For students, travellers, and just your average urbanites, it can be easy to forget to escape the city every once in a while. Staring at a handful of trees in front of your flat, you think “This is nature, right? This counts.” Technically. Maybe. But then of course, once you’re reminded of the real natural, grander landscapes of national parks and forests, they can be hard to get off your mind. Apologies in advance for making you want to escape concrete because whether you prefer warm climate or cold, open regions or overgrown tangles, a national park that captures you will have made the list, and just within Europe. Don’t worry though, almost every one of them has overnight accommodation which means these trips out of town will be well justified.
New Forest National Park
Created by William the Conqueror in 1079, this south English “forest” isn’t all that new. Formerly a royal hunting ground, it is represented by a mixture of land types including open heaths, forested enclosures and Gorselands. While it is no longer a hunting ground for deer, there are certainly other ways to entertain yourself in modern times. For the most ambitious travellers, the New Forest offers lengthy walking paths that will help you explore the imposing woodlands and active rivers surrounding you. Throughout the seasons, there are guided tours in which local experts explain the way the animal, mineral, and human history on which you stand. Perhaps most crucial, there are plenty of easily accessed and fully toilet-equipped picnic areas around the park. A trip out here may not exactly constitute “roughing it” but the amenities of this park are undeniable, and any level of explorer can appreciate its beauty.
- Best view: Buckler’s Hard is a former village not occupied since the 18th century and is surrounded by grassland and has a beautiful panorama since it sits on the mouth of the river that leads to the English Channel.
- Size: 571 km²
- Flora and Fauna: There are still some wild deer around, although they are no longer at the mercy of William I. There are also ponies and birds, and the New Forest is well-known for its variety of reptiles including adders, snakes, lizards, and frogs.
- Overnight: There are 10 campsites to choose from. Hollands Wood is one of the largest, and it is set on 22 hectares of oak-filled woods and neighboured by a heath. There are also hotels and bed and breakfasts in nearby Cadnam if you prefer indoor options
Bavarian Forest National Park
Situated in Bavaria close to the Czech border and bordering the Bohemian Forest, this fantastic area was founded the 7th October 1970 as the very first national park in Germany. What’s wonderful about it is that the large majority of areas in the national park are left to their own devices, making it appealing as an unmanicured escape. With its neighbour, the Bohemian Forest, they together form the largest coherent forest area in Central Europe. Within this space, there is 186 miles of magnificent hiking trails through untouched forests including paths, circular trails, and long distance routes for your roaming pleasure. Day tripping here will definitely make your office building feel a world away.
- Best Views: Große Rachel, at 1453 metres up, is the highest elevated point in the park and features a panoramic view. In good weather conditions, you can even see the Alps from here!
- Size: 242.5 km²
- Flora and Fauna: Many rare animals have settled in the park: lynx, wild cat, beaver, European otter, some bat species, and rare birds, as well as the common deer. The natural forest ecosystems of the Bavarian Forest National Park vary according to altitude: there are alluvial spruce forests in the valleys, then mixed mountain forests on the hillsides and mountain spruce forests in the high areas.
- Overnight: There is no camping in the national park but you’ll find a variety of accommodation such as hotels, guest houses, B&Bs, holiday apartments and homes, farm stays, mountain huts and youth hostels in nearby Spiegelau.
Parc National de Champagne
From the photo above, you might get a sense that this forest is almost mythical, and while it is very much real, there have certainly been some grim goings-on here. The name itself comes from the Celtic word: “Ar Duen” which means “the dark” and relates to the colour of the forest. It was strategically positioned in the middle ages, so during the Modern Age, it changed nationality (French, German, Belgian, Spanish, and Dutch) many times. During the World Wars, many battles took place here, the most important of which being the 1940 Battle of France, where the Nazis defeated the allies and started the French occupation. Four years later, the same battle took place, but this time, the allies won. Don’t let the bloodshed deter you because nowadays it’s a very popular destination for trekking, mountain biking, hunting and kayaking (though trekkers should have experience, as there are different trails and some are very steep). The same goes for mountain biking but kayaking is easily taken up by beginners, so not to worry, there is something for everyone to experience here!
- Best view: Located in the German-speaking part of Belgium, the Haute-Fagnes is the highest part of the forest, and has a sweeping view of the park.
- Size: 11,200 km²
- Flora and Fauna: In the mixed deciduous forest you’ll find beech, oak, willow, poplar, birch, and acacia trees and a variety of ferns and grasses. The blackberries, raspberries and wild strawberries that grow hint that delicious jams are also made here. In the pine forest, douglas firs (which are bluish white and up to 60 metres!), spruce (35 metres) and larch can be found. Meanwhile, in the Ardennes, there are nus, fruit, hazel, and holly trees. Fox, deer, roe, boars, wild cats, and birds number among the wildlife you may encounter.
- Overnight: In all, there are five camps which are located near the Netherlands border. Beatrix cular is the largest (16 hectares), and boasts a swimming pool and easy access to activities of the forest.
