Estonian National Parks_ENG

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The Unique Essence of

Estonian National Parks

Walk on the wild side in Estonia’s national parks

With their untouched forests, hidden bog lakes, and long, winding coastlines, Estonia’s six national parks are some of the country’s most significant natural resources. Thanks to their compact size and effortless accessibility, you can get lost in the wilderness — and then find yourself back in civilization in the blink of an eye.

Though Estonia may not cover a lot of territory, each park has a unique identity. In Western Estonia, you’ll find coastal and wooded meadows and dozens of small islands and inlets — paddle from one island to another through shallow seawater and enjoy an incredible sunset from the slow-flowing river bed. A few hundred kilometres to the east, you can marvel at large primeval forests, lake-rich peat bogs, marshlands, and a gently rolling landscape filled with the rich cultural heritage of Setomaa and the Old Believers. The climate also varies by region — flowers bloom under a warm spring sun in the west, while skiers hit the crosscountry trails in the east.

The European Federation of Protected Areas (EUROPARC Federation) has recognized three Estonian national parks (Lahemaa, Matsalu, and Soomaa) for the development of sustainable nature tourism in their respective regions.

Preserve the pristine wilderness of Estonia’s national parks by traveling with a local guide, who can enthrall you with tales of local life and lead you to the parks’ most remote corners.

Of course, you are always welcome to venture out on your own — go for a hike, plan a picnic, or spend a few nights sleeping under the stars. The parks’ nature centres are a helpful resource. You can visit in person before setting out for the day or plan your trip from home by visiting their pages online.

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Lahemaa National Park

Lahemaa National Park is located on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland and covers Estonia’s northernmost capes and islands. This national park is home to the best that Estonian nature has to offer. In the space of 725 square km, you’ll find lush native forests, wetlands stretching to the horizon, and both rocky and sandy beaches.

Though many of the park’s winding roads have been in use since ancient times, there is little human activity in Lahemaa. You will come across small villages here and there, but even at the height of summer, you may find yourself completely alone on the beach.

Walk along the beach, search for skipping stones, or climb the giant boulders along the coast. Lahemaa has the largest deposit of erratic boulders in Europe. These massive rock formations traveled from Finland and Scandinavia to Estonia with the glaciers during the last Ice Age.

Lahemaa is home to many wild animals— moose, wild boar, bears, and lynx. In the valley between Oandu and Altja, beavers are busy at work. Watch birds flying through the forest, and listen for several species of woodpeckers. The northern coast also attracts a large number of migratory birds every year.

Lahemaa is not just a refuge for wild animals and birds but also a place where you can discover the unique cultural heritage of Estonia’s coastal areas. Quaint fishing villages such as Käsmu, Altja, and Viinistu tell the story of Estonians at sea. Check out restored net sheds and centuries-old farmhouses after walking along a beautiful beach.

What to do:

• Go for a hike in Viru Bog—the popular boardwalk leads to an observation tower.

• Visit Baltic German manor houses— Palmse, Sagadi, Vihula, and Kolga.

• Explore the former submarine base in Hara Harbour—rent a SUP board and see what the coast looks like from out at sea.

• Take a boat trip to Mohni Island and pick gooseberries.

• Walk to the northernmost point of mainland Estonia—Purekkari Cape.

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Alutaguse National Park

Alutaguse, Estonia’s newest national park, stands in contrast to its surroundings—pure, untouched nature alternates with small villages, ancient burial sites, and former mining areas. Some may feel nostalgia; others will feel struck by the impact of human development on nature.

This national park is remarkable for its beautiful native forests and deep marshes, sometimes reminiscent of the taiga (boreal forest). Several endangered and rare species live here, such as willow ptarmigan and flying squirrels—the forests and swamps of Alutaguse are their last suitable habitat.

Brown bears, Estonia’s largest predators, roam the thick forests, and about 500 of them make their home in the larger Alutaguse region. It’s possible to come across one searching for food in the spring. If this thought makes you nervous, but you still want to see bears with your own eyes, try visiting one of the purpose-built bear-watching huts to observe them from a safe distance.

In Alutaguse, you can enjoy the 30-kilometre-long beach with dune forests and singing sands on the north coast of Lake Peipsi or the 18-metre high ridges of continental dunes of the Alutaguse wetlands, which are not often visited even by locals.

