An escape to nature might mean a lovely little wander through Heaton Park, but you mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger. When you think of National Parks, you might think of titans like Yellowstone in the US, but the UK actually has a whole host of brilliant National Parks that feature truly jaw-dropping scenery and excellent outdoor activities. Some of them lie tantalisingly close to Manchester, so we’ve found picked out the best activities to try in the UK’s National Parks – go on, get out there and explore them!
UK National Parks Near Manchester
Of the fifteen National Parks in the UK, four are conceivably reachable from Manchester in two hours or less. Offering sweeping views, mesmerising woodlands, and tranquil waters, each offers a rather different escape to nature – and if you plan things right, they can work nicely as a little day trip.
1. Peak District
Fifteen National Parks there may be, but only one can be the first. The Peak District is the OG National Park, established on April 17th, 1951 – and almost seventy years later, it remains one of the most dramatic. Once you’re suitable full of Bakewell tarts, you can walk it off by making your way along the Monsal Trail, which follows the route of an old railway line. Otherwise, I’d recommend scoping out the impressive Derwent Dam, spending the day at Chatsworth House, or scaling Kinder Scout, the highest peak in the park. Check out our pick of the most beautiful places to visit in the Peak District, or take a look at the Peak District website.
2. Lake District
It’s one of the UK’s most beloved National Parks for a reason. William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter are just two of the literary giants to wax lyrical about the Lake District, enchanted by the high fells, deep lakes, and jaw-dropping views. There’s nothing in the country that quite compares to scrambling along Helvellyn’s Striding Edge, for instance – and perhaps nothing quite so stomach-churning! You could easily spend a week here and not run out of things to do, from hiking to Aira Force waterfall, reaching the summit of Scafell Pike (England’s highest mountain), seeking out Ullswater’s famous daffodils, scoffing Grasmere gingerbread, or boating on Lake Windermere. The possibilities really are endless… Learn more here.
3. Yorkshire Dales
A 2016 extension of the park brought parts of Lancashire and Westmorland into the fold, turning the Yorkshire Dales into the UK’s third-biggest National Park. The Angel at Hetton is a Michelin star pub you’d be mad to miss, and it’ll fuel you up nicely for a wander around such sights as the dramatic limestone cliff of Malham Cove, the three-tiered waterfall of Aysgarth Falls, and a train trip across the Ribblehead Viaduct. You can see more here.
Home to Wales’ tallest peak, and the mountain which gives its name to the whole park, Snowdonia National Park has been drawing the crowds for years now. Tackling Snowdonia itself is a must for the hale and hearty, but the more sedate amongst you can adjourn for the Italianate coastal village of Portmeirion for tea and cakes. No fewer than seven heritage railways can be found within the park – a legacy of the booming slate mining industry of the nineteenth century – with arguably the best being the scenic Snowdon Mountain Railway and the extremely cute Talyllyn Railway. More info here.
UK National Parks Further Afield
If you’re prepared for a longer journey, then some of the most breathtaking scenery in the UK lies within National Parks a little further away. From the windswept coasts of Wales to the chilly peaks of England, and the deep lochs of Scotland, adventure awaits in the rest of the UK’s National Parks.
5. North York Moors
A UK National Park that’s home to “England’s finest view” and the world’s most popular heritage railway? Sign us up! Whilst the two spots in question – the vista from Sutton Bank escarpment and the 24-mile long North Yorkshire Moors Railway – are must-visits, you can also scope out the charming village of Hutton le Hole. Over on the coast, meanwhile, are the twin sights of Whitby Abbey (made famous by an appearance in Dracula) and the enchanting smuggler’s village of Robin Hood’s Bay. More info here.
6. South Downs
The South Downs are the UK’s youngest National Park, having only achieved the status in 2010. Handily, it’s also the closest National Park to London, and thus ripe for exploring on your next escape from the city. Stretching from Winchester in the west to Eastbourne in the east, the South Downs span the counties of Hampshire, West Sussex, and East Sussex. The ambitious amongst you can tackle the 160km long South Downs Way, which is popular with ramblers and cyclists, but for the rest of us, there are rolling fields, ancient woodlands, and chalk hills to explore. Fancy a day trip here? We’d recommend the picturesque Devil’s Dyke, charming Arundel with its grand castle, and the sweeping, spectacular scenery of Beachy Head for starters. Discover more here.
