Despite being a small country, Greece has a wonderful and rich variety of different landscapes, fauna and flora. Along the coasts one can find wetlands, lakes and lagoons, pebble and sandy beaches and beautiful river deltas. Inland, magnificent high mountains, deep ravines, gorges and valleys abound. The islands, both large and small, scattered throughout the Aegean and the Ionian Seas, offer their own beauty. Crystal blue seas, small coves, uninhabited islets and reefs are waiting to be explored.
As a result of the differing landscape types and the climate, the wetlands create a perfect environment for a huge number of species, both fauna and flora. The bird-life alone offers 410 species, making it the biggest out of the 433 species found in Europe. Over 800 species of indigenous flora are found exclusively in Greece.
In 1938 the first two domestic National Parks were established on Mt. Olympus and Mt. Parnassus. This was done to protect the natural habitats of Greece’s rare and endangered plants and animals. After a long delay of about 60 years, in 1998, further parks were established, bringing the total to 13 in all.
The Greek National Parks offer wonderful opportunities for visitors to explore a great variety of natural features. Mt. Oiti is covered with a burst of colour in Spring. Sea turtles, known as Caretta-Caretta, annually lay their eggs in the Bay of Laganas on the island of Zakynthos, turning the island into a huge nursery. Playful Mediterranean seals can be seen in the clear blue waters of the Marine Park in the Sporades Group of islands. The gorge of Samaria in Crete offers hikes with stunning scenery to those with stamina for long walks. The National Park at Evros, in Northern Greece, is home to over 145 different species of birds, ducks and storks which can be found returning home here for the winter.
Olympus National Park
The climate, the landscapes, and the vegetation of this area are shaped by the large amounts of limestone found in this region. As a result, we see many wonderful deep valleys with steep slopes, such as the famous Enipea Valley. The limestone tends to dry out the climate, increasing temperatures and absorbing precipitation.
Huge clusters of pine trees, Pinus leucodermis dominate the forest landscapes. Above the level of 2,500 meters, alpine terrain covers the forest areas. Jankaea heldreichi is a species found here, one amongst many which are endemic to this region.
Mount Olympus, the world famous mythical mountain, home to the 12 gods of Greek mythology, makes up the core of the National Park founded in 1938. A variety of microclimates on the mountain have a created a rotation effect with the vegetation areas. Pine trees, Pinus leucodermis, are found over 2.500 meters above sea level, making these the highest forests in Europe. The park also acts a preservation area for a huge concentration of rare fauna and flora, making it a true paradise for nature lovers.
Over 25 percent of all Greek flora are found on Mount Olympus, a total of more than 1,700 plants! Due to the height of the mountain and its closeness to the sea, one finds a huge diversity of vegetation. Deciduous trees and bushes are found up to a height of about 500 meters. Above this, black pine and fir trees dominate. Beyond these one finds the conifer forests which can withstand very cold weather. The rare Bosnian pine, Pinus heldreichii, grows here. Way above the tree line, at about 2,500 meters, forests roll into low growing vegetation. In summer these areas are covered with beautifully coloured wild flowers.
Large animals are also found in the Olympus National Park. Jackals, wild cats, wolves, foxes, chamois and deer are some which can be seen. Over 100 bird species live here, including the rare and threatened woodpeckers and golden eagles. A large array of butterflies adds colour to the park too.
For those wanting to explore Mount Olympus, a good base is Litochoro. Litochoro is 416 kilometres from Athens and 92 kilometres from Thessaloniki. This quaint town nestles in the foothills of the mountain, 5 kilometres from the Aegean Sea. It is easily accessible via train and bus links from Athens and Thessaloniki. Other entrances to the park can be found at Dion, Petra, Karya, and Kokkinopilos.
The Olympus National Park has a vibrant modern culture as well as being steeped in history. Cultural, religious and sporting events take place all year round.
Hikers and climbers are well catered for. There are many mountain routes for both beginners and experienced climbers. Accommodation for overnight stays can be found in nine locations, each one having room for dozens of people. Some are self catering with kitchens and others offer restaurants serving delicious food. Please check availability of accommodation as some of these venues are seasonal.
Parnassus National Park
Close to Delphi and Arachova, in the south-central mainland of Greece is the National Park of Mt Parnassus. It is the second largest park after Mt Olympus, and was created in 1938. This park covers an area of about 36 million square meters and exhibits a very unusual ecosystem.
The park has a predominately Mediterranean type of vegetation, where flora such as oregano, water-thyme, cedar, laurel and arbutus can be found. Magnificent pine forests grow here, featuring the species Abies cephalonica, a fir tree with sharp needles.
Autumn brings an abundance of colour, with the forests turning bright shades of yellow and orange. Wildflowers grow too in this season, carpeting the ground. Spring offers a stunning combination of wildflowers mixed with the last snows of winter.
At the foot of Mt Parnassus, one finds beautiful olive groves. More olive groves can also be found in the river valley of Pleisto, below Delphi, and in the Plain of Itea. The park offers the visitor many stunning walks, ascending and descending amongst the pine trees, down to clear mountain springs, where the water is clean and drinkable. Breathe in the aroma of the conifers and relax while looking at the stunning views.
The Parnassus National Park is also home to many species of birds and animals. The species vary during the year as many of them emigrate to warmer climates. Linnets, thrushes, woodpeckers, large raptors and robins are some of these. Higher up on the mountain, one can find the stunning birds of prey nesting amongst the rocks. Look out for the majestic vultures, harriers and golden eagles.
Most of the species found in the National Parks are protected by International Conventions, and this is taken very seriously. Two species, columba oenas and coturnix coturnix, are included in the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. The entire National Park of Parnassus is a special protection area (SPA) for wild birds, and many other plants and animals are also included in the list of endangered species.
