Only 12 parks, stretching from Finland to Georgia, meet the strict conservation requirements.

Overcrowded Europe may be culturally dense, brimming with historic cities and manicured landscapes, but it also has some genuine wilderness areas – albeit in the recesses of the continent.

These truly wild areas where nature reigns are not the scenic national parks found across the continent. Many are not true wilderness areas and even fewer meet the strict criteria set by Pan Parks, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Europe’s natural habitats and fragile ecosystems. To be certified for this conservation organisation, a park has to have at least 100 sqkm of untouched nature at its core, where flora and fauna still thrive without man’s interference. The wilderness areas also have to be managed in a sustainable manner when it comes to conservation, tourism and human developments.  

There are only 12 parks in the selective Pan Parks network, which stretches across 10 countries, from Finland to Georgia. In the core areas in these parks, no human exploitation is allowed, no roads or construction, no hunting, fishing, mining, logging, grazing or even grass cutting.

Pan Parks is a Europe-wide non-governmental organisation that was founded in 1997 by the World Wildlife Fund with the goal to protect one million hectares by 2015. So far, nearly 330,000 hectares are under its supervision.

“Most people don’t know about Europe’s true wildernesses,” explained Zoltan Kun, director of Pan Parks. “They do not love them and do not support them. Tourism can help change this. Most people are surprised about the beauty of these places, which should become as iconic for Europe as Yellowstone is for North America or the Serengeti is for Africa.”

All of the parks are open to the public, but four tour operators in the Netherlands, UK and Germany offer sustainable tourism breaks in five of the parks. Local partners also work in ten of the Pan Parks, offering self-guided and/or special interest tours. By using these companies, part of the money you spend on your holiday will go to conservation in these parks you will also be supporting sustainable tourism in these wilderness areas.

“These areas are in established national parks, but this higher level of protection -- where there is no human interference -- protects the biodiversity of key habitats,” said Dr Steve Banner, director of Wildlife & Wilderness, one of the Pan Park tour operators.

All tourism operations in the parks are low-key, sustainable and in many cases, family run, with local guides that work alongside the authorities to promote conservation.

“They represent a place to escape to, to have adventures in and to help protect a variety of habitats for some of Europe’s most iconic species,” Banner said.  

Bulgaria’s Rila and Central Balkan
is one of Europe’s most resilient sanctuaries for high-altitude flora and fauna, and you can trek between lodges among small hill communities. Deep gorges, verdant mountains and a mild climate make the Central Balkan park an easy-to-explore biodiversity hotspot.

Estonia’s Sooma National Park
Sooma is full of bog fields, flood plains and picturesque forests. You can go snowshoeing on bogs in any season and hit the rivers in traditional dugout canoes.

Finland’s Oulanka and Archipelago National Park
has fast flowing Arctic rivers that wash through vast stands of pine and threatened plants. The 4,000 rugged rocky and forested islands of the Archipelago National Park sit between mainland Finland and the islands of Åland.

Georgia’s Borjumi-Kharagauli
The Borjumi-Kharagauli has some of the best preserved woodlands in the Caucasus Mountains. It is a good spot for horse riding when the summer wild flowers are in bloom.

Italy’s Majella National Park
Only two hours east of Rome, Majella is the highest and wildest section of the Abruzzi mountains, where you can visit rocky hermitages and follow wolf tracks.  

Lithuania’s Cepkeliai-Dzukija National Park
Explore dunes, rivers, rolling plains and vast marshes in Cepkeliai-Dzukija. Canoeing, hiking and traditional village architecture are the main draws.

Portugal’s Peneda-Gerês
Portugal’s only national park is at the junction of two mountain ranges that create one of the last refuges of the wolf and the royal eagle. Waterfalls are common as you hike along mountain slopes.

Romania’s Retezat
Romania’s first national park has rare plants and animals and some of the most extensive mountain forest areas in Europe. It is also a prime butterfly-watching area and bird sanctuary.

Russia’s Paanajarvi
Home to some of the world’s finest Taiga forests, Paanajarvi is a pristine watery landscape of 120 lakes, some of which are good for canoeing. There are undomesticated reindeer, capercaillie (a bird also known as the wood grouse), and lakes full of crayfish. 

Sweden’s Fulujallet
When you are not gawping at Sweden’s tallest waterfall in Fulujallet, you can follow brown bear tracks, go horse trekking and go dog sledding.