The Wharfedale Three Peaks

Route Summary:

The Wharfedale Three Peaks, located in the Yorkshire Dales,  is a much quieter alternative to the more traditional Yorkshire Three Peaks. It is centred around the village of Kettlewell in Upper Wharfedale and covers the three summits of Great Whernside, Buckden Pike, and Birks Fell. As well as being quieter (you may only see a handful of other walkers on the whole route), it’s also tougher terrain than the Yorkshire Three Peaks as it lacks all the purpose built paths and instead takes you over bogs, moorland, and farmland on a combination of footpaths, farm tracks, sheep tracks, and sometimes no tracks at all. For this reason, many believe that this challenge is the harder of the two.

Route Information

  • Start: Kettlewell Garage, Kettlewell, North Yorkshire, Skipton BD23 5QZ, United Kingdom
  • Date:17-07-2018
  • GPX File: Download

Other POI: Kettlewell, Dowber Gill Beck, Hooksbank, Hags Dyke, Blackfell Top, Black Dike End, Black Dike, Cam Gill Road, Top Mere, Starbotton Out Moor, Starbotton Fell, Memorial Cross, Buckden, Cow Close, Buckden Rake, Cray, Cray Gill, Hubberholme, River Wharfe, Yockenthwaite, Hagg Beck, Horse Head, Sugar Loaf, Moss Top, Firth Fell, Old Cote Moor Top, Middlesmoor Pasture, Gate Cote Scar

Route Description:

The walk starts in Kettlewell in the large car park on the main road. Continuing north-east, take the first turning on the right and follow Middle Lane for a short distance. This can be confusing as the road that runs parallel to the north is also called Middle Lane. Turn left at The Green, and follow as far as a sharp bend to the left. Instead of taking this bend that leads over Kettlewell Beck, continue straight ahead onto Scabbate Gate. The road continues running parallel to the beck for a while until it eventually veers away. Just before the track heads across another beck (Dowber Gill Beck), take a right and continue following the line of the beck instead. This is only followed a very short distance before a bridge is crossed carefully using good balance and footing.

The Green, Kettlewell
The Green, Kettlewell – turn left here!
Sign to Great Whernside on Scabbate Gate
Sign to Great Whernside

Once over the bridge, a path is followed north-east gradually uphill, initially following the line of the beck to the right until eventually the beck veers away to the east. The route continues north-east until it arrives at the old farmhouse that is now Hag Dyke Scout Hostel. From here, the ground becomes a little rougher. On this particular day, it was in the middle of a very dry spell and so the ground had all dried up. On other, more typically English days, the going may not have been quite so easy. The route continued roughly north-east on a direct course to the summit.

The ascent of Great Whernside
The ascent begins
Hag Dyke Scout Hostel
Hag Dyke Scout Hostel

The name Whernside means ‘hillside where millstones were got’. Whern is derived from quern, which means ‘millstone’. The upper part of the hill is composed of millstone grit – it’s literally strewn everywhere and gives the summit a nice homely feel to a walker like myself who frequents the Dark Peak much more often than the Yorkshire Dales. Amongst the piles of gritstone blocks and boulders site the Great Wherside trig pillar. I always think a summit is a little more satisfying when there’s a trig to mark the spot.

Great Whernside summit and trig point
Great Whernside summit and trig point
Great Whernside's western edge
Great Whernside’s western edge

From the summit, the route heads north, keeping to the highest ground and following the line of the boundary fence. Eventually, a path heads straight down to the west, following the line of a wall that drops steeply down the hillside. This path is called Black Dike and is labelled on the 1:25k Ordnance Survey map. The path follows the wall for a little while before veering away to the right, descending roughly north-west for a while until a narrow lane is crossed.

Looking back towards Great Whernside
Looking back towards Great Whernside
Buckden Pike in the distance
Buckden Pike in the distance

From the lane, the route continues west of north-west directly to Tor Mere Top. After a short distance, it joins the line of a wall which is useful to aid navigation. On Tor Mere Top, the route takes a sharp turn to the right and heads north of north-west, past the memorial cross, and eventually arriving at the summit of Buckden Pike. The memorial cross is dedicated to the memory of five Polish airmen of the Polish Air Force 18th Polish Operational Training Unit, based at RAF Bramcote, who crashed their Wellington Bomber on the 30th January, 1942. It was completed in 1973 with the help of locals and the sole survivor of the crash, Jozef ‘Joe’ Fusniak.

Eroded moorland
Eroded moorland
The air crash memorial
The air crash memorial

It had been a very quiet day so far and the first sighting of other walkers didn’t happen until the approach to Buckden Pike. It was a huge difference to the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge. For the most part, it felt as though I had the whole place to myself. The summit of Buckden Pike is again marked by a trig pillar and offers fantastic views looking west through Langstrothdale and into the heart of the Yorkshire Dales beyond.

