From the limestone valleys of the White Peak to the gritstone crags and moors of the Dark Peak, this is a national park of two halves. But wherever you roam, it has masses to offer for hikers, bikers and campers.
Close to major cities such as Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester, the Peak District is one of the most accessible and popular national parks in the UK. Designated in April 1951, it was also the first national park to come into being. Many argue this move was a direct result of a much-publicised ‘mass trespass’ that took place 19 years earlier on Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District. Staged as a protest against landowners who forbade and forcibly resisted public access to the moorland, the Kinder Trespass has been seen as one of the most successful coordinated public protests of all time.
Today there are countless footpaths, bridleways, bike trails, climbing routes and many fantastic bouldering locations scattered throughout the park, making it a mecca for lovers of the outdoors.
Dark and White Peak
The park is often split into two very different regions. The Dark Peak (sometimes referred to as the High Peak) occupies the northern, eastern and western fringes, while the White Peak dominates the central and southern regions of the park. These areas are characterised by two distinct habitats, due in large part to their very different types of underlying rock. This varying geology has led to landscapes of opposing characteristics.
The Dark Peak is a moody, brooding place, with exposed tracts of moorland and blanket bog, along with dark gritstone, a tough sandstone used in early industry (it also goes by the name ‘millstone grit’). The valleys of the Dark Peak were historically lined with oak-beech woodland. Today these deciduous woods share the lowlands of the Dark Peak with plantations of conifers and farmland.
In stark contrast, the White Peak is better known for its ash woodland, open dales and underlying limestone. Although there is much in the way of traditional farmland in the region, beautiful hay meadows and unimproved pasture can still be found throughout the White Peak.
The local rock of both the Dark and White Peak regions has made it a haven for climbers of all abilities. The gritstone of the Dark Peak is a sedimentary rock, made from sandstone, compressed for millions of years. It provides a high friction surface and therefore great grip for climbers. This gritstone has been weathered and eroded since the last Ice Age, forming spectacular rocky crags, towering boulders and challenging gritstone escarpments.
The limestone of the White Peak offers a slightly different set of obstacles for the avid climber. These pock-marked rocks have numerous finger- and handholds across their weathered surfaces. The most popular routes are sometimes polished smooth, adding to the fun. With towering buttresses and cliffs waiting to be conquered, it’s unlikely any would-be climber would grow tired of the White Peak region.
Burbage South Boulders
Located close to a main road, Burbage South Boulders is the perfect place for younger or novice climbers to cut their teeth. However, more experienced climbers can still find some demanding routes to challenge themselves.
By and large, experienced climbers favour Stanage Edge, a nearly four-mile-long crag offering more than a thousand routes of varying difficulty. You’ll find a good spread of graded climbs here, from the low end of intermediate to advanced, all ranging from 10 to 25 metres in height. Although not the tallest climb in the peaks, Stanage is one of the most diverse crags and one of the most favoured locations by the climbing community.
Froggatt Edge and Curbar Edge
Froggatt Edge and Curbar Edge can be found southwest of Hathersage. Froggatt Edge is the most popular of the two, offering hundreds of graded climbs. Curbar Edge is still much visited though, and it is a better choice for those partial to a little bouldering.
Walking and cycling in the Peak District
The Peak District boasts more than 1,600 miles of rights of way to explore across the White Peak and Dark Peak areas of the national park. This includes some of the oldest and most historic public footpaths in Britain, making it an exceptionally good place to walk, ramble and hike.
The Monsal Trail runs along the route of the former Midland railway. A short route of only 8 and a half miles, no matter how you travel along the trail you’ll experience some of the most stunning scenery in the Peak District. The hard surface of the trail means road bikes can pop on and off the path as part of a longer route, while mountain bikers also use the path for a bit of a change of pace.
Situated only a short walk from Bakewell, the path is accessible via public transport. There are accessible points for wheelchairs and mobility scooters at Bakewell Station, Hassop Station, Great Longstone Station and Millers Dale Station.
