6 UK national parks to visit and what makes them special

Aug 14, 2021

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Summer is a great time to explore the U.K.’s amazing national parks. There are 15 national parks in the U.K. — 10 in England, three in Wales and two in Scotland.

Stanage Edge, Peak District National Park, Derbyshire. (Photo by Alan Copson/robertharding/Getty Images)
Stanage Edge, Peak District National Park, Derbyshire. (Photo by Alan Copson/robertharding/Getty Images)

What makes them special is that they offer so much to explore no matter what kind of vacation you usually go on — from ultimate relaxation to adventure. Below is a selection of our favorite national parks along with ideas on where to stay and local things to do.

Channel some of your wanderlust by planning a lovely vacation at one of these six beautiful spots.

1. Cairngorms — the largest National Park

The Cairngorms in Scotland is the U.K.’s largest national park and home to Aviemore, an awesome ski resort. It is also home to four of the five highest mountains in Britain (including the second-highest mountain in Great Britain, Ben Macdui), 60 lochs and many more lochans (small lochs) along with more than half the surviving Caledonian forest. Pine trees in the Cairngorms’ original Caledonian forests include a rare variety found only in Scotland and Norway.

Covering 1,748 square miles of central Scotland, it is also the northernmost national park in the U.K. with thousands of people living and working in the park.

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Views across the Cairngorms National Park. (Photo by VWB photos/Getty Images)
Views across the Cairngorms National Park. (Photo by VWB photos/Getty Images)

Things to do at Cairngorms

Outdoor activities
Cairngorm Mountain is great for skiing and snowboarding during winter or for something more genteel, there is a mountain railway to enjoy amazing views from the top. Other activities include sailing, canoeing, fishing, riding, cycling, hiking and even the U.K.’s first permanent bridge-based bungee jump which hurtles down towards the waters of the River Garry.

Other attractions
Being the U.K.’s largest national park, there is a multitude of other attractions including Balmoral Castle, museums, galleries and whisky distilleries in Speyside.

Where to stay
There’s a huge selection of accommodation in Aviemore and the Cairngorms National Park to choose from, from fine hotels to log cabins.

Macdonald Aviemore Resort is situated at the very heart of the Cairngorms National Park with a choice of three four-star hotels and 18 woodland lodges. Its loyalty scheme called Fans of Macdonald Hotels, offering discounts when booking for short breaks, dining experiences and spa treatments and competitions. Rooms start at about $170 a night.

For a break that includes nature, Cairngorm Lodges are set in the heart of a Scots pine forest overlooking a tranquil lochan where red squirrels and roe deer are your neighbors. A three-night minimum stay starts at $186 per night.

2. New Forest — the smallest National Park

The smallest of the U.K.’s national parks is the New Forest, which was designated as a national park in 2005 and covers 220 square miles across Hampshire and Wiltshire. Once a royal hunting ground for William the Conqueror, the New Forest covers ancient woodlands, wild open heathlands and stretches of beautiful coastline. Although this is the smallest national park, New Forest actually has the largest area of natural, deciduous woodland in Britain.

The New Forest is teeming with a huge range of birds, deer, dragonflies, reptiles, bats and much more. An amazing aspect of the New Forest is the ancient system of commoning which gives “commoners” (people who have land or property there) the right to allow their ponies, cattle, sheep and pigs to graze and forage freely in the forest.

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New Forest Horses roam free in the New Forest, Hampshire. (Photo by ProjectB/Getty Images)
New Forest Horses roam free in the New Forest, Hampshire. (Photo by ProjectB/Getty Images)

Things to do at the New Forest

Outdoor activities
As well as riding, walking and cycling, the New Forest is a nationally-important area for fungi with many rare and endangered species, some of which are even new to science. If you don’t fancy mushroom hunting, you must explore the quaint shipbuilding village of Buckler’s Hard. Every July to September, the New Forest open-top bus tour is a hop-on, hop-off experience with three different routes. You can even bring your bikes and (well-behaved) dogs along.

Other attractions
New Forest pubs are an important part of the area’s heritage, with a wealth of history, ales and stunning locations. Whilst you’re in the mood, you can also take a tour around Ringwood Brewery $17 per adult) where you can taste the malted barleys, sniff the hops, see the fermentation process and of course, taste.

