National parks

Travel writer Carole Beck chooses the most beautiful national parks for holiday adventures with family and friends

With 15 national parks throughout the UK, you don’t need to venture far to discover some of the most beautiful picnic spots and walking trails. The summer holidays are the perfect time to head outdoors – even more so when spending time outside is linked to improved mental health and reduced stress levels.

More recently, a study by the University of Plymouth found that outdoor learning has a huge impact on children’s physical and emotional development, making exploring the UK’s best national parks the perfect summer holiday activity. Here are 9 of the best destinations to visit…

1. Best for stargazing

What: Northumberland National Park

Where: Northumberland

Highlights: This beautiful national park is home to Northumberland International Dark Sky Park, where, on a clear night, the sky is studded with millions of stars. At 572 square miles, this is the largest area of protected night sky in Europe.

Don’t miss: Exploring the surrounding Kielder Forest by bike or spending an evening at the Kielder Observatory.

National parks

Photo: Northumberland National Park Authority / Cain Scrimgeour

2. Best for sea walks

What: Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

Where: Pembrokeshire

Highlights: With 418km of cliffs, beaches, harbours and coves, this coastal national park is one of the most beautiful in the world.

Don’t miss: The Pembrokeshire Coast Path – a hilly route passing through two nature reserves and lots of little beaches. Look out for dolphins, basking sharks and seals swimming off shore.

National parks

Photo: Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority

3. Best for family adventures 

What: New Forest National Park

Where: Hampshire

Highlights: Kids love animal-spotting, and there are lots grazing on common land here – from donkeys and cows to New Forest ponies, measuring less than 150cm high. You’ll also find pretty villages, thatched teashops and sandy beaches where the national park meets the sheltered Solent waters.

Don’t miss: The beach at Lepe Country Park.

National parks

Photo: New Forest National Park Authority

4. Best for keen cyclists

What: North York Moors National Park

Where: North Yorkshire

Highlights: You’ll find spectacular scenery and cycle trails, plus plenty of family-friendly paths. You’ll also find The Moor to Sea Cycle Network, which is around 240km of cycle paths through moorlands and forest to the coast. Don’t want to take your bikes on holiday? There are two cycle centres offering bike hire and repairs.

Don’t miss: The wildlife as you ride – there are badgers, stoats and deer living here.

National parks

Photo: North York Moors National Park Association

5. Best for watersport lovers

What: Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Where: Loch Lomond

Highlights: With 22 lochs, 50 rivers, rapids and coastal sea, watersports fans will be in their element. There are also safe and sheltered waters for first-timers. Try your hand at canoeing, kayaking, sailing, windsurfing and stand up paddle boarding.

Don’t miss: The 20 tiny islands of Loch Lomond – take a canoe or kayak tour.

National parks

Photo: Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

6. Best for hiking

What: Lake District National Park

Where: Cumbria

Highlights: There are 214 different hills and mountains – known as ‘wainwrights’ – in the Lake District. For a bit of adventure and bragging rights, climb the famous Scafell Pike – at 978m, it’s England’s highest mountain. Look out for new hotel Another Place, which offers wild swimming opportunities and group hikes.

Don’t miss: The challenging climb up Helvellyn via the knife-edge ridge of Striding Edge, which is great for experienced hikers. Rest up on a boat trip around Lake Windermere afterwards.

National parks

Photo: Lake District National Park / John Hodgson

7. Best for camping

What: Dartmoor National Park

Where: Devon

Highlights: If you want to get away from it all, and are prepared to carry all you need in your backpack, make a trip to Dartmoor. It’s the only National Park in England to allow wild camping. You can pitch in certain areas of the moorland for two nights as long as you respect your surroundings and follow the rules ­– you can’t be within sight of a public road, have too large a tent or camp in a car park. If you prefer a few home comforts, Dartmoor has plenty of campsites – you can even stay in a yurt or tree house.

Don’t miss: Cream teas, scenic tors and beautiful peaks, plus the prehistoric settlements at Grimspound – the remains of 24 Bronze Age roundhouses.

Dartmoor national park

8. Best for amazing landscapes

What: Brecon Beacons National Park

Where: Brecon

Highlights: It’s where you’ll find the Fforest Fawr Unesco Global Geopark, a zone of woodland renowned for its incredible geological formations – you can spot the effects of the Ice Age and ebbs and flows of the sea as it charts the changes in the landscape over the past 450 million years.

Don’t miss: One of the park’s waterfalls, or cave exploring.

National parks

9. Best for a spot of history

What: Cairngorms National Park

Where: Highlands

Highlights: The UK’s biggest national park is home to the country’s highest mountain range, plus it’s packed with history. From the 10th to 18th centuries, ancient Scottish rulers built lots of stunning castles, including Blair Castle, a favourite of Mary Queen of Scots.

Don’t miss: Loch an Eilein – home to a 13th-century castle tucked on an island (voted Britain’s best picnic spot), and the Queen’s private residence, Balmoral Castle.

Cairngorms national park

Looking for more ways to explore the great outdoors? Check out 7 of the healthiest UK breaks.

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