UK National Park guide: history, wildlife and best walking routes

Our guide to the UK's spectacular 15 National Parks looks at the history of each, with information on how to visit and the best walking routes, plus local wildlife to spot. 

Mountain range in winter with frozen lake

Our guide to the UK’s 15 National Parks looks at the history of each park, with information on how to visit and the best walking routes, plus local wildlife to spot.

How many National Parks are there in the UK?

In the UK, there are currently 15 national parks across the country. These protected areas are set aside for their beautiful countryside, wildlife and cultural heritage.

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Why are national parks important?

In England and Wales, national parks have two statutory purposes: to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage; and to provide the public with enjoyment and an understanding of the special qualities of national parks. If both the statutory purposes are achieved, national parks also have the duty to: seek to foster the socio-economic development of local communities.

Dartmoor ponies in Widecombe, Devon
Dartmoor ponies in Widecombe, Devon ©Getty

The Broads was given equivalent status to that of a national park, with one additional purpose: “protecting the interests of navigation over and above the two given to the English National Park Authorities”.

Meanwhile in Scotland, the parks have four aims: to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area; to promote sustainable use of the natural resources of the area; to promote understanding and enjoyment (including enjoyment in the form of recreation) of the special qualities of the area by the public; to promote sustainable economic and social development of the area’s communities.

Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Wales

When were Britain’s national parks established?

The 15 national parks were established in the UK between 1951 and 2010. There are 10 national parks in England (covering a land surface area of 9.3%), Three national parks in Wales (covering a surface area of 19.9.%), and two national parks in Scotland (covering a land surface area of 7.2%). Northern Ireland currently has no national parks.

Glenmore Forest Park
Am Loch Morlich, Glenmore Forest Park, Cairngorms National Park, Highlands, Schottland, Großbritanien

Which is the biggest national park in the UK?

The wild landscape of the Cairngorms in Scotland is Britain’s largest national park – almost twice the size of the Lake District – and is home to four of the five highest mountains in Britain. The park is pockmarked with 60 lochs and many more lochans (small lochs), along with more than half the surviving Caledonian forest. It was first established in 2003, before being extended in 2010.

The Lake District is the largest national park found in England – comprising of 912 square miles of high mountains, lakes, rivers and coastline, and receives almost 16 million visitors a year.


How to visit the UK’s National Parks

Dartmoor National Park

  • Designated as a national park in 1951
Dartmoor National Park, Devon
Hike across wild mooralnd and scramble to the top of Dartmoor National Park’s tors, Devon ©Getty

Dartmoor is a breathtaking and mysterious place. The moor’s light distorts well-known places into unrecognisable forms, shadows stretch across its heath, and the gorse holds tight to its luminous yellow.

Best walks in Dartmoor National Park

This huge moorland scattered with staggering granite tors in the south-east of Devon is a hiker’s paradise.

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Sunrise at Sharp Tor. Dartmoor National Park. Devon. England. UK.

You can explore the park’s 368 square miles of terrain by boot, bike and horseback, while a smattering of small villages and towns provide a great based from which to begin and end your adventures.

Wildlife highlight: otter

Otters breed all year round and you are as likely to see one in the depths of winter as you are at the height of summer. They can be found in all the main rivers in and around Dartmoor, but are hard to spot.

Close up portrait of European River Otter (Lutra lutra) in pond covered in duckweed
European river otter ©Getty

Lake District National Park

  • Designated as a national park in 1952
Lake Buttermere Lake District National Park Cumbria England
Buttermere in the Lake District National Park ©Getty

The Lake District National Park comprises 912 square miles of high mountains, lakes, rivers and coastline, and receives almost 16 million visitors a year. No wonder, then, that it was loved so dearly by Beatrix potter, Alfred Wainwright, Arthur Ransome and William and Dorothy Wordsworth.

Best walks in the Lake District National Park

Of all the national parks in Britain, the Lake District in Cumbria is arguably the most celebrated – discover the the area’s fells, rivers, waters and towns with our favourite walks. 

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Lake District view

The Lake’s landscape is steeped with footpaths, and by simply climbing from your tent or stepping out of your front door, you’re likely to find yourself walking some ancient trail with unerring scenery flanking your gait.

