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Planning on heading for the hills when travel starts again? Why not make them British hills? If there's one thing the U.K. does well, it's countryside. England, of course, is famed for its "green and pleasant land," but neighboring Scotland and Wales are both equally breathtaking in the bucolic stakes.
Wherever you find yourself in the U.K., you're never far from a national park, be it the lush valleys of the Lake District, the white cliffs of the South Downs, or the rolling moorland of the Yorkshire Dales — all peppered with picturesque villages and packed with wildlife.
From the stunning peaks of the Scottish Highlands to the serene vales of southern England, here are 10 popular national parks in the U.K.
1. South Downs National Park
Annual Visitors: 2.31 million
Britain's newest national park, the South Downs is also the country's most popular, thanks to its close proximity to London. An easy, hour-long train ride from the capital at its closest point, the park stretches from Winchester in the west to Eastbourne in the east. Tying them all together — across rolling green hills, through ancient forests, and along world-famous white cliffs — is the South Downs Way, a superbly scenic hiking and biking trail punctuated with a procession of charming old pubs where you can comfortably spend the night.
Don't Miss: Arundel Castle, a beautifully preserved 11th-century castle that towers over the pretty, pocket-sized town of Arundel. (The train station here makes an excellent jumping-off point for exploring the national park).
2. Lake District National Park
Annual Visitors: 2.17 million
Poet William Wordsworth famously wandered "lonely as a cloud" here, inspired by the extraordinary beauty of the Lake District, a mountainous region in North West England. Colloquially known as the Lakes, this blockbuster of a national park has everything: mountains, valleys, villages, coastline, and, of course, lakes. Now a UNESCO-protected site, it boasts, among other highlights, England's tallest mountain (Scafell Pike) and largest natural lake (Windermere). But this enthralling landscape is equally famous for its deep literary history, inspiring writers as diverse as Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome, and John Ruskin, as well as Wordsworth and his fellow 19th-century Lake Poets.
Don't Miss: Sitting at a crossroads between the cute villages of Ambleside and Hawkshead, the 200-year-old Drunken Duck has a genuine claim to be one of the best pubs in Britain. Don't miss the signature drunken duck itself — a whole roasted cherry-glazed bird that's served with duck-fat potatoes and all the trimmings.
3. Peak District National Park
Annual Visitors: 1.77 million
The U.K.'s first-ever national park, the Peak District marks its 70th anniversary in 2021. A gloriously wild pocket of wilderness sewn into the waistline of the U.K. between Manchester and Sheffield, it's known for everything from spectacular limestone valleys to magnificent stately homes (including the Chatsworth House, a.k.a. "The Palace of the Peaks"). The park itself is split into two distinct halves: the Dark Peak, which is higher and wilder, and the White Peak, known for its deep valleys and gorges. The latter also boasts a cluster of caverns and grottos, including Castleton caves — the only place in the world where the semiprecious mineral Blue John is mined.
Don't Miss: Bakewell, a charming riverside town within the national park, is famed for its delicious frangipane tarts.
4. The Broads National Park
Annual Visitors: 1.43 million
The Broads National Park is often compared to Venice — not because you'll find marble palaces and baroque bridges here, but for the seemingly endless waterways weaving in every direction. In fact, there are 125 miles of them, flowing past adorable hamlets, golden meadows, and ancient monasteries. This tranquil wetland, which is also a haven for some of Britain's rarest birds and butterflies, is best explored by boat over a number of days.
Don't Miss: Nestled between the natural beauty of the Norfolk Broads and the sweeping sandy beaches beyond, Winterton-on-Sea is one of the U.K.'s most striking villages. Picture traditional thatched cottages huddled around a rugged coastline with a historic 14th-century church at their heart.
5. North York Moors National Park
Annual Visitors: 1.29 million
The undulating hills, wooded dales, and captivating coastline of North York Moors National Park are popular with hikers, mountain bikers, and water sports enthusiasts alike. But it's also a magnet for photographers, thanks to its deep, seemingly endless fields of heather, grand old abbeys, and ancient sacred spaces. On the edge of the magical, misty moors, look out for Hayburn Wyke, a little-known rocky cove with its own tumbling waterfall hidden behind deer-filled woodland.
