Family holidays in the New Forest National Park
We’ve just returned from a brilliant trip to the New Forest with kids. Despite it being winter, and the weather rather changeable, we managed to clock up 60 kilometres of cycling, enjoyed some lovely walks, had an al fresco pub lunch (in February) and visited to a range of family friendly New Forest attractions.
There are so many great things to do in New Forest with kids. We spent much of our time walking and cycling but with a variety of museums, a famous piggy-themed amusement park, beautiful rivers and a varied coastline, there are plenty of activities in the New Forest for families away from the woods.
Looking for other destinations to visit in Hampshire? Check out my article all about the best things to do in Hampshire for families.
Check out my guide on the best places to stay in Hampshire for families which includes plenty of ideas for the New Forest.
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Where is the New Forest?
Tucked away in southern Hampshire, the New Forest National Park is wedged between Southampton and Bournemouth, with Salisbury not far to the north.
Why is it called the New Forest?
This was a question from our kids during a walk through the rather ancient looking forest one morning.
It turns out William the Conqueror chose the area as his new hunting forest in the 11th century, so the forest was “new” some one thousand years ago – and the name has stuck.
Nowadays, the New Forest is made up of heathland, woodland and grassland. Its coastline is a mix of shingle beaches and mudflats.
And if you’re wondering where to find ponies in the New Forest, the answer is – they’re everywhere.
New Forest things to do
There is a multitude of things to see and do for New Forest family holidays, whether it’s winter or summer, rain or shine. When we visited the New Forest with kids, we stayed just five days but we could easily have stayed longer – in that time we mostly cycled and walked, visiting only a few of the New Forest attractions.
Cycling in the New Forest with kids
In my opinion, one of the best things to do in the New Forest for families is cycling.
We loved our New Forest family bike rides. The towns and villages are linked by a network of mostly flat, wide gravel paths which are perfect for kids. And it’s gratifying in this age of internet shopping that each of the towns we visited in the New Forest has a bike shop – in fact Lyndhurst and Brockenhurst both have two.
Bike hire and cycle shops in the New Forest
Cyclexperience – handily located next to Brockenhurst train station
Boost Bike Hub – sister bike shop to the main Cyclexperience bike hire
New Forest Cycling in Burley
AA Bike Hire in Lyndhurst
The Woods Cyclery in Lyndhurst
New Forest Activities in Beaulieu
New Forest Bikes in Lymington
Sandy Balls Cycle Centre near Fordingbridge
There are one or two hills in the New Forest but for the most part, it is pretty flat. If you’re visiting the New Forest with little children, a great cycle route to try out is the lovely flat Old Railway route which runs between Brockenhurst and Burley. It’s about nine miles in total but it’s easy to just cycle small sections of it – and there’s refreshments at the Old Station Tea Rooms Holmsley. If you have young children I’d recommend parking at Burley in the Pound Lane car park as this has direct access onto the disused railway line. If you opt to do the whole route, there is a section on the main road which wouldn’t be great with young children.
If you’re looking for New Forest cycle paths for really little ones, I’d recommend parking at the Blackwater car park on the Rhinefield Ornamental Drive as there are some lovely short bike rides in that area. And some incredible trees!
Children will also enjoy the short cycle from Beaulieu village down to Bucklers Hard – this is a a great option in summertime when there are boat trips on the River Beaulieu.
We managed a 35 kilometre route with our two boys (aged 10 and seven) which took us in a loop from Lyndhurst to Burley and back. We cycled along quiet roads up to Bolderwood Deer Sanctuary and then on some lovely varied cycle tracks south to Burley. We had lunch (and cider) at the Cider Pantry in Burley before hopping on a section of the Old Railway track. Unfortunately the track was partly closed (it was winter) so we then had a rather meandering route back to Lyndhurst – but it was so scenic and we had lovely weather.
We also enjoyed a 20 kilometre cycle from Lyndhurst to Brockenhurst and back again – which was an easier ride! We had lunch at the Snake Catcher in Brockenhurst which has a great play area for children.
There are endless options for cycling in the New Forest with routes suitable for all ages. If you aren’t able to bring your bikes, or you’re travelling with very young children, there are trailers and tagalongs for hire at the bike shops.
