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Exploring Britain's National Parks

• Places to go • Jun 02, 2021 • 20 min read

15 National Parks, 15 days, 15 marathons

OS GetOutside Champion Sean Conway runs a marathon in all 15 National Parks to highlight how incredible Great Britain is. We caught up with him to find out more about his challenge and discover what makes each National Park so special.

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How many National Parks in Great Britain have you visited? Each of our 15 National Parks are different and you’ll find unique landscapes, stunning scenery, an abundance of history and friendly villages in all of them.

We asked OS GetOutside Champion Sean Conway what his favourite National Park is, and like many people, he found it impossible to choose. So, here’s a brief overview of each National Park and a suggested short walk from each of Sean's marathon routes for you to enjoy.

National Parks on a map

OS GetOutside Champion Sean Conway

Cairngorms National Park

The Cairngorms National Park is the largest National Park in Great Britain. It sits in central mainland Scotland and is home to five of the UK's highest mountains and three of the main ski areas in Scotland. Over a quarter of Great Britain's rare and endangered wildlife species take up residency here. It's rugged, it's remote and you can even spot a reindeer!

Sean's one word to describe this National Park: Wild Camping

Sean's ‘must visit’ in this National Park: Skiing in Glenshee

Walk start/finish: Glen Tilt Car Park, Blair Atholl

Walk distance: 12 miles

Cairngorms

Cairngorms National Park

Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Situated in central western Scotland, Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park was Scotland's first National Park. It is centred around Loch Lomond itself, which at 39km (24 miles) long and up to 8km (5 miles) wide, is the largest freshwater lake in Britain. 21 Munros (Scottish mountains) sit within this National Park making it a great spot for hill walking. There are plenty of lower level areas to visit too, as well as lochs, coastlines and forests.

Sean's one word to describe this National Park: Swimming

Sean's ‘must visit’ in this National Park: Inchmurrin Island

Walk start/finish: Glen Finglas Visitor Centre, Loch Venachar

Walk distance: 12 miles

Loch Venachar

Loch Venachar in Loch Lomond National Park

Northumberland National Park

Located in the north of England, Northumberland National Park has a huge amount of history such as Hadrian's Wall and countless stone-age forts. Here you can explore rolling hills, miles of moorland and picturesque valleys. In summer each year you'll be treated to vibrant purple heather on the moorland which covers around 70% of the park.

Sean's one word to describe this National Park: Remote

Sean's ‘must visit’ in this National Park: Hadrian's Wall

Walk start/finish: Hindhope Linn waterfall

Walk distance: 13 miles (loop only)

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall

Lake District National Park

The Lake District is renowned for its 19 lakes, although interestingly it's only Bassenthwaite Lake that is officially named a 'lake'. There's only about 41,000 people living in the Lake District but it's one of the most visited with tourists enjoying year-round activities across the region. The Lake District is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts and many head to the hills or the lakes, often forgetting about the 26 miles of coastline and estuaries.

Describe this National Park in one word? Peter Rabbit

Where is your ‘must visit’ in this National Park? Scarfell Pike

Walk start/finish: Moot Hall in Keswick

Walk distance: 9 miles

Lake District 

Lake District National Park

Yorkshire Dales National Park

The beautiful valleys of the Yorkshire Dales National Park have some of the most impressive limestone scenery in Great Britain and a number of caves to explore. There are many moors to meander and historic villages to discover. Thousands of people take on the famous Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge every year - a popular walk that includes the summits of Whernside, Ingleborough and Pen-y-ghent.

Describe this National Park in one word? Ale

Where is your ‘must visit’ in this National Park? Ingleton Waterfalls

Walk start/finish: Bainbridge playground, Bainbridge

Walk distance: 16km (smaller loop)

Yorkshire Dales National Park

Yorkshire Dales National Park


North York Moors National Park

The North York Moors is an upland area in North Yorkshire. It has one of the largest concentrations of ancient and veteran trees in northern England and over 22% of the National Park is covered in trees. Another third of the National Park is heather moorland and like in the Yorkshire Dales, turns a spectacular shade of purple in the summer. It's rich in history with hundreds of scheduled monuments and listed building, making it a great place to visit for both outdoor lovers and history buffs.