Activities which can affect and harm the natural environment are controlled, these include things like include hunting, stock-raising, cultivation, skiing and building amongst others. The Parnassus National Park is not easily accessible, but it has excellent hiking and very convenient accommodation facilities for the visitor.
The best way to get to the Parnassus National Park is from the north coast of the Gulf of Corinth. If you come from Arachova, there is an ideal mountain-biking path which climbs up into the park.
Inside the park, there are two main routes to take. Both routes start with the road known as “the Ancient Footpath”. One goes in a westerly direction and the other in a southerly direction. Both connect at the end to the E4 trail. These routes are perfect for the visitor to stroll along, stop for a picnic and have a quiet relaxing time. Take a map with you so you don’t get lost and take a camera to snap some shots of the beautiful surroundings!
Parnitha National Park
Parnitha National Park offers natural environment, spectacular scenery over Athens, and a dense forest that supports a variety of wildlife. It is located to the north of Athens, only one hour away by car from the centre. Thus it is ideal for a one day trip.
Parnitha National Park offers the visitor a quick trip, only one hour away from the centre of Athens. From inside the park, one has a spectacular view of the scenery around the city. The park has wonderful dense forests and is an ideal one day trip if you are short on time.
The mountain vegetation consists mostly of pine trees, 300 – 800 meters above sea level. Above the pines, 900 – 1400 meters up are the famous forests of fir trees. Other species such as Lebanon Cedar, Hungarian oak and Italian oak grow here too. Although these can be found growing along the road, their more natural habitats are in the Tatoi area. The forest is home to many wild animals, watch out and you may catch a glimpse of a red deer!
Beautiful wild tulips are a feature of the Parnitha park. Three types of tulips are found here, the Tulipa hageri, Tulipa sylvestris and Τulipa boeotica. Attica Flora is a lovely blog where you can see images of these stunning flowers and animals of this area. In 2007 a fire in Parnitha destroyed large parts of the forest. Although restoration is taking place, it will unfortunately be many years before it is returned to its original state.
Parnitha has two accommodation venues for visitors which were not destroyed in the 2007 fire. Mpafi refuge is easily accessible by car and Flabouri is also accessible via a ground road. Both offer good accommodation, eating facilities, and hiking guides. For those not hiking, such as children and the elderly, other activities are also available.
The Mpafi refuge offers a self service restaurant with a limited number of dishes. From between 4 to 8 Euros, the visitor can enjoy a delicious meal and a drink. Eat inside, sitting by the fire, or outside, looking at the views from the terrace. Sleeping accommodation in the form of dormitories is available for 10 Euros per person.
The Mpafi refuge has been in collaboration with the Trekking Hellas company since 2004, and offers mountain activities for visitors. These activities include 2-3 hour hikes with English speaking guides, mountain-biking and rock climbing. Children can do tree climbing and archery. All the information needed for these activities can be found at the site.
Pindus National Park
Pindus National Park is also known as Valia-Kalda and is on the mainland of Greece. It is situated in an isolated mountainous area on the edge of West Macedonia and Epirus. Established in 1966, it covers an area of 17,100 acres (6,927 hectares). The main area of the park is about 8,300 acres (3,360 hectares) and comprises the greater part of the Valia Kalda valley and the slopes of the surrounding mountains.
The National Park is famous for being one of only three places in Greece, having a population of bears! It belongs to the Natura 2000 ecological network of protected regions. The park extends upwards from 1,076 to 2,177 metres (3,530 to 7,142 ft) and has dense forests of European black pine and common beech. Beautiful rocky ridges, mountain streams and lakes are found here. This area is part of the Pindus Mountains ecoregion of mixed forests and well represents the natural vegetation found in this region.
Prespes National Park
Inside the National Park of Prespa one can find the beautiful lakes of Mikri and Megali Prespa. The lakes are separated by a sandy island and are enclosed by tall imposing mountains. The shores of the lakes are covered by extensive reed beds (for the botanists – Phragmites australis, Typha angustifolia, Scrirpus lacustris and Carex spp!) Many Aquatic plants grow in the depths of the water and have large leaves floating on the surface. Deep underwater one can find a variety of species such as Ceratophyllum sp., Myriophyllum sp. , and Potamogeton sp.
Due to its topography and different natural habitats, this area has a large variety of fauna. The lakes are also an important breeding ground for aquatic birds. Over 200 species have been sighted in the water and in the surrounding forests.
Colonies of wild pelicans (Pelecanus crispus) and red pelicans ( Pelecanus onocrotalus) are found in this area. 80 percent of the fish and much of the marine fauna in the lakes are endemic to this area and as such this becomes an important factor in nature conservation. The region also offers a rich history and a number of interesting monuments.
These famous lakes are visited annually by both local and foreign travellers. The lakes lie on the borders of Greece, the former Yugoslavia and Albania. They are situated 850 meters above sea level and have a depth of 50 meters. The shores vary between steep rocky climbs and flatter areas covered with rich vegetation.
Mikri Prespa lies on the left of the main road and is separated from Megali Prespa by a narrow strip of land 1000 meters wide. This whole area has been declared a National Park. Many international scientific institutes are attracted to this area. Scientists come to study the host pelicans, wild ducks and other rare birds which nest in the thick reeds on the banks of the lakes.
Two roads will get you to Prespa. One comes from Floina, the other from Kastoria. They join at Prevali. The roads then separate again in the village of Laimos of Prespa, 50 km from Florina. One goes off to Saint Germanos, the large village of Prespa and the other ends at the far outpost of Koulas. Mikri Prespa has stunning caves on its shores where visitors can marvel at the biographies of different Saints. Prespa is 50 km north from Kastoria and about 45 km west from Florina. These lakes are truly worth a visit!