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Torres del Paine
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Plan your trip to the best national parks in the world

Any nature lover should have the best national parks in the world on their bucket list

Written by
Lorna Parkes
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In case you hadn't noticed lately, our planet is a startling beautiful place and reconnecting with nature has never felt like more of a physical imperative than it has since the start of the pandemic. (Plus, studies show that it's really freaking good for you.) So, as the world slowly opens up and we're able to travel more freely again, we can think of no place better to make a beeline for than our gorgeous, global network of national parks. 

The United States led the way when it founded the world’s first national park at Yellowstone in 1872, but other countries quickly followed. Today, just over 15 percent of the earth is protected land, with key ecosystems and unique landscapes ringfenced in 245 countries and territories around the globe. 

These fiercely guarded spaces represent the most fantastical elements of the natural world. There are caves big enough to consume planes, sulphurous lakes atop volcanic craters, skyscraping rainforests that shelter big cats, deserts as quiet as a whisper, and remote archipelagos that feel like they’ve dropped off the ends of the earth. 

Some of these parks are easier to reach than others, but even the most remote ones are set up for visitor access with trails, maps and park rangers to lend a hand. Tread lightly and they represent the most life-affirming way to experience nature. Make them the centre of your trip itinerary and you have the makings of the ultimate getaway.

From Asia to Africa and across the Americas to Europe, here’s our pick of the best national parks in the world.  

RECOMMENDED: Five of the world’s wildest places and the people who are working to keep them that way

Best national parks in the world

There is an iconic picture of Patagonia’s ice-slicked, granite towers reflected in a glossy blue lake that you’re likely familiar with – even if you’ve never heard of Torres del Paine. The distinctive Cordillera del Paine, worn down into steep shards by glacial erosion, is the park’s centrepiece and it’s a vision that hikers from all over the world flock to see. Surrounding the massif there are ice fields, lenga forests and pampas with grazing guanacos – all of which have helped make Torres del Paine a legendary wilderness destination.     

Best time to visit: October to April for the summer trekking season 

Most famous attraction: The W Circuit – a four- to five-day, 80-kilometre hiking trail around the massif 

Don’t miss: Splurging on a geodesic dome room at Ecocamp Patagonia

Wadi Rum, Jordan
Photograph: Shutterstock

2. Wadi Rum, Jordan

The lunar-like terrain of Wadi Rum desert is so otherworldly that this protected area has established a thriving side business as a film set for Hollywood sci-fi movies including The Martian, Prometheus and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Many visitors come just to experience being among the dunes, but the park is also packed with history and the great emptiness is deceptive – people have inhabited this area since prehistoric times. You can visit Bedouin camps in sheltered rocky gorges, pore over ancient rock art inscriptions and learn about the period during WWI when locals joined the Arab Revolt alongside Lawrence of Arabia.        

Best time to visit: March to May and September to November 

Most famous attraction: Lawrence of Arabia landmarks including Lawrence’s Spring and the Seven Pillars of Wisdom 

Don’t miss: The Nabatean temple ruins near Wadi Rum village, with inscriptions dating to the 2nd century 

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Temporarily closed to visitors 

Prized for its cathedral-like showcaves, Mulu is home to the longest cave in Southeast Asia (Deer Cave) and the world’s largest cave chamber (Good Luck Cave), big enough to swallow a Boeing 747. More than 300-kilometres of cave passages have been mapped in this Malaysian park. The only way in is by air, so you’ll get an idea of just how big, dense and pristine the tropical jungle is from above, before you set foot on Mulu’s organised network of boardwalks. Park rangers lead dozens of guided hikes into the dripping wilderness, but the well-marked trails are also magical to explore solo.     

Best time to visit: Peak season (also slightly drier season) is June to September 

Most famous attraction: The arduous three-day Pinnacles climb up to a jagged jawline of limestone peaks 

Don’t miss: The nightly bat exodus, when millions escape the mouth of one of Gunung Mulu’s caves in mesmeric swarms 

Although the Blue Mountains is Australia’s most visited national park, Kakadu is the largest and wins hands-down for untamed beauty and anthropological importance. It sprawls over 20,000-square-kilometres in the Northern Territory, with high escarpments juxtaposed against infinite plains, waterfalls cascading into natural plunge pools, swampy wetlands and wildlife-filled billabongs. Saltwater crocodile viewing is a big draw, but Kakadu’s greatest jewel is its Aboriginal history and one of the highest concentrations of rock art sites anywhere in the world. There are around 15,000 galleries, some up to 20,000 years old.

