Escape the crowds: quiet corners in six of Britain’s national parks

With national parks set to be busier than ever this year, local guides in some of the most popular share their favourite peaceful spots

Lake District

Jonathan Smith, mountain guide and founder of Where2walk

Large areas of the Lake District will be extremely popular this spring and summer, particularly Keswick, Grasmere, Ambleside and Windermere/Bowness. Walks near these hubs are not likely to feel like the secluded peaceful rambles usually associated with this beautiful area. After the first lockdown ended it was chaotic, with simply too many people gravitating to too few places.

However, with a bit of research it is easy to avoid the hotspots. The Lake District is a large area, stretching from Carlisle in the north down to the peninsulas in the south, and from the Atlantic coast across to the M6. If you can avoid the central spine of busy towns, much of the Lake District is quiet, peaceful and a delight to visit and walk in.

My favourite is Duddon valley, away to the west of Coniston. Few will have heard of the Duddon valley, let alone travelled there, yet it is pretty central and barely a half-hour drive from Ambleside. I always prefer approaching the valley from the north, over the Wrynose Pass, with its stunning views.

At the north end of the valley (often referred to as Dunnerdale), the River Duddon runs along a wooded valley floor enjoyed by canoeists and wild-water swimmers, with easy riverside walking. Further south the valley opens out before reaching the Duddon estuary and the sea.

Halfway down the valley is the Newfield Inn, a characterful whitewashed pub and the base for one of my must-do walks. Initially, head towards Seathwaite Tarn, a large reservoir that is barely known and rarely visited. Follow the faint track along the south side of the tarn before a short sharp climb takes you on to Dow Crag. Here, the views are wonderful: Goat’s Water under the cliffs and the hidden gem of Blind Tarn. Turn your back on the crowds of the nearby Old Man of Coniston and join the old drovers’ road back into the Duddon valley. The walk is eight miles long, so I usually take a picnic and enjoy a pint at the Newfield afterwards.

For an even better and even quieter walk, head a few miles down the valley to Ulpha, which has a lovely post office/general store. Stock up with supplies and head east on one of the many sheep tracks that lead into an area of rocky knolls and hidden dell. It is not dangerous and not high but will almost certainly be empty. Although there is a summit, Stickle Pike, Alfred Wainwright did not deem it worthy of inclusion in his main walking guides. He mentions it in his less-popular Outlying Fells book: maybe he simply wanted to keep it to himself!

The beautiful market town of Broughton-in-Furness makes the best base for exploring the Duddon valley. There is plenty of accommodation, from traditional hotels (The Black Cock Inn is very good) to guesthouses, cottages and campsites.

Two more of my favourite places to visit away from the crowds are Caldbeck and Bassenthwaite in the northern Lakes. Both villages are quiet, with access to the peaceful hills behind Skiddaw and Blencathra. And the village of Boot in Eskdale, near the Duddon valley, also makes a wonderful base for exploring the western lakes and coast. Loweswater, is another of the more westerly lakes: stay at the Kirkstile Inn and enjoy a choice of easy waterside walks. In early summer, the bluebell fields at Rannerdale are a rewarding walk.

Norfolk Broads

Mark Wilkinson, AKA The Canoeman, runs paddling and bushcraft trips

Mark Wilkinson (right) on the Broads.
Mark Wilkinson (right) on the Broads. Photograph: Si Barber

In midsummer, at the Broads’ honeypots like Wroxham and Potter Higham, what you will see is mile-long convoys of huge cruiser boats, all plodding along, ogling the millionaire mansions that line the banks, and all heading for same pub at lunchtime. Getting through that in a kayak or canoe is like trying to cross the M25 on foot. It’s not advisable, or pleasant.

But the Broads, as the name suggests, are wide. You have seven rivers with lots of satellite lakes and ponds (or broads as they are known locally), dotted along them, and spread over 117 square miles. Within that there are 125 miles of waterway navigable in motor boats – actually not that much for the quantity of boats on the water in summer. The good news is that the rest is only accessible by paddlers: kayaks, canoes and paddleboards, as well as wild swimmers. Plus, there are some lovely bankside footpaths. If you are a fit walker, get the train to Wroxham, take the Bure Valley Way, join the Marriott’s Way and walk back to Norwich.

For me, though, finding some peace and quiet is all about paddling. The first thing to say is that at dawn in summer you can paddle in complete tranquility anywhere on the Broads: the motor boaters don’t get up early. Second, is that they all want to be at the pub at lunchtime and that they hate dead-end waterways as they can’t turn easily in them. All the rivers have quiet areas. For example, South Walsham Broad on the Bure: it has an inner and outer broad where you rarely see motor boats. You can paddle up to St Bennet’s Abbey, a lovely spot, and from near the public staithe (your “put-in” point), visit Fairhaven Water Gardens, where there’s a cracking tea shop.

