The best national parks in the UK offer completely free access to some of the nation’s most breathtaking natural landscapes. Thanks to ‘right to roam’ legislation, it’s possible to freely wander around vast areas of the countryside, to the peaks of some of the country’s tallest mountains and around the largest lakes.

    The range of landscapes represented in our list is remarkably diverse. There’s anything from ancient forests to rugged coastlines, verdant valleys to bleak moorlands, snow-capped peaks to low-lying wetlands and more. All offer impressive ranges of activities, including hiking, cycling, climbing, kayaking, fishing, boating, horse riding, gorge walking, fell running, Munro bagging (that is, summiting Scottish mountains), and more. Alternatively, if you’re feeling lazy, you can enjoy a nice pint in a cosy country pub in one of the many picturesque villages that dot each national park.

    1

    Snowdonia National Park

    Take on the tallest mountain in Wales

    Snowdonia National Park is best known for Snowdon, the tallest peak in Wales. At 3,560 ft tall, you can see Ireland, Scotland, England and the Isle of Man from the top, on a clear day. The Snowdon Mountain Railway makes access to this stunning viewpoint simple, but it is more satisfying to earn the view. There's a choice of hiking routes to get you to the summit, with different difficulty levels available.

    Of course, there’s more to this 827-square-mile park than just Snowdon. The area contains gorgeous mountain lakes, the beautiful Coed y Brenin and Gwydir Forest Parks, dozens of charming rural towns and villages, as well as other mountain peaks to conquer, such as the 3284-ft Glyder Fawr and the 2,930-ft Penygader.

    Location: Penrhyndeudraeth, Gwynedd LL48 6LF, UK

    Phone: +44 (0)1690 710426

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    2

    Yorkshire Dales National Park

    Discover the iconic charm of rural Yorkshire

    The Yorkshire Dales National Park consists of 841 square miles of rolling green hills, charming old villages and over 1,000 farms. This national park is unusual in the UK in that it is mostly the manmade features that give it its character. Indeed, the rugged, rural feel of the place is often also attached to the people born here.

    The natural sights like Aysgarth Falls and Malham Cove are certainly beautiful, but the little towns and villages like Kettlewell, Hawes and Kirkby Lonsdale are arguably the stars of the show. In fact, the scenery in the Dales has been the stars of such shows as All Creatures Great and Small (2020) and Emmerdale (1972), as well as movies Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010), Calendar Girls (2003), and more.

    Location: Bainbridge, Leyburn DL8 3EL, UK

    Phone: +44 (0)1969 652300

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    3

    Peak District National Park

    A diverse area of stunning human history

    The Peak District National Park is the oldest national park in the UK, covering a 555-square-mile swathe of Derbyshire, Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Staffordshire and Yorkshire. Despite its name, there aren’t actually any mountain peaks in the Peak District, though there are plenty of tall hills that are worth hiking up. Kinder Scout is the tallest at 2,087 ft, with Black Hill and Shining Tor also among the popular picks.

    What the Peak District is actually named after is the Anglo-Saxon Pecsaetan tribe that initially settled in the area. They and subsequent generations left their mark in the form of about 2,900 listed buildings, including Chatsworth House, Haddon Hall and Lyme Park. Many beautiful villages in the gorgeous valleys carve up the area, along with dozens of old mines and caves.

    Location: Castleton, Hope Valley S33 8WS, UK

    Phone: +44 (0)1629 816200

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    4

    Brecon Beacons National Park

    Test your endurance on Pen y Fan

    The Brecon Beacons National Park in South Wales is renowned for its ruggedness, to the extent that it's regularly used by the military to test their toughest soldiers. However, the 521.6-square-mile park isn't as unforgiving as it may seem. In fact, the toughest part of the military tests – scaling the 2,907-ft Pen y Fan – is accomplished by thousands of hikers each year (though they do generally take the easier paths).

    Other highlights of the Brecon Beacons include the beautiful Sgwd yr Eira Waterfall, the surprisingly tree-less ‘Great Forest’ (Fforest Fawr) and the striking Black Mountain. Much of the park’s area consists of grassy moorland grazed by native ponies and sheep, giving it a distinctly bare and bleak feel.

    Location: Libanus, Brecon LD3 8ER, UK

    Phone: +44 (0)1874 624437

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    5

    New Forest National Park

    See some of the UK’s rarest wildlife and habitats

    The New Forest National Park is, despite its name, extremely old and not even entirely forest. In fact, the Knightwood Oak is thought to be over 500 years old. The park features significant areas of heathland, coastline and grassland. Interesting, it only became a national park in 2005, making it one of the younger areas of protected land in the UK.

