Alex Langfield

Yorkshire's beautiful backbone – hiking a Dales High Way

Alison T30 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Yorkshire's beautiful backbone – hiking a Dales High Way

Hiking Collection by Alex Langfield
7-14 days
3-6 h / day
92.4 mi
12,425 ft
12,200 ft

The locals call it God’s Own Country, and with good reason. Yorkshire is one of the most scenically magnificent regions in England. No less than three national parks can be found within its borders and in the Yorkshire Dales National Park you have many of its most staggering sights. Now imagine a varied and challenging adventure across its most spectacular landscapes, over iconic landmarks and to viewpoints of haunting, rugged splendour.

You may well be imagining A Dales High Way, the incredible 90-mile (145 km) trek from the village of Saltaire in West Yorkshire to Appleby in Cumbria’s verdant Eden Valley. En route, you’ll discover the Neolithic ambience of Rombalds Moor; Malhamdale’s limestone wonders; summit the iconic, wedge-shaped Ingleborough and traverse the Howgill Fells, with massive views of both the Dales and the fells of the Lake District. It's hillwalking at its finest.

This magnificent journey was the brainchild of husband and wife Tony and Chris Grogan, who had the idea of a higher and wilder alternative to the already established Dales Way. The pair first completed the route in 2007 and it has gained great popularity ever since. It is a strenuous trek by virtue of the way it seeks out the high fells, making it more of a traverse above the Dales rather than a ramble amongst them.

With this in mind, it is an adventure suitable for reasonably fit hikers with some hillwalking experience. Gradients are not as severe as those found in the Lake District, but ascents such as those found on Ingleborough and the Howgills will still give your calves a thorough workout. Certain key junctions are waymarked. However, much of this trek is through open country and across high fells where there is no waymarking, so solid navigation is essential.

The route visits many of the Dales’ most picturesque towns and villages, giving you plenty of refuelling options and accommodation choice. This also presents you with decisions to mull over as to how many days to spend on the trails. I’ve split the adventure into the recommended six stages. The first two stages in particular are long days, with almost ten hours of hillwalking. If this sounds a bit much, you can always break them in two by sandwiching the night in Skipton with stays in Addingham and either Hetton or Malham.

Each season brings its own delights and challenges. Daylight hours in winter mean that you may need more than six days on the trails. If the higher fells are under ice and snow, winter boots will be essential, though it is unlikely crampons and ice axes would be needed unless conditions were particularly severe. Late summer is a gorgeous time to ramble, with purple heather in bloom across the moorlands.

Regardless of the month, this is a long trek across wild, windswept moors and high summits that are exposed to the elements. The weather in this part of England is notoriously fickle, so warm layers, waterproofs and sturdy boots are required.

The route effectively runs in parallel to the beloved Carlisle to Settle railway line, one of Europe’s great rail journeys. It makes for a fantastic option for the return to Saltaire. Alternatively, if you’re unable to find the time to do the trek in one multi-day push, you could use the many stations along the line to knock off sections in isolation.

Just a fifteen-minute ride from Leeds, start point Saltaire is easily reached by train, whilst motorists can arrive via the A650 and use the car park on Victoria Road, the official start of the route. End point Appleby-in-Westmorland is on the A66, which connects the M6 at Penrith to the A1(M) at Scotch Corner. Like Saltaire, it lies on the main railway line between the cities of Carlisle and Leeds.

On The Map

Tours & Highlights

    Difficult
    08:20
    18.2 mi
    2.2 mph
    2,200 ft
    2,100 ft
    Expert Hiking Tour. Very good fitness required. Mostly accessible paths. Sure-footedness required.

    This stage is characterised by the ancient mystique of Rombalds Moor and the many vestiges of the Neolithic era you’ll discover along the atmospheric trails. The Twelve Apostles stone circle is the most famous of these, found on rugged Ilkley Moor, the most well-trodden part of Rombalds. The moor is the subject of Yorkshire’s unofficial anthem, On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at, which translates to ‘on Ilkley Moor without a hat’ and gives you an idea of the windswept nature of this high ground.

    Your journey begins from the inauspicious setting of the Victoria Road car park in Saltaire, but soon you’ll be leaving such urban environs behind, as you make your way north along Shipley Glen. You’ll skirt Baildon Moor, pass by Weecher Reservoir, cross the Otley Road and then, before you know it, you’ll be striding out onto the vast expanse of Ilkley Moor.

