8 of the best cycling routes in the UK's National Parks

Activity, Cycling, The Great British Outdoors

Posted by Courtney on 2nd September 2021

National park cycling

We bipeds have been hopping up on our bicycles and cycling the beaten tracks of our national parks for over 70 years now, ever since the Peak District was designated with this esteemed accolade back in 1951. Clearly, bikes were commonly used for recreation well before this time but the opening of national parks, each with its own inherent and distinctive characteristics, introduced the pedalling public to a unique and uninhibited abandon found only in the varying landscapes of our famous parks.

With gentle woodland trails, coastal meanderings or uphill slogs to choose from, we’ve tried to narrow down the best national parks for cycling and one top route within that park. Whether you want to just bask in some glorious moorland scenery with the family or put the pedal to the metal, so to speak, and get some miles under your belt with a competitive companion, we’ve got the route for you.

Cycling routes and cycling holidays in the UK are becoming increasingly popular and with the staycation market bigger than it’s ever been, now is the time to don your helmet, slip on your gloves, maybe even pop the dog in the bike trailer, and hit the country lanes and traffic-free trails.

Already planned your UK cycling holiday but need a place to stay? Click below.

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New Forest

Peak District

South Downs

Lake District

Dartmoor

Snowdonia

Yorkshire Dales

Brecon Beacons


New Forest cycling

The New Forest is a great place to begin your quest for the best cycle trails, as New Forest cycle routes are often framed by ancient forests and vibrant heathland, boasting myriad flora and fauna to spot along the way. Added to this, there is the fillip of over 140 miles of car-free cycle trails, perfect for letting the little ones practise their cycling without vehicular distractions. Find New Forest bikes to hire here.

Top pick: Rhinefield Ornamental Woodland

Rhinefield Ornamental WoodlandPhotos courtesy of @jak.rasmussen (top left), @emfrith13 (top right) and @nataliemariaclark (bottom)

We suggest starting and ending this trail at Brockenhurst, due to the facilities available there (bike hire, parking, refreshments) but you can just as easily begin in Burley or Hordle. This route is mainly ridden on gravel byways and passes through a deer sanctuary and a pretty ford, as well as taking in some of the national park’s tallest and most striking trees. Said trees provide some welcome shade in the warmer months and the low gradients of this trail mean it’s perfect for all comers.

Length: 10.8 miles

Good to know: visit Blackwater Arboretum and enjoy a picnic, the arboretum itself and an ice cream from the ice cream van

Stay nearby: Brookley Cottage | sleeps 6

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Peak District cycling

With Derbyshire itself boasting over 265 miles of traffic-free trails, the Peak District attracts cyclists of all ages and abilities all year round. From rugged, multi-terrain mountainous treks with far-reaching views, to quaint village routes that give you the chance to converse with the locals, cycle trails in the Peak District provide you with a diverse choice, offering the chance to see wildlife and fascinating geological formations en route. Find Peak District cycle hire here.

Top Pick: Monsal Trail

Monsal Trail

There are many great Peak District cycle routes on former railway lines, but we’ve chosen this beauty that begins in Chee Dale and ends in Bakewell, taking you through the area’s tranquil limestone dales. This linear route is perfect for those wanting to take in some beautiful wildlife, with purple orchids often on display and a kaleidoscope of butterflies and birds fluttering amongst the wildflowers. Stop and take in some of the history of the famous railway if you are so inclined, or continue pedalling through the numerous former railway tunnels to add an ethereal element to your ride. When you arrive in Bakewell, feel free to indulge in a little cakey treat after your ride.

Length: 8.5 miles

Good to know: the tunnels are lit during normal daylight hours, but it is still advisable to have your bike lights on whilst inside

Stay nearby: The Mill Wheel | sleeps 6 + 2 dogs

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South Downs cycling

When you think of this area of the UK, without doubt cycling the South Downs Way springs to mind. However, there is more to this national park than just this one sumptuous route. For instance, you could discover the 745 miles of vehicle-free bridleways, incorporating disused railway lines such as the Downs Link, Meon Valley Trail and Centurion Way. Find South Downs cycle hire here.