Nationaal Park De Hoge Veluwe
In contrast to those naturally formed forests, this man-made park was established by the businessman Anton Kröller and his wife Helene Kröller-Müller as a private estate in 1909. Until 1923, it was under construction while wildlife was being imported and the building of the hunting lodge, St. Hubertus, which was designed by the prominent Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage. Helene, on the other hand, was an art collector and had an art museum built inside the park. One of only two privately owned national parks in the Netherlands, De Hoge Veluwe offers a window into another time and another class. Between the museums, the lodge, and the meticulously maintained animal populations, it is truly able to have nature, art and architecture come together. In this spirit, visitors would be best advised to combine their walk or cycling tour along rich landscapes with a visit to either the Kröller-Müller Museum, the Museonder or Jachthuis Sint Hubertus.
- Best view: Kröller-Müller Museum – the one founded and opened by Helene. It has the largest collection of paintings by Vincent van Gogh, second only the Van Gogh Museum itself.
- Size: 55 km²
- Flora and Fauna: During spring the wildlife population in the park usually consists of roughly: 200 red deer, 150 roe deer, 50 wild boars, and 200 mouflon (wild sheep). Other species include foxes, badgers, and the European Pine Marten. Among the plant life are conifer woods, dunes and heath, really completing the overall picturesque beauty of the park.
- Overnight: Rogue camping is illegal, but there is a beautiful camping site in the park right next to the main entrance for just €7.
Fragas do Eume
This is actually not one forest, but a set of Atlantic forests that go along the Eume River. Fraga is Galician for “mixed forest,” so the park is named as such due to its variety of trees. There is a legend which says that when God created the 3 rivers in the Xistral mountains (Eume, Landro and Masma), he promised a sacrificed man per year to the first one that reached the ocean. Betrayed by the other two, the Eume had to cross valleys and mountains in order to win, which is why it is so rough and savage, or so they say. And savage it was, before the modern dams were installed, one or two people would die in the forest each year. Into the much safer future, the region was declared a National Park in 1997, and a Site of Community Importance by the EU. Must-do activities are mainly water related, as the river plays such an important role. Kayaking, swimming, chilling by the waterfalls, and hiking number among great ways to while away an afternoon. There are two main routes for hiking, a short one and a long one that goes from Betanzos to Cabo Ortegal. There is even a guided route (if you prefer) that goes along the river canyon from the Fisherman’s refuge of Cal Grande up until the monastery.
- Best view: The top of the Monasterio de Caaveiro (a 10th-century monastery) will easily give you the best view of the Fragas.
- Size: 90 km², though 3.5 were tragically destroyed by a fire in 2012 that lasted for four days
- Flora and fauna: The many varieties of tree include: oak, ash, alder, chestnut, birch, yew, hazelnut, fruit, arbutus. There are more than 20 fern species alone. Animals in the park include a range of reptiles, roe deer, wild boars, squirrels, owls, and goshawks.
- Overnight: There is camping space at “Fragadeume” settled in an ancient farm, or you can rent bungalows for small families. However, these spaces are only open during the spring and summer, so be advised.
Parco Nazionale del Circeo
Parco Nazionale del Circeo- Wikimedia Commons: Egnoka
Established in 1934 by Benito Mussolini, the aim of this national forest was to protect the last remains of the Pontine Marshes.Those marshy bits exist in the forest and usually form in fall from accumulation rain. But it’s more than a forest, in fact, the park is made up of five regions including the island of Zannone, a dune region, the promontory, a strip of coastal land and the forest. Nowadays, visitors can enjoy many hiking and biking trails of various difficulties, which makes it ideal and customizable when matching activities to abilities. The tourist centre has trails mapped out and rates them according to distance, terrain, and ability, thereby reducing the work you might have to put into your vacation.
- Best view: Magnificent views are to be seen from the park surrounding the forest, including from the Torre Paola abandoned tower, which itself is beautiful and of the regional period of Italian architecture.
- Size: 84 km², making it the largest plain forest in Italy.
- Flora and fauna: Trees such as the bay laurel, the Turkish, Fraxinus, cork, holm and English oak cover the forest, the floor of which contains hawthorn, blackthorn, wild apple and strawberry trees, Ruscus aculeatus and numerous others. Among the vegetation, you can look forward to seeing boars, hares, European badgers, foxes, green whip snakes, and Triturus newts.
- Overnight: No camping, but many accommodation options in the local town Sabaudia.
Fôret des Landes
Unlike most forests, this one was created almost entirely by men and then administered industrially afterwards. It exists on formerly swampy land and was mostly uninhabited until the 19th century when people began using stilts to move about the humid grounds. The forest was cultivated to rehabilitate the landscape in the area and make it more accessible for us non-stilt owners. Besides the natural beauty, there is an appeal in the sort of attempted symmetry created by the trees that were all grown in these organized lines. Activities include cycling and walking along marked trails and paths, canoeing, kayaking at the Leyre river and horse riding along the forest tracks.