Best time to visit: June to October 

Most famous attractions: The detailed Ubirr and Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) rock art galleries 

Don’t miss: New Bininj/Mungguy ranger-guided activities, including traditional painting workshops 

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If you want classic Iceland, come to Vatnajokull. Here you’ll find all the natural wonders that this far-flung island has become famous for: luminous ice caves, foaming waterfalls, and glaciers that can be hiked on, feeding into glacial lagoons and oversized canyons. And most of these attractions can be accessed relatively easily off Iceland’s Ring Road, four hours or so from Reykjavik. The park was created in 2008 by joining together Jokulsargljufur and Skaftafell National Parks to create a supersized area of over 12,000-square kilometres, making it the largest national park in Europe.  

Best time to visit: Summer for hiking; winter for ice cave tours 

Most famous attraction: Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon is a photographer’s dream, famous for its boat-sized floating icebergs 

Don’t miss: Touring one of Vatnajokull’s incredible ice caves with a trained guide 

Anchored some 100 kilometres off the coast of British Columbia, Haida Gwaii is a Canadian archipelago with a rich Indigenous culture and the rugged look of a forgotten land. Gwaii Haanas National Park in the archipelago’s southern quarter is the big attraction, an area that has been described as ‘Canada’s Galapagos’ thanks to its teeming wildlife. This is scenic Canada on hyperdrive, with bald eagles flying amid giant spruce, bears inhabiting moss-clad rainforests and whales breaching offshore, while the ocean bubbles with sea lions and porpoises that visitors can kayak among.   

Best time to visit: June to September offers the kindest weather 

Most famous attraction: Longhouses and huge, carved memorial poles at Unesco-listed SGang Gwaay island 

Don’t miss: Gandll K’in Gwaay.yaay (Hotspring Island), where three dip pools take advantage of natural thermal waters 

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Calanques, France
Photograph: Shutterstock

7. Calanques, France

Often overshadowed by the ritzy lure of the French Riviera, Calanques is a walk on the wild side to the riviera’s east, between Marseille and Cassis. The word ‘calanques’ in French refers to the narrow, sheer-walled inlets that make the park’s topography so striking, and the park’s protection extends to both land and sea around a 20-kilometre coastline. Nobbled, limestone karst cliffs plunge into sapphire Mediterranean waters and droplets of sandy bays, with small fishing towns wedged in the crevices. Scuba-diving, rock-climbing, kayaking and hiking are the main draws, and the park is easily accessible by boat tours from Marseille, as well as on foot via a handful of car parks. 

Best time to visit: May or June; peak season (July and August) can be crowded 

Most famous attraction: Calanque de Port Miou; the only cove directly accessible by car 

Don’t miss: Diving off the Friuli Islands archipelago to see protected marine species 

Home to Lord of the Rings’ Mount Doom in real life, Tongariro National Park has dual World Heritage status for its cultural and natural significance. The park’s 19-kilometre Tongariro Alpine Crossing is also one of the best day hikes on the planet. It offers the chance to summit an active volcano, hiking over charred volcanic scree up to the Red Crater for startling views of a trio of volcanic cones and a series of startling sulphurous pools called the Emerald Lakes. Frequent shuttles running between the nearby town of Taupo and the trailhead make it an easy day trip. 

Best time to visit: Summer (October to April) gives the best chance of good weather; winter hikes are possible, but increasingly unpredictable 

Most famous attraction: Mt Ngauruhoe – aka Mount Doom – gives hikers the thrill of scaling Modor 

Don’t miss: Skiing or snowboarding Mt Ruapehu from June to October 

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This California pin-up is one of the USA’s oldest and largest national parks, established in 1890 and encompassing 1,190-square-miles of natural hyperbole. It’s legendary among Americans, and for good reason. Home to ancient giant sequoias, the 2,425-foot-drop Yosemite Falls (one of North America’s tallest waterfalls) and sheer granite cliffs that tower like skyscrapers over the valley meadows of the High Sierras – Yosemite is a great source of national pride. It’s also an easily accessible holiday destination, thanks to accommodations, restaurants, shuttle buses, 360 miles of paved roads and 800 miles of developed trails within the park boundaries. 

Best time to visit: May to June brings fewer crowds; snow can cause road and camp closures in fall and winter 

Most famous attraction: In Yosemite Valley, El Capitan’s monolithic 3,000-foot-tall cliff face draws rock-climbers from around the world 

Don’t miss: Take the hike to Cathedral Lakes, a beautiful seven-mile roundtrip trail from Tuolumne Meadows

In a country where 25 percent of the land is protected, Corcovado is the crème de la crème of national parks. Covering a third of the Osa Peninsula in southern Costa Rica, Corcovado is considered the best park in the country to view wildlife and National Geographic famously described it as 'the most biologically intense place on earth.' It's home to big cats such as jaguars and pumas, as well as three-toed sloths, anteaters and all four of Costa Rica’s monkey species. The park is also home to 500 tree species and a huge tract of primary rainforest, laced with hiking trails and fringed by Pacific beaches. Visits are by guided tour only.