Where to stay
For a luxury option, Chewton Glenn is home to a nine-hole golf course and a comprehensive spa hydrotherapy pool, outdoor whirlpool, cold drench showers, sauna, steam room and more. Hotels.com has a reward program that, when combined with British Airways Avios, offers potentially big savings on your hotels. Hotels.com/Rewards offers a free hotel night for every 10 nights booked, regardless of the property or hotel brand. The value of your free reward night is the average price of the 10 nights you collect. Rooms start at $513 a night for the end of 2020. 

For a more relaxed vibe, take a look at one of the many pubs with rooms like The Trusty Servant, which has just five bedrooms and a delicious wild New Forest mushroom risotto. Rooms start at $139 a night for the same time of year. 

3. South Downs — the youngest National Park

The South Downs is the newest national park, having achieved this prestigious status in 2010. It’s also the closest to London if you want to escape from the city. Stretching from Winchester in the west to Eastbourne in the east, the South Downs spans the counties of Hampshire, West Sussex and East Sussex.

The park follows the 99-mile route of the South Downs Way, a pre-historic footpath across the tops of the Downs, taking in dozens of historic towns and villages. With Neolithic flint mines and Bronze Age burial mounds, green pastures and ancient woodlands, calm meandering rivers and picturesque villages, soaring vistas over wide river valleys and unique chalk grasslands, the South Downs has something for everyone.

Seven Sisters, East Sussex. (Photo by Timothy Mbugua/EyeEm/Getty Images)
Seven Sisters, East Sussex. (Photo by Timothy Mbugua/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Outdoor activities 
Walking is one of the main attractions of the South Downs with breathtaking countryside and sea views. Take a stroll along iconic Beachy Head and up towards the Belle Tout lighthouse (you can also stay there) where the 500-foot high cliffs offer unrivaled views of the Downs and the Channel.

Take to the skies over the South Downs and try paragliding. Devil’s Dyke has a road to the top and you can take a tandem flight with a licensed instructor. As night falls, the dark skies over the South Downs have been designated as an International Dark Sky Reserve. This status celebrates and protects the area’s skies, which means that you’ll always be able to see the stars here.

Other attractions
You’ll find many traditional wooden windmills dotted around the South Downs that still make flour. Jill Mill in Clayton holds open days so you watch how flour is made. A trip to the world-famous Glyndebourne opera house should not be missed especially the Glyndebourne Festival which showcases world-class opera indoors.

Where to stay 
The Belle Tout lighthouse at Beachy Head has been beautifully restored. Built in 1832, themed rooms have 360-degree views of the English Channel, beautiful landscape, countryside and the Seven Sisters. Rooms start at $220 a night.

For a camping experience near Brighton, Housedean Farm Campsite is set on a working farm. It is also conveniently located directly on the South Downs Way for walking and cycling, making it a relaxed spot to spend evenings stargazing around the campfire, and is very affordable at $69 a night.

4. The Peak District — the oldest National Park

The Peak District is the original national park, established in 1951. Its landscapes of hills and dales cover 555 square miles of the heart of England across Derbyshire, Staffordshire and South Yorkshire. The area is historically rich, with hundreds of listed national monuments, stately homes, magnificent abbeys and storybook villages.

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A colourful landscape in early September 2015, with a stone wall and a hawthorn tree lit up with the first sunlight of the day, overlooking Hope valley covered in a layer of morning mist and the heather in full purple bloom. Peak District National park, Derbyshire, NorthWest England, UK, Europe.
Peak District National Park, Derbyshire. (Photo by john finney photography/Getty Images)

Outdoor activities 
Once you’re full of Bakewell tarts, you can walk it off on the Monsal Trail which follows the route of an old railway line through some of the Peak District’s most spectacular limestone dales. How about exploring Creswell Crags, a collection of nine caves where you can uncover the secrets of early man, discover incredible Ice Age cave art and marvel at the U.K.’s largest discovery of ritual protection marks?

Other attractions 
Known as the jewel in the Peak District’s crown, Chatsworth House is one of the U.K.’s favorite stately homes with 30 magnificent rooms, a 105-acre garden, parkland, a farmyard and one of Britain’s best farm shops. A visit to the Peak District isn’t complete without a visit to the birthplace of the Bakewell Pudding. The market town of Bakewell has plenty to do including a Bakewell Pudding making experience at the Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop.

Where to stay 
The DoubleTree by Hilton Sheffield Park Hotel is located on the doorstep of the beautiful National Peak District, has a large spa and is a good base for South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire. You can use Hilton Honors points for free nights. Rooms start at about $80 per night, so you might not get the best value out of using your Honors points when cash rates are this low.

