Walking

A Guide to the Yorkshire Dales

A land of many moods, the Yorkshire Dales National Park varies from wild and windswept moorlands to tranquil pastoral scenes streaked with drystone walls and dotted with crumbly, creeper-clads barns. Rich in both history and natural beauty, it calls to the muddy-booters, the culinary connoisseurs and the history-enthusiasts alike with its wealth of activities and attractions.  

A collection of river valleys and hummocky hills flecked with picturesque towns and veined with dry stone walls, the Yorkshire Dales National Park covers 680 square miles across much of North Yorkshire. A haven for all those looking to shrug off daily responsibilities for a while, there is always something to do, no matter the season. Whether you’re visiting for the day or staying in the heart of the Dales for a luxury holiday, you’ll quickly understand why so many want to return here year after year.

To make sure that you have the best experience possible, we’ve put together some of the highlights of the National Park for you to discover during your Yorkshire retreat:

Walks in the Dales

One of the best ways to get to know the Yorkshire Dales National Park is by walking, especially if you bring along some traditional ‘fat rascals’ cakes and a flask of hot tea to keep you going. If you want to savour all the beauty of the National Park but save on the miles, there are many short, dog-friendly walks to choose from along river paths, across moors and over limestone pavements. Remember to lace up a pair of good walking boots before you set off, and make sure you have a map and plenty of foodie snacks and provisions with you. It’s also a good idea to take warm and waterproof layers too, so you don’t get caught out by the elements.

Some of our favourite walks in the Yorkshire Dales include the 6.5-mile Aysgarth Falls circulate via Castle Bolton, the 4.5-mile Fell Beck circular, the 5-mile Ribblehead Viaduct walk and the 3-mile Malham Tarn circular (a miles without stiles walk). The 5-mile Ingleton Waterfalls Trail is also really enjoyable, starting and ending in the village of Ingleton. That said, if you fancy more of a challenge, hardier long-distance walks include the Pennine Way, Lady Anne’s Way, the Dales Way, the Herriot Way and the Three Peaks. The Howgill Fells lie to the far north-western corner of the Dales, not far from the Cumbrian town of Kirkby Stephen, and offer even more choice.

Family Activities

With a huge range of activities on offer, every day in the Yorkshire Dales brings something new. For multi-generational appeal, the Museum of North Craven Life in Settle and the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes reveal fascinating insights into the area’s varied social and cultural history. Grassington Folk Museum in the market town of Skipton, the southern gateway to the Dales, is also worth a visit for local history. Open seasonally, it displays exhibits on Yorkshire mining, farming, local dress, World War II artefacts and more. 

For a different way to see the sights, the Wensleydale Railway, the Embsay and Bolton Abbey Steam Railway and the Stainmore Railway each provide novel ways to get around. Meanwhile, the Settle to Carlisle line takes you from the railway station and over the iconic Ribblehead Viaduct – a breath-taking example of Victorian engineering. To peruse the Yorkshire Dales’ only RHS gardens, head over to Parcevall Hall Gardens in Wharfedale, or to discover the flipside of the Park, go underground into the depths of the phenomenal show caves of Ingleborough Cave near Clapham, White Scar Cave in Carnforth, How Stean Gorge near Harrogate, and Stump Cross Caverns near Wharfedale and Nidderdale.

Castles and Abbeys

Yorkshire is a treasure trove of centuries-old castles and abbeys, once formidable shows of power, religion and spirituality. At over 900 years old, the Grade I-listed Skipton Castle is one of the most well-preserved Mediaeval castles in not just Yorkshire, but all of England. Also near Skipton, on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, the Bolton Abbey Estate is home to Priory Church and the impressive ruins of an Augustinian Priory, all surrounded by a 30,000-acre patchwork of ancient moorland and woodland. Elsewhere, Middleham Castle and Bolton Castle, both in Wensleydale, afford great days out with the family. Bolton Castle even offers gardens, tearooms and falconry experiences. 

Near Harrogate, the 700-year-old Ripley Castle invites you to learn about its centuries of military, political, religious and social turbulence, while Richmond Castle in Richmond stands proud as the best-preserved early Norman castle in England. For a showstopping attraction, the Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal water garden park in Ripon never cease to amaze. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the attraction is home to one of the biggest and best-preserved Cistercian monastery ruins in England, stunning Georgian gardens and a sprawling deer park. Finally, the Grade-I listed Jervaulx Abbey, also near Ripon, today stands as an atmospheric ruin that can be visited year-round.

Natural Wonders

The ideal place to unplug and recharge amongst nature, the Yorkshire Dales National Park benefits from one of the most stunning collections of natural wonders in the UK. One of the most spectacular, the towering limestone cliff at Malham Cove in the Southern Dales makes for an incredible sight. An enormous, 300-meter-wide natural amphitheatre topped with a limestone ‘pavement’, Malham Cove’s unique geology and raw beauty have earnt it cameos in the film versions of Wuthering Heights and Harry Potter and The Deathly Hollows. A 1 mile from Malham is Gordale Scar, a limestone ravine with two waterfalls and towering 330ft cliffs. A rough path leads up the gorge, but should only be attempted by the experienced.

For more eye-catching geology, Brimham Rocks, on Brimham Moor in the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, should definitely be on your list. Or, for magical waterfalls, make sure you set time aside for Aysgill Force in Sleddale, Aysgarth Falls near Leyburn and Hardraw Force in Hawes (Britain's highest unbroken waterfall). A well-known route, the Ingleton Waterfalls Walk has been a popular attraction since the Victorians and follows a well-marked trail along riverbanks and up to the falls. At 4 miles long, it does involve quite a march though, so you may prefer the more accessible options of Cotter Force Falls in Wensleydale or West Burton Falls near Leyburn market town.

To see an area of legendary status, you can walk up to the top of Gaping Gill – the largest underground cave chamber in Britain – on the southern slopes of Ingleborough, while experienced cavers can actually pay a fee to be winched down into the cave’s 98-metre-deep abyss. For hikers, the highest of the Yorkshire Three Peaks, Whernside, makes for a worthy summit in the Dales and rewards walkers with panoramic views across Pendle Hill, Morecambe Bay, the Lakeland Fells and the Howgill. 

That said, if you prefer your adventures a little dreamier, you can return after hours to star watch in the park. A designated International Dark Sky Reserve, the Yorkshire Dales National Park invites stargazers to make the most of some of the darkest skies in the country, with the Milky Way, planets, meteors and even the Northern Lights sometimes visible. Offering plenty of choice, there are four official Dark Sky Discovery Sites in the National Park, which include Hawes and Malham National Park Visitor Centres, Buckden National Park Car Park and Tan Hill Inn. These are all open to the public, are accessible to all abilities and have some parking and facilities available too.

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