Haldon Forest Park – cycling, woodland walks and the great outdoors (plus cafe & adventure play!)
I’ve just returned from a nice, relaxing autumn walk through the forest with my two kids and Grandad & Nanny D. Only kidding, of course it wasn’t relaxing, I heard the words MUMMYYY and 'I WANT A BOILED EGG/MILKSHAKE/HAM SANDWICH’ more times than I could physically count around the mile and a half circular loop and there was pretty much no chance of sustaining a conversation with my adult company; the girls were a handful and I almost had a little wits-end cry in the café.
But, finer details of my latest visit aside, Haldon Forest Park really is just the BEST place in the area for all-round, all-weather great outdoor fun, and even though today’s visit didn’t go as planned to start with, we still came away with rosy cheeks from the fresh autumn air and the girls had the best time in the new sandpit playground at the end of our route, so the day came good in the end.
If you’ve not yet visited Haldon, it’s a huge area of forest estate not far from Exeter and Topsham, laced with a whole host of walking and cycle route circulars of differing lengths and terrain – there are cycle routes designed for complete beginners through to advanced mountain bikers, buggy-friendly loops suitable for little legs, and opportunities to walk for miles around the beautiful woodland on trails managed by Forestry England.
Even on a very busy day like today – a fine day during the October half term school holiday – there’s ample room for everyone to spread out and enjoy the open space. Pricing-wise it’s free to enter, bar the parking charge – but if you’re likely to be a return visitor it might be worth looking into the annual membership pass for £38, covering your parking charges for a year and giving you some useful other discounts.
Forestry England have teamed up with a number of productions over the years to bring some superb interactive trails for children to the forest, giving younger visitors the added excitement of clues to hunt down from some of their favourite films and stories (think The Gruffalo, Stick Man and most recently Shaun the Sheep), helping to keep little legs moving from sign to sign on the way around.
Today we completed the Shaun the Sheep Glow Trail, which involves using a UV torch bought as part of the trail pack for £3.50 from the Ranger’s Office on arrival to light up UV clues dotted around the route, that work in conjunction with a special free app that you download in advance to your phone.
Darcy (age 6) enjoyed using the glow pen and using the clues to solve the puzzles on the app, it added an extra dimension to our visit and it was worth the small extra cost. The trail is aimed at children aged 5-13, though I think kids from age 2.5yrs ish would enjoy the glow pen element alone.
We usually opt for the green-arrowed Discovery Route, which is about a mile and a half in length – it’s buggy and bike friendly (bar some steep drops and occasional intersection with a country lane), taking in views of Rapunzel’s Castle (just joking, it’s a tower called Haldon Belvedere) and full of exciting things to find en-route like the wooden glockenspiels, stick-built dens and various wooden hideaways to explore.
Along the walking routes you’ll find plenty of benches and picnic areas for well-earned snacks/bribes, and the large picnic area at the end of the Discovery Trail is particularly nice alongside the ‘Go Ape’ high ropes course (a separate attraction based at the site that you need to book in advance) and a small adventure playground.
But our plan today was to finish off at the Ridge Café, which conveniently sits centrally at the start and finish point of all of the forest’s routes, next to the newly extended giant sandpit playground. It was exceptionally busy today so we ate outside – hats off to the café team as our food was served really quickly AND it was very nice. But at a less ‘peak’ time, the Ridge café is such a nice place to start or finish a walk or cycle (no need to worry about muddy boots here), with a full lunch menu, kids’ menu, coffee & cakes and a blazing woodburner in the cooler months. I think they do brunch too.
Today’s visit ended on a real high in the sandy play pit, which now boasts two rather cool wooden play towers with lots of ropes to climb and sand buckets on pulleys to encourage teamwork.
Our youngest daughter’s balance bike isn’t quite up to the job of the Discovery Trail just yet (it’s a bit flimsy and doesn’t have brakes, a posher one would probably be ok), but as soon as she’s old enough for a proper bike I can’t wait to bring both girls here to cycle their way around. Scooters would be great too but not the mini ones with little wheels, the tracks are a bit rough in places so you need something a bit more robust.
Haldon has two great little Skills Areas for cyclists with ramps, dips and humps for kids and adults to practice their off-road skills – these areas are free to use. For more experienced cyclists you can choose a more challenging route around the forest and the good news is that the more advanced routes are for cyclists only, so bikers don’t have to worry about taking out the wayward pedestrian!
If you don’t have a bike rack (or bikes, for that matter), a full range of bicycles, helmets and child seats are available to hire on site.
I’ve already briefly mentioned Go Ape, the high-ropes attraction that looks amazing for kids aged 10+ (though part of the treetop course can be used by younger kids at least 1m in height). You can also book to ride around the forest on a segway, which (if you haven’t heard of them) are hilarious-looking motorised crafts which you ride standing up. The minimum age for Go Segway is 10 years, training is provided on-site and your tour around the forest is lead by a fully-trained Segway leader - it looks great fun.
On to facilities - there’s a toilet block at the start point with an accessible/buggy friendly loo complete with baby change facilities, and for any visitors with additional mobility needs, all-terrain Tramper mobility scooters are available to borrow from the Ranger’s Office. The café caters for young customers with high chairs available.
Parking wise there’s ample parking on-site, and if you’re caught short of change you can pay by card in the office – I’ve linked to the parking prices here.
Haldon Forest Park is open seven days a week from 8.30am – 10.00pm – follow them on Facebook to keep in touch with the great range of special events on throughout the year.
You can find it by following signs from the A38 to Exeter Racecourse - mind the very short exit slipway off the dual carriageway as you don’t get much warning to turn off - and then from there pick up the signs to Haldon Forest.