From the top of Newlands Pass, the Lake District feels like it’s laid out around you, like a crumpled duvet. A snapshot of mountain peaks, with glimpses of lakes, and squiggles of ribbon-like tarmac that will imprint itself in your mind–once you’ve got your ragged breath in check. Tell yourself that those sore legs will be fleeting, and the ultimate lasting memories from your trip to the Lakes will be views like these, and the way the light dances across the lakes.
The postcard-perfect images that people take on their trips to the Lakes are all real. They’re enough to make any outdoor lover’s heart beat a little faster, which is why this destination features so highly on most people’s travel itineraries. But, as is so often is the case with soaring popularity, crowds and queues are an unwelcome side-effect. Fortunately for cyclists, there are vast swathes of prime road riding terrain that isn’t overrun by leisurely bank holiday drivers. A far cry from the bustling tourist centres of Keswick and Ambleside, just wait until you reach the Duddon Valley, Eskdale or Ennerdale.
A designated National Park since 1951, the Lake District spans 36 miles (58 km) going west to east, and 40 miles (64 km) on its north to south axis. By bike, you could be forgiven for presuming it would be easy to cross and return in a day–were it not for those pesky, steep mountainsides. You’ll see what we mean when you get there. It’s home to many, many lakes – includings England’s longest lake, Lake Windermere at 10 miles (16 km). It unfortunately can’t be ridden around as it isn’t fully tarmacked, but it does have a historic chain ferry that crosses in the middle to the partially tarmacked side. A nifty mid-ride pause, the boat injects an added frisson of excitement to one particular ride.
There are routes from Kendal or Keswick, Cockermouth or Caldbeck, amongst others. Some that are short and snappy, ideal for those with limited time, and some that are veritable all-dayers, where you’ll certainly need a windproof or rain jacket in your pocket as well as snacks. Although speaking of snacks, we’ve got you covered on that aspect too – with myriad options including artisan bakeries, local breakfast bars, welcoming pubs, and quirky cafes with wood burners. To keep your fire stoked for Lake District riding, take note that these routes can be ridden in both directions, opening up yet more scope for discovery and views.
If you’re looking for the full Lakes experience, the ‘All in One’ route essentially circumnavigates the whole of the Lakes’ dramatic unspoiled landscape and coasts along the sea for a stretch. The Lakes unfortunately doesn’t have a glut of backroads, but there are certain strips of tarmac with such eyebrow-raising gradients and narrow widths that you can safely presume that most cars will keep a safe distance.
Quite often the best places to locate yourself by bike are those with the most amenities: Keswick and Ambleside. But away from these hotspots, you’ll find tiny villages tucked into glorious, less-visited landscapes along roads that thread a drunken ramble. But do watch out for cattle grids and livestock – these are not the locals with whom you want to be getting too friendly.
Arguably to its benefit, the Lake District isn’t endowed with the greatest travel links and there are very few train connections other than Penrith, Kendal, Staveley and Windermere. This means that many approach the region in their cars, although there are C2C long-distance bike routes leading you straight to the heart of the Lakes. Just remember to save some energy for when you arrive…
Some say that the Lake District is all very much the same with steep sided valleys and big lakes, but this particular route raises the bar, injecting extra excitement that goes beyond breathtaking views and brutally steep climbs.
You'll roll out from Kendal, a true mountain hub on the edge of the lakes. Here's where we'd definitely suggest stocking up on the energy-boosting Kendal Mint Cake (although its nutritional value is arguably dubious, one square of it will definitely get you through the final six miles (10 km) of this ride).
There's one main climb from Kendal through the beautiful Lyth Valley that then drops you down towards the heart of the Lake District, granting postcard views of Windermere.
You've then got the true tourist ingredient of this ride, with the chain ferry across England's biggest lake. It only costs £1, takes 10 minutes for its crossing, and runs regularly–every day of the year apart from Christmas Day and Boxing Day. There's been a boat service from Bowness for over 500 years, which is difficult to imagine now.
