Image credit: Tourismusverband Sächsische Schweiz e.V.
Europe may be known for its iconic cities brimming with rich culture and majestic architecture, but it’s also home to some of the most breathtaking natural wonders in the world, where luxuriant forests and rugged landscapes dominate.
Quotient rounds up five of the most impressive national parks on the old continent, where nature enthusiasts can feel at home no matter the season.
Sarek National Park, Sweden
Located in the province of Norrbotten, in the far north of Sweden, Sarek is deemed as one of the country’s primary national treasures. Travellers venturing here will need to arm themselves with a good semse of adventure as the park is often said to be Sweden’s last true wildernesses — perhaps the least affected by any human activity. There are plenty things you will find in the wild heart of Sweden: alpine peaks, six of the country’s highest summits, impressive glacial valleys, torrential rapids and rough terrain will definitely challenge the intrepid in you. And of course, the remoteness itself is another definitive factor for an immersive nature experience. As Sarek comprises 2,000 square kilometres of pristine natural habitat, making it a natural playground for more experienced adventurers, the tourism board advises brazen travellers to be equipped with good maps as there are no marked trails or roads. However, if this vast natural expanse seems overwhelming to you, it’s possible to join a trekking tour so you can explore this amazing wilderness with an experienced guide.
Gran Paradiso, Italy
Once a royal hunting retreat, this pristine corner of Italy is the oldest protected area in the Alps and the first designated national park in the country. Spread across three awe-inspiring valleys – Cogne, Valsavarenche and Val di Rhêmes – Gran Paradiso boasts a concoction of crystal-clear lakes, rugged mountains and pastoral meadows set against infinite cerulean skies. During summer, travellers can enjoy hikes up the mountain and have close encounters with local wildlife including the renowned ibex or visit the nearby villages teeming with traditional stone-built houses. In winter, the park is ideal for cross-country skiing and snow trekking.
Saxon Switzerland National Park, Germany
Located south-east of the city of Dresden, at the border with Czech Republic, the dramatic and unusual landscape of Saxon Switzerland National Park in Germany is known as the birthplace of free climbing. Some 1,106 free-standing sandstone structures jut from the ground here, creating a surreal Avatar-like image. In the past, the national park was off-limits for adventurers, but today, it’s a playground for rock climbers, cyclists and hikers, who relish its collection of bizarrely-shaped cliffs and hundreds of trails. The park’s main attraction is the Bastei, a rock formation towering above the Elbe River and linked by a bridge that cuts through it. There is also a 112 kilometre-long Painters’ Way trail, which is a well-trodden route famed for inspiring artists due to its ever-changing scenery and breathtaking panoramas.
Ordesa National Park, Spain
Ordesa National Park is considered Spain’s oldest national park and one of the country’s best hiking spots. Its beauty is glorious all around: Monte Perdido dominates the landscape gracefully, there are verdant valleys blanketed by pine trees and one can constantly hear the soothing sound of streams and waterfalls. However, this national park in the Aragon region is primarily famed for deep glacial valleys; here hikers can explore trails for all levels including half-day walks as well as multi-day treks through canyons and green valleys. In terms of wildlife, raptor enthusiasts will be treated to spectacular sightings of several birds of prey such as the Eurasian griffon vultures and the bearded vulture.
Vanoise National Park, France
There are more than 100 mountains towering over 3,000 metres in France’s Vanoise National Park in the Alps, making this natural wonder a nature enthusiast’s haven. Sandwiched between Tarentaise and Maurienne valleys, this impressive swathe of wilderness incorporates five nature reserves and a slew of ancient villages. Wildlife is abundant here as well, with chamois and Alpine ibexes grazing freely across the pastures and golden eagles soaring nonchalantly above you. Though primarily a hiker’s paradise with more than 600 kilometres of marked pathways, the park is also famous for adrenaline-pumping activities such as paragliding, hang-gliding within the park’s central core as well as horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking, via ferrata trails and during winter, downhill and cross-country skiing.