- Best view: Le Teich bird reserve sits atop the Bassin D’Arcachon and is home (for part of the year) to over 300,000 migrant birds.
- Size: Over 10,000 km² (making it the biggest forest in Occidental Europe!)
- Flora and fauna: Mostly pines, but mixed in some areas with oaks, alder trees, birch trees, willows and hollies. Animals include deer, hares, squirrels, hedgehogs, foxes, wild boars, and grass snakes.
- Overnight: There is no camping allowed, but there are lovely guesthouses for visitors to stay at.
This park’s gorgeous gorge showcases those elements of nature we often take for granted, mistakenly assuming have always existed. The formation of the Trögern Klamm occurred when the Trögernbach (bach means ‘small river’) ate itself through the stone beath it and now it’s 600 metres deep into the earth. Humans in the area responded to these changes in course by constructing a trail to follow alongside the river. Because it’s on relatively level ground, this means it is easily accessible for kids and those in wheelchairs. For a bit of activity, one option is to do a quick 3km hike along the trail so you can stare up at the incredible rock formations. You’ll start at the foot of the former sea that existed before drying up, leaving many fascinating fossils and marvellous chalkstone walls that the river formed over hundreds of years.
- Best view: The Silberbründl is a well at the beginning of the hiking trail which hosts a beautiful view, and also a spring of water just in case you get thirsty!
- Size: 1.5 km²
- Flora and fauna: Beech and Grey Alder trees cover the area, and you’ll find 40 different bird breeds as well as over 130 different types of spiders. So definitely be aware if you’re phobic!
- Overnight: Unfortunately, there’s no wild camping in Austria and no camping nearby, but there is a beautiful lodge-style hotel in the nearby Eisenkappel-Vellach, which is just outside Ebendorf.
Peneda-Gerês National Park
Thankfully, Parque Nacional Peneda-Gerês was founded as a national park in 1971 in order to preserve its natural beauty, which is also quite expansive. The park itself contains not one but two forests, called Albergaria and Cabril. In addition to the overwhelming imagery you’ll experience upon visiting, there are also archaeological interests to be had here as well. There are signs of human presence here from 4000 B.C., and dolmens, megalithic tombs and ruins of the former Romans, Buri, Suevi populations are not to be missed out on. It’s not your typical historical lesson, but definitely way cooler, and a lot prettier. Complimenting the trees, there is also a constant presence of water: streams, waterfalls and six rivers. Continuing their commitment to natural protection, the Portuguese government promotes a controlled tourism program, as massive tourism would seriously harm the ecosystem of the park. In addition to the ruins, there are several marked hiking routes that are worth recommending, the best of which is the Ruta de Mézio, as it is the most complete.
- Best view: Geira Romana is an original Roman road that formerly linked the town Astorga of Spain with the town Braga in Portugal. It is quite well preserved, as are the panoramas it offers.
- Size: 702.9 km²
- Flora and fauna: There is lush vegetation around the valleys: oaks, hollys, arbutus, and birch trees. Due to human interference, bears and one variety of goat disappeared in the 1890s. Meanwhile, the Iberian wolf and eagle are in danger of extinction due to hunting and have been legally protected since the end of the 20th century. There remain: roe deers, wild boars, otters, wild cats, owls, hawks, vipers, water snakes, salamanders, and the “garrano” (a small horse).
- Overnight: There are six small camping areas around the park, one of which has awesome yurts and teepees for rent
Abisko National Park
Sweden is a country well-known for its stunning landscapes, a reputation at least partly owed to Abisko National Park. The park itself is located in the Laplands, 195 km north of the Arctic Circle and was established in 1909 as one of the country’s first national forests after Sweden’s conservation laws were instated. It’s also easily reached by train via Kiruna, so there are few excuses to sit this one out. Located at the Northern end of the revered 440 km Kungsleden trail and spanning forest, river, and mountains, hiking is an obvious option for activity. However, you can take a much shorter route with help from the guide centre called the “Naturem” and get a recommended route based on time limits and ability. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are also great options for the sportier folk. Even in inclement weather, you can take a walk around the Naturem centre which features a museum of the birds that can be found in the park.
- Best view: The midnight sun can be spotted from a (potentially romantic) ski lift. Recently, tours have escalated in price so that during midnight sun season they are about €26 per person, although a discount is available for hostel members. If you’re visiting between October and March, you’ll have the best chance to see the northern lights from the same chairlift.
- Size: 77 km²
- Flora and fauna: The forested areas are largely deciduous with many birch trees. Fitting the typical images you might conjure up of the North Pole, reindeer and elk can indeed be seen throughout the park. Arctic foxes, lynxes, wolverines and bears are somewhat rarer. To date, no Santa Clauses have been spotted.
- Overnight: There are two designated areas for camping: one in the mountains and one in the park. In case you love nature but are also partial to running water, there’s always the option of staying in a cosy cabin in the mountains.
Feature Image Courtesy of Flickr: Luxembourg belge
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