Back on dry land there's a beautiful, winding lane that takes you along the edge of the lake. It's always worth a photo stop at the foot of the lake to take in your surroundings.
Just two hills await you on the return leg. It's a different landscape once you're riding in this easterly direction. Each spring you'll be astonished at the white blossom that's seemingly everywhere. It's an optimistic landscape without anything too testing, and this route is within the capabilities of virtually any rider. Have a good one – just don't forget your money for the ferry!
A classic Lakes loop, this one packs a punch with 1,200 metres of climbing in just 70 km, that's almost 4,000 feet in a little over 40 miles. Who said you needed to go to the Alps, right?
First up is the ascent of Wrynose. Not to be confused with rhinos, you're more likely to see deer and hare rather than safari creatures. Don't be alarmed when you see a warning for 25% gradients; you'll manage. Just come with the right mindset (and the right gears).
Wrynose is a big ask that comes early into the ride, but it leads into such a spectacular downhill to Cockley Beck that you'll forgive your route planner. Send a postcard from here, it's very cute. Shortly afterwards you'll reach the designated refuelling stop, Newfield Inn, which is a popular haunt for the outdoors crowd.
Energy levels normalised, you'll scythe through the landscape for the next 18 miles (30-odd kilometres) until you reach the distant bottom of Coniston Water. A winding road full of lumps and bumps will escort you up its righthand side, away from the busier left side of the lake. Coniston Water's pebble beaches and tree-cloaked hills inspired Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, so let your imagination run wild on this stretch.
With one final hump to get over from Coniston Water to Ambleside, it might be time for another snack stop and it's the turn of the acclaimed Drunken Duck Inn. You could even call it a day here, and book into one of their plush rooms, ready to tackle even more Lake District passes tomorrow.
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Set in the Northern Lakes, far from the tourist traps, this route takes you on a beautiful circular ride around the mass of mountains where you'll find Skiddaw.
Caldbeck is a great base that has your parking and snacks covered, so all you need to worry about is keeping your fingers crossed for clear skies.
It's a fairly straightforward loop that does its best to avoid busy roads. From Threlkeld it adds some extra elevation in its bid to avoid the A road to Keswick. However, just 1.6 miles (2.5 km) before you reach Keswick there's a great option for a bit of sightseeing in the form of 38 large stones – some of which are roughly 10 foot (3 metres) high. This is Castlerigg Stone Circle, one of England's oldest at around 5,000 years old and under protection laws since 1883.
With that sight ticked off, you can grab a coffee in Keswick before the predominately uphill way back up north. As you go up the side of Bassenthwaite lake, you'll still have Skiddaw to your right, so cast your eyes up.
This is a route that can be ridden in either direction, just hold Skiddaw on the same side for the entire route and enjoy the ride.
Your classic exploratory and exhausting Lake District route, this huge ride includes the four main passes (Kirkstone Pass, Honister Pass, Hardknott Pass and Wrynose Pass), manages to skirt you down to the seaside for a few miles too, and weaves its way through unspoilt valleys on the way back to Ambleside.
It begins with the ascent of Kirkstone Pass, taking the aptly named The Struggle. It's the quietest option as the real pass road is a more serious A-road. Keep throwing glances over your shoulder as you ride up the 3 mile (5 km) climb, as the views over Ambleside and England's largest lake Windermere are extraordinary.
From the top of the pass, there's a beautiful swooping descent to Patterdale on a thin slip of a road that's lined with low dry stone walls. Don't let your brakes off too much; it's worth paying extra attention here.
You'll then pass Ullswater and Troutbeck before hitting an unavoidable section of A road towards Keswick. From there, the route heads along the shores of Coniston Water before reaching Borrowdale, a place that signifies the start of the next climb. Honister Pass doesn't truly put the hammer down until you ride through the village of Seatoller. It's beautiful and tough in varying measures, almost certainly taking your breath away in at least one sense of the word.
Once you've ticked off that descent, you'll have an undulating time ahead of you as you wiggle through the western part of the Lakes and drop down the seaside for a short stretch.
