The 12 Best National Parks in Europe

The 12 Best National Parks in Europe

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Whether your thing is hiking fjords in Norway, exploring castle ruins in Portugal, or sampling local cheese in Slovenia, the national parks of Europe appeal to a wide range of interests.

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    It's got all the water features you'd want for an outdoor adventure: waterfalls, rivers, lakes, and glaciers. It's also known for its spectacular day hikes and hut-to-hut treks, including the famous Besseggen Ridge. People come here to ski, river raft, and glacier walk, too.
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    The largest national park in Iceland, Vatnajokull covers 13 percent of the country and encompasses the Vatnajokull glacier, as well as the area that once made up Skaftafell and Jokulsarglijufur national parks. This is where fire meets ice in the form of glaciers and volcanoes.
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    North York Moors National Park is part forest, part moorland, with a mix of heathland, bog, and coastal cliffs thrown in. Wandering through villages on the rocky coastline between bays and beaches will give you an entirely different sense of the park than wandering through the higher ground covered in heather, turning the moors into a purple magic carpet in summer.
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    It may be Slovenia's only national park, but Triglav National Park preserves three percent of the country's land, including much of the Julian Alps, the park's namesake mountain, and the country's highest peak, Triglav. Several mountaineering routes lead adventurous climbers to the top.
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    On the border with Belarus, Bialowieza National Park is a rare area of undisturbed nature. It's Poland's oldest national park, covering the central part of Bialowieza Forest, considered the last original bit of European lowland forest. Because of its extensive old-growth forest and the role it plays in conserving the area's biodiversity, Bialowieza National Park was named UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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    The appeal of Cevennes National Park (website in French) is varied. For some, the park is at its best in summer thanks to canoeing, kayaking, climbing, caving, and fishing. For others, it's winter with snowshoeing, tobogganing, and Nordic skiing. But whether you hang out in the woods, moors, and meadows or the valleys, mountains, and gorges, you'll likely see traces of human settlements past and present.
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    Forgo the most well-known national park in the country, Cinque Terre, and skip the also-packed Amalfi Coast for even more gorgeous cliff-side villages, hikes, and Mediterranean views in the less-traveled Gargano National Park. Located in Puglia in the "spur" of Italy's boot, the rocky coastline of white limestone cliffs abutting turquoise blue waters of the Adriatic is a major draw. But Gargano National Park also encompasses wetlands, valleys dotted with wild orchids and woodlands.
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    The inaccessibility of the park (you have to hike or ski in and will probably end up wading through water since there are few bridges) only adds to its allure. This is the real wild, with no marked trails. Reading a map and compass aren't just nice to know—they're essential. The park contains nearly 100 glaciers and almost half of Sweden's tallest peaks, including Barddetjahkka, the country's most easily ascended 2,000-meter summit with views of its largest glacier.
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    Abutting the border with Spain, Portugal's only national park is notable for its castles, culture, and ponies—Peneda Geres is full of wild Garrano ponies that have been in the region since the first millennium B.C.E. Today, you can find domesticated ponies that will take you across the park's countryside. Granite cliffs, forests, and bogs keep the terrain interesting.
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    You might expect to find Archipelago National Park, with more islands than any other archipelago in world, in someplace like the Maldives. But this park and UNESCO Biosphere reserve is in the Baltic Sea off the southwest coast of Finland. The fairly remote location is reached by ferry, taxi boat, rented motor or sailboat, or kayak.
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