From fossil hunting to famous poets, there’s a surprising amount happening in Britain’s national parks.
As a child growing up in Britain, a trip to the countryside meant cagoules, never-ending peat bogs, and drizzle. But times have changed, and these days, people go outdoors for fun. If you’re one of them, you will love Britain’s national parks. And with the range of activities available, even homebodies might enjoy themselves.
Drive the Snow Roads
WHERE: Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
The Snow Roads form a route through the Cairngorms National Park from Blairgowrie to the highland town of Grantown-on-Spey. These are the highest public roads in Britain and offer world-class views of snow-capped peaks. Along the way you can stop at distilleries and castles, or the villages of Ballater and Tomintoul, which are good bases for walks through pine forests and mist-covered valleys. Balmoral is also en route—so you never know, the Queen might even whizz past you.
Where to stay: In a sumptuous Scottish country house hotel such as Kinloch House.
Sail on a 118-Year-Old Steamship
WHERE: Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Scotland
A beautiful loch dotted with islands, Loch Katrine inspired Sir Walker Scott’s poem “The Lady of the Lake.” The Sir Walter Scott steamship has been sailing for more than 100 years, and still possesses its original engine—although now it runs on biofuel. Take a trip on the steamship and hire a bike from the pier to explore the surrounding area. The 30-mile Great Trossachs Forest Way passes alongside the water. From the summit of nearby Ben A’an, there are 360-degree views of lochs, mountains and forests.
Where to stay: In a luxury eco-lodge on the lochshore.
Go Walking at Simonside
WHERE: Northumberland National Park, England
Situated above the pretty town of Rothbury, Simonside is a sandstone ridge with sweeping views across the moorland—on a bright day, you might see as far as the Lake District. A Bronze Age burial cairn marks the highest point. There are several walks to different viewpoints and you can also visit Lordenshaws, the remains of a 2,000-year-old hill fort. The rocks here are covered with odd circular hollows called “cup and ring marks.” No one really knows their origins, and locals tend to call them “rock art,” while nodding wisely.
Where to stay: In a luxury country house hotel such as Eshott Hall.
Visit Dove Cottage
WHERE: Lake District National Park, England
Dove Cottage in Grasmere became William Wordsworth’s home in 1799 and is where the poet wrote his most famous poems. Next door to the house, the museum holds a huge amount of archive material including letters and journals which give interesting insights into his life. There is a program of events, including poetry readings and guided walks of the area where you can see the daffodils that inspired the poem. You can even row on Grasmere lake as William and his sister Dorothy did. Don’t worry, people won’t think you’re odd. They’ll just think you’re English.
Where to stay: The Rothay Garden Hotel, an award-winning hotel in Grasmere.
WHERE: North York Moors National Park, England
Two hundred years ago, Staithes was a large fishing port, and the town’s weather-beaten fishing cottages are extremely camera-friendly. Wander through the cobbled streets or take in the view from high up on the cliff tops where you can join the Cleveland Way, a 109-mile route around the edge of the national park to the coast at Filey. At the Cod and Lobster pub on the harborfront, you might find grouse and scallops on the menu. If you head out on a boat, you might spot Minke whales–there have been numerous sightings in recent years.
Where to stay: In one of the restored 18th-century fisherman’s cottages listed on Airbnb.
Climb Kinder Scout
WHERE: Peak District National Park, England
Kinder Scout was made famous in 1932 when 500 ramblers walked from Hayfield to secure the right to walk across open countryside in an event called the Mass Trespass. You can follow in the footsteps of the trespassers or explore other walks in the area. At 636 meters, the summit is not high, but the views are still awe-inspiring. It is a challenging climb, so much so that every year a handful of people get lost trying to find the highest point or get stuck in peat bogs, which can be more than four meters deep. No one enjoys being pulled out of a peat bog, so make sure you have a good map before heading out and look for birdlife including grouse, curlew and golden plover.
Where to stay: At the boutique Losehill House Hotel, which has a spa for when you return from your walk.
Cycle the Swale Trail
WHERE: Yorkshire Dales National Park, England
The newly opened Swale Trail is a 20-kilometre mountain bike trail between the stone villages of Reeth and Keld. Aimed at novice bikers, the route follows the River Swale on and off-road through a landscape of rolling hills and drystone walls that was farmed by Vikings more than 1,000 years ago. The Dales are home to much of Britain’s best-loved wildlife including badgers, brown hares, and otters as well as rare red grouse, pheasants, and partridges. In summer, the meadows bloom with 100 different types of wildflower. Both villages have several old pubs, meaning you can start and end the ride with a traditional Yorkshire pint.
Where to stay: At the Burgoyne, a walker-friendly country house hotel in Reeth.
