Mini Guide: Helvellyn and The Dodds

© Dan Bailey

Home to the iconic ridge walk of Striding Edge, Helvellyn is one of the most visited fells in the entire Lake District. It's also the third highest, the snowiest, and, when tied together with the extensive uplands around the trio of Dodds to the north, makes for some exhilarating exploration in the heart of Cumbria.

Study Helvellyn on a map and it's an absolute delight to behold. The high points are dotted with thrillingly senior three-digit figures, the contours are dense, and swirling coves and ridges spiral off in every direction. The fell itself sits just off the centre of Lakeland, with the slender form of Thirlmere meeting its sudden drop-off to the west and the edge of mighty Ullswater meeting the end of its extensive tendrils to the east. Factor in the headline semi-scramble of Striding Edge - that jagged ridgeline beloved of all who have ever walked it - and it's clear that this mountain's fame is well-earned.

Striding on Striding edge  © john1963
Striding on Striding edge
© john1963, Mar 2015

Take it in its greater context and, if possible, it becomes more appealing still. Even if we consider the nearby Fairfield Horseshoe to be a separate entity, then that still leaves the dramatic summits of Nethermost Pike and Dollywagon Pike to the south and the expansive, weaving dome-like Dodds (Stybarrow, Watson's and Great) stretching up to the north. Whether you approach from the popular villages of Glenridding or Patterdale, or from the quieter settlement of Legburthwaite, this is prime hillwalking territory - and a visit here should be considered as essential as one to the national "three peaks" themselves.

"In the area of the Eastern Fells the greatest single mass of high ground in Lakeland is concentrated. It takes the form of a tremendous barrier running north and south, consistently high and steep throughout its length… In general the western slopes are steep smooth and grassy and the eastern slopes are broken and craggy"

Alfred Wainwright on the Helvellyn range

The Edge - Swirral Edge and Catstye Cam.  © Chris Miles
The Edge - Swirral Edge and Catstye Cam.
© Chris Miles, Sep 2015


The Helvellyn Range in a nutshell

1. Climb the third highest fell in the Lake District (and by default, all of England)

2. …and if this is your first visit make sure to do it via the exciting ridges of Stridge Edge and Swirral Edge

3. Wander the largest expanse of high ground in Cumbria along the whole spine of the range from north to south (or vice versa)

4. Explore the shores of Thirlmere to the west and Ullswater to the east, as well as the series of scooped coves that defines this glaciated mountain landscape

5. Seek snow and ice, on England's most reliably wintry hill

6. Take on classic winter climbs on the Red Tarn face, Browncove Crags, and the wilder Nethermost Cove and Ruthwaite Cove

"For snow and ice conditions, Helvellyn is special as it has a large east facing headwall. This keeps the wintery conditions from the warming effects of the sun. It is, therefore, not unusual for Helvellyn to keep snow for longer than the higher Scafell Pike".

Jon Bennett, Lake District NPA Fell Top Assessor

Helvellyn from Raise at dawn  © Dan Bailey
Helvellyn from Raise at dawn
© Dan Bailey

Principal summits

Helvellyn, 950m

No match for crag id:"Helvellyn Lower Man", 925m

Nethermost Pike, 891m

No match for crag id:"Catstycam", 890m

Raise, 883m

No match for crag id:"White Side", 863m

Dollywaggon Pike, 858m

Great Dodd, 856m

Stybarrow Dodd, 843m

No match for crag id:"Watson's Dodd", 789m

Clough Head, 726m

Sheffield Pike, 675m

Striding Edge from the east face of Helvellyn  © Si Withington
Striding Edge from the east face of Helvellyn
© Si Withington, Nov 2013

Dollywaggon Pike and Helvellyn from Fairfield  © Ratfeeder
Dollywaggon Pike and Helvellyn from Fairfield
© Ratfeeder, Feb 2015

"Legend and poetry, a lovely name and a lofty altitude combine to encompass Helvellyn in an aura of romance; and thousands of pilgrims, aided by its easy accessibility, are attracted to its summit every year… There is some quality about Helvellyn which endears it in the memory of most people who have stood on its breezy top; although it can be a grim place indeed on a wild night, it is, as a rule, a very friendly giant"

Alfred Wainwright on Helvellyn

Must-do routes

The Full Traverse

Ullswater from Raise at sunrise  © Dan Bailey
Ullswater from Raise at sunrise
© Dan Bailey

This is in fact one of the legs of the mammoth Bob Graham round, a fearsome Lake District circuit for dedicated fell runners, but taken in isolation it can make for a superb big day on the fells. Starting in the village of Threlkeld at the base of Blencathra to the north, a big ascent comes early, up the rough sides of Clough Head. From here the going gets easier, with only the big pull up to the top of Great Dodd distracting from nearly 10km of high level walking. The ascent up Lower Man is rocky and requires concentration, but once atop Helvellyn (fingers crossed for clear views) you can enjoy the excitement of crossing Nethermost and Dollywagon Pikes before adding in the optional summits of Fairfield and Seat Sandal and dropping down to the car parks at the southern end of Thirlmere. It would be wise to deposit a second car here, as you'll already have covered 21km+ of terrain and more than 1800m of ascent - more walking may not be an option.

