Here at Rough Guides, our sanctioned daily walks have become a firm highlight of coronavirus lockdown. Watching the spring blossom burst into being, feeling the sun on our faces, actually seeing other people (from a safe distance, of course)… it’s been a crash course in taking pleasure in the simple things. To help put a spring in your step, we’ve collated 10 less-visited trails and national parks in the UK and the US, ripe for the walking – now, if you live locally, or as soon as it’s safe to do so.
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If you’re based up North, do as the Romans did, and trace the ancient monument of Hadrian’s Wall. Its impressive remains – and the accompanying trail – stretch from coast to coast across Northern England. The scenery is stunning, characterized by bucolic rolling hills, rugged moorland and captivating historic sites – vestiges to the Romans, who built the wall to protect England from its Scottish neighbours. Today, the National Trail covers 84 miles in total, meaning Northerners in the vicinity can strike out for a section close to them. Lace your boots and breathe it in.
The Mourne Mountains are the highest and most dramatic in Northern Ireland – and with 28 peaks, there’s plenty of space for everyone. You’ll be spoilt for shorter, more accessible routes, but there’s also a number of more challenging hikes for serious ramblers: make for the heady heights of Slieve Binnian, Slieve Commedagh or Slieve Bearnagh. And don't forget your camera: you’ll be rewarded with a series of epic photos that are likely to be print-it-and-frame-it material.
Extending from Greater London into Hertfordshire and Essex – tracing the course of the River Lee – the gorgeous Lee Valley Park coves a whopping 26 miles (that’s quite something for the being on the capital’s doorstep). There are tonnes of trails inside the park: East Londoners should tread the path of Walthamstow Wonders, while Essex residents should make for the Lake and Riverside Trail. Alternatively, to escape the crowds of the capital, try the Three Hidden Gems route.
Anyone who can reach the Cairngorms on their own two feet is in for a treat. This vast Scottish beauty takes in some 1500 square miles, including 52 sky-kissing mountain peaks (all topping 2953ft), large swathes of thick native woodland and fine heather-strewn hills. Walkers won’t know where to start: there are literally hundreds of paths that criss-cross the terrain, from hill tracks to long-distance trails and epic climbs up the park’s Munros (mountains that top 3000ft). Forget Cairn Gorm, the most famous of the lot and likely to draw the crowds, in favour of The Cairnwell – it’s the easiest of the bunch, which means it can be climbed fairly easily in a single day.
Anyone angling for that end-of-the-world feeling should brave the climb up Holyhead Mountain in Anglesey. Flanked by the Irish Sea, there’s a Roman watchtower (Caer y Tŵr) and seabirds aplenty, as well as an Iron Age stone circle located near its base. From the summit, long views extend far into the distance – on a clear day, you might even catch a glimpse of Ireland across the water. While Holyhead is likely to be less of a tourist hotspot than Wales’ national parks – Snowdonia, Becon Beacons and Pembrokeshire Coast – the mountain is still an attractive lure for visitors, so be sure to check local advice and social-distancing regulations before making the trip.
Voyageurs National Park is a watery wilderness: threaded by a system of lakes and interconnected waterways, more than forty percent of the park is given over to the stuff. It receives just a fraction of the visitors of the US National Park heavyweights (think: Yellowstone and Yosemite), so it’s not hard to get away from the crowds. There’s a range of trails to choose from – some penetrate deep into the woodland, others trace the outlines of lakes, and many climb to stunning outlooks. If you’ve got your own boat, even better: take to the waters and visit some of the park’s five hundred-plus islands. Note that camping and overnight permits are currently suspended, so you’ll have to wait for those star-studded midnight skies and the splash of the Northern Lights.
While Great Basin National Park completes its phased reopening, the good news is that all its trails are fair game. And there’s plenty to recommend them, too. Dramatic changes in elevation at Great Basin support a diverse range of wildlife and landscapes: stark peaks and high meadows, bubbling springs, dark caves and vast glaciers are all part of the package. Seasoned hikers should attempt the Wheeler Peak Summit Trail, passing cool, alpine lakes and a grove of ancient pines to reach the 13,063ft snowcapped summit.
Sumter National Forest in South Carolina, traversed by the Chattooga River, is a great alternative to the Great Smoky Mountains – the latter making the papers last weekend after visitors crowded its trails. Over in Sumter National Forest, you’ll find deep ravines, lush mature forests and a tapestry of fine montane trails. Many of the routes follow watercourses, but you’d do well to avoid the Yellow Branch Falls for now, which has reported high visitor numbers.
Saguaro National Park’s namesake plant is the largest cactus in the USA. Native to the Sonoran Desert, it’s a quintessential symbol of the American West – and a sacred being to the area’s indigenous inhabitants. Wandering the trails that wind between these mighty, spiky giants is magical, especially from April to June when the cacti are in bloom.
For sheer amount of space and dramatic scenery, the state of Alaska is tough to beat. The volcanic wilds of Katmai National Park are still little developed, famed for its brown bear population of more than 2000; there’s nothing quite like watching these magnificent beasts fish for their supper in the Brooks River. There are fewer than five miles of maintained trails here – Katmai is one for hardened hikers to get seriously off the grid. You don’t need a permit to camp in the backcountry, so if it’s true remoteness and isolation you’re after, Katmai is just the ticket.
A warm and sunny spring day. It may be lockdown, but I am lucky to live a short walk from the ancient oaks of Sherwood Forest, near the village of Edwinstowe in north Nottinghamshire. The oaks aren’t a tidy bunch – some are bent and shattered, others gnarled and thick – but they are enchanting, especially in the spring time as they bud and blossom. Here, deep in the forest along a well-signposted footpath, is Sherwood’s most famous tree, the Major Oak, its branches supported by posts that stop it from collapsing. No-one is really sure how old the Major Oak is, but local legend has it that this was where Maid Marion and Robin Hood “plighted their troth” – and there is indeed a hole in the tree large enough to accommodate a pair of lovers. Unfortunately, you aren’t allowed to stay in the tree for the duration of the pandemic, which is, perhaps, rather disappointing.
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Top image: Saguaro cactus in Arizona, USA © Kyle Benne/Shutterstock