Blessed with some of the most remote and isolated landscapes in southern England, including towering granite tors and vast open moors, as well as gloriously refreshing pools that are perfect for wild swimming and mysterious, secluded forests, Dartmoor is a national park like no other. It is the perfect place to get away from the stresses of city life.
Its wide-open moors are criss-crossed with tracks and trails to attract day hikers, backpackers and wild campers. But within the park boundaries, a network of lanes and off-road trails also welcome bikepackers, road cyclists and mountain bikers for unforgettable adventures.
Hiking and walking
The park’s most famous trail is undoubtedly the Two Moors Way, a challenging, 117 mile walk from Wembury on the South Devon coast. It traverses across Dartmoor, North Devon and Exmoor to the coastal town of Lynmouth on the north coast. Crossing two moors and two coastlines, with meadows, gorges, woods and hills in between, it’s a frequently breath-taking route (both figuratively and literally), with plenty of opportunities for landscape photography.
If time is more of a pressure, the park authority has put together a number of shorter jaunts on their website, ranging from 3 to 8km – perfect for half or full day hikes.
Lydford Gorge and Whitelady Falls
One of our favourite walks is the easy to follow, winding circular route through Lyford Gorge, with its dense, temperate ‘rainforest’ woodland, spectacular Whitelady Falls and dark river waters. This has justifiably been called ‘one of the best walks in England’. The area is run by the National Trust, so as you might expect there is a charge for non-members, but you will have the benefit of well-maintained paths and bridges, a café, toilets and even a small (but excellent) second-hand bookshop.
With its dark peaty waters, plunge pools and sections of still, calm waters, the River Dart is one of the best wild swimming locations in England. Spitchwick Common, near Ashburton, has to be the most accessible and is therefore the best starting point for beginners. For something more remote, try Red Lake in Huntingdon Warren or the Big Pond at Cadover Bridge towards the west of the moor.
There are several rivers and pools in the national park where you can enjoy wild swimming. Be sure to follow safety guidelines and check for any restrictions.
Bikepackers often tackle Dartmoor as part of a route riding from Minehead on the north coast of Devon, through Exmoor and Dartmoor, to Plymouth on the south coast. Both moors can be navigated via a network of smaller lanes, which is a great way to avoiding the motorhomes and campervans that sometimes clog up the major roads.
For a challenging day out or a more leisurely two-day ride, you could follow the 35-mile ‘Taste of the Tors’ route, drawn up by bikepacker Lawrence McJannet in his book Bikepacking. The ride takes you on an impressive circular route, over the tors wedged between Bovey Tracy and Moretonhampstead. It starts in Bennet’s Cross car park and follows smaller roads and bridleways over Hound Tor, Grimspound and Shapley Tor.
The Dartmoor Way is a rewarding but sometimes challenging 90-mile circular route around Dartmoor National Park. The route heads through tunnels, over bridges and down long traffic-free sections linking hamlets, villages and towns, visiting well-known beauty spots such as Lyford Gorge, the medieval bridge at Hexworthy and the high moors. Around a quarter of the route is traffic-free and it can be tackled in one day for E-bikers and experienced cyclists. Or you fancy a more leisurely jaunt, each of the five sections (which range from 21 to 27 miles) can be done over the course of a week.
The Dartmoor Way also links with other Sustrans cycle routes in the park, including the 11 mile Granite Way (again, mostly traffic free) or Route 21.
Although an unlikely tourist attraction, Dartmoor Prison Museum makes for an entertaining – and importantly, warm and dry – place to escape to on a rainy Dartmoor day. Located slap bang in the centre of the remote moor, it’s easy to see why a prison was built here, miles from any other large habitation. Some of the exhibits admittedly feel a little dated, but you’ll still go away with a fascinating insight into the harshness of life in prison, from the Napoleonic era to the modern day.
