Main image: © GNTB / Francesco Carovillano
1. Saxon Switzerland National Park
Considered to have the most enchanting landscape in Europe and famous for its unusual and dramatic sandstone peaks formed by water erosion, it is of no surprise that Saxon Switzerland National Park has been used as inspiration by artists of the 19th Century.
Laced with 400kms of hiking and cycling paths, hikers and cyclists are drawn here by the puncturing rock formations and the river Elbe, which snakes past villages, forests and hilltop castles. The poster sport however, is rock climbing, and there are more than 700 peaks officially available for those who enjoy the challenge of the heights.
The most impressive sight is the Bastei cluster of rock and the Bastei Bridge, which has been a tourist attraction for more than 200 years. The original wooden structure was replaced by a sandstone bridge in 1851, and is the most photographed site of the national park.
2. Saar Hunsrück National Park
In the south west of Germany, straddling the border between Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland you can find Saar Hunsrück National Park. Part of this is Hunsrück Hochwald National Park which is one of country’s newest national parks established in 2015 with an area around 24,719 acres. An area dedicated as a Biodiversity hotspot that is surrounded by the wine growing regions of the Rhine and Mosel Valleys, the creation of the national park is an important step for the Hunsrück highlands to protect the diverse ecosystem of ancient beech forest, moors and grasslands from further development and conserve the native wildcats, fire salamander and black storks populations.
While the national park is still in development, various hiking trails have been established. Easily accessible by train from nearby towns, come to learn about the plants and the wildlife with one of the guided nature tours and eat, drink and sleep with businesses from nearby towns who support the works of the national park.
3. Bavarian Forest National Park
Founded in 1970, the Bavarian Forest National Park is the first national park in Germany. Since its establishment, nature has been left to flourish to the celebrated forests today and together with the neighbouring Šumava National Park in the Czech Republic, it is the largest adjoining forest reserve in Central Europe.
The Bavarian Forest National Park is an all year round destination. In the warmer months, visitors can enjoy 350 km of marked hiking trails and 200 km of cycling routes. Winter is a spectacular time to be at the national park when the trails are perfect for snowshoers and cross-country skiers. Whichever season, an educational visit to the Forest History Museum St. Oswald is a must.
The park strives to maintain nature without human intervention and 72 percent of the national park is now in the ‘neutral zone’, where there is no human impact. The park continues to work on expanding the zone with the aim to return nature, to nature.
4. Schleswig-Holstein Wadden Sea National Park
This incredible national park at the mouth of the Elbe river is the world’s largest continuous area of mudflats, stretched across the Wadden Sea, one of the last remaining large-scale, intertidal ecosystems. A dedicated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Schleswig-Holstein Wadden Sea National Park is a world away from the rest of Germany’s mostly forested national parks.
This part of the coast is on the East Atlantic coastal birds migration route, with 10 to 12 million birds resting here every year and around 100,000 pairs would stop and breed in the national park. A great way to view them all is to cycle along the coast or walk the salt marshes and mudflats, which is also home to a few unique salt water flora. With a bit of luck, you might spot a few of the resident seals or porpoises among the flocks of birds pecking at snails, mussels and lugworms in the mud.
5. Eifel National Park
Unlike other national parks with established wilderness, the Eifel is still considered a “National Park in development” and is an opportunity for nature lovers to witness nature’s power to recover and grow, creating new areas of habitat for thousands of endangered animal and plant species.
Come to learn the potential future of the Eifel National Park at “Dreams of Wilderness” interactive exhibition and walk the 85 km of wilderness trail over rivers, meadows and dense forests. A guided tour with one of the park rangers is a great way to learn more about the wild animals beginning to thrive there, including wild cats, beavers, kingfishers, bats and owls.
Visit at night and look up to admire the pride of the Eifel National Park. The preserved night sky space devoid of artificial light has been certified as Germany’s first Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), making it one of the perfect locations for a stargazing experience.
6. Berchtesgaden National Park
Germany’s only Alpine national park on the Austrian border is filled with both natural, cultural and historical attractions. The sweeping slopes, deep river gorges and high snowy peaks of the Berchtesgaden National Park is famously associated with Sound of Music.
Hiking is the prime sport during summer when the lakes are the colours of dark turquoise and crisp green meadows alive with wildflowers, where it is easy to spot free roaming Alpine wildlife. Alternatively, take to the heights and view the scenery from the vantage of a bird’s eye with a paragliding flight, or down to the rivers to try water-based activities.
When winter freezes the landscape with powdered snow and frozen waterfalls, the national park offers several ski areas as well as snow hiking and sledding options. If the temperature is right, ice skating on the frozen lakes is another memorable adventure.
7. Jasmund National Park
19th Century German painter Caspar David Friedrich painted and immortalised the white cliffs of Rügen while on holidays on the island in 1818. Today, this chalk coastline remains the most popular attraction of the small Jasmund National Park of the island of Rügen on the Baltic Sea, along with the 700 year old beech forests and meadows where protected orchids and a variety of bugs can be found.
Treasure hunting is a popular activity along the beach at the bottom of the cliffs, which is covered with bizarre shaped flint often concealing small fossils. Strict rules preventing the removal of these interesting finds on the beach and in the forests are in place to protect the natural ecosystem. The best way to view these towering cliffs is by hiking or biking, with several trails open for horseriding. Camp sites are available for those who wish to stay longer.
8. Harz National Park
In an area covering 61,000 acres in land mass, Harz National Park boasts some of the best natural and culture experiences in the country. Historically of political and religious importance, there are monasteries and castles with heritage status to visit. However, it is the nature that many come to experience, for the Harz is one of the largest forested national parks of Germany.
The harsh microclimates endured by the Harz Mountains has carved an array of geology supporting various vegetation zones, making the national park the best to learn about plant diversity of Germany. The mountain range is criss-crossed with hiking and biking paths that explore the different zones, as well as options to take a scenic journey through the forest on the steam train up the peak of the Brocken.
One of the most exciting recent discoveries within the nature of Harz National Park, is the return of the wild lynx, which can be spotted for the few lucky hikers with quiet steps.
9. Black Forest National Park
The dense, evergreen spruce trees gave the Black Forest its name. Dark and mysterious from a distance, it has inspired many tales of the Grimm Brothers with stories of candy houses and princesses in towers.
The idea of long distance hiking is believed to have been found in the Black Forest, with trails originally established in 1900, however the region did not become a national park until 2014. Grab a map and enjoy point to point hikes between the villages. The well-marked trails are easy to follow and each day is accompanied by a symphony of birdsong and sounds of streaming water. Other than song birds, peregrine falcons, pygmy owls and woodpeckers also thrive in this environment, along with other land wildlife who call the forests home.
Other than hiking, mountain biking is also becoming popular. Of course, this is also Germany’s premier spa country and it wouldn’t be right to leave without enjoying the thermal spas around the Black Forest.
10. Müritz National Park
Located in the low lands roughly between Berlin and Rostock, the Müritz National Park is the largest land national park with a few of the last endangered clear water lakes in Germany.
With 100 picturesque lakes connected by ponds and rivers as well as large areas of wetland as perfect breeding ground for waterfowl, this is birdwatching paradise. Observation hides have been built for keen birdwatcher to get up close and personal with these amazing feathered creatures, and those on a canoe, hiking or horse riding through the park can often sight the birds on their journey.
The diverse environment also includes primitive beech forests that cover the rest of the park is recognised by UNESCO as a World Natural Heritage. For those wishing to do a little good on their holidays, the Müritz National Park often has volunteering programs allowing holiday makers to get right behind the scenes to help the surveying and classification of flora and fauna.