    The first major remnant of the Neolithic era you’ll come across is the Twelve Apostles, a stone circle occupying one of the moor’s higher points. In fact, Rombalds Moor is home to the highest concentration of ancient carved stones in Europe. As you ramble parallel to the picturesque spa town of Ilkley, keep an eye out for the Swastika Stone, perhaps the most well-known of all the examples of ancient artwork found here.

    Lovely views of Ilkley and wider Wharfedale are ever present as you continue west across the moorland, alongside rocky outcrops. At the distinctive Millstone Lumps, the path veers to the north and descends Addingham Moorside before joining the road to the village of Addingham. B&Bs can be found here if you’re splitting the stage in two, whilst refreshment can be found in the pubs found along Main Street.

    The final leg crosses Droughton Moor and Skipton Moor on its way into Skipton, the self-styled ‘gateway to the Dales’. A plethora of cafés, pubs and restaurants can be found in this historic town, whilst a vibrant market occupies the main street on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. At almost 1,000 years old, the marvellous Skipton Castle is well worth exploring, as is the small woodland behind its fortifications. If your journey is ending here for now, you can hop on the train from the station and be back in Saltaire after just 25 minutes.

    Difficult
    09:42
    20.6 mi
    2.1 mph
    3,200 ft
    2,925 ft
    Expert Hiking Tour. Very good fitness required. Sure-footedness, sturdy shoes and alpine experience required.

    The limestone splendour of Malhamdale awaits you on this splendid hike from Skipton to Settle. The dramatic ravine of Gordale Scar and the curved limestone cliff face of Malham Cove are the undisputed highlights on what is a strenuous 20-mile (32km) trek, with 3,000 feet (914m) of ascent to contend with before you reach the picturesque market town of Settle at the end of the day. You may not want to rush such a journey, so a stay in Hetton or Malham is ideal if you’re looking to break it in two and truly savour it.

    From Skipton, you’ll stride out north, past the magnificent castle and towards the prominent twin hillocks of Sharp Haw and Rough Haw. At 1,171 feet (357m), Sharp Haw is the first summit of the day and rewards with grand views back to Skipton and west to Gargrave, as well as north to the joys that lie ahead in beautiful Malhamdale.

    Descend into the charming village of Hetton, where you can seek accommodation and sustenance at the luxurious Angel at Hetton. Alternatively, there’s the Devonshire Arms in the village of Cracoe, which lies a couple of miles to the north east. A track leaves Hetton and heads for the northern end of the Winterburn Reservoir and on towards the spectacular ravine of Gordale Scar.

    A detour into the jaws of the ravine is well worth it. A waterfall cascades dramatically from above and if you’re feeling adventurous you can scramble up the rocks and ascend the rough steps to the pastures above the chasm, re-joining the main path further to the west. Be warned that the scramble is quite technical, not an option for those with no prior hands-on-rock experience.

    As if Gordale Scar wasn’t enough, you’ll soon be blown away by the splendour of Malham Cove. The route takes you across the beguiling limestone pavement on the top of the cliff, with gorgeous views down to the village. You’ll find it hard to resist yet another detour down the steps to Malham Beck, where you can take in the full majesty of this 230-foot (70m) walled amphitheatre of limestone – one of the Dales’ finest sights.

    If you’re seeking rest and food, the village of Malham beckons. If not, you’ll merge with the Pennine Way for a short time before branching off west at Comb Scar. From here limestone scars abound and the longest ascent of the day takes you to a high point of around 1,700 feet (520m) just to the north of Kirby Fell’s summit. A long and interesting descent takes you down into Ribblesdale and to Settle, one of the Dales’ quintessential towns. Once again, you can hop on the train from Settle station and return to Saltaire, if needed.

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  • Difficult
    07:14
    14.8 mi
    2.0 mph
    2,500 ft
    2,275 ft
    Expert Hiking Tour. Very good fitness required. Mostly accessible paths. Sure-footedness required.

    This leg is all about the unrivalled scenery of Ribblesdale and reaches a climax on arguably Yorkshire’s most iconic peak: Ingleborough. At 2,375 feet (724m), the summit of Ingleborough is the highest point of the entire Dales High Way and is a fitting headline act, roughly halfway through this epic journey. Ribblesdale is a hiker’s heaven and this ramble, whilst shorter than the previous legs, is a strenuous yet rewarding trek across sublime countryside.

    The first few miles follow the delightful River Ribble north towards Stainforth and the lovely waterfall of Stainforth Force. A series of cascades tumbling over limestone ledges, it is a frequently visited beauty spot. In late Autumn, salmon can often be seen leaping up the falls on the way to spawning sites.

