6 UK National Parks to visit and what makes them special
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Editor’s note: The team at The Points Guy loves to travel, but now is not the time for unnecessary trips. Health officials note that the fastest way to return to normalcy is to stop coming in contact with others. That includes ceasing travel. We are publishing travel deals and destination content because we should all use this time to think about and plan our next adventures. TPG doesn’t advise booking trips for travel until the late spring or early summer — and even then be mindful of cancellation policies.
The clocks have gone forward and we can almost smell summer. In normal circumstances, summer is a great time to staycation and explore the U.K.’s amazing National Parks. There are 15 National Parks in the U.K. — 10 in England, three in Wales and two in Scotland.
What makes them special is that they offer so much to explore no matter what kind of holiday you usually go on — from ultimate relaxation to adventure. Below is a selection of our favourite National Parks along with ideas on where to stay and local things to do.
So while we cannot travel at the moment, channel some of your wanderlust by planning a lovely staycation at one of these six beautiful spots.
1. Cairngorms — the largest National Park
The Cairngorms in Scotland is the U.K.’s largest National Park and home to Aviemore, an awesome ski resort. It is also home to four of the five highest mountains in Britain (including the second-highest mountain in Great Britain, Ben Macdui), 60 lochs and many more lochans (small lochs) along with more than half the surviving Caledonian forest. Pine trees in the Cairngorms’ original Caledonian forests include a rare variety found only in Scotland and Norway.
Covering 1,748 square miles of central Scotland, it is also the northernmost national park in the U.K. with thousands of people living and working in the park.
Things to do at Cairngorms
Cairngorm Mountain is great for skiing and snowboarding during winter or for something more genteel, there is a mountain railway to enjoy amazing views from the top. Other activities include sailing, canoeing, fishing, riding, cycling, hiking and even the U.K.’s first permanent bridge-based bungee jump which hurtles down towards the waters of the River Garry.
Being the U.K.’s largest National Park, there is a multitude of other attractions including Balmoral Castle, museums, galleries and whisky distilleries in Speyside.
Where to stay
There’s a huge selection of accommodation in Aviemore and the Cairngorms National Park to choose from, from fine hotels to log cabins.
Macdonald Aviemore Resort is situated at the very heart of the Cairngorms National Park with a choice of three four-star hotels and 18 woodland lodges. Its loyalty scheme called Fans of Macdonald Hotels, offering discounts when booking for short breaks, dining experiences and spa treatments and competitions. Rooms start at about £125 a night for the end of 2020.
For a break that includes nature, Cairngorm Lodges are set in the heart of a Scots pine forest overlooking a tranquil lochan where red squirrels and roe deer are your neighbours. A three-night minimum stay starts at £134 per night.
2. New Forest — the smallest National Park
The smallest of the U.K.’s National Parks is the New Forest, which was designated as a National Park in 2005 and covers 570 square kilometres across Hampshire and Wiltshire. Once a royal hunting ground for William the Conqueror, the New Forest covers ancient woodlands, wild open heathlands and stretches of beautiful coastline. Although this is the smallest National Park, New Forest actually has the largest area of natural, deciduous woodland in Britain.
The New Forest is teeming with a huge range of birds, deer, dragonflies, reptiles, bats and much more. An amazing aspect of the New Forest is the ancient system of commoning which gives “commoners” (people who have land or property there) the right to allow their ponies, cattle, sheep and pigs to graze and forage freely in the forest.
Things to do at the New Forest
As well as riding, walking and cycling, the New Forest is a nationally-important area for fungi with many rare and endangered species, some of which are even new to science. If you don’t fancy mushroom hunting, you must explore the quaint shipbuilding village of Buckler’s Hard. Every July to September, the New Forest open-top bus tour is a hop-on, hop-off experience with three different routes. You can even bring your bikes and (well-behaved) dogs along.
New Forest pubs are an important part of the area’s heritage, with a wealth of history, ales and stunning locations. Whilst you’re in the mood, you can also take a tour around Ringwood Brewery (£12 per adult) where you can taste the malted barleys, sniff the hops, see the fermentation process and of course, taste.
Where to stay
For a luxury option, Chewton Glenn is home to a nine-hole golf course and a comprehensive spa hydrotherapy pool, outdoor whirlpool, cold drench showers, sauna, steam room and more. Hotels.com has a reward programme that, when combined with British Airways Avios, offers potentially big savings on your hotels. Hotels.com/Rewards offers a free hotel night for every 10 nights booked, regardless of the property or hotel brand. The value of your free reward night is the average price of the 10 nights you collect. Rooms start at £370 a night for the end of 2020.
