Prior to being a park, Exmoor was a Royal Forest and hunting ground, which was sold off in 1818. Exmoor was one of the first British National Parks, designated in 1954, under the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, and is named after the main river that flows out of the district, the River Exe.
Several areas of the moor have been declared a Site of Special Scientific interest due to the flora and fauna. This title earns the site some legal protection from development, damage, and neglect. In 1993 Exmoor was also designated as an Environmentally Sensitive Area.
Exmoor's woodlands sometimes reach the shoreline, especially between Porlock and The Foreland, where they form the single longest stretch of coastal woodland in England and Wales. The Exmoor Coastal Heaths have been recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to the diversity of plant species present.
The scenery of rocky headlands, ravines, waterfalls and towering cliffs gained the Exmoor coast recognition as a Heritage Coast in 1991. With its huge waterfalls and caves, this dramatic coastline has become an adventure playground for both climbers and for explorers. The cliffs provide one of the longest and most isolated seacliff traverses in the UK. The South West Coast Path, at the longest National Trail in England and Wales, starts at Minehead and runs along all of Exmoor's coast. There are small harbours at Lynmouth, Porlock Weir, and Combe Martin. Once crucial to coastal trade, the harbours are now primarily used for pleasure; individually owned sail boats and non-commercial fishing boats are often found in the harbours.
The high ground forms the catchment area for numerous rivers and streams. There are about of named rivers on Exmoor. The River Exe, for which Exmoor is named, rises at Exe Head near the village of Simonsbath, close to the Bristol Channel coast, but flows more or less directly due south, so that most of its length lies in Devon. It reaches the sea at a substantial ria (estuary) on the south (English Channel) coast of Devon. Historically, its lowest bridging point was at Exeter, though there is now a viaduct for the M5 motorway about south of the city centre. It has several tributaries which arise on Exmoor. The River Barle runs from northern Exmoor to join the River Exe at Exebridge, Devon. The river and the Barle Valley are both designated as biological sites of Special Scientific Interest. Another tributary, the River Haddeo, flows from the Wimbleball Lake.
The other rivers arising on Exmoor flow north to the Bristol Channel. These include the River Heddon which runs along the western edges of Exmoor, reaching the North Devon coast at Heddon's Mouth, and the East and West Lyn which meet at Lynmouth. Hoar Oak Water is a moorland tributary of the East Lyn River the confluence being at Watersmeet. The River Horner, which is also known as Horner Water, rises near Luccombe and flows into Porlock Bay near Hurlestone point.
Cloud often forms inland, especially near hills, and reduce the amount of sunshine that reaches the park. The average annual sunshine is about 1,600 hours. Rainfall tends to be associated with Atlantic depressions or with convection. In summer, convection caused by solar surface heating sometimes forms shower clouds and a large proportion of rainfall falls from showers and thunderstorms at this time of year. The average annual total rainfall is , although fell in the 24-hour period preceding 10 am on the 16 August 1952, which was one of the contributory factors leading to the flooding in Lynmouth. About 8–15 days of snowfall is typical. November to March have the highest mean wind speeds, with June to August having the lightest winds. The wind predominantly comes from the south west.
There is evidence of occupation of the area by people from Mesolithic times, onward. In the Neolithic period, people started to manage animals and grow crops on farms cleared from the woodland, rather than act purely as hunters and as gatherers. It is also likely that extraction and smelting of mineral ores to make metal tools, weapons, containers and ornaments started in the late Neolithic, and continued into the bronze and iron ages. An earthen ring at Parracombe is believed to be a Neolithic henge dating from 5000–4000 BC, and "Cow Castle", which is where White Water meets the River Barle, is an Iron Age fort at the top of a conical hill. Tarr Steps are a prehistoric (circa 1000 BC) clapper bridge across the River Barle, about 2.5 miles (4 km) south east of Withypool and north west of Dulverton. The stone slabs weigh up to apiece and the bridge has been designated by English Heritage as a grade I listed building, to recognise its special architectural, historical or cultural significance. There is little evidence of Roman occupation apart from two fortlets on the coast.
Holwell Castle, at Parracombe, was a Norman motte and bailey castle built to guard the junction of the east–west and north–south trade routes, enabling movement of people and goods and the growth of the population. Alternative explanations for its construction suggest it may have been constructed to obtain taxes at the River Heddon bridging place, or to protect and supervise silver mining in the area around Combe Martin. It was in diameter and high above the bottom of a rock cut ditch which is deep. It was built, in the late 11th or early 12th century, of earth with timber palisades for defence and a one or two storey wooden dwelling. It was probably built by either Martin de Tours, the first lord of Parracombe, William de Falaise (who married Martin's widow) or Robert FitzMartin, although there are no written records to validate this. The earthworks of the castle are still clearly visible from a nearby footpath, but there is no public access to them.
During the Middle Ages, sheep farming for the wool trade came to dominate the economy. The wool was spun into thread on isolated farms and collected by merchants to be woven, fulled, dyed and finished in thriving towns such as Dunster. The land started to be enclosed and from the 17th century onwards larger estates developed, leading to establishment of areas of large regular shaped fields. During this period a Royal Forest and hunting ground was established, administered by a warden.
In the mid-17th century John Boevey was the warden. He built a house at Simonsbath, and for 150 years it was the only house in the forest. The Royal Forest was sold off in 1818. The Simonsbath House was bought along with the accompanying farm by John Knight for the sum of £50,000. Knight set about converting the Royal Forest into agricultural land. He and his family built most of the large farms in the central section of the moor, and built of metalled access roads to Simonsbath. He built a wall around his estate, much of which still survives.
