hosted family camp outs for five or six years. “Having worked for the county for 30 years, I may be among the last bastions of thought that, since taxpayers fund us, we should put on programs that people can afford.”

Unlike the Baltimore County-run nature centers, Irvine Nature Center does allow camping on other days

besides the camp out — if one is a member. Just call and reserve a site.

Because families had already reserved sites for fall, Irvine is not doing its usual fall family camp out this year, said naturalist Steven Mickletz.

Instead, the center is offering a night hike, with the option to stay out overnight on one’s own. The family camp outs, complete with naturalists on hand to point out different creatures and teach campfire songs, will resume in the spring.

Mickletz said Irvine sends out a list of what to bring and what to leave every year. Electronics are on the leave-at-home list. That hasn’t been an issue, he said.

The best part of the camp outs, Mickletz said, is helping families create positive memories of being outdoors together — hearing that first campfire song, or seeing a constellation they’d never noticed before.

“I really like that a lot of the families are coming out and camping for the first time, and I like being able to facilitate that,” he said.

In Southern Anne Arundel County, the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary offered its first camp out last June, in conjunction with the Great American Backyard Camp Out, which the National Wildlife Federation organizes. It was such a success, said Jug Bay office manager Debra Gage, that the center wants to make it a yearly event, and maybe even do it in the fall and spring.

“Everyone said what a wonderful time they had. The kids had a fantastic time,” Gage said. “People said, ‘let us know if you do it again. We definitely want to come back.’”

Family Fall Camping

Fall is a great time for a nature center camp out. It’s also the most popular season, so make reservations as soon as possible. Weather conditions may cause dates to be rescheduled. Those with reservations will be notified if the date changes. You could also check the center’s websites. Tents are available if reserved in advance. Here are a few options:

  • Cromwell Valley Park, Baltimore: 6 p.m. Oct. 18. Cost: $15 per family. For details, call 410-887-2503/2504 or visit
  • Marshy Point Nature Center, Baltimore: 6 p.m. Oct. 5. Cost: $7 per family. For details, call
  • 410-887-2817 or visit
  • Robert E. Lee Park, Baltimore: 7 p.m. Sept. 27. Cost: $5 per person. For details, call 410-887-4156 or visit
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Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.


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