Alutaguse National Park borders one of Europe’s largest bodies of fresh water — the north coast of Lake Peipsi, which attracts holiday goers with its beautiful beaches and spectacular boating opportunities.

What to do:

• Go snowshoeing or skiing in Muraka Bog.

• Discover the Puhatu-Agusalu swamps—these unique continental dunes are up to 18 meters high with good berry and mushroom forests.

• Go on a bird or animal-watching trip.

• Visit the ancient forest of the Porun River and the Kurtna lakes.

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Karula National Park

Located in Southern Estonia, Karula is the country’s smallest national park. Its small rounded hills are generally not found elsewhere in Estonia. Karula National Park’s varied topography was formed at the end of the Ice Age more than 10,000 years ago when meltwater carried sand and gravel into the gaps between the glaciers. Later, the ice melted, leaving a 2-3 metre thick soil layer on top of the sand and gravel.

Between the hills in Karula are dense groves of trees and marshes. Small lakes dot the landscape like eyes looking up at the sky and shining in the sun. The best spot to admire the view is from the observation tower.

A block of uninterrupted forest takes up almost half of Karula National Park. This exceptionally high-value forest is the largest of its kind under protection in southeastern Estonia. This massive forested area is home to large wild game, such as elk, roe deer, wild boar, lynxes, wolves. Among the protected species, the most notable are the black stork, osprey, lesser spotted eagle, sand lizard, spadefoot toad, and the rare daisy-leaf grape-fern.

Not a single road is straight in Karula. Roads meander around the hills, which means it takes a little longer to get from one place to another. It’s the perfect expression of the character of the people of the region—peaceful progress and living as they have for centuries.

While hiking through the park, you will come across ancient burial sites and century-old farm buildings that speak of Karula’s rich cultural

heritage. Visitors can observe the traditional way of Estonian life and learn about the timeless smoke sauna tradition, which UNESCO added to their List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2014. They can also hear Võru — a local dialect passed down from generation to generation.

What to do:

• Visit Ähijärv, a lake with crystal clear water that’s a popular place for fishing and hiking.

• Take a walking tour of the hilly landscapes of Kaika village with a local tour guide.

• Admire the village landscapes of Rebasemõisa and the beautiful view from Tornimägi.

• Go mountain biking in the forest landscapes and roads of Saarjärv.

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Seasonal nature calendar

Discover the wonders of nature throughout the year with our seasonal nature calendar, featuring information on mammals, birds, and engaging activities that allow you to actively experience the beauty of the great outdoors.

Activities

Walking hikes Hikes by lamplight

Bike tours

Snowshoe hikes

Canoe trips

SUP board trips

Kayaking trips

Cross-country skiing

Ice skating tours

Kicksledge trips

Photo tours

No season

Low season

High season

Dec Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov

Mammals

Mammal footprint tracking

Lynx mating & tracking

Bear, Raccoon dogs, Flying Squirrel

Wild boar, Beaver

Elk & Deer rutting

Wolf & G Jackal howling

Grey and Ringed Seal cubs

Grey Seals on sea roosts

Birds

White-tailed Eagles

Wintering Arctic seaducks

Waterbird migration

White and Black Storks

Hazel- & Black Grouse, Capercaillie

Owls (Ural, Great Grey, Boreal, Pygmy)

Woodpeckers (Black-, Grey-headed, White-backed, Lesser, Middle-spotted, three-toed WP-s)

L-D migrant songbirds (Red-brested Flycatcher, Common Rosefinch, Greenish, Warbler, Citrine Wagtail, Booted Warbler, Blyth’s Reed Warbler)

Great Snipe, Corncracke, Spotted Eagles

Lekking Ruff, Baltic Dunlin, B-T Godwit

Breeding waders & others in marshlands

Common cranes, roosting & migration

Landbird migration & Birdstations

Winter vistiors (Waxwings, buntings, Owls)

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Dec Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov

Soomaa National Park

Did you know it is possible to experience a fifth season in Estonia? This phenomenon occurs when waters overflow and cover the floodplain meadows, roads, forests, and farmland in Soomaa National Park in Central Estonia. Boats become the primary form of transportation.

More than half of the area of the Soomaa National Park consists of bogs and rivers surrounded by forest groves, colorful wooded meadows, and ravines. During snowmelt or rainy periods, the water cannot fit in its usual place and begins to conquer new lands.