Wildlife highlight: red squirrel

Britain’s native red squirrels first appeared 10,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age when the land between Britain and Europe began to disappear. These acrobatic rodents are one of the UK’s most loved animals and can be seen in the Lake District.

red squirrel on log
A wild Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) on an old mossy fallen Oak. Photographed on the Isle of Wight, one of only a few locations in the UK where Red Squirrels are safe from the larger Grey Squirrels. (Credit: Getty Images)

See our guide to red squirrels, including how to identify and where to see


Brecon Beacon National Park

  • The Brecon Beacons were designated a National Park in 1957
Spring in Waterfall Country, Vale of Neath, Wales
Waterfall Country, Vale of Neath, Wales ©Jake Graham

Home to a mix of mountains and moorland, standing stones, castles, waterfalls and wildlife, the Brecon Beacons National Park extends for 42 miles from east to west, and is divided into three distinct areas: the Black Mountains in the east, the Brecon Beacons and Fforest Fawr in the centre, and the Black Mountain region (formerly called the Camarthen Fans) in the largely Welsh-speaking west.

As well as mountains to climb, there is a huge range of outdoor activities to try – mountain biking, horse riding, abseiling, paragliding, rafting and more. The region is also one of the UK’s four International Dark Skies Reserves and part of the national park is a UNESCO Global Geopark, protecting and showcasing its geology, archaeology and history.

Best walks in the Brecon Beacons National Park

From spectacular ridgelines and mountains to glistening waterfalls, rivers and lakes, the Brecon Beacons National Park in South Wales has something for everyone. Our guide looks at the best walks in the Brecon Beacons – all within an hour’s drive of several major cities.

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Hiker sitting enjoying the view on a hillside

Wildlife highlight: red kite

Thirty years ago, the number of red kites in Britain was down to near single figures. Since then, careful breeding programmes have brought this magnificent bird of prey, famous for its russet colour and forked tail, back from the brink. Red kites have been reintroduced in the Chilterns, the Midlands and parts of Scotland, but mid Wales and the Beacons provides a chance to see native kites in their ancient stronghold.

Close up of a Red kite (Milvus milvus) in flight in countryside
Close up of a Red kite (Milvus milvus) in flight in countryside (Credit: Getty)

See our birds of prey guide


Broads National Park

  • The Broads were designated a National Park in 1989
Horsey Windpump
Horsey Windpump ©Getty
A unique patchwork of rivers and lakes, the Broads is not – as was once thought – a natural landscape, but a result of intensive peat digging in the Middle Ages to provide fuel. The empty pits flooded, forming lakes known locally as broads.

Best walks in the Broads National Park

Discover Norfolk’s wildlife-rich waterways and wild beaches with our favourite hikes in the national park.

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Brograve mill windpump

 

When combined with the area’s natural rivers, they make up a network of more than 125 miles of navigable waterways, nowadays mainly used for recreation. Renowned for its biodiversity, the Norfolk Broads are home to more than a quarter of Britain’s rare species, from birds and butterflies to mammals and fish.

Wildlife highlight: grey seals

More than 2,000 grey seal pups were born on the coastline near Horsey this winter (2018/2019). Seals are remarkably well adapted to their environment and have developed some truly impressive senses to help them thrive in it. They can taste minute variations in seawater salinity and smell a chemical released when zooplankton feed on phytoplankton, both indicators of potentially rich feeding areas.

Weaned grey seal pup on Blakeney Point
Weaned grey seal pup on Blakeney Point ©National Trust – Ian Ward

Cairngorms National Park

  • The Cairngorms were designated a National Park in 2003
Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
Wander along mountain ranges, forest paths and rumbling rivers in the Cairngorms ©Getty

The Cairngorms National Park was established in 2003, and later extended in 2010.

It is Britain’s largest national park – almost twice the size of the Lake District – and is home to four of the five highest mountains in Britain. The park is pockmarked with 60 lochs and many more lochans (small lochs), along with more than half the surviving Caledonian forest.

Best walks in the Cairngorms National Park

The Cairngorms teems with towering trees, shimmering lochs and busy wildlife. Take a hike through this vast, untamed area of Scotland with our list of the area’s best walks.

