Guide to national parks in the UK: what they are, how to visit, best walking routes and wildlife to spot

Our guide explores the history of the UK's national parks, including when each park was formed, where they are, best hiking routes and wildlife to spot

Glenmore Forest Park

Our guide explores all 15 of Britain’s breathtaking national parks, each with its own unique landscape, wildlife, history and communities.

What is a national park?

In the UK, national parks are protected areas set aside for their beautiful countryside, wildlife and cultural heritage.

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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.

Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Wales
Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Wales ©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. Find out more on national parks website

View over Loch Lomond Scotland

When were Britain’s national parks established?

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%), 3 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.

Below is a timeline of when each of the UK’s national parks were established:

1

Dartmoor National Park, 1951

2

Lake District, 1951

3

Peak District, 1951

4

Snowdonia, 1951

5

Pembrokeshire  Coast, 1952

6

North York, 1952

7

Yorkshire Dales, 1954

8

Exmoor National Park, 1954

9

Northumberland, 1956

10

Brecon Beacons, 1957

11

Broads, 1989

12

Loch Lomond, 2002

13

Cairngorms, 2003

14

South Downs, 2005

15

New Forest, 2010


Britain’s national parks

Brecon Beacons

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.

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.

Find out more about the Brecon Beacons

Red kite

Broads

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. 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. 

Find out more about the Broads

Weaned grey seal pup on Blakeney Point

Cairngorms

Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
Wander along mountain ranges, forest paths and rumbling rivers in the Cairngorms ©Getty

“Vast snowfields sweep to the horizon, covering the great, rolling, tundra-like plateaux. Icy cliffs, frozen waterfalls and huge, steep-sided, snow-filled corries ring the mountain. Lochs and lochans are frozen hard…. Deep glens and passes cleave through the mountains… Below the high tops lie magnificent Caledonian pine forests, part of the subarctic boreal forest that rings the globe.” Chris Townsend’s account of the Cairngorms National Park is a cold one. In the summer months, the dramatic nature of the park is still evident, but its paths and landscape more accessible.

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.

Find out more about the Cairngorms National Park

Pine marten on alder branch, Scotland

Dartmoor

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. 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.

Dartmoor was designated as a national park in 1951

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.

Find out more about Dartmoor National Park

Close up portrait of European River Otter (Lutra lutra) in pond covered in duckweed

Exmoor

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.

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.

Find out more about Exmoor

Red deer, UK

Lake District

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.

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.

 

Find out more about the Lake District

Red squirrel

Loch Lomond and the Trossachs

An evening view north up Loch Lomond from Beinn Dubh.
Splash in icy lochs in the Loch Lomand and the Trossachs National Park ©Getty

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.

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.

 

Find out more about Loch Lomond and the Trossacks

Mountain hare

New Forest

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.”

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 inclosures).

 

Find out more about the New Forest

Pearl-bordered fritillary

Northumberland

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.

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.

 

Find out more about Northumberland National Park

 

Black grouse, Tetrao tetrix

North York Moors

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.

Wildlife highlight: bluebells

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

Find out more about the North York Moors National Park

Bluebell

Peak District

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.

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.

Find out more about the Peak District National Park

Short eared owl

Pembrokeshire Coast

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.

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.

Find out more about Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)

Snowdonia

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.

Wildlife highlight: purple saxifrage

In Snowdinia, 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.

Find out more about Snowdonia National Park

Purple saxifrage

South Downs

Seven Sisters, Sussex
Seven Sisters cliffs in the South Downs, Sussex ©gGetty
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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.

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.

Find out more about the South Downs National Park

Duke of Burgundy, Hamearis lucina

Yorkshire Dales

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.

Wildlife highlight: pipistrelle bat

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.

Find out more about the Yorkshire Dales

Common pipistrelle bat