Top pick: South Downs Way

South Downs Way

Be that as it may, our top pick is still the 100-mile-long South Downs Way cycle route. It is the only National Trail in the UK fully navigable by bike and it is very well way-marked meaning you can focus on the sights of chalk bluffs and the English Channel to the south and undulating hills of the Weald to the north. Along the way, you’ll glimpse some wonderful highlights, natural and manmade, including ancient monuments, chalk rivers, five National Nature Reserves and numerous Sites of Special Scientific Interest. 

Length: 100 miles

Good to know: due to the trail running adjacent to a chalk ridge, the trail naturally drains and dries out, making a great choice of cycle route all year round

Stay nearby: The Sail Loft – Eastbourne | sleeps 3 + 1 dog

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Lake District cycling

You really are spoiled for choice when selecting a cycle route in the Lake District. Deep valleys, leafy country lanes and over 100 miles of coastline are just some of the options available to the avid two-wheeled rider. Car-free cycle and bridleways give bikers of all abilities the chance to absorb the phenomenal scenery, which includes Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and UNESCO sites. Find cycle hire in the Lake District here.

Top pick: Grizedale Forest

Grizedale ForestPhotos courtesy of @turner_man_eh (left) and @felltower (right)

This forest at the heart of the Lake District World Heritage Site is perfect for those with kids in tow. There are nine cycle trails in all, of varying length and difficulty, meaning you can tailor your day to your abilities. From the visitor centre, choose your colour-coded route, most of which follow the forest road, unless you want a more serious mountain biking adventure (if this is the case, see our best national park mountain bike trails). The children will love spotting the sculptures as they criss-cross through the trees, perhaps even glimpsing the Gruffalo and the Big Bad Mouse.

Length: 1 mile-14 miles, depending on which trail you choose

Good to know: other options in the forest include Go Ape, Forest Segway hire, art exhibitions or just kicking back in the cafe

Stay nearby: Bobtail Cottage | sleeps 4

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Dartmoor cycling

Dartmoor cycle routes certainly became more popular after 2009 when the national park featured in the Tour of Britain. Road cycling on Dartmoor offers steep climbs, narrow country lanes and twisting turns that are probably best suited to the more experienced rider, especially when you also consider everyday road users such as tractors, cattle and sheep. However, with nearly 220 miles of bridleways and byways, coupled with designated cycle routes, there’s plenty of opportunities to travel traffic free. Follow disused railways, circle around flora-hemmed reservoirs, shadow gentle flowing rivers or pass over towering viaducts - whatever you choose, spectacular backdrops await. Find Dartmoor cycle hire here.

Top pick: Dartmoor Way cycle route

Dartmoor Way cycle routePhoto courtesy of @sarah_howarth01 (right)

This 95-mile circular route gives you the flexibility of a single day out or a longer cycling holiday, depending on your needs. The route sticks to car-free cycle tracks when it can, but also incorporates some quiet country lanes too, meaning you can find quaint inns and cafes to refuel and rest your quads. We recommend tackling this route in an anti-clockwise direction so that the hill sections are not so cruel, but also so that you won’t need to cross lanes as often at traffic junctions. On your way, you’ll pass through many hamlets, taking in panoramic scenescapes all the while.

Length: 95 miles

Good to know: cycling is only permitted on designated bridleways and routes, and is not authorised on the open moorland or common land

Stay nearby: Granary Cottage – Chagford | sleeps 4 + 2 dogs

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Snowdonia cycling

Perhaps better known for its mountain bike trails, there’s still plenty of great cycling around Snowdonia to be had. The pleasant blend of the sea and the mountains invades the senses, whether you’re traversing the gentle and leisurely off-road paths or tackling the longer distance and steeper road trails. If you are interested in a more family-friendly experience, you can find seven routes specifically designed with families in mind here. These often traffic-free itineraries will include routes along old railway tracks and past quarries, and picturesque views out to sea. Find Snowdonia bike hire here.

Top pick: Mawddach Trail

Mawddach Trail

Touted as one of the most scenic cycleways in Wales, this trail follows both the Mawddach Estuary, which lies in the shadow of the imposing Cadair Idris, and the old railway line from Dolgellau to Barmouth. You’ll be blown away by the grandeur of your surroundings as you follow the wooden bridge at the mouth of the estuary going into Barmouth. As the sun bounces off the azure water that is dotted with sailboats, you’ll want to park up for a moment and appreciate the synchronicity between the natural environment and the human engineering on show. Continue your travels and you’ll come to the Mawddach Valley and Arthog Bog RSPB reserve which is rich in birdlife.

