5 Must-Visit National Parks in the UK
The UK is blessed with 15 national parks, most of which can be found in England. The U.K.’s national parks offer up some of the area’s best hiking, biking, and horse trails where wildlife that has been depleted elsewhere in and around the major cities still live and roam free.
Human occupation, grazing, and controlled burning over the centuries have helped reshape the natural landscape. Humans of the Stone Age called the national parks home as early as 5,000 years ago and the parks continue to lure more than 100 million visitors annually.
Each of the U.K’s national parks is unique and offers endless outdoor recreation opportunities. In addition to the national parks, you also have dozens of designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty throughout the U.K. as well as more than a dozen National Trails which make their way through beautiful countryside as well as truly rugged and wild wilderness.
Here is a list of our top five favourite national parks in the U.K. that definitely warrant a visit.
Yorkshire Dales National Park
The Yorkshire Dales upland area is home to numerous charming towns scattered across its nearly dozen dales which include Wensleydale, Ribblesdale, and Littondale to name a few. The area is largely covered by the Yorkshire Dales National Park which is renowned for its farming heritage, ancient woodlands, and plenty of roaming sheep.
A number of twisting walking trails cut through the park where hikers can take in waterfalls such as Aysgarth Falls and Ingleton Falls. There’s also the White Scar Caves to explore, as well as numerous landmarks in the area to check out including the 19th century Ribblehead Viaduct and castles such as Bolton and Skipton.
There are also moderate hikes that you can take on foot. One such hike is the Malham Cove and Tarn Circular Walk which is a 12-kilometer trek that sprawls through woodland ravines and over picturesque footbridges and limestone pavements which the park is known for.
There is also the challenging 12-hour, 40km Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge walk, as well as a section of the Coast to Coast Walk that crosses the park. The national park is regarded as an International Dark Sky Reserve which makes stargazing another popular activity.
North-east of Manchester, the national park is easily accessible by both car and public transport. Also in the Yorkshire Dales is the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Pembrokeshire Coast National Park
Although it’s one of the smaller national parks in the country, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in Wales definitely doesn’t lack idyllic scenery with its diverse landscapes. According to Gala Bingo, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is the only true coastal National Park in Britain, its Pembrokeshire Coast Path which is a designated National Trail covering 186 miles of coast and challenging hikers with an astonishing 35,000 feet of ascent and descent.
Walking along the coast leads you to sheltered coves and exposed cliff tops, giving you breathtaking views of estuaries full of marine life. The coastal waters are home to Atlantic grey seals, Risso’s dolphins, orcas, basking sharks, and more. The park is also rich in birdlife as well as springtime wildflowers
Pembrokeshire also includes a number of intriguing offshore islands. There are boat trips available out of Milford Haven that can take you to islands such as Skomer, popular for its puffin colonies, and Caldey Island where you can take a closer look at a working Cistercian abbey. A Telegraph feature highlights how there are even campsites where you can spend the night and enjoy plenty of sea breeze and stunning views.
The park also contains many beaches including a nice collection of blue flag awarded beaches such as Poppit Sands, Whitesands, and Amroth. Collectively, the three national parks in Wales cover nearly 20% of the land.
Cairngorms National Park
While Scotland may only be home to two national parks, it does contain Cairngorms National Park which just so happens to be the largest national park in the U.K. Situated in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, the region contains five out of six of Scotland’s highest peaks.
Unlike most national parks in the U.K., the Cairngorms have retained vast areas of pure wilderness. Its peaks are often blanketed in snow for much of the year, and as mentioned by Time Out, it’s an ideal ski destination during the winter season.
The national park is home to wildlife rarely found elsewhere in the U.K. thanks to its unique alpine semi-tundra moorland habitat. Visitors may encounter ptarmigan, golden eagles, capercaillies, badgers, and pine martens. The Cairngorms National Park boasts a well-preserved ancient Caledonian pine forest, which is also a rare sight today.
Cairngorms is home to Britain’s only free-roaming reindeer herd which were reintroduced to this part of Scotland in the early 1950s. Around 150 animals now roam the area. And like Yorkshire Dales National Park, Cairngorms National Park offers incredible stargazing thanks to its Glenlivet and Tomintoul area of the Cairngorms Dark Sky Park.
The Broads National Park
Located in East England’s Norfolk and Suffolk counties, Broads National Park is all about the wetlands. Designated as a Ramsar Wetland, the park’s network of navigable rivers and lakes makes boating and kayaking popular activities. There are roughly 200km of navigable waterways to explore as well as a network of walking and cycling trails.
Many visitors take in Winterton-on-Sea which is arguably one of the most striking villages of the region. Its traditional thatched cottages painted in pastel hues straddle the rugged coastline, with a quaint 14th-century church standing at the village’s center.
While The Broads may be the U.K.’s smallest national park, it contains one of its highest concentrations of rare and endangered wildlife. Within the park live otters, swallowtail butterflies, cuckoos, European eels, bitterns, marsh harriers, and even U.K.’s only venomous snake which is the European adder.
South Downs National Park
Southern England’s South Downs National Park is the U.K.’s youngest national park, having only been recently designated a national park in 2010. Less than 2 hours south of London, the park offers a mix of wildlife-rich heathland and seaside cliffs which include the iconic Seven Sisters chalk cliffs which are reminiscent of the White Cliffs of Dover.
Spare an entire week or more for the South Downs National Park, especially if you wish to tackle the 100-mile-long South Downs Way which takes trekkers roughly 8-9 days to complete. There are of course smaller hikes within the park if you’re not up to a multi-day trek and these include Devil’s Dyke, The Devil’s Humps, and Butser Hill.
Head to the Cuckmere Valley where you can get a pint at a traditional English pub alongside some fresh fish and chips, or check out historic Arundel where you can explore the medieval Arundel Castle and get your very own room in a castle at Amberley.
Other popular activities within the park include kayaking, paragliding, and even alpaca walking. South Downs National Park is yet another national park in the U.K. that is also home to an International Dark Sky Reserve.