Guide to the Top 5 UK National Parks

Emma Langley, 24.04.19
Alternative Destinations

The UK is extremely proud of its 15 National Parks. Made up of three in Wales, two in Scotland and 10 in England, each has their own unique characteristics and natural beauty. From mountains, rivers and beaches to quaint towns and even cities, the UK’s National Parks has something to offer everyone. Not only are they vast areas of land which are often seemingly untouched by humans, they’re packed full of history and culture which goes way beyond their official establishing and naming with the National Park status 70 years ago.

In fact, 2019 marks the official 70th anniversary since Parliament passed the act that first established the National Parks in England and Wales, so we’re choosing to celebrate by dedicating a blog to them! Although we’d love to talk about all 15, we will be focusing on our favourite top 5 National Parks in the UK, along with some top tips about visiting the National Parks in the UK.

Snowdon 1Photo: Mohammad Sajjad Khan

1. Lake District

The first of the National Parks we will cover is arguably the most well-known and famous; the Lake District. Formed around 500 million years ago, and one of the first to be named a National Park in 1951, it’s hard for people to travel to England without making time to visit the Lake District. In fact, it’s the most popular National Park in the UK with over 16.4 million annual visitors.

The Lake District, located in Cumbria, has everything you’d want of a National Park: dramatic high-rise mountains, sombersome deep lakes and picturesque villages. Although famous honeypot villages such as Lake Windermere is a must-visit for some people, why not venture out to some more unknown, and much less touristy places such as Skiddaw (which is actually home to the oldest rocks in the Lake District). Skiddaw still offers the picture-perfect mountain scene, complete with rugged valleys, mirror-like lakes and great cycling and hiking trails, with less people to ruin the view.

Although much of the Lake District has an abundant wildlife scene, head to the Duddon Valley, a tranquil paradise filled with butterflies, dragonflies and many birds of prey if you want to see nature at its best.

Although a bit of rain won’t stop many from enjoying the great outdoors, there are still many things to do in the Lake District for those who’d prefer to stay dry during bad weather. Why not take a ride on the picture-book steam train, the Lakeside Railway, visit the World of Beatrix Potter for some literary history, or even visit one of the many museums such as the Windermere Steamboat Museum?

Lake DisrictThe Lake District

How do I get to the Lake District?

The nearest airport to the Lake District is Manchester. Fly into Manchester with airlines such as Pakistan International Airlines, Scandinavian Airlines, El Al and Finnair and get a train which stops at many destinations within the Lake District.

Carlisle Lake District Airport is also a small regional airport, which offers regional and domestic flights to London Southend, Dublin and Belfast with the airline Loganair.

2. South Downs National Park

The South Downs National Park is one of the southernmost National Parks in England, and also the youngest. Although history of the landscape was formed around 60 million years ago, it only achieved National Park status in 2010. Compared to the Lake District, the South Downs has a different, yet equally just as beautiful, landscape. The South Downs are famous for its gentle rolling grass hills, with key landmarks such as the mysterious Long Man of Wilmington or the famous chalk cliffs of Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters Country Park.

The South Downs features many quaint English villages and towns, such as Petersfield, Midhurst and Lewes, which make for a perfect afternoon stroll around local shops. If you fancy something grander such as a castle or cathedral, head to Winchester (London’s predecessor as England’s capital city), Arundel or Chichester.

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, why not walk the whole of the South Downs Way, which traverses all the way from the west in Winchester, right down to Beachy Head at Eastbourne in the east. This walk covers 100 miles, meaning that you’ll be able to tick off all the highlights of the South Downs on the way. After all, National Parks are all about getting out and enjoying the great outdoors!

Seven SistersThe Seven Sisters. Photo: Emma Langley

How do I get to South Downs National Park?

You can get to the South Downs National Park from many major London airports, with both Gatwick and Heathrow accessible by train. Many large airlines fly to these airports, such as American Airlines, British Airways and Vueling.