For more information on cycling in the New Forest, check out the brilliant resource at Go New Forest which has detailed route information including a section on New Forest cycle trails for families.
Looking for other family-friendly cycling destinations in the UK? Check out my article all about the best family cycle trails.
Walks in the New Forest for families
If you’re looking for free things to do in the New Forest with kids, walking is my number one suggestion! And don’t worry if your children groan at the thought of going for a walk – one of my sons actually said to me after he’d enjoyed a New Forest walk: “Ok, I’ll trust you next time”.
We were mostly on our bikes during our visit but we did enjoy a couple of New Forest walks. There is a lovely trail at Bolderwood Deer Sanctuary which has viewing areas to watch the resident fallow deer. The deer were hiding when we were there but it was lovely to have a wander through the woods. We came across a large herd of deer during one of our bike rides – really gratifying to see them in the wild.
One of our favourite activities in the New Forest was the stunning Tall Trees Trail at Blackwater. One of our children is rather a reluctant walker but even he admitted it was a truly lovely route. The walk, taking in both sides of the scenic Rhinefield Ornamental Drive, is only two miles long but it took us most of a morning as there were information boards to read, dens to play in and stunning trees to admire. It takes in some of the country’s tallest evergreens – Douglas Firs, Sequoias and Redwoods.
The New Forest website has a great long list of walks for all ages and abilities.
New Forest things to do on a walk with kids
In case your children aren’t keen on going for a walk, here are some ideas to keep them entertained in the New Forest:
Make a den: we found – and added to – some brilliant dens on our walks. The kids could have happily spent all day building.
Play hide and seek: the woods are a great place for a game of hide and seek – our children enjoyed disappearing from us when we were out walking!
Do some tree identification: the Tall Trees walk has various interpretation signs explaining the species and age of the trees. There was a comparison between the giant New Forest sequoias and the world’s tallest tree – General Sherman in California. It was hard to imagine something over twice the size of the soaring pines we admired.
The Woodland Trust has a free tree ID app which you can download and use on a walk.
Have a picnic: even in February, we found lots of sheltered spots in the New Forest. There are lots of car parks dotted through the New Forest, some with toilets so it’s easy to have a full day out.
Listen to the sounds of the forest: it was lovely to simply sit and listen to all the sounds in the forest. The wind created a very peaceful sound as it rustled the trees’ branches and the birds kept up a constant chorus.
Enjoy the colours of the New Forest: there was also a surprising amount of colour in the forest despite it being wintertime. Aside from the evergreens, there were deep velvety green mosses and brightly coloured lichen growing on many of the trees.
Paddle in the streams: the New Forest is crisscrossed by a network of waterways. In summertime the rivers and streams would be lovely to paddle in. We saw some intrepid children balancing on fallen trees across one river – I didn’t point this out to my two – we were rather a long bike ride from home.
New Forest attractions map
New Forest attractions for families
I could quite happily spend a whole week walking and cycling in the New Forest but if you fancy a change of scene, there’s plenty going on away from the trees.
Note, some of the New Forest attractions close for winter so do check opening dates before you plan your trip.
Beaulieu estate and the National Motor Museum
Beaulieu is two things – there’s the pretty riverside village of Beaulieu and then there’s the Beaulieu estate. The estate is the paid for attraction which includes the National Motor Museum, the monorail, Little Beaulieu (play area), large parkland, formal gardens, Beaulieu Abbey and the Palace House. There are also a few other smaller attractions and the whole lot is included under one ticket price.
Despite visiting in really horrendous winter weather, we had a really fun day out at Beaulieu – and we had it pretty much to ourselves! The kids even tolerated a wander through Palace House (albeit a swift one) – the home of the Montagu family since 1538. For some reason they were much happier playing outside in the wind and the rain.
Our boys have developed something of an obsession with Top Gear so they loved seeing all the vehicles on display from the various TV series – the car which Freddie Flintoff used to bungee jump off a dam, the Dirty Rascal (you might need to look that one up) and various other weird creations. There is also a selection of famous cars from other TV shows and films including the good old 3-wheeler from Only Fools and Horses, the flying car from Harry Potter and one of the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang cars.
