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5 best national parks in Britain

Having visited all 15 national parks in Britain, we take a look at our favourite five.

It was tough whittling down the list to just five. I had to leave out the Broads, Britain’s largest protected wetland which also happens to be in my home county of Norfolk. Likewise, the mountains and moorland of the Brecon Beacons or the idyllic New Forest cycling routes didn’t quite make the cut. All 10 of Britain’s national parks that I’ve excluded arguably deserve a place in this list as they all offer something unique in their outstanding natural beauty.

Everyone will have an opinion on the best national parks in Britain as they all offer something different. The five I’ve listed here have a special place in my heart, be it for extraordinary hiking, climbing or stargazing.

Naturally, if you have different favourites, please share them in the comments below.

Dartmoor National Park

Location: Devon, England
Size: 956km2 (369sq mi)
Established: 1951
Website: dartmoor.gov.uk

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Dartmoor’s moorland is dotted with tors

I love Dartmoor and its famous tors as it’s the only national park in England that allows wild camping. It’s also less than an hour from Exeter and Plymouth and relatively easy to access from London. I try to take a trip there at least once a year. Almost half of the park is moorland and with its somewhat barren landscape it’s easy to see why it was the setting for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ‘s classic crime novel The Hound of the Baskervilles featuring detective Sherlock Holmes.

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Wild ponies can be seen on Dartmoor

Dartmoor also has an eminent military history dating back to the Napoleonic Wars. During the Second World War, it was used to train troops for the D-Day landings and also served as an airbase. Even today three areas of the northern moor are used for manoeuvres and live firing exercises. When this happens flagpoles are raised to cordon off areas from the public, although they’ve never interrupted any of my trips there.

Across the moor, villages punctuate the landscape complete with tearooms and traditional pubs serving cream teas and cask ales respectively.

Further reading: Dartmoor 365: An Exploration of Every One of the 365 Square Miles in the Dartmoor National Park

Cairngorms National Park

Location: Aberdeenshire, Angus, Moray, Perthshire and Kinross-shire, Scotland
Size: 4,528km2 (1,748sq mi)
Established: 2003
Website: cairngorms.co.uk

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A derelict stone cottage in the Cairngorms (Image: Dreamstime)

The Cairngorms is Britain’s largest national park and my spiritual home. I’ve travelled to over 60 countries and I still say Scotland is the most beautiful country I’ve seen. Catch it on a good day (there are a few a year!) and it is unrivalled in natural beauty with the Cairngorms at its heart.

Ever since my parents first took me camping in Scotland as a child, the Cairngorms have held a special place in my heart. I find myself returning to the area again and again whether it’s for summer hikes or winter mountaineering.

Scotland and its public access to land and water laws means the Cairngorms provide excellent opportunity for wild camping.

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Winter mountaineering in the Cairngorms

Although Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain, lies to the west, the Cairngorms contains Britain’s highest mountain range and its biggest native forests. The sheer size of the park means there is a vast array of landscapes on offer including spectacularly crystal clear rivers and lochs, rugged moorland and farmland, snow-capped peaks and ridges, castles and highland estates, and some of the most diverse wildlife in Britain.

Oh, and the whisky’s pretty good too!

Further reading: Pathfinder Cairngorms: The best short, medium and long Highland walks in the Cairngorms National Park

Snowdonia National Park

Location: Gwynedd and Conwy, Wales
Size: 2,142km2 (827sq mi)
Established: 1951
Website: eryri-npa.gov.uk

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Snowdonia is famous for its mountains and river gorges

Snowdonia is dominated by its rugged peaks including, at 1,085m (3,560ft), England and Wales’ highest mountain, Snowdon. The knife-edged Crib Goch route to the summit of Snowdon is one of hairiest routes in Britain and offers some the country’s best alpine-style routes during winter or an equally fraught scramble during summer.

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Climbing Tryfan in 2010

My favourite thing to do in Snowdonia is to camp in the village of Betws-y-Coed and climb one of the most famous peaks in Britain, Tryfan (918m / 3,010ft), along with the other Glyder mountains that surround it (Glyder Fawr, Glyder Fach, et al).

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A rugged rock fin of Tryfan and the Glyder mountains

There is a lot more to Snowdonia than mountains and climbing including over 37km (23mi) of dramatic coastline with sand dune backed beaches and rocky coves. There is also a host of picturesque villages, steep river gorges, waterfalls, wooded valleys, peatlands and moorlands. Snowdonia is also an area steeped in culture and tradition with more than 26,000 people living within the park of whom over half (62%) speak Welsh.

Further reading: Short Walks Snowdonia: Twenty Splendid Short Country Walks in the Snowdonia National Park

Lake District National Park

Location: Cumbria, England
Size: 2,362km2 (912sq mi)
Established: 1951
Website: lakedistrict.gov.uk

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A classic Lake District vista

It would be hard not to include the Lake District in a list of the best national parks in Britain. It is home to England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, at 978m (3,209ft) and the infamous Helvellyn at 950m (3,117ft) with its hairaising Striding Edge ridge.

The Lake District is the most visited national park in Britain with 15.8 million annual visitors and more than 23 million annual day visits. It is also the realm of the 214 Wainwright fells: the hills and mountains described in Alfred Wainwright’s classic seven-volume Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells (1955-66).

Along with the mountains are, of course, the 16 main lakes from which it takes its name, along with numerous smaller tarns making it ideal for watersports including sailing, canoeing, fishing and swimming.

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The Striding Edge ridge of Helvellyn

I’ve camped, climbed and hiked in the Lake District several times over the years, but I think my fondest memory was cycling across the national park as part of the coast-to-coast cycle route in 2011. The Lake District National Park has some of the best cycling in the country with a range of country lanes, permitted cycleways and bridleways that suit all experience levels. Additionally, if you enjoy mountain biking then the Whinlatter and Grizedale Forests are criss-crossed with excellent off-road routes.

Further reading: The Lake District: High Level and Fell Walks: 30 Best Fell Walks

Northumberland National Park

Location: Northumberland, England
Size: 1,049km2 (405sq mi)
Established: 1956
Website: northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk

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Hadrian’s Wall near Walltown (Image: Dreamstime)

Wedged in between the Scottish border and the industrial northeast, Northumberland National Park is the least visited of the national parks in Britain. Additionally, with a population of just over 2,000 people it is also the least populated of the national parks in England and Wales.

I’ve not spent nearly enough time exploring this rough and remote land where wild mountain goats still roam and the remains of Hadrian’s Wall pepper the landscape.

Hadrian’s Wall was a defensive fortification in the Roman province of Britannia and signified the northern limit of the Roman Empire. Construction started in 122 AD under the reign of the emperor Hadrian to keep out the “Barbarians” from the north.

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Sunset over the Cheviot Hills

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.

Further reading: Northumberland (Official National Park Guide)

national parks in Britain

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

National parkCountryEstablishedKm²Sq mi
Peak DistrictEngland19511,438555
Lake DistrictEngland19512,362912
Snowdonia (Welsh: Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri)Wales19512,142827
DartmoorEngland1951956369
Pembrokeshire Coast (Arfordir Penfro)Wales1952620240
North York MoorsEngland19521436554
Yorkshire DalesEngland19542,178841
ExmoorEngland1954693268
NorthumberlandEngland19561,049405
Brecon Beacons (Bannau Brycheiniog)Wales19571,351522
The BroadsEngland1989303117
New ForestEngland2005580220
South DownsEngland20091,641634
Loch Lomond and the Trossachs (Loch Laomainn is nan Tròisichean)Scotland20021,865720
Cairngorms (Mhonaidh Ruaidh)Scotland20034,5281,748

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