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Like their U.S. counterparts, the national parks of Europe are an exhilarating way to immerse yourself in the spectacular, unspoiled natural beauty of the continent. Filled with incredible wildlife and varied landscapes — from snow-capped peaks to rocky beaches and plunging waterfalls — here are six European national parks to consider putting at the top of your list.
Hohe Tauern National Park, Austria
Austria’s Hohe Tauern is the country’s largest and oldest national park. Among its many splendors, the park boasts Austria’s tallest waterfall, the impressive Krimml Waterfalls that cascade 1,200 feet down from towering cliffs; 10,000-foot-tall snowy peaks; sparkling alpine lakes; and the nation’s largest glacier, the breathtaking Pasterze. The park is also remarkable for its biodiversity, providing shelter for approximately 10,000 animal species, about half of all known Austrian animal species. Of these, nimble but hardy long-horned chamois deer and adorable marmots are perennial visitor favorites.
Mljet — one of the largest of the Southern Dalmatian islands off the coast of Dubrovnik, Croatia — is shrouded in thick, fragrant forest that surround the calm, crystalline waters of the Adriatic. The island, most of which falls under national park protection, is dotted with rocky coves, pristine beaches, limestone caves, and two warm saltwater inland lakes.
Mljet was settled by Benedictine monks nearly a thousand years ago, and their preserved island monastery, perched on one of the inland lakes, is accessible by boat. But today, the inhabitants you’re most likely to cross paths with are colorful lizards or Mediterranean house geckos. The population of snakes on the island has fallen significantly since the introduction of the Asian mongoose over a century ago — you may find one of these small, furry creatures speeding along the winding hiking trails. The one-road island also remains an important habitat for fallow deer, wild boar, and scores of nesting birds.
Abisko National Park, Sweden
Abisko National Park is one of four parks located in Swedish Lapland, a UNESCO World Heritage Site at the northern tip of the country near the icy Arctic Circle. While the landscape here is shrouded in darkness for about half the year, there’s arguably no better place to hunt for a glimpse of the mesmerizing northern lights. Whether you snowshoe, dog sled, or hike your way around this stark and beautiful park, you’ll enjoy surrounding views of Lapland’s mountains and meandering fjords.
Remote as it may feel, the park is easily accessible from nearby Kiruna. A viewing platform at the Abisko Sky Station, a few minutes away by train from the park entrance, is also well worth a detour to soak in the remarkable scenery from above. At the Naturum Abisko Visitor Center, you can also learn about the fascinating reindeer-herding local Indigenous Sami peoples and the struggles they now face in preserving their culture and way of life in a warming world.
Timanfaya National Park, Canary Islands, Spain
Made up entirely of volcanic soil, the otherworldly Timanfaya National Park sits above scorching-hot temperatures just below the surface. The park is located on Spain’s remote Canary Island of Lanzarote, off the western coast of Africa, and was formed by a series of regular volcanic eruptions of more than 100 volcanoes from 1730 to 1736. The volcanoes now lay dormant, but at the main visitors center, Montañas del Fuego (Fire Mountains), you can still experience some of the geothermal rarities that define the area. There are demonstrations of straw igniting in flames when dropped into a shallow pit, and plumes of steam spewing straight up out of the ground after cold water is poured into a hole. The gravel on the ground may even be hot enough to burn your bare skin, if you touch it.
And if you’re feeling peckish, the food you order at the park’s El Diablo restaurant is cooked over geothermal heat on a large grill-top covering a deep pit in the ground. Guided park walks are available if booked in advance, but wandering the dramatic volcanic landscape here independently is not permitted for safety reasons.
Picos de Europa National Park, Spain
What the century-old Picos de Europa National Park — saddled between Spain’s three northern regions of Asturias, Cantabria, and Castile and León — lacks in relative size, it makes up for in spades with its natural beauty. Named for the mountain range within it, the park features a series of rugged, often-steep trails that take visitors past one arresting vista after another — from waves of pine forest to imposing snowy peaks, rushing rivers, charming historic villages, and rolling green hills dotted with wildflowers and butterflies. Cantabrian brown bears and wolves roam the more secluded regions of the park, while Cantabrian chamois, various buzzards, and eagles frequently delight visitors.
The monumental Picos mountain range also includes several of the world's deepest caves — among these are the Torca del Cerro and Sima de la Cornisa caves, both nearly a mile deep. A few traditional Spanish shepherds still rely on the fertile, grassy slopes at the foot of these peaks to graze their herds of sheep, goats, cows, and pigs each summer. If you’re in the area, be sure to savor their pungent and exceptional blue cheeses, including Cabrales and Picón Bejes-Tresviso. On the less-visited southern end, the park is flanked by several picturesque towns, including Posada de Valdeón.
Calanques National Park, France
Though the park was established less than a decade ago, the kaleidoscope of colors bursting from the scenery of Calanques National Park, in southern France’s Bouches-du-Rhône, feels like a timeless treasure. The impressive landscape juxtaposes sun-bleached limestone massifs with turquoise blue inlets, surrounded by the steep cliff-faces (calanques) after which the park is named. Visitors can soak in the scenery via the many scenic trails or by plunging right into the clear, inviting Mediterranean waters — swimming, kayaking, boating, diving, and paddle boarding around the islands and secluded coves are all popular activities. While the park stretches more than 200 square miles, less than one-fifth of the area is on land; the rest is made up of protected marine area.
One of the park’s most noteworthy spots is the Cosquer Cave — an underwater archaeological wonder with walls that once housed our Paleolithic ancestors. They still tell their stories through hundreds of colorful engravings and drawings of animals, including penguins and bison, that once roamed these rugged shores.