We should never take national parks for granted – a phenomenal global network of natural wonders protected for the good of the planet and its people. The world’s first was Yellowstone in 1872 in the USA, partly thanks to Scottish emigrant and advocate of conservation, John Muir. A worldwide movement of national parks then began, the Peak District being the first of fourteen to be designated in the UK in 1951, Italy’s Gran Paradiso in 1922 and Vanoise National Park had its designated debut in the French Alps in 1963. But what about the lesser-known national parks in Europe? With over four hundred to choose from, here are some of our best that rarely hit the top ten lists but are definitely worth flagging, exploring and supporting.
Triglav National Park, Slovenia
Slovenia may only have one national park, but they do it in style, with Triglav National Park protecting the country’s spectacular Julian Alps. Mount Triglav is its highest peak at 2,864m, and it lies at the heart of the park like a Julian jewel. You can hike the summits of the Julian Alps guided or self-guided, staying in mountain huts. Or explore other peaks, the mountainous sylvan woods, Soca and Sava river valleys, the magnificent Seven Lakes Valley, Savica and many more waterfalls on our wide array of Slovenia walking holidays.
Pirin and Rila Mountains National Parks, Bulgaria
They are like twins, really, so it doesn’t seem fair to pick a favourite between Bulgaria’s Pirin and Rila National Parks, both protecting mountain ranges of the same names and almost inseparable at under 100km apart. On our walking holiday in the Pirins, you can trek reasonably easily to the range’s highest peak, Mt. Vihren, (2,914m), also Bulgaria’s second highest. Trekking up to Tevno Ezero mountain hut is also a spectacular adventure, spending the night on the shores of a lake, cocooned by jagged peaks. In Rila Mountains National Park the leading player is Mt. Musala, the country’s highest peak at 2,925m, but there are plenty of colossal cameos all around to be applauded on our Rila walking holidays.
Tatra National Park, Poland
Tatra National Park covers 211.6 km² of Poland’s Tatra or Tatras Mountains, a limestone landscape of great gorges and great gorgeousness. Trek up to the likes of Kopa Kondracka (2,005m) on our High Tatras Mountains tour or cycle down from the country’s highest village of Zab, down through the Tatras foothills to Zakopane on one of our favourite Polish cycling holidays. Another Tatras treat is the trek through spectacular alpine scenery of Valley of the Five Lakes, with beech forests and traditional wooden mountain huts en route. Or through the Malej Laki Valley and Kondracka Pass to the park’s gateway town of Zakopane, just 4km from the heart of the park.
Vikos–Aoös National Park, Greece
You think you know Greece, and then Vikos-Aoös National Park comes onto your radar and another Hellenic heaven is revealed. Located in the Zagori region of north-west Greece, in the northern part of the Pindus Mountains, it’s named after two of the main gorges that cut through it. You can hike Vikos Gorge on a walking holiday that also includes crossing the region’s ancient stone bridges or combine the trek with some cultural highlights, just two hours away at the UNESCO mountain top monasteries of Meteora. You can also include Vikos Gorge en route to climb Mount Olympus, Greece’s first national park founded in 1938, in our Ultimate Northern Greece walking holiday.
Theth and Valbona Valley National Parks, Albania
You can hike in both of these magnificent national parks in Albania’s Accursed Mountains, where the country’s arresting topography brings daily highs. Valbona Pass in the eponymous national park is one such high, with panoramic views over Theth and Valbona Valleys, where you can follow ancient trails with a pack horse to carry your bags. You can also combine hiking in both of these national parks with a third thrown in for good luck, through the forests and canyons of Blue Eye National Park, with myriad natural springs, blue and bottomless by all accounts.
Garajonay National Park, La Gomera, Spain
Spain has 16 national parks, with the crowning glories being Aigüestortes and Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Parks, both in the Pyrenees, the Sierra Nevada and the Picos de Europa National Park in Asturias. However, there is one hidden jewel hidden right at the bottom of Spain’s protected pinãta, and that is Garajonay National Park on the island of La Gomera, one of the lesser-known Canary Islands. A landscape of elevated, misty sub-tropical rainforest, made up of beech trees and ancient laurel covered in lichen, this is one of southern Europe’s most luscious and stupendous hiking terrains. You can spend a week walking here and other gorgeous spots on the island, including the terraced slopes of Vallehermoso, or combine it with hikes in Tenerife, including its own Teide National Park.
Bjeshkët e Nemuna National Park, Kosovo
You will find nothing but peace and tranquility walking in Bjeshkët e Nemuna National Park in Kosovo, which was founded in 2012, four years after it declared independence from Serbia. Located in western Kosovo, it carries the same name as the mountain range it protects, translated as the Accursed Mountains. Hiking enthusiasts can dig their heels into the park’s slopes of Gjeravica, the country’s highest peak at 2,656m, or explore some of its gargantuan glacial features, such as Rugova Gorge, which is 25km long and up to 1,000m deep, and a highlight of our Peaks of the Balkans trail.
So, now that you are experts in national parks, and can probably win the geography section of your pub quiz hands down, why not seek out one of these lesser-known wonders for a natural adventure? In most of them, you will feel as if you have the whole world to yourself. For more mountain inspiration, read our blog: Hiking holidays with some of the best mountain walks or do not hesitate to contact us for more information.