Whether it’s stunning landscapes, natural wonders or fascinating wildlife, the world’s national parks are some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring places on the planet, and would you believe there are more than 4,000 across the globe? You better get your skates on if you want to visit them all!
Europe contributes 359 national parks to that total, all offering an escape from the hustle and bustle of city life and the chance to get back to nature and enjoy everything, from lakes and mountains to flora, fauna and more.
Here are six of the best, starting with my new favourite…
Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
Chances are you’ll have seen pictures of Croatia’s most popular national park without necessarily knowing its name, as it’s one of the most picturesque places on the planet. In fact the Eden-like paradise of turquoise lakes and gently gushing waterfalls looks almost too perfect for this Earth - I can’t be the only person who thought I’d dreamt it, can I?
Visiting it for real instantly dispatched that dream - I had to wait to get in. The increasing number of people visiting the park means entrance is staggered, and your ticket states the time from which you can enter. However, once inside it’s easy to see why the park is regarded as one of the most beautiful natural landmarks in Eastern Europe.
Everywhere you turn there’s another spectacular vista, and I definitely recommend arriving as early as you can, staying as long as you can, and walking as much as you can. That way you’ll be able to take in as much of the park as possible, because so much of it is accessible on foot. You can tour many of the lower lakes by walking any of (or better yet all) eight easy circular routes, the bulk of which are on wooden planks that skirt the waters’ edge, offering terrific views of the waterfalls that feed the lakes, as well as letting you get up close to the mineral-rich turquoise waters.
The park contains 16 terraced lakes in total - as well as many smaller ones - and the different shades of water in each is caused by the variety of mineral levels they contain.
You can get a greater overview of the cascading waters - as well as see the upper lakes - by hiking some of the many trails that head out into the beautiful woodland that surrounds the lakes, and intermittently gives stunning vistas, either glimpsed between the foliage or from viewpoints that offer spectacular panoramas.
I can’t recommend the latter enough, but if time or mobility is an issue, then the entrance fee includes a boat trip across one of the larger lakes definitely worth it if you’re pressed for time, as well as a ride on the ‘panorama train’ which takes in a number of the outer lakes.
This year felt like a good year for me to finally visit Plitvice Lakes - 70 years after it was designated a national park and 40 years since becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site - but in truth any time is a perfect time to visit this beguiling place.
• RCI has 1 affiliated resort in Croatia.
Oulanka National Park, Finland
There are more lakes and waterfalls to enjoy in this ruggedly beautiful national park, which is located in Lapland, near the border of Finland and Russia.
Being close to the Arctic Circle means you’ll get a different experience depending on what time of year you visit - biking, hiking, canoeing and white-water rafting, on the Oulankajoki River, are popular pastimes in the summer. Autumn brings a kaleidoscope of brightly-coloured foliage, while the snowy beauty of winter conjures a definite sense of having wandered into Narnia.
Like Plitvice, Oulanka is certainly a fantasy world for lovers of the outdoors, with winter being a great time for snowshoeing and hunting, waiting or hoping for the Northern Lights.
That sense of rare beauty even extends to one of Oulanka’s proudest treasures - a pink and white calypso orchid that’s found here, but virtually nowhere else in the world, and features on the park’s logo.
That said, the park is best known for the fantastic Karhunkierros walking trail, the most popular hiking route in Finland. The 82-kilometre trail runs right through the park, and takes in waterfalls and pine forests, streams and hanging bridges, as well as taking up to a week to complete. Most people walk a shorter section of course, but attempting the whole thing is made easier by the log huts that are dotted along the way and offer free overnight accommodation.
And if that sounds like a friendly gesture, then you’ll find plenty of that from the welcoming people who make Oulanka a very special place to visit.
• RCI has 39 affiliated resorts in Finland.
Sierra Nevada National Park, Spain
Despite being at the opposite end of the continent - and with a name that conjures up images of cowboys rather than snowmen - you’ll also find snow in Sierra Nevada, which is home to some of Spain’s highest mountains, as well as Europe’s most southerly ski resort.
That’s only in winter - well, November to May - of course, and like Oulanka the park is a paradise all year round, with stunning scenery that ranges from lush valleys and pine forests to sparse, barren mountains that offer views back across the Granada countryside, and on a clear day all the way to Morocco.
The best way to get those views is to hike of course, and the huge park is not only home to some great trails, but is so big - at more than 85,000 hectares the largest in Spain - that you don’t need to venture far to have those mountains virtually to yourself.
The big one is Mount Mulhacén, which at just under 3,500 metres is mainland Spain’s highest peak, and just about climbable in a day if you pick the right route. Alternatively, you can take your time, bedding down at one of the overnight refuges near the summit.
If you want an easier climb, the fairly undemanding two-hour hike to the top of the iconic Valeta, Spain’s third highest mountain, makes for a great day out in the hills, and you can pick - and point - out its distinctive peak when you’re back celebrating your achievement in Granada.
But if the thought of hiking a mountain doesn’t quite light your fire, Sierra Nevada is also home to lots of gentle hikes and cycle trails - many of the best are in the Cumbres Verdes area, where you’ll also find some lovely picnic spots.
