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14 Enchanting European National Parks

When traveling to Europe, it's easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the cities and miss out on the stunning natural scenery that the continent has to offer. National parks provide the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in nature and appreciate the breathtaking landscapes. When planning your next European adventure, be sure to set aside at least a day to visit one of the following national parks:
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1. Saxon Switzerland National Park, Germany

European national parks

Saxon Switzerland National Park, located in Eastern Germany, offers an otherworldly landscape filled with dramatic rock formations, deep valleys, and dense forests. Despite its name, the park isn't located in Switzerland but gets its moniker from Swiss artists Adrian Zingg and Anton Graff, who were reminded of the Swiss Alps by the area's rugged beauty.

Covering an area of about 36 square miles (93.5 square kilometers), the national park is renowned for its unique sandstone formations, which have been eroded over millions of years to form countless peaks, spires, and gorges. The park's towering sandstone cliffs, some of which rise over 200 meters, are a draw for climbers from all over the world, with over 700 peaks and numerous climbing routes to explore.

One of the most iconic sights in the park is the Bastei Bridge. Standing at a height of about 194 meters above the Elbe River, this sandstone bridge links several rock pinnacles and offers stunning panoramic views of the surrounding landscapes. The Bastei Bridge is easily accessible through a network of well-marked trails and is a must-visit spot for any visitor to the park.

The Saxon Switzerland National Park is not just about sandstone cliffs; it also houses lush valleys, crystal-clear streams, and mixed forests home to a variety of plants and animals. The park's forests are a mixture of pine and deciduous trees, offering a diverse habitat for wildlife such as lynx, otters, and numerous species of birds.

In addition to its natural wonders, the park is peppered with historical landmarks, including medieval fortresses and ancient ruins. Königstein Fortress, one of the largest hilltop fortifications in Europe, sits on a plateau within the park and is well worth a visit.

2. Caldera de Taburiente National Park, Spain

European National Parks

Located on La Palma, one of the lesser-known Canary Islands, Caldera de Taburiente National Park offers a spectacular mix of geological formations, rich biodiversity, and breathtaking views. The park gets its name from its most prominent feature, the Caldera de Taburiente, which was originally believed to be a giant volcanic crater but is now known to be a complex mountain structure formed by erosion.

The caldera, spanning approximately 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) across, is one of the world's largest erosion craters. At its heart lies the Taburiente River, the only perennial stream in the Canary Islands. As the river has carved its way through the caldera over millennia, it has created a network of deep ravines and gorges, filled with lush vegetation, waterfalls, and inviting natural pools, making it a paradise for hikers and nature lovers.

Caldera de Taburiente National Park hosts a remarkable array of native flora, with over 500 plant species, many of which are endemic to the Canary Islands. The park's pine forests, some of the best-preserved in Spain, are of particular importance due to their adaptability to the island's volcanic soils and resistance to fire.

3. Jotunheimen National Park, Norway

European National Parks

Situated in the heart of Norway, Jotunheimen National Park, whose name translates to the "Home of the Giants," is an incredible testament to Norway's dramatic landscapes. Covering an area of over 445 square miles (1,150 square kilometers), it's the country's premier destination for mountaineering, boasting more than 250 peaks rising above 6000 feet (1,900 meters), including Galdhøpiggen and Glittertind, the two tallest peaks in Northern Europe.

The park's high mountains, deep valleys, and cascading waterfalls are the product of ice-age glaciers that carved out the area thousands of years ago. During the summer, these mountains offer challenging hiking and climbing routes for adventurers, while in the winter, they transform into snowy playgrounds for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

Apart from its stunning landscapes, Jotunheimen is also home to a diverse range of wildlife. It's not uncommon to spot reindeer grazing on the high mountain plateaus or to hear the call of the wagtail echoing through the valleys. The park also has populations of arctic foxes and musk oxen, both of which are rare in Europe. In the clear waters of its numerous rivers and lakes, anglers can find various species of trout and Arctic char.

4. Bialowieza National Park, Poland

European National Parks

Located on the border between Poland and Belarus, Bialowieza National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a Biosphere Reserve. The park encompasses the last and largest remaining parts of the primeval forest that once covered much of Europe. The forest is home to the European bison, the continent's heaviest land animal, which had been hunted to near extinction but was reintroduced successfully in Bialowieza.