Even though the area floods several times a year, residents have adapted rather than fled—homeowners always have boats at hand. During the floods, you can take a guided canoe trip, paddling between the trees and gliding over the marshes. When the flooded water freezes in winter, it creates a magnificent skating rink, and you can get around on skates!

Soomaa is one of the best places in Europe to admire beavers in the wild. The shallow waters provide a stunning setting for watching sunrise or sunset, especially during spring and autumn. If you’re lucky, you may also see moose, roe deer, wild boars, lynx, and many bird species while boating through the forest groves.

Soomaa is charming all year round. Even if there are no floods, plenty of hiking trails and boardwalks take you through the park’s bogs and wetlands.

A wooden dugout canoe—called haabjas in Estonian— exemplifies how Soomaa’s ancient traditions have survived to the present day. UNESCO added the construction and use of these canoes to its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2021.

What to do:

• Go beaver watching—Soomaa is one of the best places in Europe to admire beavers in the wild.

• Take a canoe, kayak, or paddle board trip on the Raudna River, Mulgi Meadow, or Halliste River.

• Try a snowshoe or ski trip in the Kuresoo and Riisa Bogs.

• Walk on hiking trails with boardwalks, like in Kuresoo Bog.

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Matsalu National Park

Matsalu National Park, located in Western Estonia, is a paradise for bird watchers. Millions of migratory birds fly through every year or stay to nest. The best birdwatching time is from April to mid-May and then again from September to the end of October. But birds aren’t the only winged creatures there—the wetlands attract a variety of butterfly and dragonfly species.

In addition to its mainland area, Matsalu also includes 50 islands and shoals. The land slowly rose from the sea after the Ice Age, and the people who settled on the coast made a living from

cattle breeding, forming a meadow-rich landscape. Continued cattle grazing preserves the area’s biodiversity, as the local species depend on these open grasslands.

One of the most exciting sights of the park is Northern Europe’s largest flood meadow, a significant nesting area for the corn crake. Climb a birdwatching tower, and listen to the melodic songs of warblers coming from the reeds at the mouth of the Kasari River. You can get closer by taking an organized boat excursion or canoe trip. Botanists will enjoy seeking out the various orchid species growing in Matsalu.

To preserve the cultural heritage of the Matsalu region, old haystacks and fishing huts with thatched roofs have been restored to tell the life story of Estonians in the past.

What to do:

• Take a guided boat trip.

• Visit the Puise Nina peninsula and the local fisherman’s cafe.

• Climb the Haeska, Kloostri, and Keemu observation towers.

• Try a guided kayaking trip on the Kasari River.

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Vilsandi National Park

The Baltic Sea comprises 2/3 of Vilsandi National Park; the rest consists of 160 islands, peninsulas, and inlets. The highlight of the park is Vilsandi Island. Vilsandi, located on the west coast of Saaremaa, was set up to protect sensitive coastal and island habitats.

With the help of a local guide, you can move from one island to another by wading through the shallow sea. Bare your toes, roll up your pant legs, and let the seabed massage your soles.

You can also explore the area around the islands and shoals by boat—calm waves and short distances make Vilsandi National Park ideal for kayak trips. Keep an eye out for seals lounging on the beaches!

Geology fans will find limestone outcrops rich in fossils and petrified corals, and rare plant species will charm botany lovers. Vilsandi is home to over 30 species of orchids as well as the endemic Saaremaa yellow rattle.

Vilsandi National Park is also an outstanding birdwatching destination. You’ll find Steller’s eider there from December to April. It’s their most important wintering grounds in the EU, making it a popular spot for European birdwatchers. In early spring, the sky over Vilsandi is thick with feathers— thousands of white-cheeked barnacle geese and other seabirds arrive in flocks.

If you are not afraid of long walks, you can explore the shifting dunes on the Harilaiu Peninsula. The Kiipsaare lighthouse stands in the sea near the peninsula’s western shore, leaning like the island’s own leaning tower of Pisa.

What to do:

• Climb the 130-year-old Vilsandi lighthouse for a magnificent view of the surrounding area.

• Head to the Harilaiu Peninsula, a unique landscape shaped by winds and waves and home to various wildlife and bird species.

• Discover pristine coral reefs and the best seal-watching spots on a guided tour.