    Heading west, you’ll take in an easy ascent below Smearsett Scar before coming to the village of Feizor, where Elaine’s Teashop serves quality coffee of significant renown. Now with caffeine potentially coursing through your veins, the sight of Pen-y-ghent and Ingleborough growing in stature with every step should be enough to quicken the pulse. Find your way to the track of White Stone Lane and cross the photogenic ford at Austwick Beck.

    From here it’s all about Ingleborough, as you start the long ascent of this king of the Dales. Its distinctively stepped, wedge-shaped appearance is down to some quirky geological traits. Alternating layers of limestone, sandstone and shale form the foundations for its gritstone crown, which was also the site of a Neolithic – and later Roman – stronghold. Its magnificent form draws you onwards over craggy terrain, until you finally start the ascent proper from the east.

    You’ll skirt along the breast of Simon Fell’s bulky form, gaining Ingleborough’s main ridge around 1,000 feet (300m) east of the summit. On a clear day, the top rewards with a jaw dropping panorama, including the principal high points of the Dales, Kinder Scout in the Peak District, the Howgill Fells, the major peaks of the Lake District and even Carnedd Llewellyn in Snowdonia and Snae Fell on the Isle of Man. Closer by, it is the gorgeous form of Pen-y-ghent, seen beautifully across Ribblesdale, that will draw your eye.

    A wind shelter is on hand for you to take stock if the elements have been a bit much. All that remains to do now is to head back east along the ridge and join the path that descends sharply to the north. Take care on the steep 300 feet (100m) of initial descent before making your way past the limestone shake holes and into the tiny hamlet of Chapel-le-Dale. The navvies who laboured on the Carlisle to Settle railway line are buried in St Leonard’s Church here, which is worth a visit before you retire to the Old Hill Inn for a well-deserved beverage.

    Difficult
    06:56
    15.1 mi
    2.2 mph
    1,675 ft
    2,050 ft
    Expert Hiking Tour. Very good fitness required. Mostly accessible paths. Sure-footedness required.

    This leg picks up where the previous left off, striding out high amongst the splendour of Ribblesdale. This time it is Yorkshire’s highest peak Whernside, at 2,415 feet (736m), that has your heart soaring. As you skirt its flanks via a bygone packhorse trail, the iconic Ribblehead Viaduct – surely the most awe-inspiring structure on the Carlisle to Settle line – takes centre stage. You’ll cross from Yorkshire into Cumbria, with crashing waterfalls, magnificent scenery and settlements of great character making this a 15-mile (24km) journey to savour.

    As you leave Chapel-le-Dale for Whernside’s south eastern flanks, you’ll pass by an intriguing statue of a surreal figure amongst the shrubs, created by sculptor Charles I’Anson. The track turns north east at the ford over Ellerbeck Gill and gains Whernside’s broad slopes. If the temptation to bag Yorkshire’s highest peak proves too much, a steep path climbs directly towards the summit ridge, beginning some 3,200 feet (1km) along the track.

    Staying with the official route, you’ll be thrilled by the sight of Ribblehead Viaduct’s 24 gigantic stone arches that rise some 104 feet (32m) above the moorland. It's an awesome spectacle that’s particularly poignant when you consider the navvies that lost their lives and now rest in St Leonard’s churchyard, back in Chapel-le-Dale.

    The route now curves gloriously around Whernside’s bulk, following the railway line for a time in the company of the Force Gill aqueduct and then passing Low Force, a spectacular crashing waterfall, well worth taking your time over to visit. The principal ascent of the day now lies ahead onto Whernside’s north eastern shoulder. On a clear day, the views to the Howgill Fells – tomorrow’s main objective – emerge wonderfully as you crest the rise. Meanwhile, the distant peaks of Lakeland may be visible on the north western horizon, which is fitting as you have now left Yorkshire behind for Cumbria.

    There’s still a fair bit of hiking left to do yet, as you descend to the charming cobbled streets of Dent, home to its own micro-brewery and England’s highest mainline station, which is actually several miles further up the valley. There are campsites, inns and B&Bs here if overnighting, or you may just be in need of refuelling. Regardless, there’s still one last ascent over the western end of Aye Gill Pike, boasting yet more splendid Howgill views, before your descent to the town of Sedburgh.

    Difficult
    05:23
    10.8 mi
    2.0 mph
    2,075 ft
    1,750 ft
    Expert Hiking Tour. Very good fitness required. Mostly accessible paths. Sure-footedness required.

