Hill walking in the North York Moors
With its windswept tops, green dales and stunning coastline, this corner of Yorkshire is one of the most rewarding places in the UK to explore on foot.
The North York Moors is one of the UK’s best-loved landscapes. Nowhere else in Britain can you find such a sensational variety of beautiful countryside all in one area, writes Julian Brown, Interpretation Officer for the North York Moors National Park Authority.
The area encompasses the largest continuous expanse of heather moorland in England, but also rolling farmland, towering crags, lush valleys, verdant woods, winding lanes, rocky bays and quiet beaches. It’s one of the reasons that the region was declared a National Park in 1952, and this extraordinary landscape variety also means it’s magnificent for walkers. There’s a natural grandeur here that rewards Sunday strollers, moorland hikers, adventurous families and coastal ramblers alike.
GUIDE TO HILL WALKING IN THE NORTH YORK MOORS
The North York Moors can be divided into four principal areas for walkers – the Central and Southern Dales, the Esk Valley in the north-centre of the National Park, the Heritage Coast, and Goathland and Newtondale in the southeast. I have also included a separate section on the 109-mile Cleveland Way National Trail, which heads across the northern part of the National Park and then along the coast.
Central and Southern Dales
With one major exception, the characteristic dales of the North York Moors run north to south, from the high moorland down through fertile farmland and wooded valleys. A few traditional stone-built villages mark the southern reaches, but otherwise, this is an area of isolated farms, dry stone walls and sweeping heather moorland.
Farndale is the best-known dale, lit up each spring by a spectacular show of wild daffodils along a seven-mile stretch of the River Dove. If the riverside walk here is a gentle introduction to the charms of the dales, outings in neighbouring Rosedale, to the east, are altogether more dramatic.
For a few short decades, Victorian ironstone mining brought clamour to the dale – the trackbed of the former mineral railway loops around Rosedale, providing stupendous walks and views accessed from the small village of Rosedale Abbey.
The other popular target is the picturesque village of Hutton le Hole, sitting in a green bowl beneath the great expanse of Spaunton Moor. The easygoing circuit across to Lastingham and its ancient church shows you two fascinating villages, each with a country pub well used to walkers.
The north of the National Park is dominated by the east-west Esk Valley, which runs from the source of the River Esk itself – high up on Westerdale – to the North Sea at Whitby. For walkers of all abilities it’s an absolute gem – beautiful in the extreme, a haven for wildlife from salmon to kingfishers, and featuring a succession of attractive, intriguing villages. There are stepping stones, packhorse bridges and medieval monks’ trods at places such as Lealholm, Egton Bridge and Glaisdale, while at Grosmont you can explore the pioneering railway and industrial heritage that transformed the valley from the 1830s onwards.
For the best of the valley follow the 37-mile Esk Valley Walk, a mid-distance route promoted by the National Park Authority and marked on OS maps. It’s three to four days done in one go, but the beauty of the valley is its accessibility by train on the Esk Valley Railway between Whitby and Middlesbrough. Linear day-walks off the station platforms are easy to plan – for a taster, take the train to Grosmont and walk the 8 miles back to Whitby and the seaside.
The Heritage Coast
The North York Moors has a coast – you may be surprised by that, and you may be further surprised by how spectacular it is, from hidden bays, wooded ravines and sandy beaches to the highest sea cliffs on the east coast of England. There are 26 miles of National Park coastline, within the 36-mile North Yorkshire and Cleveland Heritage Coast, and pretty much every inch can be accessed on foot from well-known fishing villages, ports and resorts such as Staithes, Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay and Scarborough. There’s a real mix of experiences available too, from an ice cream and a potter among the rock pools at Boggle Hole to a full-blown, wind-in-the-hair hike across the cliffs and bays between Whitby and Staithes.
More gentle gradients await on the ‘Cinder Track’, the former railway line between Scarborough and Whitby that now offers 21 miles of scenic family walking (and cycling and horse-riding) along one of the finest stretches of coast in England.
