When Mallory Arents went walking in the woods with her 4-year-old niece Briana Ruffin, they came upon a turtle.

"We can't touch that because it's a wild animal," explained Briana, who attends pre-school at Earthplace.

"I like that Earthplace inspires my niece to really think critically about the natural world," said Arents, a Stamford resident. "It's been a transformative experience for her."

Arents was among those on hand for the nature center's Bonfire Bash fundraiser Saturday night, part of the weekend-long Earthplace Festival. "If I can support that by drinking a few beers, listening to some music, how terrible is that?" she said.

More than 250 people shared similar sentiments, turning out for a nighttime fete in the woods, which featured a campfire, pigs roasted on hot coals, a live band and a haunted Halloween trail walk.

"I think this is the first time we've opened up the space like this in years," said Liz Falk, board of trustees member. "We're starting a new era at Earthplace. We're trying to bring it to everyone and we want to make sure everyone knows about this magical gem we have in town."

"They do a lot of different activities for the kids and the adults," said Briana's mother, Kate Ruffin.

"This is just a great setting," she said. "And it's a nice way to meet new people. A lot of the people here are parents."

"This is fantastic," said Joe Cassone of Fairfield. "I hope they do this every year, because we'll be here every year."

Music was performed by the local group Miss Suzy's Opus. Along with an open bar and a wealth of good food, there was also a mechanical bull on which several attendees ventured a ride or two.

After dinner, small groups were led along a "haunted" trail through the nature preserve, replete with ghosts and ghouls portrayed by volunteers from the Staples High School Players.

"They did a great job," said Kelly Marsh, who was out of breath after being chased by several ghouls. "It was spooky and creepy and you have to run really, really fast."

"We find this absolutely magical," Hope Hageman of Westport, who joined friends under the long strands of glimmering lights strung between trees over candlelit picnic tables, said of the evening. "We're just slowly, slowly making our way around, seeing all the marvels here."

Proceeds from the evening will benefit Earthplace's planned construction of an observation deck by the pond, which was recently dredged through a donation from the town.

"This is a very natural environment and that's what we want to create," said Tony McDowell, the Earthplace executive director.

"Nature is our classroom," he said. "We want to promote people to be comfortable in nature and we want them to have a good environmental ethic."