Guide to visiting the UK's National Parks by public transport

21 July 2021

As Covid-19 restrictions ease and the school year ends, National Parks are bracing themselves for a busy summer. Visitors are encouraged to arrive by public transport where possible to help reduce carbon emissions in National Parks (more in our National Parks and the Climate Emergency report) and one of Campaign for National Parks' campaign areas is accessibility.

Our Friend and blogger Sue Cassell has created this helpful guide to exploring National Parks car-free...

Photo: David Jenner, Forestry England

I’ve been fortunate to work for, and to volunteer with, the outdoor movement for many years.  I’ve been especially fortunate to have encountered some great people who devote their lives to the Great Outdoors – these include campaigners, nature conservationists, Scouting and other youth activity group leaders, Youth Hostel and Field Study Centre wardens, National Park Mosaic champions, Ramblers and HF Holidays walks leaders, and volunteer rural bus drivers. 

I’ve also been inspired by people who speak and write about the Great Outdoors, so I was intrigued to listen to Cameron McNeish who was guest speaker one year at a National Parks Conference organised by the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority. He spoke about how, when you walk, you connect with the landscape.

I love walking and I love our beautiful and varied landscapes. But I hate driving. I agree with Colin Speakman that our nation’s love affair with the car, which has brought huge freedom, is also generating massive environmental downsides, not least when it comes to visitor impact on our National Parks. So, I use buses and trains to reach the countryside, and I encourage other to forgo the car in favour of public transport. I have a blog – My Great Outdoors – that aims to provide information and inspiration for car-free enjoyment of our stunning landscapes.

Here are some ideas for exploring the UK's 15 National Parks car-free this summer and autumn:

1. Catch a bus from the centre of Sheffield into Peak District National Park, via the Hope Valley and the village of Castleton. The journey takes less than an hour.

Photo: Peak District National Park Authority

Castleton is a great base from which to walk over hills and moorland, as well as explore caves and caverns. Overnight accommodation options include YHA Castleton Losehill Hall which is a refurbished Victorian Gothic mansion set within 27 acres of parkland. 

Be inspired by Yvonne Witter, Chair of the Peak District Mosaic Group and an OS #GetOutdoors Champion, who encourages individuals and groups from Sheffield to catch the bus from the city to the Peak District to enjoy nature, beautiful surroundings and to meet new people (using public transport and walking are brilliant ways to meet people). From 23 July, there’s an additional bus service (equipped with bike racks), the Hope Valley Explorer, which is a hop-on, hop off service from the Upper Derwent Valley down to Castleton and up to Winnats Pass/Mam Tor.   

Why not also try the new bus service Snake X57 which travels between Manchester and Sheffield via, you’ve guessed it, the A57 and Snake Pass? Alighting at Snake Pass you could walk south on the Pennine Way to Edale and catch a train back home. The Hope Valley trainline runs between Manchester and Sheffield, with stops in the Peak District at Edale, Hope, Bamford, Hathersage and Grindleford.

2. Talking of trains, take the train to Oxenholme (for Windermere) or Penrith to reach Lake District National Park. Using connecting buses to reach the shores of Coniston, Derwentwater, Ullswater or Windermere, combine a cruise on a boat with a lake-shore walk. 

I have great memories of catching a boat from Glenriddig, on the shore of Ullswater, to Pooley Bridge and walking back close to the shore to my starting point – it was a delightful low-level ten mile walk, and forms part of the Ullswater Way. In the past, I’ve also explored the area around Beatrix Potter’s home at Hill Top using the Windermere boat service and a connecting minibus (provided by Mountain Goat tours) to Sawrey. 

Also in the Lake District, there are open-top bus rides, including between Windermere (catch the bus from outside the station) and Grasmere, via Brockhole and Ambleside. There’s great walking at all these destinations. There’s information about the buses on the Lake District National Park website and also the Visit Lake District website.

Photo: Cumbria Tourism

3. Love open-top buses? In New Forest National Park there are three open-top bus routes, starting on 29 May 2021 and running through to 12 September.

The hop-on, hop-off tours run every day with a choice of three routes: Red (‘the wild northwest’), Green (‘the beautiful southeast’) and the Blue (‘the coastal southwest’).  From the top deck there’s the chance to spot some of the native animals of the New Forest such as deer and the famous ponies, as well as get a bird’s eye view of the wide, open heaths and ancient forest.  The buses connect with regular bus services from Bournemouth, Poole, Salisbury and Southampton. 

There are also trains to the New Forest, with stations at Beaulieu Road, Brockenhurst, Lymington and New Milton.  There are plenty of beautiful walks to enjoy in the New Forest (how about a four-mile circular starting and finishing in Burley?). There’s also cycle hire at ‘hubs’ such as Brockenhurst, Burley, Lyndhurst and Lymington.