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Loch Morlich Cairngorms ©Alamy

A quarter of Britain’s threatened animal, plant, insect and fungi species are found in the Cairngorms, some of which are endemic to the park.

Wildlife highlight: pine marten

The pine marten (Martes martes) has a long, thin body, round ears, chocolate-brown fur and creamy-white throat. It is a member of the Mustelidae family, along with stoats, weasels, badgers, otters, mink and many more.

It weighs between 0.9-2.2kg and has a lifespan of up to 12 years. Populations are restricted largely to northern and central Scotland, along with a few small pockets in southern Scotland, northern England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Pine marten standing in forest
Watching my patch: the territory of a pine marten ranges to around 15km²/Credit: Naturepl.com

See our pine marten guide for more information about the elusive species


Exmoor National Park

  • Designated a national park in 1954
Exmoor National Park
Wild Heather flowers on Exmoor in North Devon ©Getty

From dramatic coastal footpaths and gentle river walks to pretty cafes and beer-drinking by the sea, there are myriad ways to enjoy the rolling heath and dramtic shorelines of Exmoor National Park.

Best walks in Exmoor National Park

From dramatic coastal footpaths to gentle river walks, there are myriad hikes to be enjoyed in Exmoor National Park – here is our guide to some of the best walking routes.

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Exmoor pony

Wildlife highlight: red deer

Red deer migrated to Britain from Europe 11,000 years ago, making them one of two of the country’s truly indigenous species. Since their arrival, populations have risen and fallen with the loss and creation of suitable habitat. Head to Exmoor in autumn for the annual rut.

Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) stag in forest

See our British deer guide


Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park

  • Designated a national park in 2002
An evening view north up Loch Lomond from Beinn Dubh.
Splash in icy lochs in the Loch Lomand and the Trossachs National Park ©Getty Images

This is a diverse and fabled landscape of deep blue lochs, soaring Munros, rumbling rivers and lush glens. Easily accessible from Glasgow, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park is a popular playground for locals and tourist alike, providing activities for families, adventure-seekers and those in need of a relaxing break. Follow in the footsteps of Scottish outlaw and folk hero Rob Roy and visit the castles once inhabited by kings and queens.

Best walks in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park

Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park in Scotland boasts steep mountain peaks, overlooking rolling hills, untamed forests and glistening lakes. Here is our guide on the best hikes in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.

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Max Darkins riding part of Cycling UK's Great North Trail in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Scotland. © Cycling UK

Wildlife highlight: mountain hare

Only a handful of British species turn white in winter to blend with the expected snow and hide from predators. The mountain hare is perhaps the most impressive and by November will have shed its brown coat to become blue-ish white. Mountain hares are relatively common throughout the Highland region of Scotland, including the Trossacks.

Mountain hare
Mountain hare/ Credit: Getty Images

New Forest National Park

  • Designated a national park in 2010
Flowering bell heather and bracken on Rockford Common in the New Forest National Park, Hampshire, England
Flowering bell heather and bracken on Rockford Common in the New Forest National Park ©Getty

Hampshire’s New Forest is famous for its history and wildlife – indeed, venture into the national park and you will find it difficult to avoid either. “Everywhere you go you will be borrowing a trail with a human history,” suggests natural history writer Dominic Couzens in his account of the New Forest, “possibly bloody and almost always intriguing, while nowhere can you escape the all-pervading wildlife. The ponies wander the area’s villages as if they are idly window-shopping. This is a place of intermingling: local with visitor, wild with domestic, past with present.”

Best walks in New Forest National Park

New Forest National Park is famed for its beautiful heathland and myriad forest trails – discover its beauty on foot with our favourite hikes.

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New-Forest-f8fc461

Wildlife highlight: pearl-bordered fritillary

It flies mainly during May, but has early and late years, depending on the vagaries of spring weather. Cannily, it flies when the bugle, its favoured nectar source, is in flower. This is one of our most graceful butterflies in flight, skimming low over the ground vegetation, pausing only to visit flowers or bask, the males ceaselessly searching for females. Can be seen in the New Forest woods north-east of Brockenhurst (Pignal, New Copse and Parkhill in closures).

Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne) Bentley Wood, Wiltshire
Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne) Bentley Wood, Wiltshire
Getty

See our butterfly guide


Northumberland National Park

  • Designated a national park in 1956
Sycamore Gap, Northumberland
Sycamore Gap, Northumberland ©Getty

Northumberland National Park is the least populated park in Britain, known for its clean air, beautiful rivers and dark skies. The county of Northumberland includes the Northumberland Coast AONB, Kielder Forest, part of the North Pennines AONB and the Northumberland National Park.

It’s a landscape steeped in history, from the snaking stonework of Hadrian’s Wall to ruined castles and holy monasteries. But it’s also one of England’s wildest counties, where wave-raked beaches sweep towards rugged islands, and open moorland stoops into deep forests and enormous lakes.

Best walks in Northumberland National Park

The darks skies, open moorland, wild woodland and splashing waterfalls of Northumberland National Park hug the border between England and Scotland – explore the park on foot with our favourite walks.

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Harthope valley, Northumberland
Getty, Universal Images Group

Wildlife highlight: black grouse

Between the months of March and June (usually April and May) at dawn and also in the autumn,  male black grouse gather together on a daily basis, occupying their own little piece of territory in a makeshift arena. Each male attempts to visually impress their female counterparts with an extravagant display of dancing and flashing white feathers, in an attempt to win a mate. Once abundant in the park, there are now only a few remaining.

Black grouse, Tetrao tetrix
Black grouse, Tetrao tetrix ©Getty

North York Moors National Park

  • Designated a national park in 1954
Dawn mist over the North York Moors National Park
Dawn mist over the North York Moors National Park ©Getty

Discover ancient trees, majestic birds of prey, rich heritage and a fascinating coastline of towering cliffs and nestled villages. The North York Moors are a nature-lover’s dream, but there’s history too. Explore a landscape steeped in evidence of the past, from as far back as the Iron Age through to the present day.

Best walks in the North York Moors National Park

The North York Moors landscape comprises more than 1,400 miles of public footpaths – discover the national park’s vast moorland and sweeping coastline with our favourite walks

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United Kingdom, England, Great Britain, North York Moors National Park, British Isles, North Yorkshire, Walkers sitting amongst the heather at The Hole of Horcum

Wildlife highlight: bluebells

Take walk to the summit of Roseberry Topping in the North York Moors National Park. Quilted with banks of bluebells, sorrel and stitchwort, Yorkshire’s Matterhorn is a spring masterpiece.

Bluebell guide
Close up of Hyacinthoides non scripta, commonly referred to as the Bluebell

See our bluebell guide and find beautiful walks


Peak District National Park

  • Designated a national park in 1951
River Dove in Wolfscote Dale, Peak District
The river Dove runs parallel to a footpath in a junction between Biggin Dale and Wolfscote Dale in the Peak District National Park ©Getty

This upland area of limestone, gritstone and moorland deserves special mention as the pioneer of the national park system. Designated in 1951, the Peak District was the first national park to be formed, paving the way for 15 more. Covering 555 square miles, the upland region attracts cyclists, hikers, horseriders and campers, as well as archaeologist who come to explore the area’s rich past.

Best walks in the Peak District National Park

The Peak District National Park in Derbyshire is one of Britain’s most iconic landscapes – hike over hills, moors and mountains, amble beside idyllic rivers and climb through deep gorges with our guide to the best walks in the Peak District.

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A stone wall in the Peak District surrounded by heather and a hawthorn tree (Photo by: John Finney via Getty Images)

Wildlife highlight: short-eared owl

Often active during the day, the short-eared owl is restricted as a breeding species to upland moorland and, occasionally, coastal grazing marsh.

This latter habitat is often used in winter, when it may hunt alongside barn owls. Rather nomadic in its movement, the bird moves between Britain and overseas in response to vole numbers. Population: around 1,400 pairs, some of which can be spotted in the Peak District.

Short eared owl
Short eared owl ©Alamy

Learn about Britain’s owl species


Pembrokeshire Coast

  • Designated a national park in 1952
Saundersfoot, Pembrokeshire
Saundersfoot, Pembrokeshire ©Getty

With its sprawling sandy beaches, endless skies, atmospheric castles and churches, and a dramatic coastline teeming with wildlife, Pembrokeshire is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Britain. From hiking the gorgeous Pembrokeshire Coast Path to sea kayaking or surfing or even coasteering, this wild and wonderful place is the perfect holiday destination for families, friends and lone-rangers alike.