Peace and quiet can be found in unexpected places. I like to paddle from New Mills Yard through Norwich city centre on the River Wensum: loads of architectural interest and history and no motor boats at all. There’s a good pub, The Rushcutters, and, best of all, Harley’s coffee shop where they do amazing bacon rolls – locally famous for their homemade sauce.

The other rivers have great stretches too: try Rockland Broad, then paddle round on the River Yare to Surlingham Broad – where you’re almost guaranteed to see marsh harriers. Take care though: this broad has huge reed beds and it’s easy to get lost. The Bungay Loop on the Waveney is good if you only have one vehicle as the start and finish are only a short walk apart. Horsey Mere on the Thurne is less than a mile from the beach and there’s a windmill to paddle to. The Dilham canal at North Walsham is very quiet too.

If you want to camp and paddle, then come with us: we have sole access to private wild camps on the upper reaches of the River Bure. Crystal clear water, kingfishers and otters – it’s wonderful.

North York Moors

Gareth Williams, guide and owner of guided walks operator Large Outdoors

The ruins of Rievaulx Abbey near Helmsley, one of the great abbeys in England until seized by Henry VIII in 1538 during the dissolution of the monasteries.
The ruins of Rievaulx, one of the great abbeys in England until seized by Henry VIII in 1538 during the dissolution of the monasteries. Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

The eastern edge of the North York Moors national park runs along the coast from near Boulby (north of Whitby) to Scarborough, with a band of moorland running inland for almost 30 miles, interspersed with valleys, ancient woodlands, quiet villages, market towns and beautiful views. The park does attract high visitor numbers, but lots are day trippers from places such as Leeds or Newcastle – and the coast is where most people head. So, while the seaside might be rammed in summer, it’s not hard to find quiet spots inland.

I’d suggest Helmsley as a base for exploring less-visited areas: it’s a very “Yorkshire” place, with lots of lovely features – a medieval castle and a couple of good pubs (The Feathers and the Black Swan, which both have new owners and been refurbished recently). Though the town itself can be busy, you can quickly get to open landscapes nearby, with few people.

North and west of Helmsley, there’s great variety: amazing moorland, big open skies, wooded glens and ancient forest not far away. Rievaulx is a ruined abbey in a wooded valley. Further west is Sutton Bank, an escarpment with views all the way to the Yorkshire Dales – and there are lots of good walks and bike routes from there.

In lockdown, I set myself a challenge of exploring as many new places and routes as possible: my personal favourite walk is from Hawnby, north of Helmsley, a pretty hamlet with tea shop and a pub, The Owl, which has reopened after a long time and has rooms. It’s a circular walk of about 10 miles, starting in the village and heading up to the Cleveland Way – a long-distance path that runs through the park – with views to the dales, before coming back through Arden Great Moor. High Paradise farm, about a third of the way round, has a tea shop for a refresh. It’s a really quiet part of the moors and you’ll hardly meet anyone, except on the Cleveland Way itself (about two miles of this walk).

Other quiet walking areas can be found around Hutton-le-Hole, a village in a “hole” in the mountains between Helmsley and Pickering, with good access to the moors. In the north of the park there’s a section of the Esk valley walk I love, too. It’s a four-day route but for a great day trip you can get the train from Grosmont to Danby and walk back from there. It goes through Lealhom and follows the river through forests back to Grosmont.

I love the park any time of year but in summer it’s spectacular, with the heather turning it a sea of purple. The moors aren’t photogenic like the Lake District but when you’re there, it really is spectacular.

The Peak District

Rachel Bolton, guide for Peak Walking

Rachel Bolton looking towards Matlock from the High Peak Trail.
Rachel Bolton looking towards Matlock from the High Peak Trail. Photograph: Rachel Bolton

The Peak District, the UK’s first national park, celebrates its 70th anniversary this month. This popular area of high, wild country, lowland moors and villages provides solitude and stunning views with abundant history; there are also great public transport links into the heart of the park.

Trains from Sheffield and Manchester stop at stations including Edale, Hathersage and Hope, giving easy access to the countryside – and you can even walk between stations: try Edale to Hope station via Kinder Scout and/or Win hill; or start at Grindleford and walk down to Padley Gorge and by the side of the majestic river Derwent to Hathersage station. The Trans Peak bus service connects the major towns of Buxton, Matlock and Bakewell with Derby.

This year is likely to be busy, so for a quieter ramble of five to 10 miles, I’d head for moorland areas such as Abney Moor, Eyam Moor and Offerton Moor, all near to Hathersage. The moorlands offer a variety of paths and for a longer walk – I often link the three moors together. Nearby pubs with great food and accommodation include the Barrel Inn at Bretton and the Plough Inn near Hathersage.