With Alternative Airlines, you can also choose to fly to a regional, more direct airport such as Southampton Airport on airlines such as Flybe, Air France, Aurigny and Aer Lingus Regional.

3. Norfolk Broads

The Norfolk Broads is the smallest of the National Parks, covering an area of only 303 square kilometers. However, this by no means suggests you shouldn’t visit. With a nickname of the ‘Venice of The East’, The Broads National Park has a unique landscape of manmade low-lying wetlands and marshlands and a network of rivers and waterbodies.

The best way to enjoy The Broads is by getting on a boat and sailing down the rivers. There are larger cruises where people can take a trip on (such as the Southern Comfort paddle boat at Horning), or alternatively choose to rent out a private small boat for the day (many companies offer these from villages such as Wroxham or Potter Heigham). Whichever option you choose, be sure to relax on the water, whilst keeping a look out for the famous sails of the old windmills that feature in the landscape. Windmills aren’t the only thing you should be looking out for though; the Norfolk Wherry was a type of sailing boat, used for transportation of goods such as reeds, that was native to The Norfolk Broads and have now ceased production. However, you may get lucky and spot one of the last remaining and restored ones in action on The Broads – there are only 8 left!

Along with the unique landscape of The Broads comes a unique wildlife scene. Norfolk itself is well-known for its wildlife, especially its birds, so there is no surprise that The Broads is also abundant with wildlife. If your eyes aren’t already looking out for Wherrys and Windmills, keep the other eye out looking for otters in the water, herons on the shore, and the rare Swallowtail butterfly or birds such as the Marsh Harrier and the rare Bittern in the air.

If a boat trip doesn’t take your fancy, there are plenty of walks you can do. Visit Ranworth Broad for a Broadwalk complete with all the wildlife you’d see from a boat. If you have time, make sure to visit St Helen’s Church and climb the stairs to the roof tower where you’ll achieve one of the finest landscape views of The Broads below.

Norfolk BroadsNorfolk Broads. Photo: Emma Langley

How do I get to the Norfolk Broads?

Norwich Airport is the closest airport to the broads. Airlines such as Loganair, KLM and TUI Airways fly to this airport, from both domestic locations and European destinations. From Norwich Airport, the Broads are only a short car ride or train journey away.

4. Snowdonia National Park

Snowdonia is the first of our featured National Parks from Wales. This Welsh National Park is best known for Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain of both England and Wales. As if that wasn’t enough to boast about, Snowdonia is also home to the largest natural lake in all of Wales; Llyn Tegid - Bala Lake.

The rugged valleys are best viewed from the comfort of a steam train. These traditional steam trains travel up the mountain, with some stopping at many spots on the way and others going straight to the summit, meaning the places you can go on them are vast. From them, you’ll be able to see the world outside the train; from crashing waterfalls to views over the edge of the mountain sides.

Other people may prefer to explore Snowdonia by foot, by hiking or cycling to the Summit (if you want to know how to take your bike on a plane, read our advice and guide here). On the way to the top, be sure to keep scouring the ground for seashells. Yes, that’s right - Seashells! Due to the way Snowdon was formed under the sea, you may be lucky and find a fossilised sea-shell from the time of formation in the rocks.

If the thought of sea-shells excites you, Snowdonia National Park is also host to many coastal beaches, such as Harlech, which is perfect for an afternoon of swimming and relaxing or exploring the Game of Thrones style castle, or choose Dinas Dinlle for a pretty Welsh seaside village.

Snowdon 2Snowdonia National Park. Photo: Mohammad Sajjad Khan

How do I get to Snowdonia National Park?

If you want to fly to Snowdonia National Park, there are many options of airport to fly in to. Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham airports all offer international flights from a number of airports, all only 2 hours away.

Anglesey Airport is a smaller, regional airport located only 30 minutes away from the edge of Snowdonia. You can fly there from Cardiff with the regional airline Flybe, with a connecting flight from Cardiff to elsewhere should you need to.

5. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park

Of course, we couldn’t miss a Scottish National Park from our top 5! Loch Lomond offers visitors a taste of the Scottish Highlands with it’s serene lochs and high mountains. Camping is particularly popular here, allowing you to get closer to nature and also providing an alternative accommodation option for eco-friendly travellers. Choose between the comfort of a campsite, or the experience of ‘wild camping’, where you can sleep under the stars in secluded spots.

Although a visit to Loch Lomond is an absolute must (it’s the namesake of the National Park afterall), you may prefer to visit an alternative, Loch Chon, which offers a more peaceful, and much less touristy option to enjoy the Lochs. Loch Chon is also the inspiration for many mystical creatures, so although you won’t see the Loch Ness in the water, keep a look out for kelpies and faeries! Loch Chon is also the home to an array of fish, so if you enjoy fishing, Loch Chon is the perfect destination.

You can enjoy the other part of the namesake of this National Park, the Trossachs, in many ways. There are many scenic drives for you to enjoy, such as The Duke’s Pass. On this seven mile road, you’ll be faced with a new breathtaking view at every twist and turn, seeing the Trossachs from many different angles.

Another way to enjoy the National Parks is to take a tour on a seaplane. This is a truly unique way to see and experience Loch Lomond and the wider National Park, with unforgettable views. Loch Lomond Seaplanes offer tours with different routes around the park and with different durations so you can pick one which suits you.

Loch LomondLoch Lomond

How do I get to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park by air?

The closest airport to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs is Glasgow Airport. Many airlines fly to this airport. For domestic flights from the UK, choose airlines such as British Airways, Loganair or Flybe, or for international flights, including transatlantic flights, there are airlines such as Thomas Cook Airlines, Jet2.com and Air Transat.

Travel Tips and FAQs for UK National Parks:

When’s the best time to visit National Parks in the UK?

You may be thinking that the UK is only a good holiday destination in the summer months, however, National Parks are great year-round. Even though the chances of nice weather are better in the months of May, June, July and August, the British weather means there’s never a guarantee of a sunny holiday in the UK, so don’t limit yourself by thinking you can only travel to the UK in these months. In fact, there is something beautiful about the UK’s dramatic countryside on a wintery and rainy day.

To help prepare you for a trip to the UK in any weather situation, we’ll not only cover things to do on a sunny day, but also things to do when it's rainy, making sure you’re prepared if you visit in the summer on a rainy day, or when you fancy a trip during the cheaper, off-peak seasons where good weather is not guaranteed.

Bank holidays, although notorious in the UK for having terrible weather, are a great time for British people to make the most of long weekends and take a trip to one of the UK’s National Parks. However, if travelling from the US or elsewhere in the world, you may want to avoid these busier weekends, in favour or quieter and cheaper weekends away from the crowds.

What is there to do in UK National Parks?

The National Parks are so diverse in the UK that there is so much to do and see. Across all 15, you’ll be able to do physical activities such as hiking, biking, swimming, horse riding and even climbing. There are also many places to explore and capture on camera, from the vast countryside but also pretty villages, historic castles and even larger cities to be found nearby. Nature lovers will also be able to get a thrill, as there is a magnitude of different wildlife that can be found across the three countries.

How do I get to the UK National Parks?

The UK is very connected with international flights. Many people may choose to fly to the large UK hubs such as London Heathrow or London Gatwick and rent a car to drive to National Parks. However, there’s also the option of many regional airports around the country where people can choose to fly more directly to the National Parks. Alternative Airlines provides options for both of these, including domestic flights from one end to the other end of the country, should people wish to explore more than one National Park or explore a different part of the country.

Can I travel to more than one UK National Park?

Of course! You can travel domestically within the UK, using smaller, regional airlines. You can purchase airlines such as these on Alternative Airlines, as we pride ourselves on providing flights to lesser-known places on niche airlines. If you want to create an itinerary with multiple legs to the journey, you can buy multi-city flights with us. Simply enter the closest airport to the National Park as explained below into our search bar and begin to create your itinerary.

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