In the mid-19th century a mine was developed alongside the River Barle. The mine was originally called Wheal Maria, then changed to Wheal Eliza. It was a copper mine from 1845–54 and then an iron mine until 1857, although the first mining activity on the site may be from 1552. At Simonsbath, a restored Victorian water-powered sawmill, which was damaged in the floods of 1992, has now been purchased by the National Park and returned to working order; it is now used to make the footpath signs, gates, stiles, and bridges for various sites in the park.
Uncultivated heath and moorland cover about a quarter of Exmoor landscape. Some moors are covered by a variety of grasses and sedges, while others are dominated by heather. There are also cultivated areas including the Brendon Hills, which lie in the east of the National Park. There are also of woodland, comprising a mixture of broad-leaved (oak, ash and hazel) and conifer trees. Horner Woodlands and Tarr Steps woodlands are prime examples. The country's highest beech wood, above sea level, is at Birch Cleave at Simonsbath. At least two species of whitebeam tree: Sorbus subcuneata and Sorbus 'Taxon D' are unique to Exmoor. These woodlands are home to lichens, mosses and ferns. Exmoor is the only national location for the lichens Biatoridium delitescens, Rinodina fimbriata and Rinodina flavosoralifera, the latter having been found only on one individual tree.
Sheep have grazed on the moors for more than 3,000 years, shaping much of the Exmoor landscape by feeding on moorland grasses and heather. Traditional breeds include Exmoor Horn, Cheviot and Whiteface Dartmoor and Greyface Dartmoor sheep. Devon ruby red cattle are also farmed in the area. Exmoor ponies can be seen roaming freely on the moors. They are a landrace rather than a breed of pony, and may be the closest breed remaining in Europe to wild horses. The ponies are rounded up once a year to be marked and checked over. In 1818 Sir Richard Acland, the last warden of Exmoor, took thirty ponies and established the Acland Herd, now known as the Anchor Herd, whose direct descendants still roam the moor. In the Second World War the moor became a training ground, and the breed was nearly killed off, with only 50 ponies surviving the war. The ponies are classified as endangered by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, with only 390 breeding females left in the UK. In 2006 a Rural Enterprise Grant, administered locally by the South West Rural Development Service, was obtained to create a new Exmoor Pony Centre at Ashwick, at a disused farm with of land with a further of moorland.
Red deer have a stronghold on the moor and can be seen on quiet hillsides in remote areas, particularly in the early morning. The moorland habitat is also home to hundreds of species of birds and insects. Birds seen on the moor include Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Eurasian Curlew, European Stonechat, Dipper, Dartford Warbler and Ring Ouzel. Black Grouse and Red Grouse are now extinct on Exmoor, probably as a result of a reduction in habitat management, and for the former species, an increase in visitor pressure.
From 1954 on, local government was the responsibility of the district and county councils, which remain responsible for the social and economic well-being of the local community. Since 1997 the Exmoor National Park Authority, which is known as a ‘single purpose’ authority, has taken over some functions to meet its aims to "conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the National Parks" and "promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the Parks by the public", including responsibility for the conservation of the historic environment.
The Park Authority receives 80% of its funding as a direct grant from the government. The Park Authority Committee consists of members from parish and county councils, and six appointed by the Secretary of State. The work is carried out by rangers, volunteers and a team of 13 estate workers who carry out a wide range of tasks including maintaining the many miles of rights of way, hedge-laying, fencing, swaling, walling, invasive weed control and habitat management on National Park Authority land. There are ongoing debates between the authority and farmers over the biological monitoring of SSSIs, showing the need for a controlled regime of grazing and burning; farmers claim that these regimes are not practical or effective in the long term.
For others walking, climbing, and the scenery are the attractions. The Coleridge Way is a footpath which follows the walks taken by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Porlock, starting from Coleridge Cottage at Nether Stowey, where he once lived. It starts in the Quantocks before moving onto the Brendon Hills and crosses the fringes of Exmoor National Park at Dunkery Beacon before finishing in Porlock. The Two Moors Way runs from Ivybridge in South Devon to Lynmouth on the coast of North Devon, crossing parts of both Dartmoor and Exmoor. Both of these walks intersect with the South West Coast Path, Britain's longest National Trail, which starts at Minehead and follows the Exmoor coast before continuing to Poole.
The attractions of Exmoor include 208 scheduled ancient monuments, 16 conservation areas, and other open access land as designated by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. Exmoor receives approximately 1.4 million visitor days per year. Many come to walk on the moors or along waymarked paths such as the Coleridge Way. Attractions on the coast include the cliff railway, which connects Lynton to neighbouring Lynmouth, where the East and West Lyn River meet. Woody Bay, a few miles west of Lynton, is home to the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway, a narrow gauge railway which connected the twin towns of Lynton and Lynmouth to Barnstaple, away. Further along the coast, Porlock is a quiet coastal town with an adjacent salt marsh nature reserve and a harbour at nearby Porlock Weir. Watchet is a historic harbour town with a marina and is home to a carnival, which is held annually in July.
Inland, many of the attractions are centred around small towns and villages or linked to the river valleys, such as the ancient clapper bridge at Tarr Steps and the Snowdrop Valley near Wheddon Cross, which is carpeted in snowdrops in February and, later, displays bluebells. Withypool is also in the Barle Valley. The Two Moors Way passes through the village. As well as Dunster Castle, Dunster's other attractions include a priory, dovecote, yarn market, inn, packhorse bridge, mill and a stop on the West Somerset Railway. Exford, lies on the River Exe. Brendon, in the Brendon Valley is noted for the annual Exmoor folk festival.
Exmoor has been the setting for several novels including the 19th-century Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by Richard Doddridge Blackmore, and Margaret Drabble's 1998 novel The Witch of Exmoor. The park was featured on the television programme Seven Natural Wonders twice, as one of the wonders of the West Country.