From glacial falls to untamed highlands, Europe’s great outdoors is exactly that.

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 doomladen 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.

Make it happen:
By car, take the M5 from Bristol or the M3 and A303 from London to Exeter. To reach the park by bus from Exeter, take the 359 or 82 (Transmoor Link) between Exeter and Plymouth.  Dartmoor Sunday Rover tickets allow for unlimited travel on most buses and the train from Plymouth to Gunnislake, located on the edge of Dartmoor (£6.50; June to September).

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.

Make it happen:
Some, but not all buses running between Zagreb and Zadar stop at Plitvice; check with a driver or online. The journey takes 3 hours from Zadar or 21/2 hours from Zagreb, with 10 services daily (from £7;

Abruzzo National Park, Italy
Barely two hours from Rome, these Apennine 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.

Make it happen:
Ryanair flies to Rome Ciampino ( EasyJet flies to Naples ( Pescasseroli and other park villages are linked by six daily buses to Avezzano, where you can change for Rome, and Castel di Sangro, for Naples (

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.

Make it happen:
Iberia flies from Madrid to Vigo (from £78; Buses leave up to five times daily from Madrid for Vigo (from £31; Or take an overnight sleeper train (from £45;  Boats to the islands from Vigo take 45 minutes (£14; For park information, visit

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.

Make it happen:
Hourly trains depart from Interlaken Ost for Lauterbrunnen and regular buses from the train station take you to the falls. Interlaken is connected by train to all of Switzerland’s major cities, including Zurich (from £45) and Geneva (from £46; l For more information, check the tourist office website (

Snæfellsnes National Park, Iceland
Jules Verne used Snæfellsjökull, the 700,000-year-old volcano at the heart of the peninsula, as his doorway into the middle of the planet in A Journey to the Centre of the Earth; indeed, mystics have long flocked to the region and attempted to harness its natural power. Such quests seem almost reasonable when looking out across the lush fjords, arcing golden beaches, glistening, ice-capped volcanic peaks and crooked lava flows that make up the diverse and fascinating landscape of the 62 mile-long peninsula. One of the best places to experience the country’s dramatic majesty in micro form – which has earned it the nickname ‘Iceland in miniature’ – the area is also the setting for many of the Sagas of Icelanders, the literary histories of Iceland’s early settlers of the 10th and 11th centuries. Sleepy harbour town Stykkishólmur is the biggest in the peninsula, the shore clustered with classically Scandinavian painted warehouses and homes.

Make it happen:
Buses from Reykjavík to harbour town Stykkishólmur run at least twice daily from mid-June to the end of August and take 21/2 hours (from £4;

The article 'The best national parks of Europe' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.