Length: 8.9 miles

Good to know: stop off at the popular George III Hotel at Penmaenpool for great views and even better food and drink

Stay nearby: Glyn Malden Keepers Cottage | sleeps 5 + 2 dogs

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Yorkshire Dales cycling

The going might not always be easy and the paths might not always be flat, but the rewards are worth the effort as you navigate old roman roads and monastic thoroughfares on some of the finest Yorkshire Dales cycle routes. Thought of by many as one of the best destinations in the UK to don your cycling jersey, due in part to the sweeping hills and moody moorland, you’ll find a network made up of 600 miles of bridleways and byways stretching over an iconic landscape filled with fellow cyclists, walkers and horse riders. Find Yorkshire Dales bike hire here.

Top pick: Swale Trail

Swale TrailPhotos courtesy of @delythrenniebikencake (top), @getoutwiththekids (bottom left) and @our_kezz (bottom right)

A great way to experience the most beautiful valley in the Yorkshire Dales with the family, the Swale Trail follows the River Swale and comprises mostly unsurfaced tracks with good signposting. Starting in Reeth, travel along this linear path and you’ll pass flourishing wildflowers and dramatic waterfalls, as well as pitstops to refuel such as Gunnerside with its pub, cafes and toilets. In fact, this is a great point at which to turn around and head back if you have children in tow, as the second half towards Keld includes harder and steeper climbs. Speaking of the children, if the striking views aren’t enough for them, keep them on task with the fantastic Viking Challenge: a fun way to participate in the trail whilst also learning about the area’s Viking history.

Length: 12 miles

Good to know: due to some fairly challenging sections of this trail, we wouldn’t recommend it for anyone under 10 years old

Stay nearby: Skoggins Cottage | sleeps 4 + 1 dog

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Brecon Beacons cycling

Exercising is a natural stress reliever, so why not do it in a prepossessing setting surrounded by your family and friends? The Brecon Beacons National Park is perfect for just this, with numerous traffic-free cycle routes on level ground interspersed with the odd hill climb. Experience some Monmouth and Brecon Canal cycling (often voted Britain’s prettiest canal) and follow the water through verdant countryside and corridors of overhanging trees. Sticking with water, you may want to encircle the Talybont Reservoir or take in the views of Clydach Gorge. However, if you prefer your rides a little further away from the splash, there are enough routes through woodland and with mountain views to keep the whole clan happy. Find Brecon Beacons cycle hire here.

Top Pick: Taff Trail - Brecon to Brynich Lock

Taff Trail - Brecon to Brynich Lock

This section of the Taff Trail follows the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal and is an excellent route for exploring the Brecon Basin, with the wooded Usk Valley featuring beautiful birdlife for you to try and spot, including herons and kingfishers. The traffic-free trail follows a well-surfaced path, making it easy for the kids, so long as they stay away from the canal edge. See who can spot the sculpture of the man with his horse-drawn tram first as you head towards the lock at Brynich and the narrowboats trying to navigate it. No need to worry about getting lost on this route, as it just follows the canal, eventually bringing you to a delightful picnic area where you can unwrap your cucumber sandwiches.

Length: 5.5 miles

Good to know: park in the car park at Brecon Canal Basin, where you’ll find a supermarket nearby to stock up on all your picnic needs

Stay nearby: Roundhouse Farm - Henrietta | sleeps 4 + 1 dog

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With so many great routes on offer, we hope we've made it easier to choose your preferred national park to cycle in. Maybe it’s a woodland adventure in the New Forest or the mesmerising coastlines of the Lake District or Snowdonia – whatever you’ve decided, you’re probably going to need a place to lay your hat (helmet) and call your home (away from home). Luckily for you, we know a little something about that too, with self-catering cottages in all the national parks mentioned here, and many beyond that as well. Click below to start shifting gears and your next cycling staycation could be just around the next bend.

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Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing, please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.