All aboard this Houston rite of passage! For more than 50 years the Hermann Park Conservancy’s mini locomotive has delighted young and old as it chugs along to some of the area’s top attractions. Visitors can hop on at Kinder Station and enjoy an 18-minute, 2-mile loop around the recently revamped park or transport themselves to three substations to catch the sights at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Rice University, or (for avid anoraks) the METRORail. From $3.50. 6102 Hermann Park Dr.—Laura Furr Mericas
*If a ticket to ride simply isn’t enough for your train-obsessed tot, consider one of Hermann Park’s special locomotive programs. Ride the rails in the conductor’s seat for an hour (from $50) or spend the morning, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., with the engineers in the shop (from $150). Ages 7 to 107 are welcome.
This state park to our southwest has over 37 nature-filled miles for explorin’. But beware: You’ll be sharing space with American alligators who freely reside in the park’s murky marshes. Visitors typically see these gators sunning and swimming in the distance on mild summer days. And that’s just fine: Even Mom and Dad should stay a “social distance” away from these toothy reptiles. $7 per day entrance fee. 21901 FM 762, Needville—Brittany Cristiano
Once the private garden of avid horticulturalist Thelma Mercer, this pristinely preserved and expanded 400-acre parkland is now home to native dogwoods and giant camelia bushes, an idyllic butterfly house, plus playgrounds, picnic areas, and quiet trails for little feet to roam. Green thumbs in the making can learn about the wondrous woodlands from the arboretum’s experienced team of botanists before venturing off to Thelma’s Pond where plump koi and giant goldfish are in search of a snack. Free. 22306 Aldine Westfield Road, Humble—Kaitlyn Miller
*Parents will find photo ops aplenty—a favorite spot is around Thelma’s Pond or under the charming stone archway. Think: Christmas cards done by July. Only hand-held cameras are permitted.
The second largest lake in Texas is just over an hour’s drive north of Houston and an amateur angler’s dream. Chock-full of three species of bass, plus catfish, bluegill, and crappie, it’s a likely spot for little ones to make their first catch. Plus, they don’t need a license to fish from the shore. Check out the Texas Parks and Wildlife’s up-to-date fishing report before you cast your lines to find the best spot to reel in that once-in-a-lifetime memory. $5 per day entrance fee. 300 State Park Rd. 65, Livingston—BC
Few outings are more summery than a visit to Hockley’s iconic drive-in, where ’60s jams crank over the radio pre-movie, frogs croak, and the breeze wafts across the pasture to cool your bug-sprayed legs. Set up your camp chairs or simply nest in the back of the minivan, especially if your little ones won’t last long. Family-friendly features start at 9 p.m. in the summer. Contactless concessions are now open (as are the bathrooms, thank heavens). From $8 per person. 22422 FM 290, Hockley—Gwendolyn Knapp
Dare ye enter our subterranean tunnel system—fluorescent lit, confusing and rather mall-like, 20 feet beneath downtown—you’ll find six miles (95 city blocks!) of masked-up adventure. Sure, it’s not exactly like fording a river or trekking up Everest, but your future Lewis and Clarks will learn valuable cartography skills navigating from Understory food hall in Bank of America Tower to the East McKinney Skywalk to Discovery Green while surviving the elements: frigid summertime air conditioning, of course. Don’t miss the Chick-fil-A in The Shops at Houston Center. —GK
Come Thursday afternoons the Museums District transforms into a parent’s pro-bono playland. Little minds can tinker at The Health Museum and the Houston Museum of Natural Science for no charge, or prep for next year’s history class at The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, The Holocaust Museum Houston, and The Houston Museum of African American Culture. The Museum of Fine Arts Houston waives everything but its “no touching!” policy all day long. And even the crème de la crème, Children’s Museum of Houston (rated the No. 1 children’s museum in the U.S. by Parents Magazine), opens its doors Thursday evenings from 5 to 8 p.m. for wunderkinds who can stretch bedtime. Free. —KM
If the kids are itching to try more than a kickflip in the driveway, the Lee and Joe Jamail Skate Park should be your next destination. The 30,000-square-foot, in-ground skate park in the heart of Buffalo Bayou Park is one of the largest in Texas, with bowls, rails, and intricately sloped concrete for skaters of all levels. Parents can stick around on the shaded benches, walk the bayou, or school the young guns with an ollie of their own. Free. 103 Sabine St., Buffalo Bayou Park—BC
*The City of Houston commissioned Grindline, a prolific cast-in-place concrete skate park design company, to build the Jamail Skate Park back in 2008. Check out more of the firm’s work at Lakeland Village Skate Park, North Houston Skate Park, and Galveston Skate Park for an under-the-radar skate sesh.