The return leg is fairly mellow until the final hour when you'll encounter the notorious Wrynose Pass - a spectacle of a road with such a narrow width and steep ramps that many car drivers are fearful of it.
There are two suggested fuelling stops on this route – the first coming around 48 miles (80 km) into the route, and the second offering a full-on dining experience shortly before the ride ends in Ambleside.
As with any tourist hotspot, this stunning region is perhaps best avoided on bank holiday weekends, when excess traffic might splay over onto these nicer, quieter roads. Always make sure you're prepared for unexpected changes in the weather, with a rain jacket in your back pocket that'll be invaluable for those long descents too.
A rideable amble is truly the best way to describe this family-friendly loop from Ambleside. On quiet roads, this short ride takes you through a landscape that's rich in history and literature.
Set to a backdrop of mountains, you'll ride along the top section of Lake Windermere, before heading inland and going past the stunning Wray Castle (Beatrix Potter's summer house) and William Wordsmith's former school.
Just before the end of the ride you'll pass the Drunken Duck Inn, a critically acclaimed gastro-pub that's a little off-the-beaten path. Fill up on some delicious food before rolling back towards Ambleside.
Nothing too taxing on this ride, but everything that's worth seeing, this route is win-win for families with kids or anyone that's reluctant to ride too far.
A brilliantly, achievable ride that conquers two of the preeminent passes in the Lake District, this is not a route to be missed.
From Keswick, you'll head south along the lake road to Borrowdale. This particular stretch can get a bit busy on Sundays and bank holidays, so take care. Borrowdale is beautiful, as you'll realise when riding through it. The village of Grange – all stone houses, little bridges, and approachable wilderness – has two cafes, however, it's only just at the bottom of the lake so it's probably a bit early for a stop. Save that for when you repeat the ride in the opposite direction!
Keep your eyes peeled for interesting rock formations too, as you'll be riding past the Bowder Stone. At 9 metres high, you can't really miss this large andesite lava boulder. Between 13,500 and 10,000 years ago, this stone fell 660 ft (200 metres) from the Bowder Crag. Now it's great to gawp at as you ride by on this undulating road.
From the turning in Borrowdale, there is a dead end road that carries on south to Seathwaite (one of the wettest places in the country apparently), and this is a nice addition if you want to add distance to the ride.
Then comes the day's first climb to the top of Honister, where there's an old slate mine that's another tourist attraction. FYI: it also has a cafe right at the very top. The drop down from Honister is really nice; it's quite a steep-sided valley at the start but it gradually opens out and then you'll get the view over Buttermere. Supposedly, this approach is the harder side to go over Honister, but it just depends how much you like your steep stuff.
The final third from Buttermere to Keswick involves going over the Newlands Pass, which is quite steep. You'll down towards the valley floor with fells to your left and undulating farming countryside to your right.
The traffic on these particular roads only really ramps up on bank holidays, although Buttermere generally gets busy every Sunday.
Plenty of car parks in Keswick, although most of them ask for payment.
This route sets off from Penrith, a fairly eclectic town with a mixture of 18th-century cottages and Georgian town houses that's tucked on a rare bit of flat land between the Lakes and the Pennines.
After a brief spin along Ullswater, the route starts climbing up Kirkstone Pass–a brute of a climb that people claim is hardest when taken from the Penrith side. We'd be loath to agree, as this side is perhaps just more continuous. But surely that just makes the descent that bit more fun, right?
Once the descent is in the bag, you can roll up to More! One of the greatest Lake District bakeries to get stocked up on baked goods.
You'll be on quiet roads just north of Kendal that bypass the town and lead you up towards the often overlooked climb of Shap. It's a beauty, so enjoy it. After coming down from there, it's an undulating route through little villages, rolling hills and farmland back to Penrith.
Penrith is well connected with its train line, especially if you're coming on the direct lines from Carlisle, Glasgow, Lancaster or Preston. Check out nationalrail.co.uk for more details and don't forget to book your bike.