The best railways to visit in the UK's national parks

Days out, The Great British Outdoors

Posted by Ed Roberts on 23rd August 2021

Fancy seeing the British countryside in true style aboard a steam train? Throughout the UK’s national parks and beyond, teams of volunteers have restored old steam and diesel engines, as well as sections of closed tracks in order to restore a way of life and technology that has been left behind. Back in the day, throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, British holidaymakers would traditionally climb aboard a steam train to reach their chosen staycation destination.

Nowadays it is still possible to enjoy a trip aboard a heritage locomotive thanks to the retention of some great old lines and trains in most of our national parks. Many of the lines cut through dramatic countryside, nowhere near roads or towns, so the views are often unique and full of beauty. Sadly some of the old railway routes in the national parks and around the wider UK have disappeared without a trace. However, some linger on in altered forms, like walks and trails that follow the course of old tracks. Read our inspiring guide to railway walks in the UK.

From full-scale behemoths to narrow gauge curios, we have compiled a guide to the best railways in our national parks. Toot, toot! All aboard!

Where to begin?

Already thinking about your next adventure? Escape on a heritage railway holiday in the UK today.

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Heritage railways in the South West

Lynton & Barnstaple Railway

Lynton & Barnstaple Railway, Exmoor National Park  

The Lynton and Barnstaple Railway is one of the South West’s highlights if you love narrow-gauge railways. Running between the clifftop heights of Woody Bay, high above the Bristol Channel, to Killington Lane in Exmoor National Park, this 2-mile-long scenic railway project is a gem. If you still haven't got your fill of steam trains, head just under an hour’s drive to the east, just beyond the borders of the Exmoor, to Minehead, Somerset. Here you can climb aboard a full-scale steam train on the West Somerset Railway to Watchet and Taunton, which is a very dramatic ride with views of Dunster Castle and the sea. Make time to enjoy both historic lines during your break.

Exmoor cottages



South Devon RailwayPhoto (left) courtesy of @south.devon.railway 

 

South Devon Railway, Dartmoor National Park

Running from Buckfastleigh in the southeast of Dartmoor National Park to Totnes Riverside, the South Devon Railway offers passengers a chance to see some dramatic Devon countryside. Recreating the golden days of rail from the mid-20th century, a ride is sure to be a big hit with all the family. At Buckfastleigh, there is a museum, and you can see the diesel and steam locomotives that run the line.

Dartmoor cottages


Scenic railways on the South Coast

Exbury GardensPhoto (left) courtesy of @exburygardens

 

Exbury Gardens, New Forest National Park

This narrow-gauge railway track is found inside the grounds of Exbury Gardens, close to the coast of The Solent. You can catch this gentle train through the ordered, beautiful, landscaped gardens at Exbury, in the New Forest National Park, and it’s a big hit with children too. You can hop on and off at different parts of the park during your day out if you get too tired to walk back to the entrance. The gardens at Exbury are a popular destination for garden fans and budding horticulturalists.

  • Prices: Tickets from £5.50 in addition to the entrance fee to Exbury Gardens – see website for more details 
  • Facilities: Parking, WCs, first aid, café, dogs welcome, picnic areas
  • Stay in the New Forest: Sandalwood | Sleeps: 5 guests + 1 dog

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South Downs Light Railway

South Downs Light Railway, South Downs National Park

The South Downs Light Railway is a treat for children and fans of narrow-gauge steam trains. Situated in Pulborough Garden Centre, in the South Downs National Park, you can enjoy a cool tour of the gardens from Stopham Road Station. A station and ticket office have been added for convenience by volunteers a few years ago, and a water tower and turntable are to be reintroduced soon. There is a small-scale replica of the Flying Scotsman that you can enjoy a trip behind during your visit.

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Steam railways in the Heart of England

Peak District Steam Railway

Peak District Steam Railway, Peak District National Park

Arguably one of the prettiest places for a heritage railway to exist is within the borders of the scenic Peak District National Park. The Peak District Steam Railway once formed a part of a much larger network that connected it to the Old Midland Railway between Manchester and London. Take a nostalgic trip on a diesel or steam engine through unspoiled Peak District countryside far away from any roads and towns. You can book a meal aboard the train or take part in a ‘murder mystery evening’ on the Peak District Steam Railway.

  • Prices: Adults from £4.50 / Child from £2.75 – see website for more details 
  • Facilities: Parking, WCs, café, gift shop, events programme
  • Stay in the Peak District: Bents Cottage | Sleeps: 4 guests 

Peak District cottages


Heritage railways in the North of England

Ravenglass & Eskdale RailwayPhoto (left) courtesy of @nickbrown20

 

Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway, Lake District National Park

In Ravenglass, the Lake District National Park’s only coastal village, you will find the start of this interesting narrow gauge scenic railway. Seven miles away, at the other end of the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, is the pretty village of Dalegarth in Eskdale; the scenic journey takes about 40 minutes and it’s perfect for bringing you back if you have been walking the local sections of the Eskdale Trail.


Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway  Photo (left) courtesy of @traveldiarywithlove

 

Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway, Lake District National Park

This heritage branch line, The Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway, has been in operation since 1970 and it is a true wonder. Head to Haverthwaite Station for a great family day out, there’s even a woodland outdoor play area for children to have fun inside. There are seven steam locomotives and seven diesel engines based on the line for you to travel on, which makes it an absolute trainspotters’ dream. The route that the track cuts through has some lovely views of the surrounding Lake Distrcit countryside as it winds its way northwards to the pier at Lake Windermere.

Lake District cottages


Embsay & Bolton Abbey Steam Railway

Embsay & Bolton Abbey Steam Railway, Yorkshire Dales National Park

The Embsay and Bolton Abbey Steam Railway unfurls through some dramatic Yorkshire Dales countryside. Book a ticket and take a ride behind one of their vintage steam locomotives for a memorable day trip. Drink in amazing views of the Yorkshire Dales National Park countryside from one of the beautifully restored Victorian and Edwardian carriages, or relax on the platform at Holywell Halt and see the trains go past.


Wensleydale RailwayPhoto (left) courtesy of @wensleydalerail

 

Wensleydale Railway, Yorkshire Dales National Park

The Wensleydale Railway is an excellent day out in waiting. Its locomotives run the line between Scruton in the Vale of Mowbray to Redmire, through spectacular Yorkshire Dales National Park scenery. The restoration project was launched in 1990 after the line fell into disuse, and it recommenced as a passenger service in 2004 with several stations once again fully operational along the line through Wensleydale.

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North York Moors Railway (NYMR)

North York Moors Railway, North York Moors National Park

The North York Moors Railway has been run as a locomotive conservation project since the late 1960s. Now stretching for 24 miles between Whitby and Pickering in the North York Moors National Park, this is one of the UK’s longest stretches of heritage railway. With a stock of steam and diesel engines, it is a major visitor attraction for the area.

  • Prices: Adults from £10.00 / Child from £5.00 – see website for more details 
  • Facilities: Parking, WCs, events programme, cafés
  • Stay near the North York Moors: Marina View | Sleeps: 10 guests + 2 dogs

North York Moors cottages


Scenic railways in Scotland

The Cairngorm Mountain RailwayPhoto (left) courtesy of @yvonnelangereis

 

The Cairngorm Mountain Railway, The Cairngorms National Park

This is a scenic railway with a difference. For mountain views all year round, catch the funicular train up the side of Cairngorm Mountain in the Cairngorms National Park. Unlike most of the other railways in our guide, this isn’t a restoration project or a visitor attraction, it’s a means of transport (albeit a cool one) to the top of a ski mountain. You don’t have to go skiing or snowboarding as there is a viewpoint and café at the summit for you to enjoy views from.


Strathspey Railway

Strathspey Railway, Cairngorms National Park

Ten miles long, the Strathspey Railway has been in operation as a heritage project since 1978. The restored section of track is part of the original Highland Railway Line; today you can ride a steam train through gorgeous Speyside scenery from Aviemore to Broomhill. There is an exciting array of live events to choose from in the annual calendar aboard one of the locomotives, including luxury dining experiences.

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Mountain railways in Wales

Snowdon Mountain RailwayPhoto (left) courtesy of @snowdonmountainrailway

 

Snowdon Mountain Railway, Snowdonia National Park

The Snowdon Mountain Railway ferries visitors to the viewpoint of the summit of Wales’ highest peak. The view is spectacular and well worth the trip. It also works for hikers that have climbed up to the top via one of the mountain’s many trails (tickets from the top are available on a standby basis). The railway has been in operation for over 100 years, and some new hybrid trains have been ordered. Take a camera and make your trip to Snowdonia National Park unforgettable.


Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railway

Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railway, Snowdonia National Park  

The Ffestiniog Railway is the oldest and longest-running independent railway company in the world. The track is 13.5 miles long and its historic trains climb to 700 feet above sea level, and the views are vertiginous and rewarding. It’s a unique way to experience Snowdonia National Park. They also offer a whole host of other scenic steam train routes around Snowdonia.

Snowdonia cottages


Brecon Beacons Mountain Railway Photo (left) courtesy of @nikki_whiles

 

Brecon Beacons Mountain Railway, Brecon Beacons National Park  

The 3-mile-long Brecon Beacons Mountain Railway winds its way through unique Welsh countryside between Pant and Torpantau. Enjoy wonderful sights like Pontsticill and the Taf Fechan Reservoir during the winding climb to its destination high up in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Travelling in comfort behind a steam locomotive is a superb way to see the mountains during your holiday in the Brecon Beacons, we thoroughly recommend it for an utterly pleasant day out.

Brecon Beacons cottages


Stay at one of our self-catering holiday cottages

Now you have read our inspiring guide to the best railways in UK national parks, why not browse our collection of self-catering holiday cottages? We have some beautiful properties throughout the UK’s 15 national parks, many within easy driving distance of the scenic railways featured in this blog. Visit our range to find out where to take your loved ones for their next staycation.

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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.