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The Big Routes: Yorkshire Three Peaks

© Chris Scaife

Everyone has heard of the Yorkshire Three Peaks, and judging by the crowds that can often be seen in the area on summer weekends, almost everyone has walked it too. But the classic round of Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-ghent is far more than the fundraising stunt it's often reduced to. This is one of the truly great walks of the Pennines, taking in some of Britain's finest limestone scenery, and despite a reputation for being busy it can still be done quietly and with minimal impact.

Looking towards Ingleborough from Whernside  © Chris Scaife
Looking towards Ingleborough from Whernside
© Chris Scaife

Not a fan of jostling my way up hills, I chose to go midweek and outside of school holidays, hoping for a peaceful day on this fantastic route. My gamble paid off. The walk is usually started from Horton in Ribblesdale, and it is not my intention to say that Chapel-le-Dale is a better starting point; I set off from Chapel-le-Dale just because this is much closer to my house and, frankly, I'll do anything to minimise driving.

I arrived at the parking spot at 9:30 on a Wednesday morning and there were only two other cars there. As someone who has spent countless Saturdays surrounded by walkers and support crews in the Three Peaks area, this was a welcome surprise. Looking north, Whernside was bathed in sunlight, whilst to the south Ingleborough was wearing a familiar chapeau of cloud. It was time to make a decision – should I head for the sunny north and walk the route clockwise, or for the gloomy south to walk in a more traditional anti-clockwise direction? Optimistic that the clouds would be gone by the time I reached the summit, I opted to start with Ingleborough.

From Ingleborough  © Catherine Speakman
From Ingleborough
© Catherine Speakman, Nov 2011

The track that leads up Yorkshire's finest peak first passes a limekiln and takes you through several sheep-grazed fields before reaching the exceptional limestone pavement at Southerscales Nature Reserve. I have walked through this rocky landscape of clints and grikes a great many times, but it never fails to impress. The reserve is carefully managed for wildlife, so I was able to see a number of ferns, orchids, butterflies, moths and moorland birds as I admired the views in all directions.

This part of Ingleborough, like much of the Three Peaks area, is frequented by cavers as there are some subterranean wonders here. But I was to stay above ground today. As I passed the huge depression of Braithwaite Wife Hole, a great natural shakehole, the low cloud on Ingleborough looked as though it might be ready to move along. There were remarkably few other walkers on the path. Only one or two passed me in the opposite direction, and a group of three continually leapfrogged me all the way to the summit, as we each chose our own points to stop and take things in.

Descending Ingleborough, with Whernside and the Ribblehead Viaduct in the distance  © Chris Scaife
Descending Ingleborough, with Whernside and the Ribblehead Viaduct in the distance
© Chris Scaife

The rocky landscape of clints and grikes on Yorkshire's finest peak never fails to impress

All too soon, I had left the nature reserve and was on paving slabs across boggy terrain. So far, I had been on a long, steady ascent – so steady that it had barely felt like an ascent at all – but to reach the summit plateau from the end of this boggy part, I followed the path as it zigzagged upwards for a short, steep section on stone steps. Two of the Three Peaks, Whernside and Ingleborough, had been visible from the start of my walk, and now as I reached the ridge I saw in the east the distinctive steep-edged shape of Pen-y-ghent for the first time.

The low cloud had disappeared for the day and the sun was out as I crossed the rock-strewn plateau, passing the outlines of hut circles and an Iron Age hill fort, to the trig point, cairn, wind shelter and the ruins of a 19th century tower that mark the top. There is so much to Ingleborough that even listing the man-made features on the summit feels like too much for one sentence.

I had a quick look out across Morecambe Bay, over to the Lake District, and to the next two peaks, then began my descent. Down to my left, I had the extensive limestone pavements of Southerscales and Scar Close, and down to my right, the Allotment and Ingleborough National Nature Reserve. There are few spots in the UK where this much limestone is on show.