Taking in a 20-mile plus stretch of footpath, and linking Win Hill, Mam Tor, Kinder Low and Brown Knoll, the Edale Skyline is an exhilarating trail that will put those calf muscles to the test, whether you run or walk it. As a loop, the path can be started in Hope, Castleton or Edale, all of which have car parks, accommodation and public transport links. It is possible to walk the path in a day, especially in the long summer months. Alternatively, it can be broken up by a wild camp or an overnight stay in local accommodation, such as Castleton YHA, a short walk from Lose Hill.
There’s no better way to explore the Peak District than on two wheels, whether you bring your own bike or borrow one from any of the several bike hire centres in the area. From easier loops to technical single-track and longer bikepacking routes, it’s a mountain biker’s playground.
There are several loops which take in the undulating landscape around Ladybower Reservoir. These range from short ten-milers taking in Whinstone Lee Tor to epic 28-mile routes that pass through the Hope and Edale Valley. A good level of fitness is required for some of the sections but there are trails for most skill levels.
Suitable for mountain bikers, walkers or equestrians – as it was intended to be ridden on horseback – the 204-mile Pennine Bridleway cuts through the heart of the Peak District. It snakes its way through some of Britain’s most dramatic countryside via a route that is largely off-road. Stretches of the trail include sections of former railway along with excellent mountain biking opportunities such as at Roych Clough in the High Peak.
Farmer John’s Bike Park, Maple Bridge
Situated just outside the northwestern borders of the Peak District, Farmer John’s Bike Park is an adrenaline-filled mountain bike playground. There are two dirt jump parks and several downhill trails, ranging from red to black in difficulty. It might not be the best park for beginners, but is a great destination for more experienced riders who want to push themselves to the next level. At just £10 a ride or £40 a year membership (with £2 a ride thereafter) it is also one of the more affordable bike parks in Britain. Unfortunately, there isn’t any equipment hire on-site so it’s best to go fully equipped (including a full-face helmet). But there is a café at the park and bunkhouse accommodation, making it easy to max a day out.
On the water
The Peak District offers countless places to take to the water in one of the region’s beautiful reservoirs, including Carsington Water, Tittesworth Reservoir and the winding River Derwent. Tittesworth Water Sports and Activity Centre, near Leek, offers canoeing and kayaking hire and training, along with fishing. For something a bit more involved, visit Carsington Water Sports Centre, which provides Kayaking courses certified by the British Canoe Union (BCU).
With a rich mosaic of habitats including upland moor and bog along with lowland ponds, hedges, meadows and forests, the park spans an area of 1,437 square kilometres and supports a wide variety of wildlife. Bird species are plentiful, including game birds such as the red grouse. You are also likely to spot a deer or two along with the odd brown hare or rabbit, though many of the mammals of the Peak are rather secretive.
If you’re lucky, you might spot one of the current Peak District population of mountain hares – the only examples remaining in England. They were introduced from Perthshire in Scotland to the northern Peak District in the 1870s and 1880s, and have become one of the most iconic and best-loved species in the park.
Otters and water voles have made many of the streams and rivers that run throughout the park their homes and although spotting one might be a challenge, signs of both species, such as droppings and food remnants are common sights. During the early evening, outside of their hibernation period, soprano pipistrelle, long-eared and nocturnal bats dart overhead looking for their insect prey.
Where to stay
With an extended camping season running from the end of March to the end of October, the Pomeroy Caravan Park is a family-run site that can accommodate caravans, motorhomes, campervans, trailer tents and camping tents of all shapes and sizes. Situated between Sterndale Moor, the gateway to the High Peak and the Arbor Low Stone Circle, southeast of Buxton, this site is well placed just off the A515 for anyone looking for a base to explore the Peak.
A little over two miles downhill from the highest point of the notorious Snake Pass, the Snake Pass Inn is a traditional inn located right in the heart of one of the wildest parts of the Peak District. Ideal for hikers, cyclists, and motorcyclists, the inn is just five minutes’ walk from the nearest bus stop, just over 4km from Kinder Scout and 10 minutes’ drive from the B-29 Superfortress aircraft crash site. With limited rooms and an affordable price, the inn does book up well in advance though, so it is worth making a reservation well ahead of your visit.
