In a densely populated country like the Netherlands, it sometimes takes an effort to find the gems of nature. However, if you manage to meander between the packed cities and highways, another world reveals itself.
This small country has 20 national parks, and we have selected 10 of the best. Grab a map of the Netherlands, mark these reserves, and prepare for a breathtaking journey across a wide range of ecosystems.
1. Hoge Veluwe National Park
The Hoge Veluwe National Park is the oldest and one of the largest national parks in the Netherlands, but superlatives only don’t do justice to this monumental reserve. This park has pine forests, deciduous woodlands, areas with drifting sand, and grasslands. You can opt to explore via a network of walking and bicycle trails. Pedalling here almost feels like a safari because this national park has a considerable population of deer, wild boar, fox, and badger. Smaller creatures within the park include snakes, lizards, and heaps of bird species.
A significant trademark of Hoge Veluwe National Park is the heathlands that pop with purple tones in September and October, which makes for a lovely spectacle. This is also the season for vibrantly coloured fungi to rise from the forest floors.
2. De Weerribben-Wieden National Park
This reserve in the province of Overijssel has some unique features, compared to its fellow national parks in the Netherlands. The Weerribben-Wieden National Park is home to extensive floating mats, built up from layers of moss and plants. In places where the layers are thick enough, you can experience a ‘blubbery’ walk and spot unusual plants that only grow in this rare and moist place, such as orchids and colourful mosses.
The majority of the national park consists of water. You can explore the network of waterways by yourself by renting a kayak, or join a summer cruise on a so-called ‘whisper boat’. From this quiet boat, chances are you’ll encounter inhabitants such as the otter and lots of aquatic birds.
3. Loonse en Drunense Duinen National Park
‘Duinen’ is the Dutch word for dunes, and this national park is indeed one of the largest drift-sand reserves in Europe. The landscapes here are changed continuously by the wind, and only the toughest types of flora and fauna survive here because of the lack of fertile soil.
The Loonse en Drunense Duinen National Park has forests and heathlands as well, with well-marked walking and mountain biking trails. Head for the viewpoint, from where you can overlook the stretches of sand, the purple heathlands, and the forests in the distance.
Excursions during the day and nighttime, organised by a nature organisation, bring you closer to shy or nocturnal animals like owls, nightjars, and badgers.
4. De Biesbosch National Park
The Netherlands is generally not associated with jungles, but navigating through De Biesbosch National Park is the closest you get to experience an untamed wilderness. With a canoe, you can discover the smallest of winding creeks in these tidal wetlands and hop off to explore the many small islands by foot.
De Biesbosch is divided into several sections in both Zuid-Holland and Noord-Brabant provinces and measures 90 square kilometres in total. This protected area is primarily known for bird-watching possibilities. Common nightingales, kingfishers, spoonbills, and eagles occupy these marshlands and can be spotted during your expeditions on land or on the water.
5. De Groote Peel National Park
De Groote Peel National Park is praised for its variety of scenery, even though the size of the conservation area is only 13.4 square kilometres. Swamps, small lakes and boglands create perfect conditions for reed, moss, and waterfowl to live here. A special migratory guest here is the common crane, who resides in De Groote Peel National Park in October and November. Macro-lovers will be delighted with the abundance of insect species, butterflies, carnivorous plants, and other plants that thrive in peatlands. Deer, bats, and polecats also call this precious piece of nature home.
The only way to delve into the park is by following the walking trails, three of which start at Buitencentrum De Pelen (Dutch website).
6. Schiermonnikoog National Park
Schiermonnikoog is an island within the Wadden Sea, an intertidal zone in the north of the Netherlands which is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. It’s the only national park on our list with beaches, and this captivating protected reserve comes highly recommended for those loving the island life. Make your way to the Kobbeduinen in the south of Schiermonnikoog, where you find wetlands flourishing with birdlife. The Westerplas is an exceptional place for bird watching as well, as this lake has a disguised viewing platform and residents including birds such as the spoonbill and bluethroat.
The beaches of Schiermonnikoog National Park are the best spots at low tide when the mudflats in the sea reveal themselves and seals grab the opportunity to rest there.
Schiermonnikoog is accessible via a ferry from the mainland.
7. Drentsche Aa National Park
The Drentsche Aa combines old agricultural land with smalls creeks, that host dragonflies and various types of orchid. As a reserve it displays marvellous nature, but the connection with history is what makes this park in Drenthe province genuinely stand out. You can find a vast concentration of prehistoric monuments, many of which are burial hills and ‘hunebedden’ (dolmen). These were tombs constructed in the Stone Age, in the 4th millennium BC. In the area, you can find hunebed number D9 and D11.
The cultural significance is shown in the traditional ‘Angerdorf’ in the area. These are villages with old Saxon farms and a common village green in the middle where crops were grown for the community centuries ago. After your walk or bicycle ride through the grasslands and forests of the Drentsche Aa National Park, stop by the village Anloo to see an ‘Angerdorf’ and hunebed D11 with your own eyes.
8. Oosterschelde National Park
The Oosterschelde National Park is the largest and without a doubt the wettest of all national parks in the Netherlands. The Oosterschelde is a large sea arm in the province of Zeeland, and a few extraordinary creatures are drawn to this carefully preserved mass of water. Seals are commonly seen on the Vondelingsplaat and Roggenplaat sandbanks, and they can be approached via a seal safari. Nowadays, Oosterschelde National Park accommodates approximately 60 porpoises as well.
The Yerseke Moer flatlands is one of the most essential parts of the national park and can be explored on a 2.5-kilometre trail. The turf has been extracted here, and now a partially drained landscape remains. Rare meadow birds like the godwit and redshank reside here, and in winter several types of goose migrate here. The trails here are open only from July 15 to October 15, outside the breeding and hibernating seasons.
9. Utrechtse Heuvelrug National Park
Thousands of years ago, colossal ice plates compressed land masses together and formed a ‘hilly spine’ (Heuvelrug). This elevated reserve in the middle of the country has exceptionally diverse ecosystems, from forests and marshes to shifting sand dunes that appear to be deserts. Across the Utrechtse Heuvelrug, you can follow numerous walking routes. The tramp to the watchtower in the Kaapse Bossen makes for remarkable views over the woodland canopy. You can soak up all the different environments of the Utrechtse Heuvelrug along the 18-kilometre track over the Elsterberg, which starts at the train station of Rhenen and finishes in Veenendaal. You’ll pass by thick forests, heathlands, and shifting sand areas with wide panoramas along the way.
10. Nieuw Land National Park
It wasn’t long ago that the current Nieuw Land National Park was actually located at the bottom of the Zuiderzee (A shallow bay in the North Sea). This former bay has been impoldered, and the reclaimed land was turned into a reserve where waterfowl and wild horses currently prosper. The park has seemingly endless cycling trails that lead you over long embankments and through enchanting woodlands.
Bring your binoculars for Nieuw Land National Park – and especially the Oostvaardersplassen – as the area is occupied by many aquatic birds. From one of the viewing huts, you can spot modest fowls such as avocet and plover, but also harriers and buzzards can be seen stalking in the sky.
The Netherlands has many intriguing national parks, spread all across its 41.000 square kilometres. Most of them can be explored in a relaxing way, from cycling to walking and canoeing. Despite the urbanisation of the country, the Netherlands still has loads of natural treasures left.
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