The main valleys, known in this part of the world as dales, are Swaledale, Wensleydale, Wharfedale, Ribblesdale and Dentdale. There are also dozens of smaller side-valleys, each with their own character.
There are some fantastic bases for hill-walking, with beautiful villages such as Reeth and Muker in Swaledale; Hawes, Askrigg and Aysgarth in Wensleydale; Kettlewell, Grassington and Burnsall in Wharfedale; Malham in Airedale; and Clapham and Austwick in Ribblesdale. Here you will find great country pubs and a choice of B&Bs, from where you can walk straight up onto the hills.
Swaledale is probably my favourite, hauntingly beautiful, wild and rugged. There is so much history and heritage to explore in this northernmost of the Yorkshire dales, from abandoned lead mines, ruinous priories, traditional haymeadows, Old Norse placenames and Iron Age hill forts. You can walk along the Corpse Way, which traces a route from the upper dale to the ancient church at Grinton, a route that is said to trace its origins back to Norse mythology.
From Reeth, there are some fabulous routes up onto the glistening limestone escarpment of Fremington Edge, high above the confluence of Swaledale and Arkengarthdale, or you can climb Calver Hill above the village itself. But in order to experience Swaledale properly you have to do the circular walk from Muker, northwards through haymeadows along the banks of the Swale to the crumbling ruins of Crackpot Hall, then down past the waterfalls at Keld before climbing Kisdon Hill from where there is a surprise view as you descend back to Muker down the length of Swaledale; I have yet to find a better view!
The next major dale to the south of Swaledale, Wensleydale is famed for its waterfalls, including Hardraw Force, England's highest single-drop falls. It can be accessed from the rather large beer garden of the Green Dragon Inn, or the tiers of tumbling falls at Aysgarth.
On the moors above Wharfedale in late summer
© Mark Read / TeamWalking
A glance at the map will reveal many more waterfalls, including Mill Gill Force above Askrigg, Aysgill Force near Hawes, Couldron Falls at West Burton and Redmire Force along the River Ure; incidentally, the word 'force' comes from the Old Norse word 'foss' for waterfall.
Wensleydale is broader and more pastoral than neighbouring Swaledale, with more villages and also a couple of castles. My favourite walks here include a climb to the summit of flat-topped Addlebrough, which towers above Bainbridge and Askrigg, or perhaps Penhill, another flat-topped hill above West Witton; both hills afford incredible views across the sweep of Wensleydale. After your walk, head to a local pub to sample a pint of Yorkshire Dales Brewery's beer, light and well-hopped ales that are brewed at Askrigg.
The TV series All Creatures Great and Small
about the life and work of vet James Herriot was filmed in Wensleydale and Swaledale, with Askrigg used as the fictional Darrowby.
View along Wharfedale © Mark Read / TeamWalking
Wharfedale offers more challenging routes, with Buckden Pike and Great Whernside, both just over the 700 metre mark, towering above the upper reaches of this valley. Here you will find a classic U-shaped glaciated valley, dotted with small villages such as Hubberholme, Buckden, Starbotton and Kettlewell. The fells are wild and windswept, quiet and remote, and form some of my favourite hills in the Yorkshire Dales.
One of the best fell walks in the area is the circular route from Kettlewell. Follow the path up to the old farm of Hag Dyke and onto the broad summit ridge, then descend to the saddle of Great Hunters Sleets before dropping down the old monastic route of Top Mere Road.
Limestone pavement at Malham © Richard Hakes
Malham offers some of the most remarkable limestone landscapes in Britain, with the wonders of Malham Cove, Watlowes Valley, Malham Tarn and Gordale Scar forming a superb day's walk from the village. As every A-level Geography student can tell you, this is an area of limestone pavements, crags and scars, dry valleys and gorges, scoured out thousands of years ago by glacial meltwaters.
The Three Peaks
For a real challenge, you could always tackle the famous Yorkshire Three Peaks - Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough. This is a 40-km route with around 1,600m of ascent usually completed within 12 hours. A word of warning though, this is a tough route that requires a good level of fitness and preparation, and it can get very busy on summer weekends. If you like your hills to yourself, then head up to Swaledale, Wensleydale or Wharfedale.
TOP 5 EXPERIENCES
1. Malham Cove
Spend a day exploring England's finest glaciokarst landscapes, with dry valleys, collapsed cave systems and a dry waterfall that, if it were flowing, would have been bigger than Niagara! Route: Malham village, Malham Cove, Watlowes Valley, Water Sinks and Malham Tarn, Gordale Scar and Janet's Foss. Don't be fooled by the Right of Way on the OS map that is shown descending Gordale Scar, for this is a scramble down the middle of a waterfall and so is best avoided.
2. Great Whernside
One of only seven hills in the Yorkshire Dales over 700 metres, this is a ruggedly beautiful and quiet place. Route: Kettlewell, Hag Dyke, Great Whernside, Great Hunters Sleets, Top Mere Road.
3. Kisdon Hill
This walk encapsulates the Dales - the lovely village of Muker (with its great pub - the Farmers Arms), haymeadows, old lead mines, waterfalls and the finest viewpoint (in my opinion) in the county from the top of Kisdon Hill. Route: Muker, Rampsholme Bridge, River Swale, Crackpot Hall, Keld, Kisdon Hill
4. Wensleydale waterfalls and castle
Wensleydale is the broadest dale and as such offers great variety. From Aysgarth Falls, follow the paths through Freeholders Wood passing the Upper, Middle and Lower falls, then strike off via Hollins House to join Thorseby Lane, which leads to the imposing Bolton Castle. From the castle, follow the 'old road', known as Oxclose Road, that skirts above the intake walls across the moorland fringe before dropping down into Carperby and back to Aysgarth Falls.
5. Yorkshire Three Peaks
If the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge walk is a little daunting, then the pick of the three is undoubtedly Ingleborough. The summit of this flat-topped mountain is ringed by an Iron Age hill fort, and the views are incredible. The best way up is from Clapham, via the limestone wonders of Trow Gill and Gaping Gill (a dangerous swallow hole - keep the the paths in this area!), then up onto the summit plateau. The descent heads down Swine Tail to Sulber Gate then Long Scar back to Clapham.
WHEN TO VISIT
Best times to go:
The Yorkshire Dales are beautiful in all seasons, but my favourite time is late spring (May and June) due to the abundance of traditional haymeadows which bring colour to the valleys, not to mention the ground-nesting birds such as curlew, lapwing and grouse that provide the sounds of the moors. Avoid summer weekends in the Three Peaks area, as you may find your walk up Whernside coincides with a large organised challenge walk around the Three Peaks (also avoid the Three Peaks Race on the last Saturday in April).
The Swaledale Festival runs in late May and early June, and the Grassington Festival runs in mid-June.
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