England: Wandering the Yorkshire 3 Peaks

I have to begin by saying that the tag ‘Yorkshire 3 peaks’ is a bit misleading. English mountains are more like hills than peaks. The Three Peaks in Yorkshire – Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough – are nevertheless great high places, leonine in form, like giant sphinxes with heads bent in repose. In fact they are the giant arms of ancient glaciers, moraine pushed up and out by the forces of the ice age.

Yorkshire 3 Peaks landscape
They form part of the English Pennine range and encircle the valley of the River Ribble in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The challenge is to complete the circuit of the three peaks, a distance of around 26 miles, in under 12 hours.

It took me nearly 12 hours to complete the circuit, with a couple of big breaks to enjoy the view and plenty of photo opportunities. Given we had a late start it was just as well the daylight hours are so extensive at this time of year (midsummer)! I was lucky enough to have clear, dry conditions but this will not always be the case so don’t follow my example and make sure you get on the track early in the morning.

Horton-in-Ribblesdale church

Horton-in-Ribblesdale is the traditional start/end point, although you can jump on to the Yorkshire 3 Peaks circuit at a number of places. There is a pub and also a few accommodation options in this cute little village.

Yorkshire 3 Peaks challenge

The three peaks area of the Yorkshire Dales is a big landscape, across which clouds drift making the light constantly change and casting shadows in fantastical shapes. We had a Mexican standoff with a couple of the Swaledale sheep that inhabit these wild hills and valleys.

Swaledale Sheep in Yorkshire Dales

Pen-y-ghent (691 metres) is an easy climb and made while legs are still fresh. Then comes a very long but gentle traverse across countryside marked by the famous dry-stone walls of this area.

Ribblehead Viaduct

At Ribblehead the spectacular Victorian-era rail viaduct is an impressive feature before the path begins to wind gently up around the back of Whernside (728 metres).

Walking the long ridge of Whernside is easy and exhilarating, with views across the entire Three Peaks area. But the steep descent from Whernside is probably the most challenging section of the whole walk – very hard on the knees and feet walking over broken limestone.

View from Whernside Yorkshire 3 Peaks

At this point I could happily have stopped and probably would have done if had known it would take another 3.5 hours of walking to get back to Horton-in-Ribblesdale. But the thistles and foxgloves were glowing in the evening light and we pressed on with the challenge. 

The path drops down through the valley and climbs up again towards Ingleborough. They have obviously been doing a lot of work improving the track to prevent erosion. In some places there is even boardwalk – so boggy tales are now a thing of the past.

Ingleborough (723 metres) is the pick of the peaks in my opinion because of the views on a clear day. It is a stiff but short ascent and if the weather is fine you will want to spend a bit of time on the summit – there is a fortress-like construction up there with stone seats. We could see the glint of water in the English Lake District, the ranges of mountains there and away across to the Irish Sea.

Summit of Whernside, Yorkshire 3 Peaks

The descent of Ingleborough is relatively gentle but my body was tired by this point and so I found the last five or six miles tough. A lot of the path is over broken rock, which is tough to walk over at the end of the day. For the last few hours my feet felt like I had been dancing for hours in heels city shoes: desperate to get them off then sort of tingling and you know they will hurt when you finally do remove them.

Pen-y-Ghent Yorkshire 3 Peaks circuit

On the plus-side the sunset was lovely and had the interesting effect of casting a red glow over Pen-y-Ghent that made it look for all the world like an ancient eroded mountain in Australia’s Outback. We stumbled back into the village of Horton tired but happy.

Sunset in the Yorkshire Dales 3 Peaks

Walking the 3 Yorkshire Peaks: What to take!

Water and food for the whole day. There was one tea-shack at Ribblehead selling drinks and snacks and the Hill Inn before Ingleborough but otherwise you need to carry enough water and food to keep you fuelled up for up to 12 hours. I find regular snacking keeps my energy levels strong. I took snack and chocolate bars, fruit, cheese and crackers, and a filled roll for lunch.

Wet weather clothing. Even if the forecast is for fine weather, things can change quickly in the hills and you should always carry a good waterproof coat (and trousers if it does look like rain). It is often windy on the tops so a coat is the best windbreaker to keep warm as well.

Good walking boots are essential. The track on the 3 Yorkshire Peaks circuit is very rough and rocky in places – not to mention some stiff ascents and descents – where your ankles and the soles of your feet will appreciate proper support. Invest in some good hiking socks to go with your boots.

I saw people walking the 3 Yorkshire Peaks circuit in all sorts of outdoors clothing but I would strongly recommend not wearing cotton tops but rather something made from a wicking fabric that won’t get freezing cold if wet (from sweat or rain).

Other essential items I put in my pack were: A headtorch, a warm hat and gloves, a fleece jumper and an extra thin warm layer, my mobile phone (there is reception in places),  a map and route notes (I had these both in paper version and on my phone).

Walking the 3 Yorkshire Peaks: Where to stay!

I stayed at the YHA Ingleton in Chapel-en-le-Dale, which was great and conveniently located for the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge.

By Natasha von Geldern

Have you walked the 3 Yorkshire Peaks circuit? Do you have any tips?

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