Describe this National Park in one word? Steam trains

Where is your ‘must visit’ in this National Park? Go on a steam train

Walk start/finish: White Horse on Sutton Bank

Walk distance: You choose the distance on this out and back route (up to 26 miles)

North York Moors National Park

North York Moors National Park

Peak District National Park

The Peak District National Park is the oldest National Parks, created in 1951. It's split into two areas, the Dark Peak and the White Peak, named after their distinctive colours from the gritstone and limestone that make them. The Peak District actually has less peaks than the nearby Lake District despite its name. There are some fantastic hills and vast areas of moorland to explore as well as an array of underground caves.

Describe this National Park in one word? Wide

Where is your ‘must visit’ in this National Park? The Roaches

Walk start/finish: Curbar Edge car park, Curbar

Walk distance: 9 miles

Ashopton Viaduct

Ashopton Viaduct in the Peak District

Norfolk Broads National Park

Over on the east coast of England, the Norfolk Broads is a haven for wildlife, especially birds. The waterways that make up the Broads are actually manmade as a result of the flooding of peat workings. This created a network of water channels and vast areas of wetland. As well as spotting wildlife, water sports and boating are also popular in the Norfolk Broads National Park.

Describe this National Park in one word? Flat

Where is your ‘must visit’ in this National Park? Thurne Mill

Walk start/finish: Great Yarmouth

Walk distance: Make this walk as long as you wish by exploring Braydon Water from Great Yarmouth

Norfolk Broads

Norfolk Broads

South Downs National Park

The South Downs is Britain's newest National Park made up of quaint country villages, historic market towns, rolling farmland and plenty of woodland. It's famous for its white costal cliffs found in the east and low lying hills (the South Downs) made from chalk. It is the most visited out of all 15 National Parks and the most populated with many urban towns and villages within it.

Describe this National Park in one word? Chalk

Where is your ‘must visit’ in this National Park? Kingley Vale

Walk start/finish: Cheesefoot Head car park, near Winchester

Walk distance: 13.5 miles

South Downs National Park

South Downs National Park


New Forest National Park

Despite its name the New Forest National Park is mostly made up of open heaths and grassland, although there are of course some forest. Ponies, donkeys and cattle roam free so you have to be careful whilst on the road, but it sure makes a spectacular drive! There's a large number of small villages with cafes and pubs to explore and a large number of campsites too. The New Forest is very flat so it's perfect for cycling.

Describe this National Park in one word? Yachts

Where is your ‘must visit’ in this National Park? Hurst Castle

Walk start/finish: Bath Road car park, Lymington

Walk distance: Make this walk as long as you wish by exploring the trail from Lymington

New Forest National Park

New Forest National Park

Dartmoor National Park

Dartmoor National Park is mostly moorland and it's the only National Park where in some areas wild camping is allowed. The long history of Dartmoor can be discovered in ancient burial mounds and ruined farms, as well as in the tales surrounding the moor t's been named the most important area for Bronze Age archology in Western Europe! Dartmoor National Park can look barren at times but it's certainly not dull and contains a whole host of rare wildlife species like the blue ground beetle.

Describe this National Park in one word? Ponies

Where is your ‘must visit’ in this National Park? Foggintor Quarry

Walk start/finish: Bennett's Cross Car Park on B3212

Walk distance: 9 miles

Dartmoor National Park

Brentor, Dartmoor National Park

Exmoor National Park

Located in the south west of England, Exmoor National Park is a vast area of hilly open moorland. Its shoreline is the most remote in England and because of the height and steepness of cliffs, there is no land access on some stretches. The coastline is also exceptionally wooded, which also makes it unique. As well as an incredible coastline, Exmoor National Park has some beautiful valleys to walk, cycle and explore.