The path to Buckden Pike summit
The path to Buckden Pike summit
Buckden Pike trig pillar
Buckden Pike trig pillar
Summit view - Pen y Ghent visible in the distance
Looking towards Pen y Ghent in the distance, from Buckden Pike’s summit

The descent path descends steeply from the summit in a north-easterly direction, initially following the line of a wall. This path eventually curves to the left and ends up heading south-west as far as Buckden Rake where a junction of footpaths is reached. The well defined path heading north and south is part of the Pennine Journey long distance footpath, and the northern route along Buckden Rake should be taken for a short distance until a path becomes visible on the left heading steeply downhill to the foot of the hill. This ends at Cray near the White Lion pub after crossing Cray Gill. Two Peaks down, One to go! It’s nice to imagine at this point that the walk is two thirds complete, but unfortunately the truth is that it’s only halfway done. Probably not even that. The reason for this is because the third summit, Birks Fell, is long. Very very long. Half of the walk feels like it’s spent on the top of this fell. At this point, it’s hard to know this and therefore hard not to feel optimistic at the speed of reaching this part of the walk.

Upper Wharfedale
Upper Wharfedale
Langstrothdale and Birks Fell
Langstrothdale and Birks Fell
Cray Gill and the White Lion pub
Cray Gill and the White Lion pub

The next section of the walk takes you from Cray to Yockenthwaite via Langstrothdale, where the ascent path to Birks Fell awaits. There’s a high level option here should you want it that ascends from Cray and follows the line of the valley at a high level, above the wooded slopes and skirting the moorland above. On this occasion, I chose the easy option and followed country lanes as far as Hubberholme.

Pretty cows...
Pretty cows…
...and a very mean looking bull
and a very mean looking bull

Once at Hubberholme, the riverside path can be accessed behind the church. It makes a pleasant walk and takes you all the way to your destination at Yockenthwaite. Here, the river is crossed via the bridge and a left turn takes you down a country lane heading south. This is followed as far as a cluster of buildings where a footpath heads uphill on the right. It initially heads north-west before zig-zagging a couple times, eventually settling on a course south-west, following the line of Hagg Beck below on the left. The route eventually brings you out on the summit some distance away from the Birks Fell summit. Like I mentioned earlier, this is a long fell. From the point that you arrive on the top, there’s over 5 miles of walking before you can even start descending again.

Easy riverside walking
Easy riverside walking
Not a sign I expected to see
Not a sign I expected to see
Looking back down Langstrothdale towards Buckden Pike
Looking back down Langstrothdale towards Buckden Pike
Ascending to Horse Head Moor
Last big ascent of the day…

Normally at this point, it would be a case of following the path south-east along the top – however, with the Horse Head trig pillar such a short distance away in the opposite direction, it’s hard to resist the detour (or at least it was for me!). Once obtained, retrace your steps and continue following the highest ground of the fell. It continues south-east across Moss Top before curving to the north-east around the head of Crystal Beck and then back south-east again. There’s a small section of deep peat groughs to navigate near the beginning but after this, the walking is fairly straight forward. Navigation is also simple as the path follows walls for the whole distance of the fell. Word of warning though… this section of the walk seems to go on and on and on…..

Trig pillar on Horse Head Moor
Trig pillar on Horse Head Moor
Following the wall on Horse Head Moor
Following the wall…
Exposed peat on Birks Fell
A particularly (g)rough area
Looking back after the exposed peat area of Birks Fell
Looking back after the peaty section

Birks Tarn is passed on the right – unfortunately completely dried up on this particular day, and eventually the Birks Fell trig point is reached. This is not the official summit of Birks Fell though! The true summit will almost certainly be unwittingly walked past and is actually located a mile or so back on the route. After the trig, there’s still a good 2 miles of plodding to go along Old Cote Moor before at long last the descent path is reached on the left. Another steep descent path is available on the left before this one, but I decided to opt for the later one as it led directly to Kettlewell and had a gentler gradient. The main ridge of Birks Fell will have been partly descended by this point and already 100m+ of height will have been lost since the trig point.

A dried up Birks Tarn
The area formerly known as Birks Tarn
Birks Fell trig pillar
Birks Fell trig pillar
The gradual descent along Birks Fell ridge
The gradual descent along Birks Fell ridge

The path heads directly downhill through Middlesmoor Pasture and eventually to the steep rocky section of Gate Cote Scar. Care needs to be taken here, especially as muscles and joints will almost certainly be fatigued. Once at the bottom, you’re home and dry! Kettlewell at last.

The descent to Kettlewell. Great Whernside in the background
The descent to Kettlewell. Great Whernside in the background

So, a few thoughts on the walk…

It most certainly had a different feel than the traditional Yorkshire 3 Peaks. This one was very very quiet in comparison and brought a real feeling of solitude… and I love that feeling when I’m out in the hills. A few walkers were passed on Buckden Pike and in Langstrothdale but apart from that, I had the hills to myself. Not a single person was passed in the whole 6 miles of Birks Fell. The Yorkshire 3 Peaks does come out on top in the quality of hills. It’s hard to beat the combination of Pen y Ghent, Ingleborough, and Whernside – and that’s why the walk is so popular. The second peak of Buckden Pike doesn’t feel like a big ascent as not enough height is lost between there and Great Whernside. They’re two hills on the same range. Saying that, the walking is far more rugged and it lacks the nice big paths of the Yorkshire 3 Peaks. This, coupled with the fact you spend more time on the tops, make it feel more of a proper hillwalking day. Admittedly, the slog across Birks Fell did get a little tedious after a while. With the Yorkshire 3 Peaks however, the main slog comes in the lowland stretch between Pen y Ghent and Whernside. So would I recommend it? Yes, it’s a great walk and makes a worthy competitor to its more popular cousin.

Note – I did this walk on a weekday and have no idea how much busier it would have been on a weekend.

Route Map
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