Wild continent: the best National Parks in Europe

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The best national parks in Europe are home to the wildest scenery and most thrilling outdoor pursuits the continent has to offer

Europe’s finest wilderness has quite rightly been enshrined and protected in its national parks. Great glaciers, soaring mountains and primeval forests stretch across Europe’s 50 sovereign states. We take a look at the wildest and best national parks in Europe.

Jostedalsbreen National Park

Location: Norway
More info: dnt.no or ut.no

Dreamstime Jostedalsbreen is the largest glacier on continental Europe

Jostedalsbreen is home to the largest glacier (also named Jostedalsbreen) on continental Europe. The glacier has shrunk in recent years, but at 487 km2 (188 sq mi) there’s a long way to go yet. As it recedes, it reveals the ruins of farms that were absorbed by the glacier from as long ago as 1750.

Le Parc National des Pyrénées / Ordesa y Monte Perdido

Location: France / Spain
More info: pyrenees-parcnational.fr / spain.info

Dreamstime Pic du Midi d’Ossau (2,884m/9,462ft) rises above the Ossau Valley in the French Pyrénées

The Pyrénées is one of Europe’s premier hiking and mountaineering regions. The mountain range which forms a natural border between France to the north and Spain to the south is best explored through these two national parks. The parks share excellent wilderness and fauna, with wild camping allowed in France’s much larger Le Parc National des Pyrénées.

Sarek National Park

Location: Sweden
More info: swedishtouristassociation.com

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Dreamstime Sarek National Park is home to Europe’s last great wilderness

Sarek in Sweden’s Lapland is a survivalist’s dream. You need to be the adventurous type just to make it out here as there are no marked trails, cabins or amenities that you may find elsewhere in Sweden. This is Europe’s last great wilderness so the going is slow and often arduous. Just beware of the bears!

Bavarian Forest National Park / Šumava National Park

Location: Germany / Czech Republic
More info: nationalpark-bayerischer-wald.de / npsumava.cz

Dreamstime A typical undisturbed scene in the Bavarian Forest

This central European forested low-mountain range is criss-crossed with excellent hiking, cross-country skiing and cycling trails. Despite this, the region sees relatively few international tourists and as such remains a fairly undisturbed virgin forest. Wild camping is allowed on both sides of the border.

Cairngorms National Park

Location: Scotland, UK
More info: visitcairngorms.com

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Dreamstime A derelict stone cottage in the Cairngorms

This area of Scotland in the heart of the Scottish Highlands holds a very special place in my heart. My early family holidays were here and years later I first learnt to strap on crampons and self-arrest with an ice axe in the Cairngorms. Scotland is still home to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world in my opinion – the very best of them here in Britain’s largest and best national park. Wild camping is allowed throughout the park.

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Location: Croatia
More info: np-plitvicka-jezera.hr

Dreamstime The main attraction is the park’s 16 cascading lakes

Croatia’s largest national park attracts over a million visitors every year. The main attraction is the park’s 16 cascading lakes and their distinctive colours ranging from brilliant azure blues, greens and greys. The colour of the lakes’ water is constantly changing depending on the amount of minerals present and the angle at which the sunlight strikes.

Gran Paradiso National Park

Location: Italy
More info: pngp.it

Dreamstime The park’s namesake, the 4,061m (13,323ft) Gran Paradiso Mountain

Italy’s first national park was established in 1922 and is home to its namesake, the 4,061m (13,323ft) Gran Paradiso Mountain. The park has some of Italy’s most picturesque mountains and valleys and is a very popular destination for trekkers and skiers throughout the year. Trails are well marked and there are several well-maintained mountain rifugi and bivacchi (unoccupied shelters) throughout the region.

Swiss National Park

Location: Switzerland
More info: nationalpark.ch

Dreamstime Founded in 1914, the Swiss National Park was one of the first in Europe

Located in a particularly impressive area of the ever-impressive Alps in Switzerland, this park has strict boundaries in place limiting human activity. This “total protection” philosophy is probably why it is so breathtakingly beautiful. Founded in 1914, it was one of the earliest national parks in Europe and surprisingly is still Switzerland’s only national park, although two other areas of Switzerland are currently applying for national park status

Vatnajökull National Park

Location: Iceland
More info: vatnajokulsthjodgardur.is

Dreamstime A Vatnajökull ice-cave

Where to begin? At 13,600 km2 (5,300 sq mi) Vatnajökull is Europe’s largest national park. It covers nearly 14% of Iceland’s entire surface area and is home to Europe’s largest glacier outside the Arctic as well as Europe’s most powerful waterfall, the titanic Dettifoss. Glacier hiking and ice-caving are just some of the temerarious activities on offer. 

Prielbrusye National Park

Location: Russia
More info: elbruspark.com

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Dreamstime At 5,642m (18,510ft), Mt Elbrus is Europe’s highest mountain

Home to Mt Elbrus (Europe’s highest mountain at 5,642m (18,510ft) and member of the seven summits). Prielbrusye National Park is a popular winter and mountaineering destination. The Baksan River that runs through the park has created soaring mountain peaks, plunging verdant valleys, bubbling mineral springs and deep cascading waterfalls.

Tatra National Park

Location: Poland
More info: htanap.org

Dreamstime The Tatra mountains are a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts

Defined by alpine peaks, glacial lakes, mountain caves and huge tracts of evergreen forests, this montane area of Poland is surprisingly easy to access. The Tatra mountains and their excellent trails and superb hiking infrastructure make this national park a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts throughout central and eastern Europe.

Jotunheimen National Park

Location: Norway
More info: jotunheimen.com, dnt.no or ut.no

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Dreamstime Jotunheimen is home to Europe’s highest concentration of mountains higher than 2,000m (6,500ft)

I love Norway which is why this is the country’s second appearance in this list of the best National Parks in Europe. Despite being Norway’s most popular national park, Jotunheimen steel feels undisturbed – probably because it’s home to northern Europe’s highest concentration of mountains higher than 2,000m (6,500ft). Peppered with waterfalls, rivers, lakes, glaciers and valleys, it is also the land of Jotuns (mountain troll) although I haven’t seen any during my visits.

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Lonely Planet’s National Parks of Europe is a celebration of and practical guide to Europe’s areas of incredible natural beauty. This hardback showcases 60 of the best national parks in Europe along with suggested itineraries for top sights and activities.

Lead image: Dreamstime

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