More of a pit-stop than a day out, Pixieland is an unquestionably quirky tourist attraction nestled deep in the forests of Dartmoor. Established in the years following the Second World War, generations of children have been enchanted by this cute garden, which features pixies, gnomes and fairies amongst mosses, saxifrages and native plants. The walk around the garden will only take 15 minutes or so, or perhaps longer for very little legs. It is free to enter and there is a shop selling pasties, locally made sheepskins. Sometimes there’s even a chance to buy a custom-made gnome. It’s perhaps one to miss if you are a young couple or a lone hiker, but well worth the detour if you have a family in tow.
This landscape has attracted people for millennia and the remains of long forgotten towns and villages can be found across the moor. On Hound Tor and Higher Uppacot you’ll find the remains of medieval settlements, whilst the iconic Grimspound on the northeast side of the moor dates back 3500 years to the Bronze Age.
A Natural History of Dartmoor
Around 7,000 years ago, the area we now know as Dartmoor would have looked very different. A mix of woodland and scrubland, oak and ash trees dominated the forests, whilst sloe and hawthorn covered the scrubland. Large animals roamed the forests including elk and European bison. Aurochs – a huge, now extinct wild ox (the ancestor of domestic cows) also grazed areas of open land, though sticking close to the cover of the forest. Amongst the trees, bears and wolves, along with hunting parties of humans, would lie in wait looking for an opportunity to attack these giant herbivores. Over time, people realised that if they burnt and felled the woods, they could catch their prey more easily. By the Neolithic period (4,000 BC to 2,500 BC) they has domesticated their own animals and grazed them on this cleared land, making it harder for the forests to replant naturally. The local climate also changed, becoming wetter. As a result, the cleared areas became saturated with water, turning it acidic. Bog and moor then dominated and where trees once grew, mosses and sedges emerged, along with cotton grass, bilberry and gorse.
You can get a sense of what some of these ancient woods would have looked like by visiting Holne Chase, Hembury Castle and Wistmans Wood. Here, temperate rainforest conditions hold enough moisture for epiphytes (plants which grow on other plants) to survive.
Flora and Fauna
Plants of Dartmoor
Frequent strong winds, high rainfall and poor acidic soil all mean that life on Dartmoor can be tough for the region’s endemic animals and plants. But for all those difficulties, there is also far less in the way of intensive agriculture. The result is some of the most species-rich grasslands in Britain. Here bumblebees gather nectar from red clovers, yellow rattles clatter in the wind and in the late spring and early summer, rare orchids such as the southern marsh orchid, frog orchid and the greater butterfly orchid all flower in the grass.
In the blanket bog, mosses and sedges dominate. In the late spring you’ll find the wispy heads of cotton grass catching a rare, warm moorland breeze.
Wildlife of Dartmoor
With so much variety and low farm pollutants, the wildlife of Dartmoor also thrives. On a summer’s night you may be lucky enough to catch the otherworldly glow of the evocatively named Lampyris noctiluca or glow worm. Not actually a worm but a beetle, the females light up to attract a male in their grassland habitat.
Small coppers, marbled whites and burnet moths can be seen flitting about the wildflowers. The striking common blue and the day flying Mother Shipton moth are amongst the butterflies and moths that gather nectar from Dartmoor’s grasslands.
Higher up the food chain, sparrowhawks and buzzards fly overhead, scanning the ground below for their prey.
When to go
Dartmoor’s unique microclimate
Dartmoor has its own microclimate. The weather comes in off the sea, only to be held on the higher ground of the tors, meaning it can be gloriously crisp and dry or cold and wet no matter the time of year. Winter is of course most likely to be at the challenging end of this scale and summer the reverse, but either way check the forecast before you go. If you have the choice, travel outside of the school holidays in June, early July or into September when it is still warm and there are more dry days forecast.
How to get there
The M5 is Dartmoor’s nearest motorway. It reaches as far as Exeter before joining the A30, which runs north of the national park. The A38 runs to the south. For more local access, the main arteries through the park are the B2122, heading through Mortonhampstead, Postbridge, Two Bridges, Princetown and Yelverton and the B3357 from Tavistock in the west, through Merrivale and Two Bridges to Dartmeet.