If glamping is more your thing, Scaldersitch Farm offers a range of tipis, one with a private wood-fired hot tub. There’s a minimum two-night stay for about $180 a night.

5. The Lake District — the most-visited National Park

Known as Wordsworth Country, the Lake District is the U.K.’s most popular national park, welcoming over 16 million visitors per year, according to its tourism site. Comprising of 912 square miles of high mountains, lakes, rivers and coastline, the rugged wild terrain is a hiker’s paradise with flat lakeside trails or rough scrambles up craggy peaks, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There are around 50 lakes and tarns, including England’s biggest and deepest. Windermere, England’s biggest natural lake, is over 10 miles long and a mile wide.

Lake Windermere from Loughrigg Fell, Lake District. (Photo by joe daniel price/Getty Images)
Lake Windermere from Loughrigg Fell, Lake District. (Photo by joe daniel price/Getty Images)

Outdoor activities 
With rain running down from remote fells, the Lake District offers some of the purest wild water swimming in the U.K. From hiking up Aira Force waterfall, reaching the summit of Scafell Pike (England’s highest mountain), finding Ullswater’s famous daffodils or boating on Lake Windermere, there are many options for outdoor activities. Buttermere comes highly recommended for those wanting a slightly more secluded, less touristy waterside experience.

Other attractions
If water isn’t your thing, visit the Lakes Distillery, which produces gin, whisky and vodka using loads of local produce. Who could resist a brew with a view at the Drunken Duck especially when the vista is full of mountains and your pint has only travelled a few feet from the brewery next door?

Where to stay 
In Windermere, Briery Wood Country House Hotel is set in its own secluded twenty-acre estate of landscaped gardens, woodland and meadow with views overlooking Lake Windermere. Rooms start at $180 a night.

Wild camping is camping away from an organized campsite and there is a tradition of wild camping in the Lake District. Don’t forget, you must have the permission of a landowner to camp on their land.

6. Snowdonia — the largest Welsh National Park

The national parks cover an amazing 19.9% of the land. Snowdonia National Park at 827 square miles is Wales‘ largest national park and the third-largest in the U.K. Home to Wales’ tallest peak and the mountain that gives its name to the whole park, Snowdonia National Park is steeped in myth and legend. The local culture has music and poetry dating back to the Bronze Age and about 65% of the local population speak Welsh, one of the oldest spoken languages in Europe, as their mother tongue.

The really special thing about Snowdonia is that you can go from sea level at the coast at Harlech right up to the top of Snowdon in a relatively short distance, so you can see a whole range of habitats from the sea, through sand dunes and oak woodlands out to the top of the mountains.

A hiker wearing a backpack, making his way down from the summit of Mount Snowdon/ (Photo by Peter Lourenco/Getty Images)
A hiker wearing a backpack, making his way down from the summit of Mount Snowdon. (Photo by Peter Lourenco/Getty Images)

Outdoor activities 
Climbing Snowdonia itself is a must if you are feeling fit, or you can visit the coastal village of Portmeirion for tea and cakes. There are seven heritage railways within the park — a legacy of the booming slate mining industry of the 19th century with arguably the best being the scenic Snowdon Mountain Railway, and the extremely cute Talyllyn Railway.

Other attractions 
Snowdonia is dotted with castles including Harlech Castle, a Grade I-listed medieval fortification constructed atop a spur of rock close to the Irish Sea. Experience the incredible “floating” footbridge which allows you to enter this great castle as Master James intended.

If it is a rainy day, check out Sygun Copper Mine in the heart of Snowdonia, one of the wonders of Wales.

Where to stay 
Aberconwy Resort & Spa is a luxury vacation home park in the Conwy valley, with the majestic mountains of Snowdonia as the backdrop and the Conwy Morfa Beach just on the doorstep, too.

The Quay Hotel & Spa in Deganwy epitomizes cool sophistication on the North Wales coast. Set on the idyllic Conwy Estuary, expect awe-inspiring views of the most magical scenery in North Wales. The hotel is located within easy reach of Snowdonia National Park, the neighboring medieval town of Conwy and Victorian Llandudno. Rooms start at $243 for that time of year.
Snowdonia National Park. (Photo by Alan Novelli/Getty Images)
Snowdonia National Park. (Photo by Alan Novelli/Getty Images)

Bottom line

National parks in the U.K. are an institution that are just as beautiful as sandy beaches abroad. If you want to plan a summer road trip, these stunning parks in England, Wales and Scotland make a great vacation or day trip option.

Featured photo by clayborough photography/Getty Images

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