Best National Parks in Britain

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Best National Parks in Britain

Contrary to the image painted to the rest of the world, Britain isn’t all sprawling cities, crowds of people and beach-side fish and chips in the rain.

For anyone that likes the great outdoors, they will love Britain’s National Parks.

With the range of activities and hikes available, there is something for people of all ages and athletic abilities.

In total, there are 15 incredible national parks in Britain – 10 in England, three in Wales and two in Scotland.

For such a small corner of the world, Britain is home to some surprisingly wild and dramatic landscapes.

These range from towering peaks with arctic conditions, to glacial valleys, glittering lakes and stunning sea views.

Every single national park in Britain offers something unique along with great opportunities for hiking and exploration, making it tough to whittle down the list.

However, we have picked our eight favourites below to help you get an idea of what’s on offer.

Peak District National Park

  • Location: England
  • Size: 1,438km2
  • What to do here: Cave exploration, hiking, cycling

The Peak District was the UK’s first national park and the landscape here is diverse and appealing.

The area is a land of contrasts, in which you can visit historic houses, explore caverns, wander through heather moorland in the north and then limestone dales in the south.

The Peak District offers 350 square kilometres of open-access land for walkers, meaning there is no end to hiking opportunities.

People often wonder whether to opt for the Peak District or its better-known brother, the Lake District. Both have an arsenal of breath-taking natural beauty at their disposal in the fight for top landscape.

This National Park is a different, yet no less stunning, location to rival the Lake District and it should not be discounted.

The Peak District is an expanse of rolling hills and cave networks whereas the Lake District is more about stretches of water and mountains.

Gritstone tors and evocative moorlands make up the rugged north of the park, whilst the south is defined by its deep-wooded dales, jagged hills and limestone gorges.

One of the area’s standout natural features is the labyrinth of caves and chasms hidden just out of sight, creating a subterranean landscape that begs to be explored. These spectacular caverns make the park popular with potholers.

The Peak District is also renowned for its array of historic houses, with numerous films and period dramas featuring its iconic stately homes as set locations.

Hiking in the Peaks is one of the most popular activities, with trails as diverse as the landscape itself.

From the wooded country lanes along the Limestone Way or exploration of Thor’s Cave, to the infamous Pennine Way and rocky ridges of Stanage Edge with sweeping panoramic views – this park does not disappoint.

Cycling is equally popular, with plenty of traffic-free trails with gentle gradients surrounded by beautiful countryside.

Snowdownia National Park

  • Location: Wales
  • Size: 2,142km2
  • What to do here: Ziplining, hiking, scrambling, surfing (yes really!)

Snowdonia is the largest national park in Wales and boasts the highest mountain in England and Wales, as well as the largest natural lake in Wales.

Dominated by rugged peaks, including Mount Snowdon at 1,085 metres, the park is home to an extensive network of trails.

The knife-edged Crib Goch route to the summit of Snowdon is one of the most thrilling routes on offer, providing some the Britain’s best alpine-style routes during winter or an equally fraught scramble during summer.

Whichever route you opt for, on the way up you’ll get views of glacial lakes, vast valleys, and remote peaks.

If you don’t fancy hiking up, the park’s historic Snowdon Mountain Railway climbs to the summit, offering views across the sea to Ireland.

Alternatively, camp out in the village of Betws-y-Coed and then take on another of the most famous peaks in Britain, Tryfan (918 metres), along with the other Glyder mountains that surround it.

It’s not all about the mountains here though, with quaint villages, steep river gorges and wild waterfalls to explore.

There is over 37 kilometres of dramatic coastline with sand dune backed beaches and rocky coves, as well as a plethora of adventure activities to take on.

Families can now turn their trip to Snowdonia into a mini adventure getaway, with Zip World having opened up an activity park at Llechwedd Slate Caverns.

They offer the first four-person zip line in Europe as well as a network of enormous caverns hidden underground, with industrial slides and indoor trampolines/nets.

On top of this, nearby Surf Snowdonia offers you a chance to surf in their awesome 300-metre surf lagoon.

Cairngorms National Park

  • Location: Scotland
  • Size: 4,528km2
  • What to do here: Walking, mountain biking, climbing, canoeing, skiing

Cairngorms National Park was set up in 2002 and is the largest national park in the British Isles.

It is one of the lesser-known parks, with the majority of its 1.8 million visitors each year being domestic.

The area offers a wide variety of activities year-round, from hiking and canoeing in summer, to mountain biking and skiing in winter.

For hillwalkers there are 55 munros (mountains over 910 metres) in the park and enough treks to keep the most experienced of hikers happy.

The villages of Ballater and Tomintoul are good bases for walks through pine forests and mist-covered valleys, and some of the summit routes take you past shimmering lochs and over peaks that seemingly go on forever.

The Lairig Ghru is the most famous mountain pass in Scotland with a 500-metre deep trench that cuts between the second and third highest mountains in the UK.

