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Our favourite, lesser-known national parks

Our favourite, lesser known national parks

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 Lake District being one of the oldest 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

As if Lakes Bled and Bohinj aren’t enough beauty in Slovenia, it also has a Seven Lakes Valley to go walking through.

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.  

lesser known national parks
Who needs Kloisters when you have the Kondracka Pass in Poland?

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.

lesser known national parks
Valbona Valley in Albania translates as ‘good valley’ – and it more than lives up to its name.

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. 

Gjeravica Lake below the summit of Mt. Gjeravica in Kosovo.

Mercantour National Park, France 

Mercantour National Park is one of France’s best kept secrets, an Alpine paradise without the crowds, a culture that combines Italian and French heritage, and a climate that reflects its proximity to the Med. On our Mercantour six day hiking holiday, you can take in some of its natural heritage highlights, including the aptly named Vallée des Merveilles or Valley of Wonders, one of our favourite day walks in France. With an array of peaks, glacial lakes, larch forests and waterfalls, one of its other green goodies is that it is very easy to reach by rail from Nice on the French Riviera. 

Koli, Tiilikkajärvi and Hiidenportti National Parks, Finland 

You have three for the price of one on this walking holiday in Finland, where you spend eight days in the country’s northern nirvanas. Although this is a centre-based in holiday Salmenkylä in North Karelia, you have expert guidance on a small group tour to trails in all three national parks. Koli National Park is best known for its magnificent views, with forested walks up to Ukko-Koli, which rises 347m above sea level and 253m above Lake Pielinen. Tiilikkajärvi National Park has a landscape of sandy lake beaches, forested hills and wetlands, with 21km of trails. It was created to preserve the special ecosystems and boglands around La­ke Tii­lik­ka and the Ri­ver It­kon­jo­ki. Last but not least, Hiidenportti National Park is named after the gorge that cuts through its heart, proffering peaceful paths through old spruce and pine woodland, now protected from slash and burn practices that went on in the past.

Koli National Park in Finland, at the start of ruska season, which is when the Arctic cold creates a speedy change of flora to autumn colours.

Curonian Spit National Park, Lithuania 

As you will discover on a walking holiday on the Curonian Spit, this 98km-long sandy peninsula is a very special place. It feels almost Pacific in its prettiness. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, not surprisingly with its fragile ecosystem of pine groves, wetlands, vegetation-covered dunes and the drifting Parnidis Dune, this is littoral Lithuania at its most lovely. The spit is topped and tailed by the traditional, and culturally-rich port town of Klaipėda and the quaint fishing town of Nida, with the Curonian Lagoon on one side and fine sandy beaches of the Baltic Coast on the other. You can also visit the Spit on a Lithuanian and Latvian walking holiday combo.

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.