Describe this National Park in one word? Cliffs

Where is your ‘must visit’ in this National Park? Valley of the Rocks

Walk start/finish: The Ship Inn, Porlock

Walk distance: 9 miles for the west loop and 15 miles for east loop

Exmoor National Park

Exmoor National Park

Brecon Beacons National Park

The Welsh Brecon Beacons is made up of several regions which all have a unique landscape. Within the National Park sits a Geopark, an International Dark Sky Reserve, some of the best kept glacial lakes in the UK and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The SAS often train in the Brecon Beacons due to its interchanging weather and remote landscape. The Brecon Beacons is a popular place to visit with small villages, restaurants and pubs dotted across the area. There's plenty of activities and attractions that can be enjoyed by all.

Describe this National Park in one word? Dragons

Where is your ‘must visit’ in this National Park? Pen-y-Fan

Walk start/finish: Pont Cwm y Fedwen car park

Walk distance: 9 miles return to Pen-y-fan and back

Pen-y-Fan 

Pen-y-Fan

Pembrokeshire National Park

Located in western Wales, Pembrokeshire National Park is a beach lovers paradise, boasting 11 Blue Flag beaches and 13 Green Coast beaches. The National Park covers almost all the Pembrokeshire Coast, every off-shore island, the Daugleddau estuary and large areas of the Preseli Hills and the Gwaun Valley, so, there's certainly no shortage of beautiful coastal walks. Despite being one of the smallest National Parks in Great Britain, it has one of the most diverse landscapes. Thriving with the colours of the bright turquoise sea, the rich golden sands and the stunning greenery of the coastal countryside, this National Park is exceptionally breath-taking.

Describe this National Park in one word? Far away

Where is your ‘must visit’ in this National Park? Picton Castle

Walk start/finish: Newport Boat Club

Walk distance: 10 miles return - from Newport to Dina's Head

Pembrokeshire

Pembrokeshire National Park

Snowdonia National Park

Snowdonia National Park is home to the tallest mountain (Snowdon) and the largest lake (Bala Lake) in Wales. There are nine mountain ranges covering 52% of this National Park, so if you like hill walking and admiring an impressive mountain view, this is the place for you. The amazing landscape is down to the glaciers that once carved out valleys throughout Snowdonia.

Describe this National Park in one word? Rugged

Where is your ‘must visit’ in this National Park? Snowdon

Walk start/finish: Trawsfynydd

Walk distance: 8 miles

Snowdonia National Park

Snowdonia National Park

OS GetOutside Champion Sean Conway

OS GetOutside Champion Sean Conway

Q&A with Sean Conway

What made you do this challenge? We have the best National Parks in the world that are free for everyone to use and enjoy. I’ve always wanted to visit them all and do some sort of challenge that would in turn be a bit of a love letter to our countryside.

How did you come up with these particular routes and why? There was a mixture of logistics to be able to get to the next park but mostly I chose scenic places or places with cool names like Cheesefoot, which will be apt named after 10 marathons or so! My first requirement was choosing an area that was en route to the next park. Once I had my rough area located, I’d then go onto OS Maps and search for car parks. I initially used the standard OS map to locate a car park and then switched to the aerial view to see how big the car park was. Then the third requirement was trying to work out routes that got me back to my car as close to a marathon as possible. Using the OS Maps website, I was able to plot a route that snapped to the footpaths which gave me a pretty accurate final distance. In the past I’ve had to plot a route with straight lines and inevitably landed up running much further than needed because of all the small corners that are cut off.

Have you done any training? Yes, I've been running a lot this year but I've not done back-to-back marathons since 2016 so it will be tough!

What is your go-to marathon food/drink? Peanut butter and water with salt in it.

Are there any National Parks you have yet to visit? I've been through every National Park but I've not spent proper time in Northumberland, Cairngorms, Pembrokeshire, Broads and the New Forest.

Which marathon are you looking forward to the most and why? Ooooh. Probably the Broads National Park because it's flat. Haha!


Whether you're after a relaxing weekend away or fancy a week-long hike, these National Parks are guaranteed to have something for you. During peak season, some areas within National Parks can get busy. Choose less-popular routes or quieter times of day if you'd like to avoid the crowds.

Remember to take care of the great outdoors and follow the Countryside Code at all times.

Published: Jun 02, 2021 Edited: Jul 09, 2021

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