How to see the UK’s national parks without a car, using cheap buses and trains

Setting off on a rural adventure on foot is surely the essence of holiday freedom. Worries about parking, traffic and petrol can be left behind – all you need to do is find a good bus or train window seat and enjoy the heart-tugging views before jumping off to explore the countryside.

In most cases, linear public transport routes in the country’s national parks mean you can hop on and off as much as you like – at a quaint little village perhaps, or a walking trail with a nearby pub for lunch – and you don’t need to circle back to find your wheels.

Britain’s 15 national parks are fantastic in all seasons, but this autumn is a particularly good time to explore given that the £2 bus fare cap for a single ticket has been extended to the end of October. There are also new routes that offer a bargain way of seeing the country’s natural highlights with ease. Now that the summer crowds have thinned out, here’s how to explore the parks without a car.

Dartmoor, Devon

An excellent way to take in Devon’s raw beauty, the Dartmoor Explorer bus traverses towns and moorland between Exeter and Plymouth. Singles are capped at £2 but a £10 day pass means you can alight to explore the High Moor at Moretonhampstead, the medieval clapper bridge at Postbridge, and the prison museum and tors at Princetown ─ as well as the odd cream tea and pottery visit along the way.

See landmarks such as Postbridge via the Dartmoor Explorer bus (Photo: Andrew Michael/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Exmoor, Devon and Somerset

Start your Exmoor Coaster journey at Minehead rail station or the pretty harbour town of Lynmouth (both are an hour and a half’s train from Exeter) to enjoy the heathered landscapes of the moor, the hairpin bends of steep Porlock Hill, and pretty coastal-road views of Lynmouth bay. Make time for a wander around Lynton with its cool funicular, and a walk to the Valley of the Rocks. Day tickets £12; singles £2.

New Forest, Hampshire

Wandering ponies, ancient woodland and coastline: travelling through the New Forest is a joy. Begin at Totton (90 minutes’ train from Waterloo) to get your ship-building history fix before hopping on the train to Brockenhurst for its independent cafes, pubs and shops; little river beach; local vineyard; and magnificent redwoods. Then, branch off to the port at Lymington or continue to Bournemouth. Anytime tickets £12.90.

South Downs, Sussex

A new mini hopper bus connecting three Sussex arts venues has been launched to allow people visiting the Turner Prize 2023 exhibition at Towner Eastbourne to continue on to other shows at Charleston and a new arts venue in Lewes. Along the way, patrons can hop off to explore the spectacular scenery of the Seven Sisters cliffs (and visitor centre), Cuckmere Valley and the villages of Alfriston and Litlington before hopping back on at their leisure. Tickets £2.50.

Broads, Norfolk

It’s easier than you think to see the Norfolk broads without a car (or boat). A nice circular rail route that takes you past Broadland villages, peaceful marshes and quiet riverbanks, starts at Norwich and connects you along the Wherry Line with Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. Bring your boots or your bike and alight to discover windmills, vineyards, and wetlands full of wildlife. Tickets £12.50.

Peak District, Derbyshire

The Peak Sightseer open top bus route launched in 2023. Travelling one way in a loop, every 30 minutes during peak season, it takes passengers around the White Peak with options to step off at points of interest including Chatsworth House, Hassop Station for the Monsal Trail, and Calver Sough for Curbar and walks to Curbar Edge. Enjoy the view as you climb between windswept dales, hamlets, and farmland. Tickets £6.

Explore the Monsal Trail using the Peak Sightseer bus (Photo: Bill Allsopp/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Explore the Monsal Trail using the Peak Sightseer bus (Photo: Bill Allsopp/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

North York Moors, Yorkshire

Sweeping moorland, Castle Howard, Dalby Forest… the Coastliner 840 is a brilliant way to take in the Yorkshire sights. Start at Leeds and make your way through York, Malton and Pickering to Whitby. If you decide to break the £2, 75-mile journey up, alight at Pickering and take a heritage steam train along the NYMR line to Grosmont and back (or up to Whitby and return on the bus). There’s also plenty to do in Malton, especially if it’s market day, and York with its fascinating medieval history. Daytripper Plus ticket £22.

The Dales, Yorkshire

The Dales is full of alluring day trips and if you base yourself somewhere like Northallerton, you can get the Wensleydale Flyer 856 all the way to Hawes ─ home of the Wensleydale Creamery and Dales Countryside Museum ─ and back, ticking off market towns Leyburn and Bedale, and sights including the magical Aysgarth Falls along the way (singles £2). Stay at the Northallerton Inn, a country pub with rooms in the town centre.

Lake District, Cumbria

Route 555 encapsulates glorious lakes, fells and woodland with its service linking Kendal, Windermere, Ambleside, Grasmere and Keswick. Stops worth ringing the bell for include a lake cruise on Windermere (or exploring its many museums), a walk to Stock Ghyll Force from Ambleside, trying the famous Grasmere gingerbread, and Keswick’s Pencil Museum. Explorer tickets £8; singles £2.

Avoid parking problems by using the bus in the Lake District (Photo: Steve Gorton/Getty)
Avoid parking problems by using the bus in the Lake District (Photo: Steve Gorton/Getty)

Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons), south Wales

Enjoy this Tolkienesque land of waterfalls, peaks and valleys with the T4 Newtown to Cardiff service. The two-hour route curves through the heart of the park passing through Brecon and Merthyr Tydfil on the A470. Walkers can step off for trips to Craig Cerrig Gleisiad, the mighty Pen y Fan, and Llwyn-on Reservoir. Day tickets £8.70.

Eryri (Snowdonia), north Wales

The Sherpa’r Wyddfa is the best way to visit Eryri. Begin at Bangor to join the route which takes you past Llanberis town (kayaking and the Snowdonia Mountain Train); Dolbadarn Castle; the National Slate Museum; and Pen y Pass where you can hop off and hike up the mountain (even if you don’t summit it). Day tickets £6.

Pembrokeshire Coast, Pembrokeshire

Between Fishguard and Haverfordwest, the T11 is a scenic route that takes you past harbours, market squares, ruins and coastline. Jump off to see The Head Lighthouse at The Smalls, St. David’s Cathedral, and Haverfordwest Castle; get back on to enjoy breathtaking scenery and little villages with cute churches. Day tickets £6.70.

Loch Lomond & The Trossachs, Argyll

The whopping three-and-a-quarter-hour CityLink 975 journey from Glasgow to Oban takes you through wild Scottish countryside along Loch Lomond to Crianlarich where the West Highland Way can be joined and across the top of top of Loch Awe. Combine it with route 976 to explore Inverary and Loch Fyne. Three-day explorer pass £56.

Citylink 975 traverses a great swathe of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park (Photo:  George Clerk/Getty Images)
Citylink 975 traverses a great swathe of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park (Photo: George Clerk/Getty Images)

Cairngorms, Aberdeenshire

At Aberdeen, join route 201 towards Braemar for unrivalled views of the Cairngorms. On the two-and-a-half-hour journey you’ll pass big-hitters like Ballater for Lochnagar walks and Crathie for Balmoral Castle, before ending at the Highland village of Braemar. Along the way, feast your eyes on dramatic munros, rolling River Dee and old castles. Bluebird Explorer DayRider £17.20.