Stone steps leading up Pen-y-ghent  © Chris Scaife
Stone steps leading up Pen-y-ghent
© Chris Scaife

After a short, steep section, I followed the well-maintained path gently downhill as far as the National Nature Reserve. The beneficial effects of the cattle-only grazing regime here are obvious, and immediately I was seeing a greater biodiversity of birds, insects and wildflowers than on the sheep-grazed open fell.

I used a pedestrian crossing over the Settle-Carlisle railway line at Horton-in-Ribblesdale station – apparently there are plans for a footbridge, so future visitors may miss out on this experience – and then walked through the village. After crossing the Ribble via a footbridge, I noticed that the National Park car park in the centre of the village, perhaps the most popular starting point for the Three Peaks, was less than half full, as if further emphasis were needed that this was not a busy day.

Gritstone scrambling on Pen-y-Ghent, quite a mountainous-feeling hill for these parts  © Chris Scaife
Gritstone scrambling on Pen-y-Ghent, quite a mountainous-feeling hill for these parts
© Chris Scaife

The bit between Pen-y-ghent and Whernside once seemed an endless struggle through eroding peat hags. Now, thanks to ongoing work by the Three Peaks Project, there's a clear path 

From the minor road to Brackenbottom, I went through a couple of gates to follow a familiarly well-maintained footpath to the summit of Pen-y-ghent. This peak may be the smallest of the three, but it is an imposing, steep-sided fell, and the ascent via a couple of easy scrambles requires at least as much effort as Ingleborough and Whernside. I was on the summit at 2pm and, looking west, I could see the diminished forms of the two highest peaks in the Dales. They're not small, so they must be far away. As I sat down to eat my lunch, looking south-east towards Fountains Fell, I was joined at the summit, briefly, by two small groups and a couple. This was the largest number of people I had seen all day and the total was just into double figures; far from a madding crowd.

As I descended on stone slabs, I could see the enormous natural chasm of Hull Pot in the distance. Another spectacular pothole, Hunt Pot, is less obvious however, and I made a tiny detour to see it. Shortly thereafter, I arrived at a crossroads where a man greeted me and asked what lay down each path. Feeling as if I had arrived in a fantasy novel or role-playing game, I suggested he might want to see Hull Pot and he set off in that direction right away, seeming quite excited at the prospect. What a wonderful approach to a day in the hills, in stark contrast to my own rigid adherence to this set route.

Ingleborough and Whernside, looking suitably distant from the summit of Pen-y-ghent  © Chris Scaife
Ingleborough and Whernside, looking suitably distant from the summit of Pen-y-ghent
© Chris Scaife

I remember walking the Three Peaks many years ago, and the bit between Pen-y-ghent and Whernside seemed like an endless struggle through badly eroding peat hags. Now, thanks to a substantial amount of ongoing work by the Three Peaks Project, there is a clear path to follow throughout, and erosion has been greatly reduced. Although this long stretch is now easy physically, it can be demoralising to spend hours walking towards Whernside and not see much change in terms of how far away it looks. To remind myself that I was making progress, I kept looking back towards Pen-y-ghent, to watch its form shrink as the afternoon wore on.

God's Bridge is a fascinating geological feature that the path goes right over, but which is easily missed. At this point, Brow Gill Beck is visible on both sides of the path, but disappears underground for a short distance through a natural passage beneath your feet. Not a bad spot for a brew.

Steam train crossing the mighty Ribblehead Viaduct  © Chris Scaife
Steam train crossing the mighty Ribblehead Viaduct
© Chris Scaife

The least enjoyable part of the day was spent walking about a mile along the Gauber Road between Ingman Lodge and Ribblehead. Fortunately, the traffic was fairly quiet, but this is not a pleasant section of the walk. However, I didn't dawdle, and soon left the road to walk alongside the Ribblehead viaduct. First a goods train crossed from the south, then a steam passenger train from the north. After following the railway for a while, I crossed Force Gill Aqueduct and began, in earnest, my final ascent of the day – Whernside, the highest peak in the Yorkshire Dales. It was approaching 6pm now, but with an almost cloudless sky, the temperature showed no sign of dropping.