For a more relaxed vibe, take a look at one of the many pubs with rooms like The Trusty Servant, which has just five bedrooms and a delicious wild New Forest mushroom risotto. Rooms start at £100 a night for the same time of year.
3. South Downs — the youngest National Park
The South Downs is the newest National Park, having achieved this prestigious status in 2010. It’s also the closest to London if you want to escape from the city. Stretching from Winchester in the west to Eastbourne in the east, the South Downs spans the counties of Hampshire, West Sussex and East Sussex.
The park follows the 99-mile route of the South Downs Way, a pre-historic footpath across the tops of the Downs, taking in dozens of historic towns and villages. With Neolithic flint mines and Bronze Age burial mounds, green pastures and ancient woodlands, calm meandering rivers and picturesque villages, soaring vistas over wide river valleys and unique chalk grasslands, the South Downs has something for everyone.
Walking is one of the main attractions of the South Downs with breathtaking countryside and sea views. Take a stroll along iconic Beachy Head and up towards the Belle Tout lighthouse (you can also stay there) where the 500-foot high cliffs offer unrivalled views of the Downs and the Channel.
Take to the skies over the South Downs and try paragliding. Devil’s Dyke has a road to the top and you can take a tandem flight with a licensed instructor. As night falls, the dark skies over the South Downs have been designated as an International Dark Sky Reserve. This status celebrates and protects the area’s skies, which means that you’ll always be able to see the stars here.
You’ll find many traditional wooden windmills dotted around the South Downs that still make flour. Jill Mill in Clayton holds open days so you watch how flour is made. A trip to the world-famous Glyndebourne opera house should not be missed especially the Glyndebourne Festival which showcases world-class opera indoors.
Where to stay
The Belle Tout lighthouse at Beachy Head has been beautifully restored. Built in 1832, themed rooms have 360-degree views of the English Channel, beautiful landscape, countryside and the Seven Sisters. Rooms start at £160 a night.
For a camping experience near Brighton, Housedean Farm Campsite is set on a working farm. It is also conveniently located directly on the South Downs Way for walking and cycling, making it a relaxed spot to spend evenings stargazing around the campfire, and is very affordable at £50 a night.
4. The Peak District — the oldest National Park
The Peak District is the original National Park, established in 1951. Its landscapes of hills and dales cover 555 square miles of the heart of England across Derbyshire, Staffordshire and South Yorkshire. The area is historically rich, with hundreds of listed national monuments, stately homes, magnificent abbeys and storybook villages.
Once you’re full of Bakewell tarts, you can walk it off on the Monsal Trail which follows the route of an old railway line through some of the Peak District’s most spectacular limestone dales. How about exploring Creswell Crags, a collection of nine caves where you can uncover the secrets of early man, discover incredible Ice Age cave art and marvel at the U.K.’s largest discovery of ritual protection marks?
Known as the jewel in the Peak District’s crown, Chatsworth House is one of the U.K.’s favourite stately homes with 30 magnificent rooms, a 105-acre garden, parkland, a farmyard and one of Britain’s best farm shops. A visit to the Peak District isn’t complete without a visit to the birthplace of the Bakewell Pudding. The market town of Bakewell has plenty to do including a Bakewell Pudding making experience at the Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop.
Where to stay
The DoubleTree by Hilton Sheffield Park Hotel is located on the doorstep of the beautiful National Peak District, has a large spa and is a good base for South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire. You can use Hilton Honors points for free nights, but in case you’re low on Honors points, remember you can top up your account by transferring from American Express U.K. Membership Rewards at a 1:2 ratio, meaning you will get two Hilton Honors points for every Membership Rewards point. Rooms start at about £60 per night for the end of 2020, so you might not get the best value out of using your Honors points when cash rates are this low.
Furthermore, The Platinum Card from American Express gives you Honors Gold status as a benefit, meaning free breakfast, upgrades and more points per pound spent.
If glamping is more your thing, Scaldersitch Farm offers a range of tipis, one with a private wood-fired hot tub. There’s a minimum two-night stay for about £130 a night.
5. The Lake District — the most-visited National Park
Known as Wordsworth Country, the Lake District is the U.K.’s most popular national park, welcoming over 16 million visitors per year, according to its tourism site. Comprising of 912 square miles of high mountains, lakes, rivers and coastline, the rugged wild terrain is a hiker’s paradise with flat lakeside trails or rough scrambles up craggy peaks, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are around 50 lakes and tarns, including England’s biggest and deepest. Windermere, England’s biggest natural lake, is over 10 miles long and a mile wide.