Helvellyn via Striding Edge and Swirral Edge

Striding Edge and Red Tarn  © Dan Bailey
Striding Edge and Red Tarn
© Dan Bailey

"... its traverse is always an exhilarating adventure"

Alfred Wainwright on Striding Edge

This is a stone-cold Lake District classic, and an essential tick in every hillwalker's logbook. Beginning in Patterdale, near the village of Glenridding on the shores of Ullswater to the east, the route takes you up the valley of Grisedale before cutting up the high ground of its northern side. From here it's an easy journey to Red Tarn where the real excitement begins. You now have the choice of which way round to attempt your circuit. In our route, we've gone for an ascent up the delightful ridge of Striding Edge - which is superbly airy, but only just justifies its title as a scramble (although be warned that ice or otherwise slippery conditions can make it extremely hazardous). The difficulties can be sidestepped via a lower path on its northern flank, but if you stick to the ridge you'll be presented with an exciting 7m downclimb before you ascend up to the summit of Helvellyn. Once on top of this thrillingly high ground you've got the shorter and steeper descent of Swirral Edge to enjoy en route back to Red Tarn and the start. At 12.5km and over 900m of ascent this is a solid hill day.

The Dodds from Legburthwaite

Thirlmere and Helvellyn  © gsum
Thirlmere and Helvellyn
© gsum, Dec 2012

Far less often trod than the more immediately dramatic ridges to the east, the Dodds can be well explored from the shores of Thirlmere to the west. Beginning in the village of Legburthwaite, a 17km day with around 1000m of ascent will see you climb steeply up to Stick's Pass before turning north and tagging Stybarrow, Watson's and Great Dodd. From there you can take in the extra tops of Calfhow Pike and Clough Head, all the while enjoying (hopefully) superb views of Skiddaw and Blencathra. Descending around Threlkeld Knotts and via St John's in the Vale is your lowland way back to the start.


OS Landranger (1:50,000) 90

OS Explorer (1:25,000) OL5

Harvey British Mountain Maps (1:40,000) Lake District


A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells: Book One, The Eastern Fells by Alfred Wainwright (Frances Lincoln)

Scrambles in the Lake District - North by Brian Evans (Cicerone)

Lake District: High Level and Fell Walks by Vivienne Crow (Cicerone)

The Ridges of England, Wales and Ireland by Dan Bailey (Cicerone)

Weather forecasts

Helvellyn is indeed blessed, as it's the subject of daily winter condition reports (in season) by the Lake District National Park's Fell Top Assessors. Between December and Easter you can read their detailed findings on the state of snow and ice on the ground, via the website and on twitter ... and then set out well informed and properly prepared for the conditions!

Also check out:

Lake District forecast from MWIS

Mountain Weather forecast Lake District from the Met Office

Helvellyn-specific forecast from YR.NO

Joe's race (Helvellyn looking out to Thirlmere)  © John Bamber
Joe's race (Helvellyn looking out to Thirlmere)
© John Bamber, Apr 2013

Best bases

It's hard to avoid Glenridding and Patterdale as the most obvious choices. Both are well-supplied and boast a wide range of accommodation and facilities aimed at the hillwalker. From here you'll be able to access Helvellyn and the southern fells simply and attractively via the valley of Grisedale, while the valley of Glenridding to the north will lead you directly to either Catstye Cam or the Dodds. Accommodation and camping options on the opposing side of the range (along the eastern shore of Thirlmere) are less numerous, but still extremely appealing. It just means that your ascent up the range will be steeper and less involving than via the ridges to the west. Being so close to Keswick staying in the District's outdoor capital is an option too.


The King's Head, Thirlspot is a comfy and well-positioned option right at the western foot of Helvellyn. Standard doubles start at £60 per night.

Thirlspot Farm camping is nicely placed just off the A591, charges just £6 per adult and is a great place from which to begin your walk up to Stick's Pass. It's right next to The King's Head too.

YHA Helvellyn sits at nearly 300m up, making the location a big selling point. You're a 20minute walk up the valley from the village of Glenridding (and its pubs and shops), but that means you're all the closer to the base of Helvellyn. There's an alternative YHA at Patterdale if you fancy something a little closer to the road.

YHA Patterdale provides alternative hostel accommodation on the east side of the range. It's a bit less Helvellyn-focused, but still conveninent for Stiding Edge, Grisedale and the southern end of the Helvellyn massif (and better placed for other fells such as Fairfield and High Street).

Gillside Farm camping is a highly rated, clean and well run option on the western limits of Glenridding village. Offers a bunkhouse, campsite and caters for caravans too.

Grisedale and St Sunday from Nethermost Pike  © Dan Bailey
Grisedale and St Sunday from Nethermost Pike
© Dan Bailey


While you'll be more flexible with your own wheels it is still possible to access either flank of Helvellyn by public transpot. Buses run from Penrith to Patterdale: details can be found here

… while taking one of the Ullswater "steamers" which run year-round on the lake is well worth sampling at least once in your lifetime - see here.

Buses also run between Windermere and Carlisle, stopping along Thirlmere on request - see here.

Pubs and food

If you're staying along Thirlmere, the The King's Head is a solid option for food. There's a wider selection in Glenridding and Patterdale, with the Rambler's Bar at The Inn on the Lake being a good choice in the former, and The White Lion Inn being recommended in the latter.

On Striding Edge heading for Helvellyn  © Dan Bailey
On Striding Edge heading for Helvellyn
© Dan Bailey

Dan Aspel head shot  © Dan Aspel

About Dan Aspel

Dan Aspel is a freelance journalist who specialises in mountaineering, motorcycling and the outdoors. He spends most of his hill time in Snowdonia, where he regularly works as a Mountain Leader.

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