Ingleborough from near the summit of Whernside - New Years Eve 2008  © milus
Ingleborough from near the summit of Whernside - New Years Eve 2008
© milus, Dec 2008

The path to the top of Whernside, along paving slabs, is of quite a forgiving gradient, and the best views of the day awaited me on my final summit ridge. I could see Morecambe Bay, the Coniston and Langdale Fells in the Lake District, the Howgills, Cross Fell in the North Pennines, Pendle Hill to the south; and of course, the surrounding peaks of the Yorkshire Dales, including Ingleborough and Pen-y-ghent. I followed the leisurely ridge south and descended steeply to Bruntscar, then followed the road back to my car. Throughout the long section from the aqueduct across the railway line, over the summit of Whernside, down to Bruntscar and back to the road at Chapel-le-Dale, I did not see a soul. So much for being busy.

What's it like?

The two questions people are most likely to ask about walking the Three Peaks are, "Can I do it?" and "Should I do it?" Obviously, I can't provide everyone with a bespoke answer to the first question – it's a long walk with three big, steep ascents in an area with often unpredictable weather. The Cave Rescue Organisation, which provides mountain and cave rescue services locally, is frequently busy with incidents involving Three Peaks walkers. The best way to avoid being involved in such an incident is to be prepared, in terms of fitness, navigation skills and kit. It is important to remember that the rescue services are there for emergencies only; nobody should ever set off with the mindset that it is not a problem if something goes wrong.

Descending Ingleborough on a well-maintained path  © Chris Scaife
Descending Ingleborough on a well-maintained path
© Chris Scaife

Obviously, this sort of thing should never be underestimated, but for those who are capable of, and prepared for, walks of this length in the hills, this is a relatively undemanding route. This is probably one of the easier walks so far covered in UKHillwalking's Big Routes series.

As to the question of should you do it? Many will have reservations about the walk's environmental impact and the likelihood of encountering large crowds. Thanks to the Three Peaks Project, the path is now so well maintained that erosion is not half the problem it once was. If all Three Peaks walkers follow the Code of Conduct, the impact should be kept to a minimum:

Avoiding peak times

In terms of crowds, on the day I walked the route there were people on the summits of Ingleborough and Pen-y-ghent, and around the Ribblehead viaduct, but most of my day was spent walking in solitude. This is not always the case, of course, and I would strongly recommend checking to see if there are any major events taking place before planning to walk the Three Peaks. It can be mayhem here, but walking midweek will almost certainly be quieter than walking on a weekend, and surely a walk of this kind is worth a day or two off work.

Distance: 39.3 km (24.4 miles)

Total ascent: 1419m

Time: Usually walked as a challenge, to be completed in under twelve hours. My unhurried walk lasted about ten hours in total, including a fair few stops for refreshments, and to take notes and photographs.

Start/finish: This walk is a circuit and can be started from the National Park car park in Horton in Ribblesdale, SD 808726. There is also a large area for roadside parking at Ribblehead, SD 766793. I started from a small lay-by just up the road from Chapel-le-Dale's Old Hill Inn, at SD 745778

Maps: The route is partially waymarked, but not to the extent that it should be undertaken without a map. OS Explorer OL2 (1:25,000), OS Explorer OL41 (1:25,000), OS Landranger 98 (1:50,000)

Terrain: This extremely popular route has a well-maintained path pretty much all the way around. This is the result of much hard work and expense – if you want to make a donation to the upkeep of the trail, click here.

Public transport: Ribblehead and Horton-in-Ribblesdale stations are both suitable starting points for the Three Peaks, and they are on the iconic Settle-Carlisle railway.

Overnight options: There are a few accommodation providers in Horton in Ribblesdale, as well as an inn, a lodge and a cottage at Ribblehead (see gearstones.com), and an inn and bunkhouse at Chapel-le-Dale. This is really not the place for wild camping or bivvying, so if you plan to stay overnight make sure you book somewhere.

Route variants: To avoid erosion, it is best to stick to the standard route. There are a few places where, if you really wanted, you could follow alternative paths to make small changes to the normal route, but unless you miss out the peaks themselves any changes are likely to make it longer rather than shorter.

UKH Articles and Gear Reviews by Chris Scaife

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