For decades Sicily lacked a policy for preserving the immense natural heritage on the island which resulted in its exploitation and the growth of urban areas that was both excessive and muddled producing a mixture of houses, blocks of flats, factories, illegally-constructed buildings, warehouses and villas. Within the last few decades, protected areas have been created more or less throughout the island, some of which contain a natural heritage that is respected but many are not protected properly and in some the exploitation continues, albeit to a lesser extent than in the past. There is now a gradual realisation that these areas represent the future prosperity of the island and as a result they are now being safeguarded and protected. The growth in tourism on the island today is increasingly linked to facilities located inside or near to these areas which offer unique attractions to visitors. The four Sicilian National Parks are undoubtedly the most interesting due to their vast size and the numerous and diverse attractions that they offer. The Etna National Park which contains its namesake, the highest active volcano on the continent, is undoubtedly the first and foremost of the four National Parks due the the irresistible attraction of the sight of one of its craters erupting. Organised tours of the craters are available on foot, in Jeeps and in specially-adapted 4x4 buses or alternatively from the air by light aircraft or by helicopter. Additional information can be found at etnasicilytouring. There are some delightful small villages on the slopes of the volcano which can be visited on the Circumetnea, a small train that runs at various hours throughout the day. The nearby Parco fluviale delle Gole del fiume Alcantara, provides you with an opportunity to visit spectacular gorges formed in basalt rock, follow the river and immerse yourself in its clear and refreshing waters. The Nebrodi National Park, facing north onto the Tyrrhenian Sea, was described by the Arabs as an island within an island and will amaze you with its ecosystem characterised by long, densely-wooded slopes, high, green pastures, peaceful lakes and fast-flowing mountain streams which contrast with the commonly-held image of Sicily as an arid and sunburnt land. Of the numerous places of interest inside the park to visit we recommend in particular the Biviere lake near Cesarò, the Maulazzo lake on the slopes of Mount Soro, the woods of Miraglia and Mangalaviti, the Rocche del Crasto, natural rock formations made from chalk, and the grottoes of San Teodoro. In the Madonie National Park, like the nearby Nebrodi mountains, north-facing slopes are ploughed with deep valleys and mighty rock faces plummet towards the sea, however, the ecosystem here is very different from that of the Nebrodi National Park with areas that are much less densely-wooded but which nevertheless contain vegetation that in many cases can only be found in this part of Sicily. There are numerous walking trails which produce a few pleasant suprises such as Piano Pomo with its enormous holly trees, Pomieri, Piano Cervi and Madonna dell'Alto with a sanctuary that is immersed in the clouds, even in summer. The area is also rich in fauna and it is not unusual to come across birds of prey, foxes, hedgehogs, tortoises, ferrets, wild boar and deer. The protected oases and nature reserves of greatest interest to tourists are the Vendicari Nature Reserve near to Noto where it is possible to see numerous species of wild birds during the migration season such as waders, grey herons, storks, flamingoes as well as various archeological sites and the remains of an old tuna fishery. The Zingaro Nature Reserve located between San Vito lo Capo and Scopello in the province of Trapani contains a variety of rare plants which are typical of the Mediterranean. We recommend a walk along the trail inside the reserve that leads to the beautiful Uzzo beach or alternatively you can admire it in all its splendour from the water by boat. The Riserva dello Stagnone di Trapani is located a few kilometres away, characterized by small lakes of sea water that are used for production of sea salt and windmills, nearly all of which have now been restored and can be visited. There is also a salt museum here. The nature reserve of the Cavagrande del Cassibile contains deep canyons gouged out of the rock by the river and a system of small lakes and cascades in the valley below which can be reached on foot in a walk of around one hour. Here you can also see ancient dwellings, one next to the other, carved out of the rock face on six different levels. Pantalica is an area of natural and archeological interest located on a plateau surrounded by canyons formed over thousands of years by the Anapo and Calcinara rivers. The Anapo valley can be visited on foot via a 10 kilometre trail which follows traces of the old Syracuse-Vizzini railway. The plateau also contains the necropolis of Filoporto where there are around 1,000 tombs carved out of the rocks. The Macalube di Aragona Nature Reserve contains a series of natural mud springs used in Roman times to cure rheumatism and as a beauty treatment. Other natural oases of particular interest for swimming are those of the Simeto, Irminio, Belice, Asinaro, Platani and Salso rivers.There are also several important marine nature reserveson the island such as the Plemmirio reserve at Syracuse, Isola Bella at Taormina, Capo Gallo at Mondello and those on the islands of Ustica, Lampedusa and Linosa and the archipelago of the Egadi islands opposite Trapani.