Spanning an area of over 58 square miles (150 square kilometers), Bialowieza National Park is a refuge for diverse ecosystems, including wetlands, meadows, and a unique blend of tree species. In its old-growth forest, you'll find ancient trees, some of which are over 400 years old, standing tall alongside a profusion of undergrowth plant species.

The park is also a haven for bird watchers, with more than 250 bird species recorded, including rare birds like the white-backed woodpecker and the Eurasian pygmy owl. Other wildlife species in the park include wolves, lynx, wild boar, roe deer, and various kinds of bats (don't worry, they're the fruit-eating kind!)

5. Oulanka National Park, Finland

European National Parks

Established in 1956, Oulanka National Park is a pristine natural area located in northern Finland, near the border with Russia. Spread over an area of 104 square miles (270 square kilometers), it represents the striking beauty of Finnish Lapland with its diverse landscapes ranging from lush forests and river valleys to sweeping hills and rugged cliffs.

One of the park's most notable features is the Oulanka River that winds its way through the park, creating dramatic rapids and serene river landscapes. The river's banks are dotted with several hanging bridges, providing excellent viewpoints and photo opportunities. The Kiutaköngäs rapids, one of the most impressive in Finland, is a sight to behold with water cascading down layered bedrock amid untouched wilderness.

The park's geographical diversity supports an abundance of flora and fauna. During the short Arctic summer, the park comes alive with blooming wildflowers, including the rare Calypso orchid, known as the "lady's slipper". Wildlife in the park includes reindeer, elk, and numerous bird species, including golden eagles and Siberian jays.

6. Lake District National Park, England

European National Parks

Established in 1951, the Lake District National Park, located in Cumbria in the North West of England, is a stunning landscape of rolling hills, deep valleys, and tranquil lakes. It is the largest national park in England, covering an area of around 911 square miles (2362 square kilometers). The park is known for its glaciated landscapes with numerous lakes, locally referred to as "tarns," and the mountainous terrains, known as "fells."

The largest natural lake in England, Lake Windermere, is situated in this park and is a hub for water sports and leisurely boat cruises. Nearby is the charming town of Bowness-on-Windermere, which serves as a gateway to the lake and offers a variety of shops, cafes, and accommodation options.

The Lake District's high points, like Scafell Pike, England's highest mountain, offer panoramic views of the entire park. Besides Scafell Pike, Helvellyn and Skiddaw are other popular peaks for hiking. The fells are crisscrossed by a network of footpaths, providing an array of walking routes that cater to all abilities. The park is also a haven for wildlife, as red squirrels, one of England's most loved species, can be found here, as well as a variety of birds such as peregrine falcons, ospreys, and the rare ring ouzel.

7. Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy

European National Parks

Italy's oldest national park, Gran Paradiso, is a haven for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Situated in the Graian Alps in the north-western part of the country, it is named after Gran Paradiso mountain, which is located within the park and is the only mountain wholly within Italian territory that is over 4,000 meters high.

Gran Paradiso National Park is recognized for its stunning alpine landscapes, characterized by high peaks, glaciers, and deep valleys. The park also encompasses lush forests and alpine meadows that are home to an abundance of wildflowers in the spring and summer months. These diverse habitats provide refuge for a variety of flora and fauna, including the emblematic Alpine ibex. The park was initially created in 1922 to protect this species, which had come close to extinction due to hunting.

In the winter months, the park transforms into a winter wonderland, offering opportunities for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Wildlife enthusiasts may also enjoy animal spotting, with the chance to see not just ibex but also chamois, marmots, ermine, and over 100 species of birds.

8. Durmitor National Park, Montenegro

European National Parks
When you explore the Durmitor National Park, you can indulge in a variety of activities. You can pluck and relish fresh berries, go on an exhilarating bike ride amidst the mountains or paddle away in the river's cool waters. And, to complete your experience, you can stay in one of the cozy wooden cabins available. If you're not fond of snow, it's best to plan your visit during the summer months. Durmitor offers dramatic landscapes marked by limestone peaks, glacial lakes, and deep gorges. The Tara River Canyon, Europe's deepest gorge, provides thrilling white-water rafting opportunities. Visitors can also hike, bike, or ski depending on the season.

9. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Scotland

European National Parks
This park features Scotland's largest freshwater lake, Loch Lomond, and the rugged landscapes of the Trossachs. It offers water sports, hiking, and wildlife spotting. The quaint villages scattered throughout the park provide a glimpse into traditional Scottish life. The Loch has 22 islands, some of which are inhabited. One of the most popular activities on the loch is a boat tour, which allows visitors to appreciate the grandeur of the surrounding mountains and the diversity of wildlife, including the famous Scottish red deer and a variety of bird species.

On the eastern side of the park lies the Trossachs, often described as 'Scotland in miniature' due to the juxtaposition of rugged mountains, deep glens, and lochs, reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, and softer, more pastoral lowland landscapes. The Trossachs became popular in the 19th century following the publication of Sir Walter Scott's poem 'The Lady of the Lake,' and they continue to inspire with their enchanting landscapes.

10. Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park, France & Spain

European National Parks
Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park in France & Spain has a lot to offer for the adventurous travelers. There are plenty of hiking trails that you can explore while enjoying the stunning views of the mountains. You can also take a break and grab a bite to eat in one of the nearby villages. However, if you're not a fan of cold weather, it's best to plan your visit during the summer months, when It's a hiker's paradise, with trails leading to Monte Perdido, the third-highest mountain in the Pyrenees.

11. Vatnajokull National Park, Iceland

European National ParksHome to the largest glacier in Europe, Vatnajökull, this park features otherworldly landscapes of ice, volcanic activity, and diverse wildlife. Highlights include the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon and the stunning Svartifoss and Dettifoss waterfalls.

A notable feature of the park is the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, a surreal expanse of water dotted with icebergs that have calved off from the glacier's edge. This lagoon has been a filming location for several Hollywood movies due to its unique and dramatic scenery. Nearby, you'll find the Diamond Beach, where icebergs from the lagoon wash up on the shore and sparkle like diamonds on the black sand. Another highlight is the Svartifoss waterfall, known for its unique hexagonal basalt columns. Its dramatic shape and form have inspired many of Iceland's buildings, including the famous Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavík.

12. Triglav National Park, Slovenia

European National Parks
This national park is the biggest nature reserve in the whole Alpine area and boasts a variety of landscapes such as tundra lands, forests, glaciers and waterfalls. It was named after Slovenia's highest peak, Triglav. You can explore the park by hiking, mountaineering, and white-water rafting. or driving through it to take in the breathtaking views. 

13. Hohe Tauern National Park, Austria

European National Parks
Hohe Tauern National Park is situated in Austria and is a perfect place for nature lovers. The park offers a diverse range of flora and fauna, making it a popular destination for tourists. The park has numerous valleys and mountains that create an unforgettable landscape. Some of the animals that can be seen in the park are hawks, owls, ibex and marmots.  As the largest national park in the Alps, Hohe Tauern features stunning alpine landscapes, including Austria's highest peak, Grossglockner. It's home to many animal species like golden eagles, marmots, and ibex. The park is perfect for hiking, bird-watching, and spotting alpine wildlife.

14. Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

European National Parks

This park is a UNESCO World Heritage site renowned for its cascading lakes. This park features a chain of 16 terraced lakes, joined by waterfalls, extending into a limestone canyon. The lakes display a distinctive range of colors, from azure to green, blue, or gray, depending on the minerals present in the water and the angle of sunlight.

A complex network of wooden walkways and bridges allows visitors to explore the park and get up close to the waterfalls, while boat rides offer a unique perspective on the larger lakes. Each season brings its unique beauty to the park. Spring and summer imbue the park with lush greenery and vibrant water life, autumn sets the park ablaze with golden hues, and winter often cloaks the park in a stunning layer of ice and snow.

In addition to its striking water features, the park also boasts a rich biodiversity. It is home to a variety of bird species, as well as larger animals like brown bears, wolves, and deer. Rare species like the European pond turtle and the European brown bear have also found refuge within the park's boundaries.

Photo sources: Franck MichelGabriella Delbello , Stuart Gordon , manuel.cacheiro , Víctor Bautista , Vida Dimovska , Rene Rivers , Michael Matti , Alex , Richard Gailey , Gareth Christopher , Frank Vassen , Timo Newton-Syms , Mathias Liebin
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