Don't Miss: Whitby, a fun seaside town on the edge of the national park, is the spiritual home of the great British dish of fish and chips.
6. Snowdonia National Park
Annual Visitors 1.1 million
Snowdonia is synonymous with mountains. After all, it's home to the mighty Mount Snowdon, the tallest peak in Wales. But aside from that windswept colossus, which you can crest via a vintage train that potters to the summit, the national park is also home to a number of beautiful Welsh villages, a collection of glittering waterfalls, and a coastline of fine sandy beaches. Plus, it has some of Europe's most impressive castle ruins, including Castell y Bere, the seat of Welsh kings in the 11th century.
Don't Miss: Zip World Velocity 2, the world's fastest (and Europe's longest) zip line, hurls thrill-seekers over Snowdonia's Penrhyn Quarry at speeds of up to 125 mph.
7. Pembrokeshire Coast National Park
Annual Visitors: 710,000
There are few better places to blow away the cobwebs than Britain's only fully coastal national park, an exquisitely wild, wind-sculpted corner of southwest Wales. The 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path follows the twists and turns of the park's crinkled coastline, serving up spectacular views along the way — not to mention an abundance of opportunities to spot local marine life, including seals, dolphins, and basking sharks.
Don't Miss: Pembrokeshire's offshore islands are a must-visit. A solid selection of boat trips are available out of Milford Haven, bound for the intriguing islands hovering on the near horizon. Top picks include a trip to the puffin colony on Skomer and a visit to the working Cistercian abbey on holy Caldey Island.
8. Yorkshire Dales National Park
Annual Visitors: 600,000
An area renowned for its rich farming heritage, Yorkshire Dales National Park is also celebrated for its wild heathlands and ancient woodlands, divided neatly by traditional drystone walls. The twisting trails here are great to explore on horseback or mountain bike, with a superfluity of waterfalls offering excellent end points (check out Hardraw Force, Janet's Foss, and Aysgarth Falls).
Don't Miss: In an area known for its natural beauty, one of the park's most striking sites is man-made: Ribblehead Viaduct. An extraordinary feat of Victorian engineering, the historic landmark rears in graceful arches over the Yorkshire moors, supporting the historic railway line as it sweeps toward Scotland.
9. Cairngorms National Park
Annual Visitors 570,000
Scotland's most popular national park is also the largest in Britain, encompassing a gargantuan 1,748 square miles. Boasting five of the U.K.'s six highest peaks, it's a dream for climbers. But it's also a haven for hiking, cycling, and even skiing, with Aviemore, a popular ski resort, located just inside its borders. The villages of Kingussie and Newtonmore, both framed by fragrant pine forests, make picturesque bases from which to explore this epic national park.
Don't Miss: The Highland Folk Museum, an open-air "living history" museum in Newtonmore, is dedicated to the rich (and often bloodthirsty) history of the highlanders.
10. Brecon Beacons National Park
Annual Visitors: 530,000
Like a number of national parks in the U.K., Brecon Beacons is almost as renowned for its cultural footprint as it is for its hiking footfall. That's because this pretty corner of South Wales — 835 square miles of broad valleys, ancient woodlands, and sharp mountaintops — is also home to the revered Hay Festival, which is held annually in a tented village and brings together some of the world's most exciting creative voices in literature and arts. For the rest of the year, it's all about the rugged wilds, with one mountain in particular — the remarkably photogenic Pen Y Fan — attracting most of the attention and hikers.
Don't Miss: The entire national park is a Dark Sky Reserve, boasting some of the best stargazing in western Europe. It's a glittering reward for those who choose to enjoy this remote slice of Britain (where sheep outnumber people) in the best way possible: under canvas.
Jonathan Thompson is a freelance journalist and recent British Travel Writer of the Year. Follow his adventures on Instagram at @jt_travels.
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