Best walks in Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

Explore the rugged cliffs, sweeping bays, rolling hills and extraordinary wildlife of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in south-west Wales. 

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Coastal path along Porthmelgan, Pembrokeshire
Alamy

Wildlife highlight: puffin

Puffins are carnivores, living off small fish such as herring, hake and sand eels. They can hold their breath for up to a minute – although they generally stay underwater for about thirty seconds – and can dive as deep as sixty metres. Head to the Pembrokeshire  and spot these comical seabirds perched on the cliffs and neighbouring islands.

A puffin stretches its wings among summer flowers on the island of Skomer in Wales/Credit: Getty Images

Snowdonia

  • Designated a national park in 1951
Snowdonia National Park, Wales
Cwm Idwal, Snowdonia National Park, Wales ©Getty

Steeped in myth and legend, the dramatic landscape of Snowdonia is an adventurer’s dream. There’s mountains to be explored – true mountains, worthy of ropes and crampons and a head for heights – and deep gorges and cliffs to be climbed. But there’s a gentler side too; winding rivers and hidden villages, shallow shores and chugging trains.

Best walks in Snowdonia National Park

Packed with great mountain climbs, idyllic river walks, lakeside rambles and coastal hikes, Snowdonia National Park is the perfect getaway location for hiking – our pick of the best walks in Snowdonia, Wales.

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Wild Welsh Feral Goat, Llanberis Pass, Snowdonia National Park, North Wales, UK

Wildlife highlight: purple saxifrage

In Snowdonia, the months of March, April and May, like the rest, are often wind-whipped, veiled in cloud and doused in rain. It is the flowering of special Arctic-alpine flowers that distinguish spring from the rest of the year. The first to flower in the mountains – such as Cwm Idwal – is purple saxifrage. Even when snow lies late into the season, Saxifraga oppositifolia prospers, growing in fragrant cushions on the basalt rocks.

Purple saxifrage
Purple saxifrage ©Getty Images

South Downs

  • Designated a national park in 2005
Seven Sisters, Sussex
Seven Sisters cliffs in the South Downs, Sussex ©gGetty

England’s newest national park is a tranquil landscape of rolling hills, chalk cliffs and crystal-clear rivers. It’s one of the busiest parks in Britain, yet solitude is easy to come by. Walk among the ancient yew trees of Kingley Vale and listen to skylarks above the parks farmland, and discover the South Down’s extensive history with Bronze Age barrows and World War II pill boxes.

Best walks in the South Downs National Park

From the chalk streams of Hampshire to the towering cliffs of East Sussex, here is our guide to the best hikes in the South Downs National Park.

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Horse riding countryside

Wildlife highlight: Duke of Burgundy

No one knows how this tiny early spring butterfly obtained its name. Formerly common locally in woods, the duke is now a rare and rapidly declining butterfly, primarily of rough, ungrazed or lightly grazed limestone grassland, such as the Seven Sisters cliffs.

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Duke of Burgundy, Hamearis lucina
Duke of Burgundy resting on a leaf in edge of the forest/Credit: Getty Images

Yorkshire Dales

  • Designated a national park in 1954
Ribblehead, Yorkshire Dales
Explore the atmospheric villages, moors and valleys of the Yorkshire Dales/Credit: Getty
Take a trip to the Dales and explore turbulent waterfalls, ruined abbeys and Ice Age erratics. Walk beneath the impressive stonework with Riddlehead Viaduct, take on the Three Peaks Challenge and eat as much cheese as you stomach can stand at the Wensleydale Creamery.

Best walks in the Yorkshire Dales National Park

The valleys, moors, hills and caverns of the Yorkshire Dales are etched with miles and miles of rolling footpaths – explore this atmospheric limestone landscape with our guide to the national park’s best hiking trails.

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Sheep in North Yorkshire

Wildlife highlight: pipistrelle bat

Pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus pipistrellus)
Pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) ©Getty Images

Of the 17 bat species resident in the UK, eight can be found in the Yorkshire Dales, including one of the most commonly sighted species, the pipistrelle. Look in small cracks in the rocks and between the sontes on bridges, or wait until dusk as they set out for a night of hunting.