    This is a marvellous traverse of the distinctively rounded, yet steep, Howgill Fells. Once up high you can stride out on excellent trails with little in the way of elevation change. Rambling from summit to summit is relatively straightforward, leaving you to enjoy unbeatable views of Lakeland to the west and the Dales to the east. It’s an ideal hike for those new to hillwalking. Unlike other sections of A Dales High Way, there are no villages to stop off at until you reach the end point, so it’s a good idea to stock up on water and snacks in Sedburgh.

    To gain the high Howgill plateau, you’ll first stride out north on a good path that ascends parallel to the tumbling Settlebeck Gill, between the twin humps of Winder and Crook. Lurking behind these is the rounded summit of Arant Haw, which you will skirt to the east (although it’s so close that you may want to bag the true summit whilst you’re at it).

    About a mile further north is the first official summit of the day – Calders at 2,216 feet (675m). As you reach the cairn, The Calf emerges amongst the rolling, green waves that lie ahead. This is the day’s high point and, at 2,218 feet (676m), is the loftiest ground in the Howgills. As you might tell from its relative elevation, you’ll have little ascent or descent to contend with as you happily wander from summit to summit.

    Legendary hillwalking and Lakeland guide writer Alfred Wainwright described the Howgill’s as being like a ‘herd of sleeping elephants’ by virtue of their many humped backs rising to similar heights. You might think this description apt as you traverse along the spine of the main group, marvelling at their velvety folds and the wide panoramas that are only somewhat curtailed by the flatness of the plateau.

    After The Calf, solid paths take you along a long, straight ridge that stretches north for almost four miles (6km), rarely dropping below 1,600 feet (490m). The grassy summits of Hazelgill Knott and West Fell are trodden before a descent to Bowderdale Head, where you’ll cross the A685 and the River Lune in quick succession before making your way east to Newbiggin-on-Lune. If you need to connect back to the Carlisle to Settle line, you can get the S5 bus from Newbiggin to Kirkby Stephen, which takes only ten minutes but only runs a few times a day. For more information, check the bus timetable (cumbria.gov.uk/buses/S5).

    Difficult
    05:37
    12.9 mi
    2.3 mph
    775 ft
    1,075 ft
    Expert Hiking Tour. Very good fitness required. Mostly accessible paths. Sure-footedness required.

    The final stage through the verdant Eden Valley, whilst still beautiful, is the shortest on a Dales High Way. With the big hills of the Dales and the fells of the Howgills behind you, there’s less elevation to contend with. The one significant ascent is to the extensive and unspoilt limestone pavement of Great Asby Scar, before you end your epic journey in the Eden Valley at Appleby-in-Westmorland.

    Follow the High Land road out of Newbiggin, heading north west and intercepting a track that will take you to the minor road between Raisbeck and Little Asby, just to the south of secluded Sunbiggin Tarn. At the tarn, a track heads north towards the south facing escarpment of the Orton Fells.

    Once the scarp is breached, you’ll discover Great Asby Scar. It’s a remarkable expanse of limestone pavement covering 15 square miles (39km) and a designated nature reserve inhabited by various rare ferns. Bleakly barren yet beguiling, its elevation means you’ll get splendid views back towards the Howgills and west over the Shap Fells to Lakeland’s Far Eastern Fells.

    A long descent brings you into the village of Great Asby. The Three Greyhounds pub may be able to cater for you, though it is often closed at lunchtime during the winter months. Hoff is the next settlement you’ll come across after a delightful amble alongside Scale Beck via the small waterfall of Rutter Force. If you were unable to gain sustenance in Great Asby, Hoff’s New Inn serves food all day from Wednesday to Sunday. Upon arriving in Hoff, you’ll have now officially left the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

    The route follows Hoff Beck before turning north east just before Bandley Wood and making a beeline for the end point of Appleby-in-Westmorland. The sight of its red sandstone castle ushers in the very final stages of what has been a truly epic trek. There is no shortage of amenities in Appleby but bear in mind that the town gets incredibly busy when the famous horse fair comes to town in early June.

    Having completed this inspiring journey in parallel with the magnificent Carlisle to Settle railway line, it makes sense to hop on the train at Appleby station and relive the journey in reverse, opening up whole new vantages and adding to your appreciation of this spectacular part of the UK. From here it takes around two glorious hours to return to Saltaire and another twenty minutes from there into Leeds.

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Collection Stats

  • Tours
    6
  • Distance
    92.4 mi
  • Duration
    43:12 h
  • Elevation
    12,425 ft12,200 ft

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Alex Langfield

Yorkshire's beautiful backbone – hiking a Dales High Way