With rain running down from remote fells, the Lake District offers some of the purest wild water swimming in the U.K. From hiking up Aira Force waterfall, reaching the summit of Scafell Pike (England’s highest mountain), finding Ullswater’s famous daffodils or boating on Lake Windermere, there are many options for outdoor activities. Buttermere comes highly recommended for those wanting a slightly more secluded, less touristy waterside experience.
If water isn’t your thing, visit the Lakes Distillery, which produces gin, whisky and vodka using loads of local produce. Who could resist a brew with a view at the Drunken Duck especially when the vista is full of mountains and your pint has only travelled a few feet from the brewery next door?
Where to stay
In Windermere, Briery Wood Country House Hotel is set in its own secluded twenty-acre estate of landscaped gardens, woodland and meadow with views overlooking Lake Windermere. Rooms start at about £129 a night.
Wild camping is camping away from an organised campsite and there is a tradition of wild camping in the Lake District. Don’t forget, you must have the permission of a landowner to camp on their land.
6. Snowdonia — the largest Welsh National Park
The National Parks cover an amazing 19.9% of the land. Snowdonia National Park at 827 square miles is Wales‘ largest national park and the third-largest in the U.K. Home to Wales’ tallest peak and the mountain that gives its name to the whole park, Snowdonia National Park is steeped in myth and legend. The local culture has music and poetry dating back to the Bronze Age and about 65% of the local population speak Welsh, one of the oldest spoken languages in Europe, as their mother tongue.
The really special thing about Snowdonia is that you can go from sea level at the coast at Harlech right up to the top of Snowdon in a relatively short distance, so you can see a whole range of habitats from the sea, through sand dunes and oak woodlands out to the top of the mountains.
Climbing Snowdonia itself is a must if you are feeling fit, or you can visit the coastal village of Portmeirion for tea and cakes. There are seven heritage railways within the park — a legacy of the booming slate mining industry of the 19th century with arguably the best being the scenic Snowdon Mountain Railway, and the extremely cute Talyllyn Railway.
Snowdonia is dotted with castles including Harlech Castle, a Grade I-listed medieval fortification constructed atop a spur of rock close to the Irish Sea. Experience the incredible “floating” footbridge which allows you to enter this great castle as Master James intended.
If it is a rainy day, check out Sygun Copper Mine in the heart of Snowdonia, one of the wonders of Wales.
Where to stay
Aberconwy Resort & Spa is a luxury holiday home park in the Conwy valley, with the majestic mountains of Snowdonia as the backdrop and the Conwy Morfa Beach just on the doorstep, too.
With our National Parks dotted around the U.K. in gorgeous rural areas, the best way to get around is by car. For U.K. car rental, consider one of the best cards for car hire.
Read more: The best UK credit cards for car hire
The Platinum Card from American Express U.K. is handy, as you automatically receive elite status with Avis and Hertz, which also have free car class upgrade.
With the Amex Platinum, you are also protected against theft, damage and liability of the rental car including up to £50,000 for theft or damage to a vehicle (including any applicable excess) and up to £500,000 for damage to another person or their property thanks to the complimentary travel insurance provided with the card.
The British Airways American Express Premium Plus Credit Card has the equal highest earning rate for car hire spend with 1.5 British Airways Avios for each £1 spent on the card on car hire, which is the equal highest of any card available in the U.K.
Whilst whizzing around in your rental car, you can still collect points when filling up on petrol.
If you fill up at Esso filling stations across the U.K., you can earn one Nectar point for every litre of petrol and double up with two Nectar points for every £1 spent in the shop (when you spend £5 or more) or car wash. Esso also has a clever app, paying for fuel and collecting Nectar points couldn’t be easier. Simply link your card to your account and next time you go to pay via your app at participating Esso branded service stations your points will be added automatically. Unlock 500 bonus Nectar points on your first fill.
When filling up at Tesco, you can earn one Tesco Clubcard point for every £2 spent. You’ll receive £1.50 worth of vouchers for every 150 points you collect. These can be spent instore, online, at petrol stations or on other rewards like cinema tickets and days out. You can find the full list on the Tesco Clubcard website.
You used to be able to collect Nectar points at BP petrol stations but this was replaced by BPme. You need to download the app or register for a card and then you’ll receive one point per litre of fuel you buy, and two points for every litre from the Ultimate range. You can also earn points when you pop to the shop or get a car wash, with each getting you one point per pound spent. Once you’ve accumulated 200 points, you’ll be able to claim £1 off of your fuel or shop purchases. You can also use your rewards to donate to a charity of your choice.
National Parks in the U.K. are an institution that are just as beautiful as sandy beaches abroad. If you want to plan a summer road trip, these stunning parks in England, Wales and Scotland make a great staycation or day trip option when it is safe to travel again.
Featured photo by clayborough photography/Getty Images