The pass can be completed as a long day walk or one of the best two-day backpacking trips to be had in Scotland.

Challenging from start to finish, this hike provides the perfect opportunity to soak up the sheer rugged magnificence of Scotland’s Cairngorms.

If you’re heading to the area in winter, you’re in for a treat.

Scotland’s skiing and winter sports industry is concentrated in the Cairngoms, with three of its five resorts situated here – the Cairn Gorm Ski Centre, Glenshee Ski Centre and The Lecht Ski Centre.

For something a little more laid back, take to Cairngorms’ Snow Roads. These form a route through the park from Blairgowrie to the highland town of Grantown-on-Spey, and are the highest public roads in Britain.

Looking out over world-class views of the area’s snow-capped peaks, they pass by picturesque villages, castles and even a distillery.

Lake District National Park

  • Location: England
  • Size: 2,362km2
  • What to do here: Pretty much any outdoors activity you can think of

Recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status, the Lake District derives its name from the 16 glacial lakes that are nestled among its fells, moors and green valleys.

Boasting some of Britain’s best and most dramatic scenery, the Lakes draws visitors in with a variety of attractions and activities year round.

In the North, the rolling landscape and designated trails offer opportunities for walking and climbing, whereas the area’s bustling south is where you can find various historic and literary attractions.

Visitors are truly spoiled for choice and can take a historic boat ride, tackle the network of walking and hiking trails or get their cultural fix at galleries and museums.

Within the National Park there are over 2,000 kilometres of public footpaths, 875 kilometres of public bridleways and a general right to roam in open country.

There are enough climbs, hikes and rambles to suit every fitness and technical ability and the opportunities for trekking are boundless.

As England’s largest National Park its wild landscapes are amongst the finest and most dramatic on the planet.

Vast meres, glacial lakes, and pikes and fells that scrape the clouds – one of which is England’s highest mountain – Scafell Pike.

Hiking up to the top of this mountain is no mean feat, but the views over the park are well worth the effort.

With 16 main lakes and numerous smaller tarns, there are plenty of options that make it ideal for watersports including sailing, canoeing, fishing and swimming.

Take to the water on one of the scenic boat rides on Lake Windermere, Coniston Water or  Ullswater – some of which are on historic steam-powered launches.

The Lake District also has some of the best cycling in the country with a range of country lanes, permitted cycleways and bridleways that suit differing experience levels.

For mountain bikers, Whinlatter and Grizedale Forests are criss-crossed with excellent off-road routes.

If you’re more of a culture vulture, the Lakes have been a source of inspiration for writers and artists for centuries, including William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, and Beatrix Potter, whose homes you can visit to get a glimpse into their lives and work.

Alternatively, the area contains more castles than you would care to count. From the fairy-tale ruins of Lowther Castle to the opulent halls of Sizergh castle.

Checkout our guide to the 10 best walks in the Lake District

Pembrokeshire National Park

  • Location: Wales
  • Size: 620km2
  • What to do here: Trekking, swimming, wild-life watching

This is one of a kind in that it is Britain’s only fully coastal national park.

The area was recently voted the second-best coastal destination in the world by National Geographic and the views are nothing short of stunning.

It is filled with green cliffs, golden beaches, traditional fishing villages and hidden coves to explore.

Over the years Pembrokeshire’s beaches, all of which lie in the National Park, have been awarded various International Blue Flag Awards, 47 Green Coast Awards and 106 Seaside Awards. If you visit in summer you’ll wonder why you ever went abroad.

If geology interests you then the area will be of particular interest with many good exposures and structural features both inland and along the coast, including impressive natural arches, stacks, rock folding and sea caves.

One of the key attractions of the area is the the Pembrokeshire Way Coastal Path, which stretches 1,400 kilometres along the windy cliff-tops, providing a bird’s-eye view of the rocky coastline and seals in the water below.

Following the undulating Welsh countryside, the path has over 100 footbridges, 479 stiles, and thousands of steps to aid the climbing of steep and slippery sections.

The trail is mostly at cliff-top level, with a total 11,000 metres of ascent and descent but this is staggered throughout the hike, with plenty of plateau walking.

Scattered along the trail within the national park are seaside towns and coastal villages, such as Tenby, St Davids, Solva and Newport, where you can stop off to enjoy the local fare.

As well as beaches, trekkers will get the opportunity to see volcanic headlands and estuaries, plentiful bird life and an array of coastal flowers through spring and summer.

In fact, the area is one of the best in the country for spotting sea life from dolphins and seals to basking sharks and seabirds soaring overhead.

Brecon Beacons National Park

  • Location: Wales
  • Size: 1,351km2
  • What to do here: Hiking, conquering the Welsh Three Peaks

Just an hour away from Cardiff lie the beautiful Brecon Beacons, a vast expanse of land that can be bleak and breathtaking in equal measure, depending on when you go.

