The deep wooded valleys, archetypal dales, glistening reservoirs and vast moorland of Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) are no secret, yet they retain untouched qualities that are the envy of regions like the Lake District, the Peak District and even the neighbouring Yorkshire Dales. Here is a landscape known only to its adoring locals and to those curious enough to bestow the region with the exploration and attention it deserves.
The Six Dales Trail, as its name suggests, ventures into half a dozen valleys of quintessential rural Yorkshire charm during a spellbinding 38-mile (61 km) journey on foot. The vast majority of the route is within the borders of the wider Nidderdale AONB and visits Wharfedale, Washburndale, Nidderdale, Colsterdale, Wensleydale and Coverdale.
This is rugged country walking at its most atmospheric. Historic market towns, crumbling castles, the vestiges of an industrial past and evocative abbey ruins tell the tale of a region where the wheel of time has indelibly left its mark. There’s even the ghoulish prospect of a submerged village to act as fuel for ghost stories with the family at night. There are long sections on lonely moorland and across rough farmland, meaning you’ll have to exercise a degree of self-sufficiency.
The lack of human habitation along sections of the Trail makes it a great expedition for nature lovers. Reservoirs act as havens for birdlife, with red kites and buzzards patrolling the skies. Its riverside ambles reward you with all manner of wildlife, while the woods come to life in spring and summer — a cornucopia of colour.
The Trail was a project by Walkers are Welcome Otley and was opened in 2010 in conjunction with the Otley Walking Festival. Unsurprisingly, it is in the characterful Wharfedale market town of Otley that the Trail begins, before heading north into Washburndale and into the heart of the Nidderdale AONB. After descending to the River Nidd and following it to Ramsgill, an undulating journey across the moors ensues before you join the Rivers Ure and Cover to finish in Middleham.
Highlights along the way include: Washburndale, a tranquil valley characterised by its four gorgeous reservoirs; Guise Cliff, a wooded gritstone escarpment that hides a charming tarn among its trees; Pateley Bridge, a lovely market town and ‘Capital of Nidderdale’; Gouthwaite Reservoir, a nature reserve thronged with birdlife; Ramsgill, one of Yorkshire’s prettiest villages; Jervaulx Abbey, a beautiful remnant of the Cistercian order; and Middleham Castle, a striking castle ruin that’s often cited as ‘the Windsor of the North’.
I have split the Trail into three stages of between 11 and 16 miles (18 and 26 km) in length and my itinerary runs from south to north, though there’s nothing to stop you doing it in reverse. The third stage between Ramsgill and Middleham is the longest and most strenuous, with almost 2,000 feet (600 m) of elevation gain on an undulating journey through rough pastures. You will need to carry your own food and water for the majority of the Trail, as places to stop and eat are few and far between.
Aside from Otley, Pateley Bridge and Middleham, accommodation is relatively sparse. I name specific lodgings in the Tour descriptions and these should be booked well in advance. Despite the rural nature of the Trail, it is a walk suitable for all levels of experience. It’s perhaps the planning element — working out when and where to eat and where to stay — that is the most challenging aspect.
Each season has its unique charm, with the warmer months representing the most straightforward option. Whatever time of year you venture out, you’ll need to stash waterproofs and warm layers in your backpack, as Yorkshire’s weather can be fickle. In summer, sun cream is a must, while a sun hat and shades wouldn’t go amiss either.
The start of the Trail in Otley is easily accessed by bus from Leeds, Ilkley, Keighley and Harrogate. For motorists, it’s on the A660 that runs from Leeds to Ilkley.
At the end of the Trail, Middleham is not easily accessed by public transport. The 159 bus service that runs between Ripon and Richmond a few times a day is one option. The other is the Wensleydale Railway, a heritage line that runs between Northallerton (on the East Coast Mainline) and Redmire, which stops 2 miles (3 km) away from Middleham at Leyburn. Undoubtedly, the most straightforward option is to drive; Middleham is a 20-minute drive from the A1(M) at Leeming Bar.
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Last updated: November 23, 2021
Plan your own version of this adventure in the multi-day planner based on the stages suggested in this Collection.
Tranquil waterside trails and gorgeous woodland await on the first stage, as you leave West Yorkshire’s populated sprawl behind and make for the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the serene River Washburn.
There’s a fair amount of uphill to get your lungs and heart going but the scenic…
Wild moorland, gorgeous woodland and the beautiful River Nidd await during the middle stage. After an atmospheric amble across the moors, you descend steeply through Guisecliff Woods to the River Nidd, which takes you through the market town of Pateley Bridge and alongside Gouthwaite Reservoir, before…
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The final stage is also the longest and most strenuous, with 16 undulating miles (26 km) to cover and three of the six dales to visit. As well as the picture-postcard Yorkshire scenery, the evocative ruins of Jervaulx Abbey and Middleham Castle provide the main highlights on a walk that is as rich in…
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