    The 223.9-square-mile New Forest National Park is home to a fascinating array of wildlife, including endangered bird species, Britain’s few native lizard species, numerous deer, and the extremely rare European polecat. Even if you’re not able to spot any interesting creatures, the peaceful woodlands are delightful to explore and there are many activities for children.

    Location: Bolderwood Arboretum Ornamental Dr, Lyndhurst SO43 7GQ, UK

    Phone: +44 (0)1590 646600

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    6

    Lake District National Park

    Britain’s most popular natural escape

    The Lake District National Park is an essential feature of any list of the best national parks in the UK. At 912 square miles, it’s the largest in England. The park attracts millions of visitors each year, making it most popular in the whole UK.

    It’s not hard to see why it would attract so many people. Firstly, there are the namesake lakes – some of the largest in England – such as Windermere, Ullswater and Coniston Water. Then there are fells and mountains, including the 3,209-ft Scafell Pike – England’s highest mountain. In between, you have gorgeous glacial valleys, charming towns and villages, stunning waterfalls and over 1,800 miles of public footpaths and bridleways. The opportunities for outdoor adventures at the Lake District National Park are seemingly endless.

    Location: Cumbria, UK

    Phone: +44 (0)1539 724555

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    7

    Cairngorms National Park

    Heaven for mountain climbers

    The Cairngorms National Park is the largest area of protected land in the UK, covering a staggering 1,748.3 square miles of northeast Scotland. Situated right in the middle of the Scottish Highlands, you’ll naturally find that mountains make up most of this starkly beautiful landscape. If you like climbing, Cairngorms will definitely earn its place among the best national parks in the UK as it has 55 that are over 3,000 ft tall, including 4 of the UK’s 5 highest peaks.

    However, don’t make the mistake of thinking Cairngorms is just mountains. It’s also home to 3 impressive rivers, 60 lochs, a quarter of all of Scotland’s native woodland, huge wetlands and 25% of the UK’s threatened animals, plants, insects and fungi species.

    Location: Grantown on Spey PH26 3HG, UK

    Phone: +44 (0)1479 873535

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    8

    Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

    Take a walk along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path

    The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park covers 243 square miles of the Welsh shoreline and wild inland hills. It features some stunning sandy beaches, many of which have won Blue Flag and other awards. Amroth and Tenby’s two beaches are among the highlights. In between these, you’ll find striking cliffs, stacks, natural arches and sea caves galore. You can explore them all by following the Pembrokeshire Coast Path – all 186 miles of it.

    Away from the sea, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park’s attractions include a range of historical and archaeological sites. Pentre Ifan is perhaps the most iconic. While it may look like a copy of Stonehenge, it’s actually the entrance to a massive Neolithic tomb, the rest of which has long since weathered away.

    Location: Pembrokeshire, UK

    Phone: +44 (0)1646 624800

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    9

    The Broads National Park

    Take a boat out in Britain’s largest protected wetland

    The Broads National Park is a vast area of almost completely flat wetland crisscrossed by a network of rivers, lakes, canals and other waterways. You might be surprised to find that it is actually the lakes that are known as broads, not the wide, sweeping areas of land between them. There are 63 broads in the 117-square-mile national park, most of which are very shallow.

    Over 125 miles of the waterways in the Broads are navigable, making boating trips a very popular way to explore the area. There’s plenty to see along the way, too, from rare bugs and birds to the many historical windmills that dot the breeze landscape.

    Location: Thorpe Rd, Norwich NR1 1RY, UK

    Phone: +44 (0)1603 610734

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    10

    Dartmoor National Park

    One of Britain’s most iconic moorlands

    Dartmoor National Park is famous for its wide expanses of colourful yet bleak moors, dotted with barren granite hilltops. Indeed, the bleakness of the landscape was an important part of its use as the backdrop in The Hound of the Baskervilles. With its ancient landmarks, secluded villages and mists scented with wild heather, it’s a landscape steeped in mystery.

    Figuring out how to have a fun and memorable time in Dartmoor National Park is certainly not a mystery, though. The 368-square-mile region of South West England has fast-flowing streams for fishing, kayaking and swimming in, there are 450 miles of public footpaths and bridleways to hike and dozens of charming towns and villages to visit. Particular highlights include the Avon Dam Reservoir, Childe’s Tomb, Hound Tor and an interesting array of birdlife. Fortunately, you’ll struggle to find any spectral hounds.

    Location: High Moorland Visitor Centre, Princetown, Yelverton, Devon, PL20 6QF, UK

    Phone: +44 (0)1626 832093

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    Ben Reeves | Compulsive Traveller

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