The Brecon Beacons National Park was established in 1957 with the intention of safeguarding a beautiful, rough and dramatic landscape, now considered a priceless national asset.

Filled with lofty mountains and wild moorland, its geology is globally significant, enticing enthusiastic climbers with its numerous peaks.

In the Central Beacons, you can undertake the challenge of conquering three of them in one go.

The first is Corn Du (873 metres), where you’ll find a Bronze Age burial chamber at the summit, followed by Pen y Fan (886 metres), the highest mountain in Southern Britain, and finally along the ridge to Cribyn (795 metres).

With such challenging terrain on offer, although easily avoidable, you can see why the SAS run training exercises here in the Welsh wilderness.

For something a little less demanding there are plenty of other trails that will take you ambling across the stunning moors. With rounded contours and wild, open scenery, these are inspiring landscapes to explore.

The towpath from Brecon travels through farmland, woodland and mountains to the canal at Pontymoile Basin.

The first stretch of this 50-kilometre route is a pleasant, pushchair friendly stroll with picnic areas.

Points of interest in the park include old castles that have fallen into disrepair, the visitor centre or the International Dark Sky Reserve, where you can gaze at the stars after nightfall.

If you want to look out over the finest lakes and peaks of wales, hike up Pen y Fan for panoramic views.

Northumberland National Park

  • Where: England
  • Size: 1,049km2
  • What to do here: Stargazing, hiking, cycling, visiting Hadrian’s Wall

Northumberland National Park is the least visited and least populated of the national parks in Britain but once you visit, you’ll wonder why.

It even won ‘National Park of the Year’ in the BBC Countryfile magazine 2015/16 awards and yet still flies under the radar, making it an unspoiled treasure.

The park is home to England’s cleanest rivers, clearest air and The Sill: National Landscape Discovery Centre.

The National Park is also a designated Dark Sky Park, which means it is kept free of artificial light pollution to promote astronomy in the region.

In fact, it is the largest area of protected night sky in Europe, making it the best national park in Britain for stargazing and the best place in England to spot the Northern lights.

This rough and remote land offers visitors a chance to return to nature, where they will have wild mountain goats for company rather than bus-loads of tourists.

There are plenty of short trails on offer and Northumberland National Park volunteers run a series of fantastic guided walks with something for all abilities.

Geocaching is also popular and something that you can do almost anywhere, regardless of which point you choose to explore from.

As you walk you will see the remains of Hadrian’s Wall that pepper the landscape.

The Wall is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site and can now be explored in its entirety by following the Hadrian’s Wall Trail, which largely follows the original route of the wall and its accompanying defences from one coast to the other.

Hiking this trail will not only take you through some of the most beautiful and wild scenery in the country, but it also incorporates some of its fascinating ancient history.

If you want to learn the history without taking 10 days to trek coast to coast, head to the Roman Army museum in Walltown.

The museum offers Roman lessons, life-size replicas of soldiers and a 3D movie that brings to life the Wall during Hadrian’s rule.

Yorkshire Dales National Park

  • Size: 2,178km2
  • Location: England
  • What to do here: Hiking the Yorkshire Three Peaks, kayaking, visiting castles and Abbeys, soaking up movie magic

The Yorkshire Dales National Park lies in northern England and encompasses thousands of square kilometres of heather moors, valleys, hills and villages.

In 2016 the Dales were extended by 24% to protect even more of the finest limestone landscapes in Britain. The park attracts over 3.5 million visitors each year, arriving to make the most of the beautiful scenery by foot, bicycle, horseback or kayak – to name but a few.

The expansive moorland of rolling hills and dramatic waterfalls are criss-crossed with dry stone walls and picturesque villages.

The area is as rich in history as it is in scenery. Southeast, on the River Wharfe, lie the ruins of a 12th-century monastery at Bolton Abbey Estate.

Take a look at the limestone ravine with waterfalls near Malham Village or head to the five-arched bridge crosses the river at Burnsall Village.

As you explore you may recognise a few locations, such as Ribblehead Viaduct, which was used during the filming of Harry Potter series.

The National Park is the perfect destination for anyone who is looking for a walking holiday.

The Dales are also home to 41 mountains over 610 metres – the height generally accepted as the benchmark for a mountain, rather than a hill, in in the UK – meaning there are plenty of stops to add to your itinerary.

For a real challenge, the Yorkshire Three Peaks is a circular route popular amongst not just hikers but charity fundraisers.

People speed from one location to the next as the clock counts down, taking on Pen-y-ghent (694 metres), Whernside (736 metres) and Ingleborough (723 metres).

Although it is possible to tackle just one peak at time, most choose to attempt a 12-hour completion of the circuit involving all three.

The trails combined include over 1600 metres of ascent but from the plateau of Ingleborough visitors are rewarded with 360-degree views of the Yorkshire Dales.

Regardless of whether you take on this challenge or something a little more laid-back, the Dales is a park not to be missed.

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