Photo: New Forest National Park Authority

4. Arrive in style to Exmoor National Park via the West Somerset heritage railway (bus connection from Taunton). The service will run through to Dunster station later this summer, from where it’s a 20-minute walk to Dunster Castle and village. Holders of West Somerset Railway tickets can obtain a 20% discount on admission to the castle (being car-free has some great perks). 

While in Dunster, I’d be tempted to catch a bus to Dulverton – it’s an hour-long journey across Exmoor.  There’s a four-mile circular walk at Dulverton which takes in some of the delights of Exmoor – sparkling rivers, lovely woodlands and open moorlands.  The west of Exmoor is also well served by public transport and there are some great walks around Lynmouth and Lynton. 

Photo: Exmoor National Park Authority

The National Park Authority website has some brilliant downloadable walks for those without a car.  Plus, there’s a summer-season open-top bus service along the Exmoor coast between Minehead to Lynmouth – this hop-on, hop-off bus service, known as the Exmoor Coaster, runs daily including Sundays and Bank Holidays, linking seaside towns across the dramatic moorland.

5. Sample Dartmoor National Park by catching a bus from Exeter city centre to Castle Drogo. Follow the winding paths below the castle into the sheltered Teign Gorge. Explore this ancient gorge, teeming with wildlife on trails along the river. 

For more adventure on Dartmoor, there’s a Dartmoor Explorer bus service between Exeter and Plymouth that stops at Postbridge, which is close to Bellever Forest and YHA Dartmoor.  An overnight stay is recommended, as the Dartmoor Explorer bus service is infrequent (one bus a day in each direction). 

During summer months, the Haytor Hoppa is a circular, scenic bus service which starts and finishes in Newton Abbot or Bovey Tracey – hop on and off to explore places, or go walking on the eastern side of Dartmoor. The Haytor Hoppa calls at Haytor Visitor Centre (with easy access to Haytor Rocks) and Widecombe-in-the-Moor.

Photo: Dartmoor National Park Authority

6. Take a ride on Britain's most scenic bus route in North York Moors National Park. The accolade was awarded to the 840 Coastliner in 2018, and the same service scooped the top prize in the World Cup of English Bus Routes in 2020. It runs daily from Leeds, Tadcaster, York, Easingwold and Malton, and serves Pickering, Thornton le Dale, Goathland and Whitby.

Many areas of the North York Moors have a good public transport network, and the National Park Authority – working with Ryedale District Council and Scarborough Borough Council – have recently launched their brand new ‘Sit back and enjoy the ride’ publication. It includes a map of the main bus routes, railway stations and park and ride services to help people plan ahead and get the most out of their trip.

The National Park is also home to the famous North Yorkshire Moors Railway, along with the dramatic and delightful Esk Valley Railway. For a great half-day's walk, take the train to Grosmont and walk to Whitby, following the 'leaping salmon' trail signs along the Esk Valley Walk.  Further west in the National Park, Helmsley and Osmotherley (both with excellent youth hostels) are reachable by bus: there are some really good walks from both.

Photo: North York Moors National Park Authority

7. In Yorkshire Dales National Park the Herriot Way is a 52-mile circular walk through some of the best scenery in the Dales.  The walk can be started at Aysgarth, Hawes, Keld or Reeth, all of which are served by the Dalesbus. Dalesbus is also running extra services throughout the National Park on Sundays and Bank Holidays. Then there’s the Settle to Carlisle Railway (with connections from Leeds) – check out their website for downloadable walks.  Sunday 16 May 2021 saw the return of DalesRail, which is a summer Sunday rail service linking Lancashire stations to the Settle–Carlisle railway and thereby providing direct train access to the Yorkshire Dales from towns including Blackburn, Blackpool and Preston. 

8. Still in the northern uplands, in Northumberland National Park the Hadrian’s Wall Country Bus AD122 links major sites along the Hadrian’s Wall corridor between Newcastle and Carlisle. The Hadrian’s Wall Path is an 84-mile National Trail stretching from coast to coast across England. 

Photo: Jessica Davison, Northumberland National Park

The Pennine Way also runs through the National Park, starting and finishing at Kirk Yetholm.  If catching the train to access Northumberland National Park there are a number of stations to the south of the Park including Hexham, Bardon Mill, Haydon Bridge and Haltwhistle. The East Coast Main Line has services between London, Newcastle and Edinburgh stopping at Alnmouth, from where you can travel west into the Park.

9. Not requiring a sleeper service from London is South Downs National Park.  This Park is well served by buses (including some open-top) and trains and means the South Downs Way can be walked in sections (for instance, Eastbourne to Alfriston, returning to Eastbourne by bus, or Alfriston to Rodmell, or Rodmell to Lewes). 

I’ve enjoyed exploring the west of South Downs National Park, by making use of bus services between Chichester and Midhurst and between Winchester and Petersfield.  Staying the night in the South Downs?  YHA South Downs is a refurbished Sussex farmhouse on the South Downs Way, and just a few yards from a train station.

