We will be the first to admit that as two Americans, we are pretty spoiled when it comes to beautiful national parks. Similarly, as two outdoor enthusiasts we, like so many others, have made it somewhat of a goal to visit all of the national parks within the United States. And while we have done a pretty good job so far, 28 out of 62, we know that there are so many more to go.
But while we have been so focused on American national parks, we have kind of forgotten that other countries also have areas set aside as national parks as well (call it American naivety). While on our international travels we have been lucky enough to adventure to a few of them (three in Thailand and two in Peru), we know there are so, soooo many more to see (and we were excited to just see America’s 62 parks).
One continent that looks to have some absolutely spectacular parks is Europe. An area we hadn’t thought too much about visiting, solely because it seemed too “Westernized.” We like going to unique, un-touristy places where we likely don’t speak the language and are unfamiliar with the culture. Much of Europe just seems too similar to the United States, so, therefore, it doesn’t pop up on our radar too much (it is also a lot more expensive than many other places).
But going back to the wide array of national parks that can be found within its borders (over 200). After stumbling upon a couple of them, we quickly started to reconsider our view of Europe. Here are a couple of European national parks that made us do a double-take:
| Triglav National Park, Slovenia
Slovenia, an outdoor lovers paradise, surprisingly has only one national park. But what a park it is. Covering over 4% of the entire country’s land area*, Triglav NP is perfect for adventurers looking to explore a lesser-known corner of Europe and get back to nature. There is so much to explore - rivers, canyons, caves, and forests - that you could spend a week there and not get bored. And if you are really looking for a memorable experience, consider summiting Mount Triglav, the highest peak in the park and the tallest mountain in the country (it sits at 2,864 meters or just under 9,400 feet).
*it is also one of the largest natural reserves in the whole continent
| Ordesa National Park, Spain (Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido)
A gateway, and one of the most stunning areas in the whole of the Pyrenees, Ordesa National Park is a must-visit for people looking to head out on some spectacular hikes (the park is home to over a dozen 3,000+ meter mountain peaks). The park, which was established in 1918, is the oldest protected area in the country, and one of the first national park-designated areas in the whole of Europe. Similarly, in 1997 Ordesa NP was made a world heritage site by UNESCO and is also half of the Ordesa-Viñamala UNESCO Biosphere reserve.
| Tusheti National Park, Georgia
Stretching across four mountain valleys of the Central Caucasus in eastern Georgia, this national park protects the areas stunning and unique natural wonders and cultural heritage. The landscape, made up of tall peaks, deep gorges, and high waterfalls, is famous for being so incredibly remote (and we mean remoteeeee). In fact, the roads to get there are only open three months out of the year - which really helps keep the areas traditions and culture alive. Tusheti NP is also home to some pretty unique and special animals, including the Caucasian turs, a mountain-dwelling goat with large, curved horns (if you are lucky you might also spot the Anatolian leopard).
| Durmitor National Park, Montenegro
Formed by glaciers, and home to the deepest gorges in all of Europe, Durmitor National Park is a true mountain paradise. With 50 mountains reaching over 2,000 meters in height, as well as plenty of alpine lakes to take a chilly dip in, this area is perfect for exploring, either by foot or by canoe (there are also opportunities to climb and mountaineer). The park is also home to a wide array of plants, many of which are endemic to the area, and animals, including brown bears and gray wolves.
| Jotunheimen National Park, Norway
| Sarek National Park, Sweden
Found in Lapland, in the far northern reaches of Sweden, Sarek NP is one of the most beautiful parks in Europe - mainly due to its epic, larger than life scenery and incredible remoteness*. While the park is open year-round, and there are specific activities for each season, the best time to visit is definitely late spring-early summer: the snow has melted, the ground is more solid, you will see baby reindeer and can enjoy the midnight sun (and not a lot of mosquitoes yet).
*in fact, there are no roads into the park - you have to hike or ski in.
| Bialowieza National Park, Poland
Known as the last remaining, and best-preserved, temperate primeval forest in Europe, the Białowieza Forest is just a snippet of what once stretched across the entire European Plain. But this national park has another surprise up its sleeve: it is home to the largest herd of bison, specifically European bison*, known as zubr. The two most common activities in Bialowieza are hiking and cycling - and since the park is right on the border with its neighbor, Belarus, there is even a specific border point just for hikers and cyclists to cross over.
*interestingly, the zubr is the continents heaviest mammal.
| Killarney National Park, Ireland
Home to the McGillycuddy’s Reeks - the highest mountain range in Ireland - Killarney NP is the country’s first national park, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site (seems to be a trend with European NPs). The McGillycuddy’s Reeks rise to a height of over 1,000 meters (~3,280 feet). At the foot of these mountains is the world-famous lakes of Killarney - hence the parks name. Besides adventuring in the mountains and lakes, no visit to the park is complete without exploring the Muckross House and Gardens - a late 19th-century mansion.
| Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Wales
The UK has over 7,700 miles of coastline, but only one coastal national park. Enter Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in Wales - 240 square miles of stunning coastline, historic buildings, and untouched beaches. If you have the time, and an adventurous spirit, there is no better way to see the park than by hiking along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path National Trail. Stretching 186 miles, a couple ~amazing~ highlights of this trail include passing 50 beaches, 40 Iron Age forts, and many medieval castles.
Europe as a whole might be known as a more “cosmopolitan” travel destination - it is home to some of the most fantastic and glamorous cities in the world (hello Paris, Madrid, and Rome) but after doing a bit (okay a LOT) of research on its wide array of national parks, we truly believe it has just as much natural wonder, outdoor adventure, and beautiful landscapes to explore as anywhere else in the world - including the USA. So next time we, and maybe yourself, consider an off-the-beaten-path adventure definitely keep these national parks in mind.
What are some natural areas in Europe that you think are overlooked? Are there other national parks that deserve to be mentioned?
Excited to learn more about European national parks? These two articles have some awesome information and inspiration.