And if even the picnic is too much - I’m trying to cover everyone here - then you can just head to the resort town of Sierra Nevada itself, pitch up on the terrace of one of the many bars and restaurants and enjoy spectacular mountain views with your lunch or dinner.
• RCI has 111 affiliated resorts in Spain.
Timanfaya National Park, Lanzarote
Speaking of food, I had one of the best lunches of my life, and at the least likely of places, in the heart of Lanzarote, more years ago than I care to admit.
I can’t remember the name of the place and am loath to Google “restaurant where the binmen eat, Lanzarote” but that is exactly how I remember it - pulling into a car park filled with bin lorries and wondering where on Earth my friend was taking me.
Needless to say, the food was excellent, and well worth the trip inland from the Canary Island’s beautiful coastline.
As is Timanfaya National Park, which like Mount Teide on the neighbouring island of Tenerife, is the unearthly volcanic centre of the popular holiday hotspot.
And hot is the word - despite being volcanically dormant, temperatures get up to 600 degrees Celsius just 13 metres below the surface. That fact provides much of the entertainment at the Montañas del Fuego (Fire Mountains) Centre at Islote de Hilario, which is the burning heart of the park. Here you can watch straw ignite when it’s dropped into shallow pits, and steam gush out of holes just moments after water has been poured in. The kids will love it.
The underground heat also cooks the food at El Diablo restaurant (assuming you don’t want to go looking for a car park full of bin lorries), one of many elements of the park to have been designed by Lanzarote’s legendary artist César Manrique. He also came up with the optimum route to get the most out of the park’s unique lava landscape, which is made up of nearly 32 square kilometres of volcanic ash and colourful dormant volcanoes.
You can’t just roam around here, but you’ll get to see the most impressive areas by boarding one of the coaches for a ride along the Route of the Volcanoes, a trip that is included in the entrance fee.
Optional extras include guided hikes and camel rides up the side of a volcano, but this is the sort of national park which realistically only requires a few hours to enjoy before returning to traditional holiday pursuits. Which probably explains why it’s the most popular visitor attraction in Lanzarote - around one million people get fired up by it every year.
• RCI has 16 affiliated resorts in Lanzarote.
Golfo di Orosei National Park, Sardinia
Don’t be misled by the first four letters of this national park, as you won’t need your clubs and Pringle sweaters here.
In fact you might have cause to pack the salopettes and helmet, as the largest national park in Sardinia is also home to the island’s only ski resort!
Not that many people come here for the limited ski season, as the park, located along the island’s eastern coastline, is better known for its beautiful secluded beaches, crystal waters, dramatic rocky landscapes, cliffs and colourful flora and fauna.
Wildlife here ranges from peregrine falcons and golden eagles to Mediterranean monk seals, so like the wonderful natural habitats in most national parks, there’ll be something to see, no matter which direction you train your eyes.
Here you’ll be looking up - at the island’s highest peak, Punta La Marmora (1,834m); down - at the stunning Gola Su Gorropu Canyon; and out - across the sea from lovely beaches, such as Cala Goloritzé and Cala Mariolu.
Established as recently as 1998, the 74,000-hectare park is yet to truly capture the attention of tourists heading for a week at the island’s coastal resorts, but the fabulous landscapes at the Parco Nazionale del Golfo di Orosei e del Gennargentu - to give it its full title - are on a par (ahem) with the world’s best.
• RCI has 21 affiliated resorts in Sardinia.
If the golf puns are teeing you off then look away now, because the iconic symbol of Hungary’s Hortobágy National Park is (wait for it) the Nine-Hole Bridge.
Once again the name has nothing to do with the game, of course, but rather the shape of the bridge, which has nine arches and is the longest stone bridge in the country.
Folklore suggests the nine holes represent the nine mistresses who lay in the Hortobágy River so that legendary highwayman Sándor Rózsa (Hungary’s answer to Dick Turpin) and his horse (!) could step on their backs to cross and escape capture by the police.
That the bridge has become a symbol for this amazing national park - Hungary’s first - makes little sense beyond perhaps those who like a focal point, but the fact that it has ties to an ancient fable is poignant, given that many see the park as a tangible representative of the country’s past and the Great Hungarian Plain.
This is especially true in the tiny village of Hortobágy itself, which regularly recreates the times when cowboys and travelling Gypsy bands were the mainstays of its drinking holes.
All of which is good fun, but the real attraction of the park is to see those incredible grass-covered plains, which are the largest semi-grasslands in Europe. The 810 square kilometre national park and wildlife preserve is also home to a fabulous array of birdlife (as well as a bird hospital that you can visit), potentially attracted by Hungary’s biggest artificial fishponds at Lake Kondás.
You can ride the quirky fishery railway to get a closer look at the lakes, ponds and fauna that surrounds them, providing another glimpse at the traditions of this part of the world.
Because for all the natural beauty of the landscape at Hortobágy, the park is more like a living museum to Hungary’s past, where fascinating folklore still lives and breathes… And maybe those exaggerated tales aren’t so far-fetched after all.
• RCI has 16 affiliated resorts in Hungary.
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