Europe's best national parks

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Granite peaks and beechwood forests, underground springs and swirling mists. Lonely Planet Magazine chooses its favourite national parks in Europe.

Dartmoor National Park, Britain

Dartmoor is the British landscape at its most primal – the heart of darkness beneath the surface of the ‘green and pleasant land’. Tales of headless horsemen stalking ancient burial sites, gruesome hairy hands forcing vehicles off the road and a visit from the devil himself have given Dartmoor a doom-laden reputation, making it a favourite setting for writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. This is a land of swirling mists and rain, desolate moor, granite hills and mysterious stone circles that can’t fail to bring out your inner pagan. Its numerous prehistoric monuments include the 3.5 metre-high Beardown Man near Devil’s Tor and 5,000 stone huts. The walking trails rank as some of Britain’s finest, all interspersed with the occasional rustic pub – ideal for chasing away thoughts of phantom canines by the fire.

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

There is a hallucinogenic, other-worldy quality to Plitvice. This staggered network of 16 deep lakes, perched high in the forests of the Dinaric Alps, was created by dams of limestone and dolomite rock. The richness of the minerals in the water, which comes from the Bijela and Crna rivers and underground springs, lend the lakes an ever-shifting palette: sometimes they appear a rich turquoise, on other days mint green, grey or blue. It’s a surreal sight, enhanced by the torrential waterfalls linking each lake and the prolific vegetation wrapped around the rocks and waterways. Plitvice was also the starting point for the Croatian War of Independence of the 1990s, when Serb rebels took control of the park headquarters. It’s worth a visit in winter too – the falls are frozen in motion and the icy lakes take on the hue of the skies.

Abruzzo National Park, Italy

Barely two hours from Rome, these granite peaks and beechwood forests rarely make it onto most people’s Italy must-see lists. But they should: this is northern Italy at its most medieval, a mountain wilderness that is the last remaining home of the endangered Marsican brown bear as well as wild lynx, Appenine wolves and royal eagles. More than 150 tratturi (sheep tracks) wind through valleys and meadows filled with forget-me-nots, the untamed natural beauty broken up by a scattering of hilltop villages. This is unparalleled hiking country, with even short walks offering stupendous views. The main town is Pescasseroli, an attractive jumble of pink stone houses nestled in a valley and flanked by white-tipped peaks.

Cíes Islands National Park, Spain

Dangling off the edge of Galicia’s Atlantic coast, this trio of islands is as near as Europe gets to the wondrous beaches and sapphire seas of the tropics – locals call the beach of Rodas ‘Galicia’s Caribbean beach’. Once a favourite haunt of pirates, it is now frequented by weekend trippers who take the 40-minute ferry journey from Baiona. The pocket-sized archipelago mixes its jaw-to-the-floor beaches and crystalline lagoons with rugged cliffscapes and rocky lookouts, and is habituated by hundreds of yellow-footed gulls. All three islands – Illa de Monteagudo, Illa do Faro and the southern Illa do San Martiño – are traffic free, emphasising the ‘edge of the world’ feel. Together they form a breakwater protecting coastal city Vigo from the Atlantic’s rage. The islands are accessible from April to early September, with accommodation available at Camping Illas Cíes.

Lauterbrunnen Valley National Park, Switzerland

There’s a fair bit of competition for the title of the most attractive spot in the Alps, but in any beauty contest Lauterbrunnen Valley must come out near the top. It’s impossibly pretty, the snow-speckled glacier-carved crags towering over crazily-angled green fields dotted with pines and gingerbread cottage chalets. Some 72 waterfalls descend these sheer walls, the most impressive being Staubbach Falls. Such is its beauty, Goethe and Lord Byron were moved to pen poems upon viewing its cascading waters. Trummelbach Falls, meanwhile, is a corkscrewing mass of 10 glacial waterfalls that rush through the mountain. It is the only glacial waterfall in Europe that is accessible from inside a mountain, and onlookers are sometimes pelted with stones as up to 20,000 litres of water a second pass by. Lauterbrunnen town itself is regularly packed with hikers and climbers, and is a good base from which to explore the area.