Narrow lanes criss-cross the entire moor and at times drivers will have to be prepared to reverse in order to let someone through. Campervans, Range Rovers and large SUVs will have trouble on these smaller lanes. If you drive one of these vehicles, try to avoid the lanes altogether and do not rely on sat nav for navigation.
Sheep and ponies often stray onto the roads, so it is recommended that drivers do not exceed 40 miles per hour.
After a 50-year absence, trains run again on the Dartmoor Line between Exeter and Okehampton, stopping at Crediton and sometimes Exeter Central. The journey takes around 40 minutes, with more information here.
A mainline train also runs from Penzance to London, calling at Plymouth, Ivybridge and Totnes, close to the moor. Ivybridge is your best bet for accessing the Two Moors Way hiking route, whilst Totnes is a good place to start a bikepacking tour.
The Dartmoor Explorer connects Exeter, north of the moor to Gunnislake and Tavistock to the south. It stops in smaller towns and villages including Princetown, Two Bridges, Powder Mills, Postbridge, Moretonhampstead and Dunsford. The service runs daily between July and September with more information here.
The Haytor Hoppa runs between Newton Abbot every Saturday from late May to Haytor Vale and Widecombe-in-the-Moor, taking in Bovey Tracy and some of the smaller villages. This gives you a full day on the moor if you catch the early bus a little before 9am and come back on the last one around 4.30pm.
The 118 is a daily and regular service linking Tavistock via Mary Tavy and Lydford to Okehampton station. Ticket prices are very reasonable.
For a memorable night under the stars, wild camping on Dartmoor is easily one of the best ways to enjoy the park. In fact, Dartmoor remains the only place in England where there is a legal right to wild camp. This widely accepted right was nearly overturned recently in a high-profile court case brought by a large landowner, but following appeal, a High Court ruled that wild camping (or 'backpack camping') is still a permitted form of outdoor recreation. The park authority has a helpful interactive map that shows all the areas of Dartmoor where camping is allowed. Remember to follow leave no trace principles – and if you need any guidance on wild camping, refer to the comprehensive WildBounds wild camping guide.
If you prefer the facilities of a campsite or want to stay longer than a single night in one location, there are plenty of campsites to choose from. One of our favourites is Dartmoor Shepherd’s Huts near Holne. This site offers tranquil riverside pitches for a summer camp and a range of cosy shepherd’s huts and cabins for those colder months. The nearby River Dart Country Park, near Ashburton, is a good choice for families as there is plenty to entertain the kids with bike trails, low ropes courses and adventure playgrounds, along with tyre swings and a play fort. It’s open from March until the end of September. Visit River Dart or email.
Try Hip Camp for more boutique camping options including glamping and motorhomes.
If a night under canvas doesn’t appeal, there are plenty of bed and breakfasts or guest houses to choose from. Some of our top picks include The East Dart Hotel (Bed and Breakfast), Beechwood B&B (Bed and Breakfast), The Old School Guesthouse (Guest House) and Harrabeer Country House (Guest House). If you’re on a budget, you can’t go wrong with YHA Dartmoor in Postbridge.
Last but not least, if you’re prepared to splash the cash and go high end for a truly memorable stay, the Gidleigh Park Hotel is an award-winning luxury manor house close to Scorhill on the northeast of the moors.
Eating and Drinking
Clustered around the edge of the moor, the villages of Totnes, Ashburton, Tavistock and Chagford all have a range of great food options, from good old fish and chips or pizza to traditional pub food or a good old curry. On the moor itself you’ll also find plenty of inns offering traditional pub fayre including pie and mash or sausage and chips as well as vegetarian and vegan options. For a good meal, after a day on the moor, we’d thoroughly recommend the historic Tors Inn at Belstone.
Dave Hamilton is a photographer, forager and explorer of historic sites and natural places. A father of two boys, he writes for BBC Wildlife, Countryfile, andWalk magazines.