The UK has some of the most iconic and varied scenery in the world, and a great deal of it is contained in national parks. Home to 12th century ruins, magnificent lakes and even a vineyard or two, this selection of the best parks in the UK has something for everyone. And what better way to visit them than via a camping road trip!
Brecon Beacons National Park and Gower AONB
There is much to be poetic about on the Gower, with the entire peninsula designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. A camping road trip of the area might begin with The Mumbles, a small seaside resort with a promenade of terraced villas at the southern tip of Swansea Bay. From there, visitors can continue on to the pretty villages of Pennard and Southgate, the picturesque Three Cliffs Bay and Rhossili, the most westerly village on the Gower.
From the Gower, head further northeast to another of South Wales’ main attractions, Brecon Beacons National Park. Passing through Brynamman, a large, former coal-mining village of pebbledash terraces, the climb up Black Mountain is immediate. Looking back, there are views to Swansea Bay and, in the foreground, the slopes of the South Wales Coalfield. Coal was extracted here as recently as the turn of the century and a giant lake seen during the climb is one of those open-cast pits.
Dartmoor National Park, Devon
A camping road trip around Devon can (and should) involve all manner of destinations. From the historic waterfront of Plymouth, to the colourful village of Cawsand (Cornwall), this region of the UK is full of picturesque locations to pitch your tent. In spite of this enviable diversity, however, there are some places that simply shouldn’t be missed – Dartmoor National Park is one of them.
From the village of Wotter, built to house the clay-pit workers, visitors can catch one last glimpse of the sea before turning into Dartmoor National Park on the road to Meavy and Yelverton. The moors here show not only the fresh scars of industry, but that of former heavy labour as a walk from Cadover Bridge, which crosses a narrower River Plym, highlights. Across the moorland are the disused workings of tin mines and ancient settlements. These are soon left behind, though, and in their place come extraordinary views of Sheeps Tor and the green and verdant foothills of Dartmoor.
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, Argyll & Bute
There are some moments that you don’t want to end – and wild camping beside Loch Achray in Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park is one of them. Sitting outdoors in the darkness on a velvet night, visitors can relax as the western light fades and the shapes of the hills and point of Ben Venue are backlit by a ribbon of fluorescent orange.
Created in 2002, Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, at 720 square miles, affords the largest body of lake/loch in the UK together with many other large lochs, two forest parks (Queen Elizabeth and Argyll) and a host of mountains and rolling lowland. Wild camping here is as much a part of the national park as Loch Lomond is. But to kerb antisocial habits, the national park authority introduced a management system in 2018, whereby parts of the national park around Loch Lomond and within Queen Elizabeth Forest Park are under a Camping Management Zone. It means you can only camp (in a motorhome/campervan or tent) in designated locations with a pre-booked permit.
North York Moors National Park, Yorkshire
The wonders of the North York Moors National Park have been well-established over the years, but the specific appeal of Eskdale remains largely overlooked. While most of the rivers and dales within the park run north to south, the River Esk, in the north of the park, winds its way west to east.
Sprouting from the Cleveland Hills the river, initially flowing northwards, runs along the hemmed-in Westerdale, then turns a corner at the mouth of the valley to flow east through – naturally – Eskdale. Its journey ends amid the affably clustered houses of Whitby, where roadtrippers can take the day to indulge in the town’s iconic fish and chips and rest up before another night of camping at the North Yorkshire Moors CAMC Site.
South Downs National Park, Sussex
Did you know that the South Downs National Park is home to one of England’s best vineyards? The Rathfinny Wine Estate, situated within the park and just a mile from the idyllic and very popular village of Alfriston. Climbing up from the vineyard entrance, a turn of a corner and over the brow of a hummock, suddenly there in the distance is the most incredible view of the Cuckmere Valley leading to the English Channel. It is a view that must be impossible to tire of and one needs a moment to stand and stare to appreciate its beauty.
For anyone with an interest in wine (learning about it…or drinking it), a camping road trip through Sussex, Kent and Surrey is a wonderful choice. While the South Downs National Park and the Rathfinny Estate make a great final destination, it is very possible to make an entire roadtrip out of your visit. Bolster your experience with exploration of Kent’s vineyards, most of which belong to a collection of privately owned vineyards marketed under an umbrella organisation, the Wine Garden of England, which can organise personalised tours.
Yorkshire Dales National Park, Yorkshire
Boundaries are almost always man’s creation. And nearly seventy years ago man drew a boundary around an area of Yorkshire and deemed it a national park – the Yorkshire Dales National Park. With 680 square miles of national park covering twenty main dales, there is a vast amount of landscape to explore, and plenty of picturesque locations to pitch a tent.
Head to Bolton Priory, the ruined remains (and never-finished sections) of the 12th-century Augustinian priory that sit close to the River Wharfe, before continuing to Barden Tower, a roofless ruin built purely as a lavish 15th-century residence for a local lord. Despite the tower’s imposing nature, seated between the steep wooded nursery slopes of Barden Moor and Barden Fell, it’s the dale itself that grabs my attention as the rain-pitted river sidles past.
Kettlewell, further upstream, sits right beside the river, with a magnificent backdrop of craggy slopes either side. Climb the slopes to the north of here, and you’ll be greeted by magnificent views along Wharfedale.
For more information, see Caroline Mills’s guide: