Field Guide: Yorkshire Dales

A dramatic landscape full of contrasts, the rolling hills, open moorland and snaking valleys of the Yorkshire Dales National Park attract nature lovers, stargazers, climbers, cavers, wild swimmers, hikers and fell runners alike.

26th January 2024 | Words and Pictures by Aila Taylor


Colloquially known as ‘The Dales’, the Yorkshire Dales National Park boasts a dramatic landscape full of contrasts: dark and light, harsh and soft, wild and gentle. Rolling hills and expanses of open moorland are divided by snaking valleys, where old stone cottages nestle among patchwork fields. Streams flow down the hillsides in silver rivulets and deep gorges resonate loudly with thundering waterfalls.

This unique landscape is a result of the predominant limestone in the area, which produces a range of spectacular geological features including limestone pavements, scars and scree. An additional impact of this geology is that the National Park is as varied underground as it is above ground. It includes a network of caves over 53 miles long, known as the Three Counties System, in addition to the 98-metre-deep pothole of Gaping Gill.

County Pot in the Three Counties System.

Credit: County Pot in the Three Counties System.

 

Designated a Dark Sky reserve in 2020, the national park also provides spectacular viewings of the Milky Way and occasionally the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) on a clear night. With a rich, varied and extensive landscape, the Dales are popular with nature lovers, climbers, cavers, wild swimmers, hikers and fell runners alike. From gruelling long-distance treks and deep potholes to cosy pubs and valley walks – despite the cliché – there really is something here for everyone.

Note: this guide focuses on the Yorkshire Dales National Park, and therefore does not cover the Nidderdale Area of Natural Beauty, which is outside the national park boundary.

How to get there

Travelling by car is the most convenient way to get around the Dales. However, cycling is also an excellent way to experience the winding roads lined with dry stone walls, and there are spectacular views as rewards for the challenging hill climbs!

Alternatively, the Settle-Carlisle railway line provides fantastic views of the Dales and crosses the Ribblehead Viaduct, an imposing piece of nineteenth-century architecture. The line also provides access to start/end points for some of the most popular walks within the national park. Horton-in-Ribblesdale and Ribblehead stations are both in prime locations for potential start/end points of a Yorkshire 3 Peaks walk (see below for more detail). If only walking one of the peaks, then Horton-in-Ribblesdale is best for Pen-y-ghent, and Ribblehead is best for Whernside or Ingleborough.

The Ribblehead Viaduct, with Park Fell on the tip of Ingleborough in the background.

The Ribblehead Viaduct, with Park Fell on the tip of Ingleborough in the background.

Some parts of the Dales that aren’t on the Settle-Carlisle line can be accessed by bus. However, be sure to check an up-to-date timetable in advance, as these buses are often irregular, only run on certain days, and the timetables change seasonally. Many buses in the Dales are part of the DalesBus network, which has a website with details of different routes and days they run.

Some notable locations in this field guide that are connected to train stations via bus

  • Clapham (leading to Ingleborough Estate Nature Trail and Ingleborough Cave) from Settle
  • Malham from Skipton and Gargrave
  • Malham from Settle on summer weekends only
  • Hawes from Garsdale
  • Kettlewell from Skipton
  • Kirkby Lonsdale from Kendal or Settle
  • Sedbergh from Kendal

From Hawes, it is possible to visit Snaizeholme red squirrel sanctuary and the Buttertubs Pass via pre-booked bus services.

The market town of Settle.

The market town of Settle.

When to go

Spring is a fantastic time to visit the Dales, as it provides longer days and a greater chance of sunshine whilst avoiding the heavy crowds of the summer season. The sky is filled with a symphony of singing skylarks, curlews and lapwings, while the forest floor transforms into carpets of wild garlic and bluebells. As the season progresses, the green fields become increasingly occupied by dancing lambs, and new leaves start to burst from their buds.

There is still a chance of snowfall, especially in early spring, and the weather is often very changeable. It is not uncommon to experience torrential rain and glorious sunshine on the same day. While repeatedly taking waterproofs off only to put them on again 20 minutes later can be mildly annoying, this changeable weather provides gorgeous lighting and frequent rainbows. Late spring holds a higher likelihood of warm and sunny weather, and May coincides with an opportunity to descend Gaping Gill (see below).

Bluebells in Oxenber Woods, near Austwick.

Bluebells in Oxenber Woods, near Austwick.

The highest chance of dry, warm weather is in the summer season, and the Dales are an ideal place to enjoy a sunny day. The fell tops provide views for miles, and there is no shortage of places to cool down. From turquoise pools to hidden caves, there are plenty of places to shelter from the midday heat. However, tourist hotspots often become extremely busy during the season, particularly on weekends, and in some places parking can be difficult to find. For those prioritising settled weather, summer is the best time to visit, but for those in search of peace and tranquility another season may be preferable. Late summer is a good time to visit quieter spots such as Leck Fell and Fountains Fell, where the hillsides are stained pink by blooming heather and scattered with tasty bilberries.

Autumn is an incredibly mixed season in the Dales. Early autumn often includes dry, settled weather. Rosehip, hawthorn and rowan berries line the twisting lanes with bursts of bright red, and the bracken starts to fade from green to auburn. Like late spring, it is an excellent time to see the Dales in good weather whilst avoiding the summer crowds. However, as the season progresses the weather steadily deteriorates and the days grow shorter. Late autumn is not without its merits – golden trees and swirling mists produce incredibly atmospheric scenery, and it is a good time to visit woodlands such as Oxenber Woods near Austwick or Grass Wood near Grassington. However, towards the end of autumn it is more often raining than not, and the striking summit of Ingleborough is often shrouded in cloud for days at a time!

In winter, the Dales can be a bleak place. Dark clouds hang heavy over empty moors and lead to even darker nights. It is wild, wet, and windswept. But those lucky enough to be here at the right time will witness the dramatic landscape transform into a winter wonderland. During a cold spell, the flowing falls freeze and become lined with glittering icicles. As the sun hangs low in the sky it bathes the crisp white peaks in a golden light. Luckily, the Dales are scattered with cosy pubs containing roaring fires and local ales, which make the long nights much more enjoyable. A list of these can be found in the ‘where to eat’ section.

Sunset in the Lune Valley (left) and the hamlet of Brackenbottom at the foot of Pen-y-Ghent (right).

Sunset in the Lune Valley (left) and the hamlet of Brackenbottom at the foot of Pen-y-Ghent (right).

Yorkshire Three Peaks

The most popular hike in the Dales is the Yorkshire Three Peaks, a circular walk of 24 miles that encompasses three mountains in the western region. The challenge involves summitting Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-Ghent within 12 hours, and walking from each peak to the next. There is a website for the challenge with lots of helpful information including routes and kit lists. Each hill is lovely in its own right and many people opt to do one of them for a less gruelling day. A circular walk of Pen-y-Ghent can be done from Horton-in-Ribblesdale, including a visit to the 91-metre-long hole of Hull Pot, a collapsed cavern with an enormous waterfall. It is possible to walk up Ingleborough from a number of villages, but perhaps the most fascinating ascent is that which starts in the village of Clapham. This follows the Ingleborough Estate Nature Trail to Ingleborough Cave (see below), scrambles up the deep chasm of Trow Gill and passes Gaping Gill en route to the summit.

Looking across to Pen-y-Ghent from the top of Ingleborough.

Looking across to Pen-y-Ghent from the top of Ingleborough.

Looking at Pen-y-Ghent from Horton-in-Ribblesdale station.

Looking at Pen-y-Ghent from Horton-in-Ribblesdale station.

Long Distance Trails

A large chunk of the 268-mile Pennine Way travels through the Dales. It passes popular sites such as Malham Cove, Malham Tarn, Pen-y-Ghent, and Hawes. Some fantastic sections of the path can even be accessed via the Settle-Carlisle line. For those that would prefer to walk smaller sections rather than the whole route in one go, the Pennine Way goes through Garsdale and Horton-in-Ribblesdale, and passes fairly close to Ribblehead and Appleby-in-Westmorland. Its route through the Dales passes many features mentioned in this guide and is a fantastic way to travel on foot, visiting both popular tourist locations and secluded fell tops.

An alternative long distance footpath is the Dales Way, an 80-mile long trail that leads from Ilkley to Bowness-in-Windermere. The route visits some of the quieter valleys, such as Langstrothdale and Dentdale, and is a wonderful journey through the heart of the Dales.

Malham Cove, Janet’s Foss and Gordale Scar

Although it doesn’t visit any summits, this circular walk that starts and ends in the small village of Malham is a spectacular adventure. From Malham, the path follows a river upstream through meadows to the shining waters of Janet’s Foss, which are a popular wild swimming spot. Local folklore states that the waterfall is named after a fairy called Janet, who inhabits a cave behind it. From Janet’s Foss the river is followed upstream to the formidable gorge of Gordale Scar. A Grade 1 scramble up the rock next to the waterfall leads to an upper-level valley that can be followed to Malham Tarn. The return route to the village visits some of the most impressive limestone pavement in the UK on top of Malham Cove, a 70-metre-high cliff formed by glacial meltwater.

Janet’s Foss (left) and Gordale Scar (right).

Janet’s Foss (left) and Gordale Scar (right).

Gordale Scar.

Gordale Scar.

Other waterfalls

There are numerous other popular walks that visit mesmerising waterfalls in the national park. The Ingleton Waterfalls Trail is a circular walk that follows the River Twiss up to the mouth of Kingsdale, an elevated valley. En route, the trail passes Thornton Force, and it is possible (with care!) to scramble behind the waterfall. On the return to Ingleton, the trail follows the River Doe past Beezley Falls, Snow Falls and the deep chasm of Baxenghyll Gorge. It is also possible to go canyoning down Baxenghyll Gorge with local canyon guides, in addition to other Dales canyons in the Dales such as Hell Gill.

Canyoning in Hell Gill. Photo by Emily Mabbet.

Canyoning in Hell Gill. Photo by Emily Mabbet.

Near Settle, Stainforth Force is a popular wild swimming spot with several high jumps into the river and a ladder to get out again, while in autumn it is an excellent place to watch salmon leaping. It can be combined with a visit to Catrigg Force, which lies in a hidden wooded gorge a short walk away.

Walking behind Thornton Force.

Walking behind Thornton Force.

In front of Thornton Force (left) and behind it (right).

In front of Thornton Force (left) and behind it (right).

Caves

Ingleborough Cave is a breathtaking show cave situated part-way up Ingleborough, which provides a fantastic opportunity to view the wonders beneath the Dales. First explored in 1837, and opening as a show cave shortly after, the cave provides a marvellous array of different cave formations and fossils. Cave divers first made the connection from Ingleborough Cave to Gaping Gill in 1983, confirming that it is part of a large network of caves underneath Ingleborough. Both Ingleborough Cave and the nature trail that leads to it are wheelchair accessible. Other show caves in the Dales include White Scar Cave and Stump Cross Caverns.

The ‘Beehive’ and ‘Sword of Damocles’ formations in Ingleborough Cave.

The ‘Beehive’ and ‘Sword of Damocles’ formations in Ingleborough Cave.

On just two weeks a year, it is possible to descend the 98-metre-deep Gaping Gill on a winch. Colossal waterfalls surge into a huge cavern comparable in size to a cathedral. The first week occurs in May and is run by the Bradford Pothole Club, and the second week occurs in August and is run by the Craven Pothole Club. Both are organised by volunteers, and the dates vary from year to year so it is worth checking the websites of the respective caving clubs for up to date information. The quickest walk up to Gaping Gill, from the village of Clapham, is to follow the Ingleborough Estate Nature Trail past Ingleborough Cave. An excellent ‘cave-themed’ day out can therefore be had by combining the two. However, the winch down Gaping Gill operates on a first-come-first-served basis and often gets booked up for the day by 10am. It is worth setting off early and arriving at the pothole by 8:30am to avoid disappointment.

For the more adventurous, there are plenty of guides in the Dales that take groups caving. Whereas show caves are spacious and managed, usually including artificial paths and electric lighting, caving is the sport of exploring cave systems. This involves climbing, squeezing, crawling, traversing, and sometimes abseiling to travel through the caves. While guides provide excellent taster sessions for caving, the Council of Northern Caving Clubs runs ‘New to Caving’ events and courses aimed at those wishing to take up caving as a hobby.

Museums

The Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes displays the rich and varied history of people living in the Dales for over a thousand years. It is run by the National Park Authority, next to the old Hawes railway station (that is unfortunately, no longer running). They often have events and exhibitions based on traditional Dales culture and the natural landscape, so it’s worth checking for recent updates.

Whereas the Dales Countryside Museum covers the area within the national park, a number of smaller museums cover more localised areas. These include:

It is well worth visiting these museums to gain a better understanding of how local culture and history varies between small regional areas of the Dales, and to support local heritage. Most are open throughout the winter and provide an educational activity for rainy days.

Flora and fauna

Like many areas of the UK, the biodiversity in the Dales is a fragment of what it used to be. Mass deforestation, settlement growth and intensive farming resulted in habitat destruction and the loss of many species that once thrived in the area. However, a number of dedicated groups, such as the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, Natural England and the Wild Ingleborough Project, are working to transform the Dales into the wildlife haven that it once was. As a result of this focus on conservation and rewilding, there are many parts of the Dales where endangered native flora and fauna can now be seen thriving.

An absolute must for any wildlife lover is Snaizeholme red squirrel sanctuary, situated part-way between Hawes and Ribblehead. This isolated forest is in a secluded valley that has provided sanctuary to the endangered red squirrel for many years, and as a result has a large population of them. For the birdwatcher, Dales populations of breeding waders, ring ouzel and black grouse are nationally significant, as the seldom visited parts of the Dales provide important refuge. On the fells and moorland it is common to see hardy breeds of cattle, such as Belted Galloways and Highland cattle, while down in the ghylls there are protected populations of white-clawed crayfish. While the expanses of moorland can initially look barren to the untrained eye, a closer look unveils an impressive array of native fauna.

Highland Cattle on the moor between Settle and Malham.

Highland Cattle on the moor between Settle and Malham.

Likewise, the Dales are a popular haunt for botanists. Flowers such as bloody crane’s-bill and the rare purple saxifrage, prefer upland limestone regions and can therefore be found in the Dales at certain times of year. Ashes Pasture Nature Reserve also supports ten species of orchid, including the rare small white orchid.

For foragers, nature’s larder is spread across the Dales. From wild garlic and wild strawberries in spring, to bilberries in late summer, to hawthorn berries, rose hips and a range of edible fungi in autumn, those with a keen eye will never go hungry.

Snaizeholme red squirrel sanctuary. Taken by Tom Staveley.

Snaizeholme red squirrel sanctuary. Taken by Tom Staveley.

Where to stay

There are many accommodation options in the Dales to suit the needs of different groups, ranging from campsites, hostels and outdoor centres, to inns, hotels and holiday cottages. The Yorkshire Dales National Park website has a ‘where to stay’ search which is a very helpful resource – use the ‘category’ function to filter the search into different types of accommodation.

Cheaper options include campsites and hostels. Some campsites are quite large and function as caravan parks too, whilst others are small family businesses that tend to be quieter. An example of the latter is Old Hall Cottage campsite located in Hardraw, near Hawes. The site includes a tearoom and is next to Hardraw Force, England’s largest unbroken waterfall (excluding underground waterfalls). The Youth Hostel Association (YHA) has five hostels in popular locations across the Dales, in Grinton, Hawes, Ingleton, Kettlewell, and Malham.

Where to eat and drink

The hungry traveller has plenty of options for food and drink in the Dales. Despite the remoteness of some of the valleys, a cosy pub with a roaring fire is never far away. Dalesfolk are hardy yet heartwarming people – and so is their food!

Pubs

The Station Inn in Ribblehead is seemingly situated ‘in the middle of nowhere’. The front door opens onto a stretch of open moorland in between Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-Ghent, and on winter nights it is a wild and windswept place. However, it is actually very well connected – the pub is next to Ribblehead train station, on the Yorkshire Three Peaks walk, and next to the junction of the three roads leading to Hawes, Settle and Ingleton. The quieter valleys are prime locations for classic Dales pubs. Try the 17th-century Queens Arms in Litton, for their popular handmade pies, or the 18th-century Sun Inn in Dent after exploring the village’s cobbled streets. On the eastern side of the Dales, the George and Dragon Inn in Aysgarth is a 17th century coaching inn near the picturesque Aysgarth Falls that provides cosy fires in the winter and colourful flowers on an outdoor patio in the summer.

Cheese

As an agricultural region, there are some very popular cheese shops in the Dales selling local cheeses. During the Yorkshire Dales Cheese Festival, which occurs in October every year, there are cheese-themed events across the Yorkshire Dales.

The Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes traces its heritage back to 1150, when French monks brought their cheese-making skills to the dale. Their visitor centre includes cheese-making demonstrations, cheese tasting, and information on the history of cheese-making in the local area. They also have a Wensleydale Cheese Bar at Calvert’s Restaurant, with a range of cheese-themed dishes.

On the western side of the Dales, The Courtyard Dairy is a cheese-shop with an extensive array of specially selected cheeses, cheese-tasting, and a museum of cheese-making in Britain. They also have an attached restaurant, Rind, which specialises in wood-fired pizzas topped with British cheeses and cheese boards.

Vegan and vegetarian options

Although meats and cheeses are very popular in the Dales, there are some good vegetarian and vegan restaurants too. Beck Hall, in Malham, is England’s first 100% vegan hotel, while the tearoom Retreat, in Grassington, has numerous vegan and gluten free options.

Limestone pavement on top of Malham Cove at Sunset.

Limestone pavement on top of Malham Cove at Sunset.

A sheep with Whernside in the background.

A sheep with Whernside in the background.

Malham cove sign

Aila (formerly Anna) Taylor is an outdoor writer and mountain activist. She has previously published in the Guardian, The Independent, Vice and i-D magazines, amongst others. As an avid caver, hiker and cold-water swimmer, Aila is passionate about improving accessibility to the outdoors in addition to spreading awareness about the threats currently facing mountain regions.

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