Eyam, the plague village of 1666, has many off-the-beaten paths to explore close to the village and linked to the remarkable history of the communities’ survival during the plague. Visit Eyam tea rooms for coffee and cake.

Further south is the White Peak area, so named because of its limestone geology. Elton village is a good base for a gentle five-mile stroll to Gratton Dale, a great place for a quiet picnic. It is a secluded limestone dale with an abundance of wild flowers and trees.

On the fringe of the park is the lesser-known but historic former lead mining town of Wirksworth, a gem of a town with a creative spirit and surrounded by hills. It boasts a Stardisc for sky watchers – a 21st-century stone circle and celestial amphitheatre. A short walk from the town brings you to the family- and dog-friendly National Stone Centre museum and its excellent Blue Lagoon Cafe, all close to the High Peak Trail (a former “trans-peak” railway line with cycle hire). There are great walking connections to the Derwent Valley Mills Unesco heritage site at Cromford, where Richard Arkwright established his famous Cromford Mill.

For evening activities in Wirksworth try Le Mistral, a French bistro and wine shop or the Feather Star inn for local beers (and vinyl – it’s also a record shop). The Northern Light is Wirksworth’s tiny, unique and excellent cinema.

The hills surrounding Wirksworth are easily accessible to visitors from the south of the country and the area is also an excellent escape from the crowds, including woodland walks near Black Rocks and Bow Wood above Cromford (where there is a rail link to Derby). Alport Height, Middleton Moor and Brassington Moor are also a delight to walk to, with far reaching views and open spaces. Good food is available at the Olde Gate Inn in Brassington – a good base to enjoy walks up to Harborough Rocks (two hours/five miles), with stunning views over Carsington Water (itself a family-friendly facility). Good self-catering accommodation includes nearby Hopton Hall Holiday Cottages.


Libby Peter, mountain guide and climbing instructor

Barmouth seen from across the Mawddach estuary.
Barmouth seen from across the Mawddach estuary. Photograph: CW Images/Alamy

Although Snowdonia national park covers 823 square miles, most hill-bound visitors stretch their legs in less than 20 of them on the various rocky paths that converge on Wales’s highest peak: Snowdon. It’s a majestic focal point, but even this giant sags under the weight of 650,000 annual visitors, so rather than jostle for parking spots amid the hubbub, think out of the honeypot and cast your eyes south.

From Conwy on the north coast, the national park extends all the way to Aberdyfi, where the River Dyfi spills into Cardigan Bay, 50 miles to the south. An east-west halfway line runs roughly between Bala, perched lakeside on Llyn Tegid, and Harlech on the coast. South of this line and away from the coastal strip, relative solitude can be found, even on a bank holiday.

Serving this southern half is the sturdy market town of Dolgellau, which boasts an ample choice of cafes (the cake portions at TH Roberts are huge), at least five pubs (Y Meirionnydd is the former county jail) and even a microbrewery (Cwrw Cader). Radiating from this alternative centre in every direction are pockets of lesser-known but no less intriguing landscape to dip into, including three of the park’s quietest mountain ranges; the Rhinogs, the Arenigs and the Arans, which lie north-west, north-east and due east of Dolgellau respectively.

Renowned for luxuriant heathers, seldom-trod footpaths and satisfyingly rough walking, these are real nature lovers’ hills. As an appetiser seek out Arenig Fawr: its 854-metre summit occupies the true centre of Snowdonia, with 360-degree views to match. A circular walk from the hamlet of Arenig heads first south to Llyn Arenig Fawr before swooping westward, hugging the steep ground to climb steadily to Arenig Fawr’s rock-strewn summit.

Due south of Dolgellau is the mighty and more-conventional mountain Cader Idris. But if altitude or map skills are not your thing, head west following the snaking Mawddach river on a nine-mile bike- and wheelchair-friendly trail, to cross the timber viaduct into Barmouth – an ice-cream and fish-and-chip-shop heaven. Leisurely loops based on this enchanting estuary abound: the Precipice and Panorama walks are well-marked three- and four-mile circuits climbing high on opposites sides. You’d be hard-pushed to find an easier way to feel immersed in the landscape of this region without the need for sturdy boots.

Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park

John and Anne Urquhart, guides and owners of Lomond Guides

Guides John and Anne Urquhart.
Guides John and Anne Urquhart. Photograph: John Urquhart

Honeypots are popular for a reason. Loch Lomond is close to Glasgow, it’s the largest freshwater loch in Scotland and the villages on its shore, Luss and Balmaha, are beautiful. In the summer there are so many visitors that parking can be really difficult, and wild camping in the park as a whole (which covers much of the western southern Highlands) became such a problem that you now need a licence.