The key highlight for most children – ours included – is Little Beaulieu. Despite wind and rain, our kids raced around this collection of wooden play spaces for over an hour. They had it pretty much to themselves. There’s a handily placed café next to the play area which lazy parents (that’s me) can retreat to when they’ve given up chasing their children down slides and over rope bridges.
Near the Palace House is the Secret Army Exhibition which houses artefacts from undercover agents during the Second World War. The children were rather taken by the exploding rats.
Other family-friendly attractions at Beaulieu include the monorail and the vintage open top bus – neither of which are much fun in the driving rain we discovered.
This little riverside hamlet is part of the Beaulieu estate. Bucklers Hard was once a thriving ship-building village which produced ships for Nelson’s navy. Today it’s tourists who ply the river on summer cruises – a fun New Forest activity for families.
You can trace the history of Buckler’s Hard at the Maritime Museum or simply go for a walk or cycle along the Beaulieu river.
Incidentally, “hard” in this instance refers to the hard ground which was used to moor up against.
The New Forest Reptile Centre
The New Forest Reptile Centre near Lyndhurst offers visitors the chance to spot native reptiles in a semi-natural environment. Don’t come expecting to peer at snakes through a glass window Harry Potter-style, the Reptile Centre is a simple affair – a series of netted pits where, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot one of the elusive inhabitants. Adders, grass snakes, the rare smooth snake, various frogs, and more can all be found here. There’s no charge – except for the car park – and there’s a short walk nearby suitable for families.
Unusual things to do in the New Forest: window shopping in Lyndhurst
This is rather a niche New Forest attraction – but something the petrolhead members of my family really enjoyed. Lyndhurst is home to a huge Ferrari garage – there must be many, many, millions of pounds worth of vehicles on display at Meridien Modena. Close by is the slightly less swanky (but equally appealing in my sons’ eyes) Dormobile – a garage which specialises in converting vans and cars into campers.
If neither of these appeal, there are some lovely independent shops to browse in Lyndhurst, and in the other New Forest villages, as well as an endless supply of cafes, pubs and restaurants. We managed several cream teas during our family holiday in the New Forest.
New Forest Wildlife Park
This sounds like a really lovely wildlife park – you won’t find exotic beasts here but plenty of interesting species which call the forest habitat home. Wolves, wild boar, deer, badgers and otters can all be found here.
There’s also a good adventure play space at the New Forest Wildlife Park with sections for little ones and older children.
Aside from the obvious playful appeal of visiting a castle, Hurst Castle has the added attraction of its setting – a long shingle spit which curls around New Forest marshland. Reaching Hurst Castle involves a two mile walk along the spit from Milford on Sea or Keyhaven (both have car parks). Alternatively, there is a regular ferry service from the village of Keyhaven.
Built originally as one of Henry VIII’s defensive coastal forts (he built many), Hurst Castle has been added to over the centuries and now features Victorian additions as well as elements of its use during the Second World War. There are great views from the castle to the Isle of Wight and the Needles.
Note, Hurst Castle is open from April until October. Currently, sections of the castle are undergoing renovations so these parts are not open to the public. However, the entrance charge has been reduced accordingly.
Calshot Activities Centre
This is a great rainy day destination in the New Forest. Set on another long spit – this time a sandy one, Calshot Activity Centre has a large climbing wall, a velodrome and a dry ski slope. There’s plenty to do on the water too if the weather is on your side – sailing, paddle sports and powerboating.
Calshot is also home to another one of Henry VIII’s coastal forts – built using stone and lead taken from local monasteries which the king had shut down.
Go fossil hunting at Barton on Sea
The town of Barton on Sea is famed for its slipped clay cliffs (which children should definitely not attempt to climb!) At low tide, visitors can hunt for sharks’ teeth and shells on the foreshore. The best finds tend to be after a storm when the waves have bashed the delicate cliffs to reveal their ancient secrets.
Lepe Country Park
If you like your play areas with a view, you’ll enjoy the adventure play space at Lepe Country Park with its sea views. There’s also a popular five mile circular walk from the country park known as the Lepe Loop which takes in a mix of coastal and countryside pathways.
The Lookout café is housed in a rather stylish looking building with – as the name suggests – good views across the Solent.
Exbury Gardens and Steam Railway
This is a good day out for young and old alike – there are lovely gardens to admire and a steam railway for little ones to enjoy.
The gardens – a mix of formal, wild flower meadows and woodlands – are wonderful to explore. The gardens lead down to the River Beaulieu where an interpretative trail can be followed.
Exbury is shut over winter.
St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery
If you’re after rainy day activities in the New Forest for families, this little museum in Lymington is a good bet. St Barbe traces the local history of Lymington and the New Forest Coast. The museum has trails for children and interpretation signs specifically for little minds to help understand the exhibits.
Sea Water Baths at Lymington
I would love to have a swim in this epic 110 metre swimming pool on the banks of the Lymington River estuary. There’s plenty of fun for all the family with a 200 metre inflatable assault course, “aqua jousting” and stand up paddle boarding. There’s also a children’s splash pool.
This sounds like a really fun place – not only do they have a swimathon in aid of the RNLI, there’s also a “dogswimathon” so your four legged friend can join in too!
The swimming pool is open from April until September.
Paultons Park and Peppa Pig World
If Peppa Pig and rollercoasters sound like your cup of tea, this theme park near Southampton is a must-do when you’re on holiday in the New Forest with kids.
Moors Valley Country Park and Forest
Located just to the west of the New Forest, Moors Valley Country Park is 10 minutes drive from Ringwood. Our kids absolutely loved this Forestry Commission country park when we visited it a few years ago.
The park is free to enter – you just pay for parking (plus additional charges for certain attractions). Through the woodland is a series of brilliant wooden play structures which will keep kids occupied for hours. I really wish we had a place like this near us.
Other highlights of Moors Valley include the miniature railway, Go Ape and a Gruffalo sculpture trail. Bike hire is also available at Moors Valley – its a great destination for little cyclists.
Which is the best area of the New Forest for families?
The New Forest has narrow roads which can get very busy during school holidays. We stayed in Lyndhurst in February and it was fairly quiet but I’ve heard the one way system really struggles in the summer months. With this in mind, I’d recommend picking your location carefully so that you don’t have to rely too heavily on your car.
There is a trainline which runs through the New Forest – there are eight stops through the National Park including Brockenhurst and Lymington. Having stayed at Brockenhurst most recently, I can highly recommend this as a central destination. Not only do you have access to rail travel, but there is easy access onto the cycle paths from Brockenhurst whereas Lyndhurst involves some road cycling or a bit of a walk with bikes to get to the child-friendly trails. Alternatively, pick a cottage, campsite or hotel which has easy access to a cycle track. Staying somewhere central in the New Forest will mean you’re within cycling distance of many of the attractions.
Beaches in the New Forest – and close by
The New Forest is not really known for its beaches – the coastline is mostly shingle and mudflats. However, if you’re visiting the New Forest with kids during the summer, chances are you might want a day at the seaside. As well as the actual New Forest beaches, there are some good spots close by which are worth considering.
This beach is on the long shingle spit which leads to the Calshot Activities Centre. The beach is popular with families and it is dog friendly too.
This shingle beach is part of the Lepe Country Park so there’s plenty to do away from the water – including a play area and a circular walk.
Milford on Sea beach
If you’re after a sandy beach in the New Forest, come to Milford on Sea at mid or low tide where the sand is revealed – otherwise its shingle. Milford is also a bit of a foodie kind of place with some well regarded eateries in the village.
Barton on Sea beach
Another shingle beach – Barton has the added attraction of fossil hunting.
Just over the border from Hampshire into Dorset, Highcliffe beach is a mix of shingle and sand, backed by dunes – not cliffs!
Close to Christchurch, Avon beach in Dorset offers a bit more sand so it’s ideal for families looking for somewhere to build a sandcastle.
Best places to stay in the New Forest with kids
If you’re bringing your bikes with you, or you’re planning to hire bikes in the New Forest, it’s worth checking that your accommodation is within walking distance of a cycle path – without having to use a main road to reach one. You should also check to ensure that there’s somewhere safe to secure your bikes at night.
Cottages in the New Forest
There are lots of holiday cottages in the New Forest – some are rural and offer lovely walks or bike rides from their doorsteps, others are town-based – perfect if you like to walk to a pub or restaurant in the evening.