7. New Forest
You’ve got William the Conqueror to thank for this one, for it was the Norman upstart who first gave the New Forest protected status – bestowing upon it the title of royal forest so that he could hunt uninterrupted. Despite the name, the New Forest is actually ancient woodland that first sprouted after the withdrawal of ice sheets some 12,000 years ago. These woods once covered much of the south of England, and all that remains now falls within the National Park, established in 2005. Grazing pigs, ponies, and horses are a common sight, and horseback riding is a very popular activity around these parts. If you don’t fancy seeing the forest from horseback, though, a walk to the old Stuckton Iron Works, a meander around the Bronze Age barrows, or exploring the quaint shipbuilding village of Buckler’s Hard should suffice. Learn more here.
8. The Broads
Formed in 1989, The Broads represent the UK’s waterland National Park, and constitute some 200 kilometres of waterways across East Anglia. Somewhat unusually when compared to the rest of the nation’s National Parks, The Broads are part man-made; they were created after rising sea levels flooded peat pits that had been excavated in the Middle Ages. The result is truly gorgeous stuff, with lakes, rivers, and marshland as far as the eye can see. An abundance of wildlife – including a wealth of bird species – fills the landscape, and windmills dotted lazily about the land make for a perfect pastoral scene. If you’ve got the time, hiring a boat for a serene cruise is a must – otherwise, walking and cycling are excellent options to explore. See more here.
Moors, woods, valleys, and farms make up Exmoor National Park, which spans 267 squares miles across Devon and Somerset (AKA the greatest county in England, not that I’m biased). Over 1000 kilometres of footpaths and bridleways are itching to be explored here, which will take you to scenic spots like Tarr Steps, Valley of the Rocks, and Doone Valley. The best time to visit, however, might be at night, as Exmoor’s status as International Dark Sky Reserve makes it as fine a spot for stargazing as you’ll find in the UK. You can see more here.
The South West boasts another stunning National Park, in the form of Dartmoor. The stark, misty moorlands inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, so a walk across the hills is a must. Otherwise, you can feel the spray at Canonteign Falls, experience the eerie silence of moss-covered Wistman’s Wood, or head to Buckfastleigh to catch the South Devon Railway to beautiful Dartmouth. Find out more here.
We’re pushing right up against the Scottish Borders now, but Northumberland is well worth the journey. Proudly boasting “England’s cleanest rivers, clearest air, and darkest skies”, it remains one of the UK’s least-visited National Parks. That’s somewhat inexplicable when you consider that it’s home to Hadrian’s Wall and other Roman ruins, along with parts of the Pennine Way, and the photogenic Sycamore Gap tree, one of the most famous trees in England. The waterfalls of Linhope Spout and Hareshaw Linn are enchanting, and like Exmoor, the park is perfect for stargazing, as Northumberland is the largest Dark Sky Park in Europe. Discover more here.
12. Brecon Beacons
Onto Wales now, and the rolling hills of the Brecon Beacons. A nip of whisky from the Penderyn Distillery should keep you toasty during a walk across the hills, and with the book-filled town of Hay-on-Wye tucked up in the northeastern corner of the park, you’ve really got no excuse not to visit. One thing you really shouldn’t miss is the four waterfalls walk, which begins at Ystradfellte and winds along the river until it reaches Sgwd Yr Eira waterfall, which you can actually walk behind! Find out more here.
13. Pembrokeshire Coast
Wales’ third and final National Park stretches along the western coast, which can mean only one thing: beaches. Gorgeous, golden beaches, with Barafundle Bay, Marloes Sands, Little Haven, and Whitesands Bay amongst the very best – they’re also excellent for surfing and bodyboarding. Other excellent things to do include exploring the pastel-coloured houses of Tenby, or moseying around the charming twin towns of Goodwick and Fishguard. Pembroke Castle, meanwhile, starred in the Emilia Clarke tearjerker Me Before You, and all in all, it’s enough to have you falling in love with this park. You can find out more here.
14. Loch Lomond & The Trossachs
The last stops on our tour of UK National Parks fall in Scotland, and they’re honestly two of the most beautiful ones. First up is Loch Lomond & The Trossachs, home to some twenty large lochs and countless mountains to conquer. Truly epic walking trails, like the Three Lochs Way or the Rob Roy Way – which follows in the footsteps of the outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor – will talk a few days to complete, but other activities like kayaking, loch cruises, and mountaineering are other fine options. See more here.
Last, but by no means least, is the Cairngorms – the largest UK National Park. We’re way up in the Highlands now, in an area which is home to Aviemore, the country’s best ski resort. Towering Cairngorm Mountain will be covered with skiers and snowboarders during the winter months, but if you’re not quite so coordinated, you can hop on the mountain railway to enjoy the views from the top. Elsewhere in the park, you’ll find the UK’s first permanent bridge-based bungee jump (which hurtles down towards the waters of the River Garry), arty things at the Frank Bruce Sculpture Park, and winning views across Loch Morlich. Discover more here.
[Originally published on Secret London]