The loch’s islands offer sanctuary from the crowds and you can reach one of them, Inchcailloch, from Balmaha Boatyard by taking a charming old wooden ferry dating from 1936.

Ben Lomond, the most southerly and popular of Scotland’s Munros (mountains above 3,000 feet) is a few miles north of Balmaha, but about 50,000 walkers climbed it last year – even in lockdown.

To the east, Loch Katrine is another busy spot, but as the park contains over 20 lochs and 21 Munros, large swathes of pine forest and hidden glens, it’s easy to escape the crowds. If we have a day off, we often drive to the Cowal peninsula in the west. It’s remote, the roads are quiet and we hardly see a soul.

One of the places we love is Glenbranter near Strachur, part of the Argyll forest park – which is within the national park. There’s a lovely two-mile walk to a waterfall, which is spectacular after it’s rained. You can also mountain bike along the forest roads here and there’s a poignant war memorial nearby, erected by music hall star Harry Lauder to his son Captain John Lauder, who was killed during the first world war.

Benmore Botanic Garden, further south near Loch Eck, is another of our favourite spots. It’s an outpost of Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens, with 120 acres of rhododendrons and redwoods and spectacular views over Holy Loch. We were there the other day and saw about four people. The cafe was really good and Helen, who used to run it, is about to open her own place in an old gallery opposite the pier at Blairmore on Loch Long. Just across the road from Benmore, Puck’s Glen is a dramatic two-mile gorge trail past waterfalls and towering Douglas Firs.

The whole of Cowal is under-explored. The Cowal Way is one of Scotland’s least discovered long-distance walking trails, starting at Portavadie in the south and finishing at Inveruglas on Loch Lomond. Lochgoilhead is quite busy, but if you drive down the loch’s shore towards Carrick Castle it’s really quiet. A great little community group manages the Cormonachan Woods there. It’s a remnant of Atlantic Rainforest, and over years the volunteers have created a network of delightful paths. Loch Goil Cruises also has a good cafe nearby called the Boat Shed.

The last time we were on Cowal we saw two eagles soaring above us. There are also red deer and otters around the coast. It’s got sea lochs, mountains, wildlife – everything you could want from the Highlands.

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Peaks and Downs: the best family-friendly breaks in national parks
England and Wales’ national parks date from a law passed 70 years ago. Our writer, who has walked all 13, picks fun breaks and youth hostels in each

Phoebe Taplin

09, Feb, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Wild days out for Easter: UK walks, attractions and activities – without the crowds
Big-name attractions are heaving over the spring break but the UK has a wealth of spectacular, less-well-known days out. Our experts reveal their favourites

Compiled by Kevin Rushby

08, Apr, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Walking the National Forest Way: a stroll amid a transformed Midlands
It’s the time of year to check out the bluebell woods of England’s National Forest, which stretches over the former mining fields of Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire. We take it stage by stage, with stops for food and sleep

Meera Dattani

12, Apr, 2017 @5:30 AM

Article image
UK national parks: celebrating a country's natural beauty

With rugged hills, unspoilt coast and acres of gentle beauty, our national parks are a wonderful natural asset. Sara Maitland looks back at the parks' history

Sara Maitland

23, Aug, 2013 @8:00 PM

Article image
Secrets of the New Forest – and where to spot its elusive wildlife
Neil Ansell knows almost every inch of the New Forest, a favourite childhood haunt. He returns to share his favourite spots

Neil Ansell

03, Aug, 2021 @5:30 AM

Article image
Is this Switzerland? No, I’m in the Shropshire Hills
The peaks around Church Stretton put Victorian tourists in mind of the Swiss Alps – and that tranquillity still exerts a strong pull

James March

01, Aug, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
North Yorkshire’s two national parks named international dark sky reserves
A five-year campaign for designation has resulted in the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors parks forming the largest dark-sky area in the UK

Lorna Parkes

08, Dec, 2020 @12:45 PM

Article image
20 of the best places to stargaze in the UK
The National Parks Dark Skies Festival (18-26 February) is an ideal opportunity to try stargazing in some of the UK’s wildest areas. But here, we’ve also selected stellar sites that are good throughout the year

Rachel Dixon

15, Feb, 2017 @6:30 AM

Article image
Peaks and froths: five wild UK walks with a classic pub
The best winter hikes end up in a warm, cosy pub. The author of Wild Pub Walks picks five glorious trails that will end in beers

Daniel Neilson

26, Dec, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Weekend warriors: adventure beckons in the Brecon Beacons
With abseiling, ziplining over a river, rafting and hikes, a two-night camping adventure in the south Wales national park proves energy-sapping – and boundless fun

Hannah Louise Summers

23, Jan, 2018 @6:30 AM