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Seasonal highlights

January

Footprints on snow, snowcovered forest—every tree is a sculpture of art.

February

Frozen snow crystals, trees cracking from the cold, hikes by the light of the full moon.

March

Late sunrise hikes, coastal ice stacks, the first signs of spring.

April

The Dawn Chorus—mornings filled with birdsong, Soomaa’s fifth season and flooded rivers.

May

Wildflowers and meadows in bloom, all shades of emerald and lush greenery.

June

Wildflowers and meadows in bloom, white Nordic nights & noctilucent clouds.

July

Ripening wild berries, warm nights.

August

Dark nights with stellar skies and meteor showers, foggy mornings in the bog.

September

First frosty nights, first yellow leaves, mushroom and berry picking continues.

October

Golden fall colors and the height of bird migration.

November

Bare trees, romantic frosty and foggy mornings, silence in the wilderness, season of the Northern lights begins.

December

Starry sky, footprints on snow, ice flowers and ice patterns on frozen lakes.

Museums & Hiking Routes

Tartu University Nature Museum Ice Age Centre

and Botanical Garden

See a lion, marvel at glittering minerals, examine rocks and fossils, listen to the song of a wood finch, and much more at the University Nature Museum. In the botanical garden, you can feel the heat of the tropics, observe turtles, examine insectivorous plants, or check out a 70-year-old hedgehog cactus.

Located in Tartu County, the Ice Age Centre provides an overview of the causes of the Ice Age and its impact on Earth. It also introduces the history of the development of Estonian nature and human settlement, the causes of climate change and current research, as well as a vision of inhabitable environments in the future.

Sagadi Forest Museum

This museum introduces Estonia’s forests and traditional culture through displays on wood crafts and environmental issues. You can also test your knowledge of the forest at the permanent exhibition ”The Forest Journey.”

Estonian Natural History Museum

Located in Tallinn’s Old Town, the Natural History Museum displays a cross-section of Estonian nature. Approximately 90% of Estonian plant, beetle, butterfly, bird, and mammal species have found a place in the collection.

Baltic Forest Hiking baltictrails.eu

Tallinn Botanical Garden

On the outskirts of Tallinn, pure nature and beautifully designed landscapes combine. Experience the beauty and the joy of discovery among the several thousand plant species as foreign rarities and familiar Estonian plants grow side by side.

Hiking route www.loodusegakoos.ee

Cycling& bicycle trips

www.visitestonia.com

Baltic Coastal Hiking baltictrails.eu

Scan for more information:

Estonian National parks

Estonian Nature Tourism Association www.loodusturism.com

Estonian Rural Tourism www.maaturism.ee

www.loodusegakoos.ee

Photographs:

Aigar Kull, Aivar Ruukel, Andres Raudjalg, Evolumina, Hetkeline, Jaan Roose, Jarek Jõepera, Kaarin Vask, Karl Ander Adami, Katrin Laurson, Katrin Mäeots, Kristoffer Vaikla, Liina Laurikainen, Mati Kose, Markus Antson, Piret Kreitsman, Priidu Saart, Remo Savisaar, Riho Kirss, Rivo Veber, Sven Zacek, Triin Leetmaa

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Articles inside

Museums & Hiking Routes

1min
page 19

Vilsandi National Park

1min
pages 16-17

Matsalu National Park

1min
pages 14-15

Soomaa National Park

1min
pages 12-13

Karula National Park

1min
pages 8-9

Alutaguse National Park

1min
pages 6-7

Lahemaa National Park

1min
pages 4-5

Walk on the wild side in Estonia’s national parks

1min
page 3

Museums & Hiking Routes

1min
page 19

Vilsandi National Park

1min
pages 16-17

Matsalu National Park

1min
pages 14-15

Soomaa National Park

1min
pages 12-13

Karula National Park

1min
pages 8-9

Alutaguse National Park

1min
pages 6-7

Lahemaa National Park

1min
pages 4-5

Museums & Hiking Routes

1min
page 19

Vilsandi National Park

1min
pages 16-17

Matsalu National Park

1min
pages 14-15

Soomaa National Park

1min
pages 12-13

Karula National Park

1min
pages 8-9

Alutaguse National Park

1min
pages 6-7

Lahemaa National Park

1min
pages 4-5
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