Portugal is an absolute paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. Although it has a fairly small area it offers very diverse landscapes and plenty of reasons to visit: spectacular sea views, quiet river banks, daunting mountains, long stretches of sand, stunning caves, never-ending plains, and the most spectacular sunsets…
There are many natural parks in Portugal mainland that are worth a visit and May is a great time to explore them. Unlike peak season, spring time is never crowded, temperatures are mild and nature is at its best! The ideal way to explore the parks is to combine road trips with walking trails or outdoor activities as some of the most beautiful places are not accessible by car.
Here we selected some of the best ones, from north to south.
Peneda-Gerês National Park
In the north of Portugal lies the only national park in the country. Peneda-Gerês covers an area of 72 thousand hectares, crossing 3 different districts and including four main serras - Peneda, Soajo, Amarela and Gerês. Landscapes are a mixture of luxurious vegetation, mountainous peaks and beautiful river valleys with hidden waterfalls and lagoons. Some of the rocks are over 300 million years and in the middle of the daunting mountains little villages are scattered, hiding from the crowds and the passage of time.
At Passadiço de Sistelo, a 10 Km trail alongside rivers Covo, Alhal and Cerradinha, the sights are a stunner. Mata da Albergaria is a breathtaking forest where nature in a wild state can still be found.
Travelling around the park feels almost like an outdoors biology and geology class and is definitely an amazing destination for adventure seekers.
If you want to read some more about the park click here.
Douro Internacional Natural Park
This natural park is located near the border with Spain, on the Northeast part of the country. Here you can travel along a valley with over 100 km and find absolutely incredible sights of the skyscraper cliffs that flank Douro river along the way. It is a great place to do birdwatching as there are many rare species flying and nesting around here, specially during Spring time. This time of the year is also special for the aromas of wild plants and flowers that bloom and sprinkle the landscape with green, purple and yellow.
Douro Internacional still is a quite remote and unexplored area of our country, and to a certain point it’s best to keep it that way. The traditional villages nearby offer some support, there are marked routes for hikers and many options for jaw-dropping road trips. Read more about this natural park here.
Arouca is a town located in the north of Portugal with a lot of history and a vast heritage that has drawn attention to itself thanks to Passadiços do Paiva. This 8km wooden path built on the margin of rio Paiva offers stunning views and allows you to go into the wild in a comfortable way. In case you like the adrenaline rush you can do rafting on the river rapids, which will take you to the finish line in a heartbeat.
Serra da Freita is also a must visit around here. A magical mountain where you can do amazing hiking trails and explore many sites with a very rich geological value. But there is more around Arouca Geopark. Beautiful traditional shale villages, river beaches and an incredible geological and archaeological heritage that almost seems like an open air museum.
Serra da Estrela Natural Park
Serra da Estrela Natural Park comprises an area of over 101.000 hectares and is located right in the heart of Portugal, in the region of Beiras. The park holds 3 records: it was the first natural park to be created in Portugal, is the largest protected area in the country and the mainland highest peak is located here (1993m).
During winter time the park is sought particularly for the snow and the ski resort, but exploring the park’s trails on foot or BTT during spring time is an absolutely amazing experience. Picture enormous U-shaped valleys formed by glacier erosion, rocky mountains, lagoons and waterfalls. There’s also an incredible biodiversity that we fiercely have tried to preserve. From wild plants and trees, to hundreds of reptiles, insects, birds and, most importantly, the ovelha Bordaleira - the local sheep breed.
Learn more about this fantastic destination here.
Serra de Aire e Candeeiros Natural Park
Located in the center of Portugal, this is a protected area with almost 40.000 hectares that includes two hilltops - Aire and Candeeiros - and two plains - Santo António and São Mamede.
This area is particularly special because it is part of the biggest limestone area in the country. Being permeable to water, limestone is sculpted by the rain and rivers, creating absolutely amazing natural masterpieces.
Exploring the caves and trying to guess what are the shapes that have been carved throughout centuries is probably the highlight of this park. However, there’s an open air sight that also gathers many fans, which are the spectaular dinosaur footprints. Looking at the tracks of flesh-eating and gigantic herbivores immediately makes us travel to the Jurassic Park movie set and picture those enormous creatures wandering around.
There are 16 pedestrian trails around the park and algo a camping site, where you can enjoy the surrounding nature in a sustainable way.
Serra de São Mamede Natural Park
Serra de São Mamede can be found near the border with Spain, in the northern bit of Alentejo. During summer time the heat in Alentejo inland can be unforgiving, but spring is a great time to venture there and explore this off the beaten path destination.
Here the scenery is completely different from the never ending plains that can be seen more to the south. Horse-back riding, cycling or hiking through the mountain trails is an exhilarating experience. On the way you can stroll around some picturesque villages and interesting cities inside the natural park, such as Marvão and Portalegre, where the cultural and historic heritage is very rich.
There is an hidden gem nearby that is the cherry on the top for outdoors fans. Passadiço do Alamal is a wooden path near the castle of Belver that follows a 2km stretch of river Tejo. The place is super peaceful and inspiring and along the way you get to see beautiful river beaches, various species of birds and really feel connected with nature. For more information about this natural park read this post.
Serra da Arrábida Natural Park
The area of Portinho da Arrábida is sought for the incredible crystal clear waters and beautiful beaches, but there are other reasons to explore this natural park located between Palmela (Setúbal) and Sesimbra. Mountaineering fans will find this place an absolute paradise, with cracks and gaps on the rocks that require challenging skills but offer rewarding views. The green vegetation around is glorious and completes this picture perfect destination. Cycling through the steep hills or kayaking are two other incredible activities around here.
Nearby there is resident school of dolphins worth getting to know. These friendly creatures are easy to spot jumping and swimming around on the river Sado estuary and taking a boat trip along these calm waters is a nice experience.
For the least adventurous the scenic drive along the Estrada de Escarpa or the view from Miradouro do Norte are great ways to witness the beauty of this park located just half an hour away from Lisbon. Read more about Serra da Arrábida here.
Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina Natural Park
This stretch of coast is what we usually call the southwest coast. It is a protected area on the seaside between S. Torpes (in Alentejo) and Burgau (in Algarve), with 110km in length and an area of 131.000 hectares. It is home to many unique species of plants and animals and the landscapes are incredibly beautiful. Because it is a protected area tourism has grown in a sustainable way and most villages have kept its rustic charm and chilled vibe.
Unlike Alentejo inland and the countryside of Algarve, this area is not as hot because of the sea breeze, which makes it perfect for some hikes and trails even during late Spring or the beginning of Autumn. Rota Vicentina comprises 450 km of walking trails and the fishermen one is among the best in Europe. The sunset is another plus, as from any beach you get to see the sun disappearing behind the ocean. We've written about this natural park in the Inspire Me section of our website.
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