We made a great choice on our last trip to the New Forest -we stayed at Oxmead Cottage which is in the centre of Lyndhurst, just around the corner from the town centre car park. We could cycle from there into the forest (with a bit of careful road cycling initially) and we were within walking distance of all the shops and cafes.
There are lots of holiday companies falling over themselves to rent you a cottage in the New Forest. Here are a few to consider:
New Forest Cottages (which we used to book Oxmead Cottage)
New Forest camping for families
Camping is a great option for a family summer holiday in the New Forest. You can be out in the forest from dawn until dusk and not have to worry about cars or traffic. Wild camping is not permitted in the New Forest but quite a few farmers offer their fields during the summer months for “pop up” camping experiences.
The organisation Camping in the Forest (a partnership between the Camping and Caravanning Club and Forestry England) has a large selection of camping sites in the New Forest so that is definitely worth a browse (note that some of the sites do not have any facilities, i.e. no toilets). The reliable Cool Camping website is also a good resource.
There are lots of campsites in the New Forest ranging from luxury glamping to back to basics camping. Several years ago, we enjoyed a stay at Red Shoot Camping Park in the west of the New Forest. It’s quite big but has great facilities – there’s a playground, a shop, a pub and even a cottage for those who want the facilities of camping without the canvas experience. There are walks and cycle trails directly from the campsite.
If you’re arriving by public transport, the Tile Barn Outdoor Centre is a good bet, it’s walking distance from Brockenhurst train station.
Other campsites within a short walk to one of the towns include Long Meadow (20 minutes’ walk to Brockenhurst), Ashurst Campsite (five minutes’ walk to Ashurst) and the Girlguide-owned Foxlease which is a 15 minute walk to Lyndhurst. Foxlease has a range of accommodation options along with various activities which guests can book.
YHA New Forest is a great option for families – it’s within walking distance of lovely Burley village and has a range of accommodation options. There’s camping, pods, bell tents, private rooms and shared dorms. Perfect if you’re after good value New Forest glamping.
For some first-hand reviews of New Forest campsites, check out the brilliant article by Grand Adventure Story – they’ve stayed at some lovely spots, mostly the New Forest pop-up campsites.
New Forest hotels for families
The New Forest doesn’t offer a particularly wide range of hotels for families – but there are a few places which look promising:
New Park Manor Hotel, near Brockenhurst
If you’re after a luxury family hotel in the New Forest, this is the stand out choice. As well as the obligatory family rooms, there are both indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a creche and a spa.
Forest Park Country Hotel, near Brockenhurst
This independent hotel benefits from being walking distance into Brockenhurst but is still immersed in the forest. There are family rooms which feature two separate sleeping areas and dogs are welcome too.
Woodlands Lodge Hotel, near Ashurst
This small, privately owned hotel is located between Cadnam and Ashurst, with direct access from the grounds into the woods. It has a number of family suites and it is dog friendly.
Passford House Hotel, near Lymington
This traditional country hotel is set in attractive gardens, located midway between Sway and Lymington. If you’re after a hotel in the New Forest with a heated outdoor pool – as well as an indoor pool – the Passford is worth considering. The hotel has interconnecting rooms for families of four and five.
Sandy Balls Holiday Village, near Fordingbridge
Not so much a hotel but a resort, if you’re keen for lots of on-site facilities Sandy Balls is a very popular choice for a holiday in the New Forest with kids. Part of the Away Resorts group, you can expect indoor and outdoor pools, various dining options, cycle hire, indoor soft play and an outdoor adventure play area. This is the place to stay if you’re after cabins in the New Forest with hot tub.
Do you need a car to get around the New Forest?
Good news – in a region where ponies have right of way over vehicles, it’s easy to visit the New Forest without a car.
There are eight train stations in the New Forest including Brockenhurst, Beaulieu Road (this isn’t actually in the village of Beaulieu) and Lymington.
If you want to reach the New Forest by rail and hire a bike, head to Brockenhurst where you’ll find Cyclexperience in the station car park. This New Forest bike hire shop has a great range of cycles available including mountain bikes, electric bikes and various options for families as well as dog trailers!
Have you visited the New Forest with kids? What are your favourite New Forest things to do? Are you tempted to take a family holiday in the New Forest? Let me know in the comments below.
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