National Parks of Greece

"The protection of the natural and cultural environment constitutes a duty of the State. The State is bound to adopt special preventive or repressive measures for the preservation of the environment." (Constitution of Greece: Article 24, paragraph 1)

The National Park system in Greece was established in 1971, though there were already several parks in existence before the legal framework was in place. In that year the Forest Service, a department of the Ministry of Agriculture, was given supervision of the existing ones as well as the authority to propose new ones which are then created by executive act. The same law and several other passed since also provide for other degrees of protection for areas of particular ecological importance or aesthetic value.

The designation, according to presidential decree 996/1971, is made according to the following criteria:

  1. They must be "mainly forested areas of special conservation interest on account of flora and fauna, geomorphology, subsoil, atmosphere, water and generally their natural environment, the protection of which seems necessary; also on account of the need for the conservation and improvement of their robustness, form and natural beauty, to permit aesthetic, mental and healthy enjoyment and, moreover, for carrying out special research of any kind."
  2. As far as size goes, there should be a core of absolute protection with an area of no less than 1,500 ha, except for the Parks founded in islands which may be smaller.
  3. A park may be expanded to include a peripheral zone with characteristics similar to those of the core, and at least as large as the core, where land use is compatible with the protection targets of the National Park.

There are currently ten national parks in the country. All but two are located in mainland Greece. There are none on the Aegean islands, nor are there any on the Peloponnese. The total area designated national parks is 68372 hectares, about 0.5% of the country's total land area. This surface is divided almost equally between "core" zones, which are wilderness, and peripheral zones, where one might find human habitations and in which controlled land use is permitted. Land use generally takes the form of traditional subsistence agriculture and visitor facilities.

Vikos-Aoös National Park
Located in the north-west, between Ioannina, principal city of Epirus, and the Albanian border to the north. It's the largest park in the country and covers an area of 12000 hectares, 3400 of which are designated wilderness. Its best known feature is the Vikos canyon, listed by Guinness as the deepest gorge in the world.
Pindos National Park (Valia Calda)
This is a 7000 ha area of untouched forest in the Pindus mountains on the border between Macedonia and Epirus and to the west of Ioannina. It's hard to reach and harbours many endangered raptor species as well as some of the country's last brown bear and wolf populations.
Sounio National Park
On the south-eastern tip of Attica, about 50 km south-east of Athens. Cape Sounion, also famous for its ancient temple of Poseidon overlooking the sea, is one of the most spectacularly beautiful parts of the country. This is the place to go if you don't have much time to spend in the area and seriously want to fall in love with it.
Samariá National Park
After those in Attica, this is probably the most visited of the national parks in Greece. It's located in the White Mountains of south-western Crete and its claim to fame is the impressive 18 km (11 mile) long Samaria Gorge that stretches from deep inland to the Libyan Sea. It's home to the elusive Cretan Ibex, the trademark mountain goat of Crete, as well as many endemic plant species.
Prespes National Park
One of the most important wetlands in the Balkans and the only transnational park. It surrounds the Greek side of the two Prespes lakes (Mikrí Prespa and Megáli Prespa) in western Macedonia and continues to the north-west as a national park of Albania. It's of particular significance as a breeding ground for two threatened pelican species.
Parnassos National Park
In south-central mainland Greece. Second-largest of the parks, this is a wilderness in the area of Phocis, near Delphi. Not very accessible but it does have hiking facilities and refuges if you can get there which is sually from the north coast of the Gulf of Corinth.
Olympus National Park
Oldest of the country's parks, founded in 1938. The 4000 ha of this park in southern Macedonia include the summit of Mount Olympus, seat of the ancient gods, and the higher reaches of its eastern flank.
Oiti National Park
Pronounced "EE-tee," this park is in Fthiotis in south-eastern mainland Greece. Its 3010 ha of core area and 4200 ha peripheral zone cover more diverse terrain than most other parks and therefore make up an important and highly biodiverse area of particular importance to raptors and woodpeckers.
Parnitha National Park
Close to Athens and just west of it, this is the most visited park and therefore inevitably the most burdened by human activity within it. It's threatened by commercial exploitation of the surrounding area, poor use of the peripheral area and even by construction for the 2004 Olympics. The 3812 ha of mainly fir forest core area are criss-crossed by hiking routes and a cable car reaches the top. It's the most accessible of all since you can get to its entrance simply by taking a city bus.
Ainos National Park
This is the only one of the national parks that's on an island. Ainos is a forested mountain on Cephalonia, largest of the Ionian Islands. Much of it is covered with an endemic species of fir that was prized for construction in antiquity and gives the mountain a dark colour.

Two additional areas have been designated National Marine Parks for the express purpose of protecting endangered marine species.

Northern Sporades National Marine Park
A number of islets and the larger Sporades island of Alonnisos itself in the north-west Aegean. It was established in 1992 as the first Marine Park in Greece and its primary purpose is to protect the Mediterranean monk seal, currently the world's most endangered pinniped.
National Marine Park of Zakynthos
A vital nesting ground for the Loggerhead turtle around Lagánas bay on the Ionian island of Zákynthos. This is a special case in which conservationists and non-profit organisations were long doing the bulk of the work needed to protect the area where the state failed to. The six beaches which the turtles use are all threatened by human encroachment.

For the devoted hiker, Olympus and Samaria are on the E4 path. Valia Calda is on E6. Visitors to all these parks should know that facilities for automobiles tend to be limited or nonexistent so public transport arrangements should be made in advance. In most cases you'd rather leave the hazardous task of driving to the locals anyway. The same goes for accommodation. These parks, like others across the world, are natural sites of particular importance and unique ecosystems, and collecting any plant or animal specimens in them is illegal. Some of them aren't open all year due to seasonal inaccessibility or natural hazards. Except maybe for Parnitha, Sounio and Samaria, which are close to population centres, I wouldn't consider the rest suitable day trip destinations. Plan ahead.

Sources:
http://www.kepemep-cree.org/pan/project/greece_gr.htm
http://www.ornithologiki.gr/gr/sppe/gr064.htm
http://www.ornithologiki.gr/gr/sppe/gr040.htm
http://www.ornithologiki.gr/gr/sppe/gr032.htm
http://www.steven.hopwood.btinternet.co.uk/nwok.html
http://www.explorecrete.com/samaria.html
http://www.gorp.com/gorp/activity/europe/E4.htm
http://www.photoseek.com/Greece/PindosOlympus.html
On-line information on the subject is very fragmentary and about a dozen
more sources were used for basic data and figures.

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