Best time to visit: The dry season, December to April

Most famous attraction: Baird’s tapir, the largest land mammal in Central America 

Don’t miss: Exploring the park’s outlying areas on a horse-riding tour with a naturalist 

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This 20,000-square-kilometre game-reserve grandaddy is special for many reasons, not least because it’s accessible on a budget. There’s the full gamut of accommodation options here, from campsites and cottages to hotels and luxury safari lodges, and you can either join a guided safari trip or brave driving yourself around – all of which makes it gentler on the wallet than many other African safari hotspots. It’s also easy to get to, located just two hours north of Johannesburg, but that makes the game viewing no less spectacular. All of Africa’s big five (elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards and buffalo) can be found roaming the dense bush of Kruger and it’s widely considered one of the continent’s most diverse and greatest places to spot wildlife.

Best time to visit: The dry winter season (November to March) is best for game viewing

Most famous attraction: The elusive black rhino; there’s less than 300 left in the park 

Don’t miss: South Africa’s best summer birdwatching in lesser-visited northern Kruger 

The Dales are an English country idyll. Dry-stone walls, often the only signs of human interference, carve up field after field on rolling green hills populated by bleating sheep. Occasionally small villages with old stone pubs rear into view, creating a cascade of well-timed pitstops for walkers. The bucolic landscapes of these hills, riddled with hidden waterfalls and bubbling brooks, inspired painters like Turner and writers including the Brontës and James Herriot. Today the twisting, helter-skelter topography is beloved by cyclists, while astro-tourism is on the rise thanks to the park’s 2020 designation as a Dark Sky Reserve. 

Best time to visit: May to September should bring bright, sunny days – if you’re lucky. 

Most famous attraction: The 260-feet-high limestone cliff amphitheatre of Malham Cove, on the edge of a chocolate-box village

Don’t miss: Courtyard Dairy, to see the recent revival of farmhouse cheesemaking in the Dales 

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Designated Croatia’s first national park in 1949 and now one of the country's most popular attractions, Plitvice Lakes is a fairytale waterworld of opalescent pools, gushing waterfalls and interconnected watercourses framed by limestone karst canyons, caves and forests. The lakes sit on two levels, and the surrounding woodland is prowled by brown bears, wolves and lynx, with clusters of old-growth beech and fir trees alive with rare birds. Located in central Croatia, visitors can stay at a handful of hotels within the park boundaries.  

Best time to visit: Summer greens, fall golds and winter snows make Plitvice an ever-changing year-round destination 

Most famous attraction: A series of boardwalks suspended just inches above the lakes 

Don’t miss: Day hiking trails that drill deeper into the landscape, with electric boat transfers and scenic train rides 

Carved by elemental forces over the course of 300 million years, the sandstone formations of Arches National Park are so dramatic that they’ve made it one of America’s most iconic and wondrous landscapes – and the geological competition is stiff in Utah’s five national parks. There are more than 2000 arches within this 120-square-mile high-desert expanse, as well as balancing rocks, fins, hoodoos and pinnacles, all washed in fiery hues of burnt amber, ochre and rust. Car touring, cycling, canyoneering, hiking, rock-climbing and horse-riding are all options for visitors.   

Best time to visit: Summer can be extremely busy; consider fall or even winter 

Most famous attraction: Much-photographed Delicate Arch, reached by a three-mile roundtrip hike that passes Native American Ute petroglyphs.

Don’t miss: Stargazing after dark; in 2019 Arches National Park was certified as an International Dark Sky Park 

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Where to begin with the Galapagos? This volcanic archipelago 1000-miles off the coast of Ecuador is truly unique. It’s the bucket-list holy grail. When Charles Darwin visited on a field biology expedition in 1835, the flora and fauna he documented here later inspired his theory of evolution. Wildlife viewing is legendary and Unesco describes the 19 islands and surrounding marine reserve as a 'living museum.' The sheer biological diversity – including unusual species such as marine iguanas, giant tortoises, flightless cormorants and massive cacti – is a result of the archipelago’s extreme isolation, which makes visiting no mean feat. Movement of tourists around the islands is heavily regulated to protect the pristine environment and the best way to see them is on a liveaboard boat.  

Best time to visit: December to May 

Most famous attraction: The endangered giant tortoise, most easily spotted in the Santa Cruz highlands 

Don’t miss: Snorkelling shallow Los Tuneles on Isabela island to see underwater lava tunnels, blacktip sharks, seals, sea horses, turtles and more 

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