Photo: South Downs National Park Authority

10. You can reach The Broads National Park relatively easily by train. Greater Anglia operates a half-hourly train service between Norwich and London Liverpool Street with local connecting services to local stations throughout The Broads. First buses go from Norwich Bus Station to Loddon, Beccles and then Lowestoft, for connections to Oulton Broad. Of course, once there you can hire a boat – The Broads is the only National Park in the UK with 200 kilometres of navigatable waterways to explore. Find out more about hiring a boat for the day at Visit The Broads. Please take note of the important guidance when exploring The Broads by water.

11. I’m heading for the three National Parks of Wales this summer with my son. We’re combining coast and countryside in Snowdonia National ParkThe Conwy Valley railway runs through Snowdonia National Park to Betws-y-Coed and Blaenau Ffestiniog. You can pick this up via a connection to the mainline stations in North Wales, including Bangor. If planning on climbing the highest of the peaks in Wales, the Snowdon Sherpa is a unique bus service that travels around the foot of Snowdon, creating a valuable link between the six main routes that travel up Snowdon, as well as the main car parks, villages and tourist attractions in the area.  

12. We’re also hoping to explore the Brecon Beacons National Park from the HF Holiday centre at Nythfa House (‘kids go free’), where group transport and an itinerary of graded walks are provided. There are good train connections to Brecon Beacons National Park from the mainline to Abergavenny, and regular daily bus services – including the T4 from Cardiff to Newtown via Brecon; the T6 runs from Swansea to Brecon; and the X55 Cymru Clipper service from Swansea and Neath and Pontneddfechan, serving both the Angel Inn and Dinas Rock, providing easy access to Waterfall Country. Better still, the Explore Wales Pass, available in advance from railway stations and agents, offers unlimited travel on all rail services and most local bus services in Wales. 

Photo: Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority

13. Lastly, we’re planning a trip to Tenby and Manorbier in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park where the train journey will be as much of a thrill as walking the coast path and playing on the beach. It's reachable via rail with stations at Tenby, Haverfordwest and Fishguard. There are five coastal bus services that run seven days a week throughout the summer. The buses now cover the majority of the Pembrokeshire Coast. The brilliantly-named Poppit Rocket, Strumble and Puffin Shuttles and Coastal Cruiser buses also run two days a week during the winter.

14. Technically out of Campaign for National Parks' remit – in Scottish Campaign for National Parks' patch, but well worth a visit – is Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, easily accessible by public transport (ScotRail operates a frequent direct service from Glasgow Queen Street to Balloch and the journey takes about 50 minutes).  Once you’ve arrived, the National Park’s waterbus service departs from piers and pontoons around Loch Lomond and Loch Katrine, meaning you can explore at your leisure whilst taking in the stunning scenery of these two iconic Scottish lochs.

15. The Cairngorms National Park is easy to visit by train. There are stations in the west of the National Park at Dalwhinnie, Newtonmore, Kingussie, Aviemore and Carr-Bridge. Trains between London’s Kings Cross and Inverness stop off at either Kingussie or Aviemore.  There are ten services each way daily and a sleeper service from London.  Aberdeen is the nearest railway station to the Royal Deeside area in the east of the National Park.  There are regular services to and from Aberdeen, including the sleeper service from London. You can catch a bus from Aberdeen station or even cycle on the Deeside Way. 

Photo: Peak District National Park Authority

Here are some top tips for making a success of car-free travel to and within our National Parks:

  • Plan your itinerary (and book) ahead. Traveline is brilliant for planning journeys by public transport.  It’s a partnership of transport companies, local authorities and passenger groups which have come together to bring routes and times for all travel in Great Britain by bus, rail, coach and ferry.  It uses the most up-to-date information from around the UK for all transport companies.
  • Search out the best value and most flexible fares (e.g. discounts for railcard holders, explorer and family bus tickets, etc).
  • Look on the websites of the National Park Authorities for ideas and information.  Many give travel advice and downloadable walks.
  • Ordnance Survey maps can be invaluable.  There are some great map reading courses (including online) which give you the confidence to explore for yourself away from major trails. Maps are always a good investment but they can often be borrowed from public libraries.
  • Know exactly where bus stops are in advance (I use Google Earth which gives me a satellite view, What3Words is also helpful) and arrive in plenty of time to catch the bus.  Be aware of Covid-19 protocols (e.g. social distancing and use of face masks).    
  • Have a ‘plan B’ in case of missing the last bus.  I note down the phone numbers of local taxi firms, just in case.
  • Above all, as well as equipping yourself with information, have confidence.  Enjoy the journey as much as the destination.  I have been travelling car-free for years and I love this way of life (it does take a bit of planning, though, but that’s part of the fun).  You will experience sights and conversations that are unique to public transport journeys and beat car travel any day.

To find out more about the work Campaign for National Parks does to campaign for improved access to our National Parks, see our car-free National Parks report.