Goathland and Newtondale
The southeast of the National Park contains some of its most iconic locations. For a high tramp across open moorland – which blazes purple every summer – start at Saltergate and traverse Levisham Moor, around the extraordinary natural amphitheatre that is the Hole of Horcum. The great gorge of Newtondale – one of the world’s finest examples of a glacial meltwater channel – is equally impressive, and there are walks here from stations along the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, whose heritage steam trains chug from Pickering to Goathland.
Goathland itself is perfect for family walks – its station was used as ‘Hogsmeade’ in the early Harry Potter films. The classic circuit takes in Mallyan Spout waterfall and the tiny riverside hamlet of Beck Hole with its quirky pub, though a longer moorland walk to Wheeldale Moor investigates the mysteries of the old road known as ‘Wade’s Causeway’ – possibly Roman, or maybe medieval, or perhaps built by a giant called Wade; the jury’s still out.
The Cleveland Way National Trail
The Cleveland Way was the second National Trail in England and Wales, opened in 1969, and its 109 rollercoaster miles fall largely within the National Park. Starting in the market town of Helmsley, it heads across the western moors and Cleveland Hills, reaching the sea at Saltburn, and then follows the dramatic North Yorkshire coastline all the way to Filey.
It’s a route that encompasses ruined abbeys, medieval castles, ancient stone crosses, vibrant heather moorland and smugglers’ villages – something for pretty much every kind of walker, from country pub fans to hardcore trail list-tickers.
Shorter, circular walks based on the Trail offer great day-out experiences and, while the ‘best’ sections are a matter of taste, if you tackled the walk from Helmsley to Rievaulx Abbey, the ascent of Roseberry Topping and a circuit from Staithes you would have sampled some amazing North York Moors scenery.
TOP 5 EXPERIENCES
1. Roseberry Topping and Cook’s Monument
An ascent of the ‘Yorkshire Matterhorn’, plus a reminder or two of the great explorer Captain Cook, on a classic 7-mile circular walk through dappled woodland and across heather moorland. You’ll encounter two iconic North York Moors landmarks en route – Roseberry Topping and Cook’s Monument – so fingers crossed for a clear day.
2. May Beck and Falling Foss
A favourite woodland walk is this 2-mile trail through the trees that passes an idyllic woodland tea garden and the 30-foot Falling Foss waterfall, before returning alongside babbling May Beck. It’s a lovely shady walk for summer – with shallow waters to paddle in, and a bridge to play pooh-sticks from – and spectacular in autumn when the woodland colours are at their best.
3. Howdale Moor and Brow Moor
Choose a clear day for this 4-mile walk to enjoy amazing views of two very different landscapes – sweeping heather moorland and the dramatic Ravenscar coastline looking across to Robin Hood’s Bay. If you’re lucky you’ll also catch sight of Fylingdale Moor’s birds of prey. The walk is on Open Access land, which means that walkers do not have to stick to footpaths or other public rights of way.
4. Cloughton and Hayburn Wyke
Discover one of the gems of the Heritage Coast – the wooded valley of Hayburn Wyke, which reaches down to a magnificent rocky cove complete with tumbling waterfall. This 5-mile walk follows an exhilarating stretch of the Cleveland Way National Trail, before returning along the track-bed of the old Scarborough to Whitby railway line.
5. Wainstones Walk
Enjoy spectacular views as you cross the western moors en route to the rock crags known as the Wainstones. The 8-mile circuit makes a challenging day out, sampling one of the most thrilling sections of the Cleveland Way and skirting Urra Moor on your return (the latter is the highest point in the North York Moors).
WHEN TO VISIT
Best times to go:
You can walk year-round in the North York Moors, but make sure you are prepared for all eventualities, with appropriate clothing and footwear, even on the shortest walks.
Hill fog on the moors or coastal sea 'frets' can descend even in summer, reducing visibility to a few metres. Sea cliffs and moorland escarpments can be dangerous – not just the possibility of falling off them but of rocks falling from them. On coastal walks, check the tide times as the sea comes right up to the cliffs at high tide.
In dry weather there is a higher risk of moorland fires. Pay attention to local notices about fire risks, including possible path closures.
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