Sail in a Norfolk wherry
WHERE: Broads National Park, England
Step back in time 100 years and cruise the Broads in a Norfolk trading wherry. Three hundred of these boats sailed the Broads delivering local goods until road and rail transport took over around 1900. A genuine piece of living history, the wherry Albion originally transported coal from Lowestoft to Bungay. The slow pace will give you time to absorb the outstanding wildlife and scenery. There’ll be plenty of jealous looks as you float along—you’ll feel like the Queen, only happier.
Where to stay: The Norfolk Mead Hotel, a country house hotel in nearby Coltishall.
Visit Beaulieu and Buckler’s Hard
WHERE: New Forest National Park, England
You won’t find a more typical English stately home than crumbling Beaulieu, which has been owned by the Montagu family since 1538. As well as the house, there are beautiful grounds to explore and the National Motor Museum, which the family created to help pay for the upkeep of the house. Nearby, Buckler’s Hard is a pretty hamlet on the banks of the River Beaulieu with an important shipbuilding history and maritime museum.
Where to stay: The Montagu Arms Hotel just across the river from the Palace House and Abbey.
Explore Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters
WHERE: South Downs National Park, England
Birling Gap in East Sussex is part of the famous Seven Sisters chalk cliffs, which are millions of years old. The cliffs are eroding, and every so often bits of them collapse into the sea, so it really is a case of seeing this fragile landscape before it is gone forever. You can walk along the South Downs Way and admire the views, or hunt for fossils on the beach below—just be careful of collapsing cliffs. Nearby, at Belle Toute, there is a lighthouse perched right on the edge. The National Trust organizes rock pooling and other activities for children.
Where to stay: The George Inn, a 500-year-old pub in the nearby village of Alfriston.
Go Walking Around Haytor
WHERE: Dartmoor National Park, England
Haytor is a granite plateau on the eastern side of Dartmoor with panoramic views of the surrounding moorland. The huge rocks are known as tors and are the remains of mountains formed 280 million years ago. Below the rocks, Haytor Down is a landscape of open moorland with flowering gorse and bell heather. It’s a rare habitat for birds—at dusk, you might see golden plover or nightjars. The rocks catch the light and at sunrise and sunset, making for some great photo ops. You can scramble or climb up them for even better views—just mind the Instagrammers.
Where to stay: On a campsite or in a shepherd’s hut to get close to nature.
Visit the Valley of the Rocks
WHERE: Exmoor National Park, England
On the edge of the Bristol Channel above the towns of Lynton and Lynmouth is the Valley of the Rocks. Formed during the Ice Age, it’s a landscape of jagged cliff edges and curious rock formations that offers superb sea views. On the beach below, you can hunt for fossils, and at Lynmouth, you can ride the water-powered cliff railway—one of only three left in the world. You can even try your hand at climbing the rocks themselves. But don’t get stuck, or they’ll have to send the rescue helicopter to get you.
Where to stay: The Seawood Hotel, a boutique hotel a stone’s throw from the sea.
Walk the Pembrokeshire Way
WHERE: Pembrokeshire National Park, Wales
The Pembrokeshire Way Coastal Path stretches for 186 miles from the village of Amroth in the South to St. Dogmaels in the North. From the windy cliff-tops, you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of the rocky coastline, and spot seals in the water below. Every few miles there’s a picturesque harbour village or beach—in fact, there are more than 80 beaches in total along the way. When the tide is out, you’ll see locals relaxing. Don’t be alarmed when they speak. That’s Welsh. No one understands it.
Where to stay: In a traditional Welsh village. Some of the loveliest are Manorbier, Porthgain, Angle, Little Haven, and the tiny Wisemans Bridge.
Climb Mount Snowdon
WHERE: Snowdonia National Park, Wales
Britain’s most iconic mountain—and the highest outside of Scotland—was formed around 485 million years ago. On your way up, you’ll get views of glacial lakes, vast valleys, and remote peaks—as well as a thrilling sense of isolation. There are six different routes; some are more difficult than others. One of them, the Watkin Path, was the first official footpath in Britain. If you’re alone or not a confident walker, Snowdon Mountain Guides can provide an experienced mountain climber to go with you. This is Britain, so come prepared for ludicrous changes of weather.
Where to stay: In a village at the foot of Snowdown, such as Llanberis, Pen-y-Pass or Beddgelert, from where you can start your ascent.
Climb the Three Peaks
WHERE: Brecon Beacons National Park, Wales
The moorland of the Brecon Beacons is bleak but also breathtaking, and its geology is globally significant. The park attracts walkers and climbers because of the high number of peaks. In the Central Beacons, it’s possible to tackle three of them in one go. Starting at the Pont Ar Daf car park, make your way to Corn Du (873 meters), where you’ll find a Bronze Age burial chamber marking the summit. Next, head over to the summit of Pen y Fan (886 meters), the highest mountain in Southern Britain, and then follow the ridge along to Cribyn (795 meters), where you’ll have the satisfaction of having climbed all three peaks in one day.
Where to stay: At Nant Ddu Lodge Hotel in the heart of the park which has the added bonus of a spa.