A thick layer of bug spray, a face mask, and a bit of bravery are all imperative if you want to take the sanctuary’s mile-long Family Night Hike, where opossums, armadillos, and more crepuscular critters dwell along the trail. But don’t be scared—a guide (most of them master naturalists) will safely lead your crew across prairie (where spider eyes sparkle), over ponds (alligators below!), and among enchanting nighttime sights and sounds of the piney brush—from chattering raccoons to howling coyotes to the majestic barred owl, whose hoots sound like “Who cooks for you!?” Moms need only reply. From $60 per family of four (ages six and up only). 8500 Bay Area Boulevard, Pasadena—GK
* “April through June, and sometimes all the way through September, we get a lot of fireflies. We have restored prairie out here, and that’s they’re preferred habitat.”— ABNC visitor services coordinator Anna James.
History buffs and view seekers: venture 20 miles east of downtown to the iconic San Jacinto Monument for a bit of education and exhilaration. The 567-foot-tall obelisk—which happens to be the tallest monument column in the world—honors those who fought for Texas independence with awe-inspiring architecture that’ll make even the kiddos ooh and aah. Peep sweeping views from the 500-foot-high observation deck and afterward learn a thing or two about Texas culture at the San Jacinto Museum of History at the monument’s base below. From $6 (children 11 and under). One Monument Circle, La Porte— KM
Grab a spot on the Galveston–Bolivar ferry for an 18-minute adventure en route to fun in the sun on the Bolivar Peninsula. Drive your car onto the ship or walk on board—the world is your oyster. Be sure to bring cameras and binoculars as views of Fort Travis, the Bolivar Lighthouse, the U.S. Coast Guard Station, and the Galveston Yacht Basin are in store—perhaps even a dolphin sighting or two! Free. 1000 Ferry Road North, Galveston—KM
When Smash the mounted patrol horse and his 30-plus pony friends aren’t out directing traffic or making appearances, they love to welcome visitors to their 15-acre home in North Houston. Kids and adults can generally pop in on this friendly bunch of geldings and mares Mondays through Fridays from noon to 2 p.m. and on weekends by appointments, but do check first for lingering Covid closures. Entrance fee? Large carrots, apples, or peppermint candy snacks, please. Free. 5005 Little York Rd. —LFM
When Houston Museum of Natural Science experts are on Levy Park’s books, expect a day filled with interactive lessons on topics like astronomy, paleontology, insects, and more at the park’s event pavilion. Grab lunch from Slowpokes afterward and picnic on the lawn while the kids rehash their science experiments or retell the history behind their favorite HMNS artifacts. Free. 3801 Eastside St.—BC
A bit of friendly competition keeps things interesting around the ’hood. Call up the neighbors, don your matching T-shirts (if the tweens oblige), and carpool over to Bear Creek Pioneers Park for a simple pickup game of America’s favorite pastime with your pod. In addition to nature trails, playgrounds, and a can’t-miss wildlife habitat, this public park next door to Bear Creek Village allows guests to reserve one of the Cy-Fair Sports Association fields. BYO balls, bats, and gloves. Free. 3535 War Memorial St.—BC
Parents, if you have a wannabe fighter pilot on your hands, set your sights on the Lone Star Flight Museum, which started out as a private collection and is now a popular destination for mini aviators to test their wings—with 40 historic aircrafts and over 1,500 aircraft artifacts. Don’t pass up on the opportunity to dip, dive, and fly on the museum’s Redbird MX2 flight simulator. Be warned, the kids may not want to come down to earth after. From $9.95. 11551 Aerospace Avenue, Ellington Airport—BC