At the other end of the scale in terms of budget, Lose Hill Hall Hotel and Spa, situated close to Hope, is set in spectacular surroundings and serves excellent food. Built in 1914, the hotel has 22 bedrooms and suites and extensive grounds to explore. The hotel won the Times Best Country Hotel Award in 2018 and features in Taylor’s Guide to the top 50 boutique hotels.
The Cavendish Hotel is a four-star eco-certified hotel in the town of Bakewell. The hotel has its own cycling and walking trails and foodies will enjoy the two on-site restaurants. Prices are high for the area, but the hotel regularly receives very high ratings from all those who stay here.
For cost-conscious visitors, the YHA has ten hostels in the park, from Edale to Ilam. All have self-catering facilities, which are perfect if you want to keep spending down or have a restrictive diet that is hard to accommodate when eating out. Many hostels offer private rooms alongside the traditional single bunks in a dorm, so it is easy to avoid the snorers that somehow always seem to gravitate to these places! Hostels such as Alstonfield near Wetton and Ravenstor in Millers Dale can be hired by entire groups for stag weekends, family parties or large gatherings. Castleton Losehill Hall and Hartington Hall also offer camping on their grounds. They also have shared lounges and kitchens, which are open to campers, so on a rainy evening you can escape the worst of the weather.
Where to Eat
The Devonshire Arms in Beeley is a cosy country inn and an excellent place to eat. The food here is honest and unpretentious – more Sunday roast, fish and chips and burgers than fine dining – so don’t go hoping for a nine-course tasting menu, but do expect a hearty meal.
No visit to the Peak District is complete without a visit to The Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop. Open between 9am and 5pm, this historic shop and tea rooms offers everything from a cooked breakfast with local produce (including vegetarian and vegan options), and lunchtime sandwiches to home-cooked pies and light lunches. It also goes without saying that Bakewell tarts and Bakewell puddings are served with cream and custard throughout the day.
Situated between Curbar Edge and Chatsworth, Fischers Baslow Hall is a Michelin-starred restaurant in the bustling village of Baslow. This award-winning restaurant (and boutique hotel) is best known for its locally sourced ingredients and tasting menu. It is not the cheapest place to eat in the Peak but the food has been described as a ‘work of art’. Expect fine dining in a grade II listed building in beautifully managed grounds.
On those rare sunny days in the Peak District, the sun terrace at the Hassop Station Café, situated along the Monsal Trail, is the ideal place to while away the afternoon over a long lunch. Open 362 days a year, the café has comfy sofas inside and large tables to accommodate big groups of walkers. All the food is freshly prepared and where possible it uses local ingredients.
Finally, the Herb Garden Café, a little off the main drag in Buxton, is a cosy vegetarian and vegan-friendly cafe offering healthy food at affordable prices. It’s a great family-run establishment and makes for a perfect stop-off for lunch or breakfast, particularly for those wanting a change from rich and heavy pub meals.
How to get there
Trains from nearby cities of Sheffield and Manchester run into the heart of the Hope Valley (ideally placed for visiting Castleton and walking the Pennine Way) and to Buxton just outside the national park boundary. Buses travel into and throughout the Peak District from other nearby towns and cities including Nottingham and Derby, Macclesfield and Chesterfield. The Hope Valley Explorer is a seasonal bus service run in partnership with the National Park Authority, and usually operates from Easter and throughout the summer holidays.
As well as rail and bus services, international airports at East Midlands and Manchester are less than an hour’s travel to the national park, with locations such as Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and Doncaster Robin Hood airports just a little further away.
When to go
Just like most of the rest of the UK, the weather in the Peak District is tricky to predict, at least with much certainty. So, you can probably expect at least one or two rainy days whenever you visit. But this makes those sunnier days all the more spectacular, leaving you with no excuse but to get outside and explore.
Having said that, April through to October are probably the best months to visit if you’re looking to avoid the colder weather, with the main tourist season running from June to September. Going during the tourist months will ensure that most businesses and activity centres will be open, though there is still plenty to do in the chillier months too – think bracing winter walks and roaring pub fires. Peak season does means that honeypots like Edale and the Hope Valley can feel somewhat crowded, so if you’re really looking to get away from the hustle and bustle, off-season could be the solution.
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, and Walk magazines.