Swaledale is the most stunning of the Yorkshire Dales. A patchwork of fields and meadows cut by the River Swale form a beautiful landscape. Here’s our guide to getting the most out of Swaledale.
If we had to pick the most beautiful part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, it would be Swaledale. The most northern and least visited of the dales, it’s a patchwork of glistening green fields contrasting with barren brown moorlands rising above it.
The River Swale traverses the valley floor as it drops over waterfalls and gathers in remote pools. Farmhouses that appear unchanged since they were built decades ago, sit alongside medieval bothies overlooking a rugged land dotted with sheep.
There are wonderful walks, exciting cycle trails and idyllic plunge pools hidden within the folds of this picturesque valley. But, it’s also a great place to rest. Laze with a picnic in wild meadows, grab a pint in a traditional inn or sit back and listen to local musicians high up on a wild moor.
Here’s our complete guide to the best things to do in Swaledale with a map and our suggestions on where to stay.
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01 – EXPLORE MUKER HAY MEADOWS & VILLAGE
Protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) the Muker meadows are upland hay meadows rich in wildflowers and grasses; dotted with old stone cow sheds. The area is at its peak in May and June when the fields are covered in colour and the smell of wildflowers fills the air.
The fields are harvested in July using traditional techniques, and the hay is stored in cowhouses that dot the meadows. It’s a wonderful scene and easily enjoyed from the stone path that runs just north of Muker village.
The village shop and small tearoom (both closed Wednesdays) ooze all the country charm you’d expect. The pub overlooking the main road is as traditional as it gets.
02 – DRIVE OVER BUTTERTUBS PASS
The roads of the Yorkshire Dales disappear up and down valleys as they connect tiny villages and superb country landscapes. From the seat of your car, some of the best scenery can be enjoyed as you climb over the high passes that connect the different valleys.
The best known is Buttertubs Pass. Rising to a height of 526 metres, it crosses the wild moors between Swaledale and Wensleydale. It’s a good quality road, easy to drive, with wide lanes in both directions. Most importantly, however, the views are excellent.
Park at the summit to truly appreciate this wild, rugged, and remote place.
03 – CYCLE THE SWALE TRAIL
With its windy valley and high passes, Swaledale has some of the best cycling in the UK. As the most northern of Yorkshire’s dales, the roads are quieter with plenty of options for a great cycling day out.
For the more experienced cyclists there are plenty of lung-busting climbs up onto the moors. Buttertubs Pass, Fleet Moss, Grinton Moor, are all great options if you’re up for a gruelling challenge.
For beginners looking for a more leisurely excursion in Swaledale, head off along the specifically designed 20-kilometre Swale Trail (a mix of road and unsurfaced tracks) between Reeth and Keld. There are cafes, tea rooms, pubs, and plenty of great views along the way.
We hired our bikes from Dales Bike Centre, who helped pick a route that was just right for us. They offer road bikes for touring, mountain trail bikes for going off-track, or e-bikes to help get further and higher. Maps are provided with all the tracks in the area.
04 – ADMIRE KIDSON FORCE WATERFALL
The finest waterfall in Swaledale, if not the entire Yorkshire Dales, is Kidson Force. It’s a dramatic double waterfall set in a steep rocky gorge and surrounded by trees. The first cascade drops 5 metres into a wonderful pool perfect for a swim on a hot day. The second drops 12 metres to a rocky base.
Kidson Force is a 15-minute walk from Keld. The first 10 minutes is easy enough but the last section down to the base of the falls is quite steep and can get very muddy after rain. Shoes with good grip is essential for getting down to the waterfall.
05 – SWIM EAST GILL AND WAIN FORCE
The steep path down to Kidson Force can make it a bit tricky for young families and anyone carrying a picnic, but there are two other great options for family-friendly swimming in Swaledale.
East Gill Force is a wonderful small waterfall with expansive grassy banks on one side and a small plunge pool below the falls. It’s a great spot on a hot summer’s day and only a 7-minute walk from the car park in Keld.
Further upstream, Wain Wath Force is a wide short fall with grassy banks and plenty of rocks to sit on. It’s right by the side of the road but finding somewhere to put the car can be tricky.
06 – HIKE A SECTION OF THE COAST TO COAST
The Coast-to-Coast Path, running from St Bees on the Cumbrian coast to Robins Hood Bay on the North York Moors coast, takes in some of the finest countryside in England. It’s no surprise, therefore, that it passes through Swaledale.
Hiking the entire route takes 2 weeks, but you can pick off one of the best sections – and many of the sights listed above – in just a few hours. The trail from Keld to Muker (marked in red on the map at the end of this guide) takes about 90 minutes and passes East Gill waterfall, meadows bedecked with flowers, and old cowsheds all dotted along the River Swale. It begins and ends in two wonderful villages both with cafes and one with a pub.
To complete a 3-hour circular route head back on the other side of the River Swale (purple path on map), through a green forest, and via Kidson Force Waterfall for a fabulous half day out.
07 – CRACKPOT HALL & SWINNER’S GILL
Strolling along the valley of the River Swale you can be forgiven for thinking that Swaledale is a gentle rolling landscape. Yet hidden around corners are several steep-sided ravines cut by rivers. The most impressive is Swinner’s Gill, where a little stream has formed a series of short falls plunging over rocky ledges.
Crackpot Hall, a wonderful ruin abandoned over half a century ago, sits at the top of the entrance to the gill. It used to be an old mining office and is a grand reminder of a once-proud mining industry.
Crackpot Hall is a 25-minute walk from Keld with Swinner’s Gill 10 minutes further. Together they make a great excursion and can be included on a 30-minute detour from the walk detailed above (orange on the map below).
If you are interested in exploring more of Swaledale’s mining heritage, there are more extensive ruins on the gill north of Gunnerside and a small museum in the Old Smithy in Gunnerside Village.
08 – GRAB A PINT IN A TRADITIONAL INN
There are few better ways to end a day of outside activities than in the pub. On cold and wet days weary limbs huddle by a roaring fire; when the sun is out, Yorkshire beer gardens provide sweeping views over hill and dale.
The Farmers Inn in Muker is a friendly pub, right by the side of the road and a great spot to absorb the comings and goings of the village and warming up next to the roaring fire.
The Punchbowl Inn in Feetham is perched above the valley floor. They have a great selection of local ales and the views from their outdoor seating over the patchwork of fields are stunning.
The Buck Inn at Reeth is best for a livelier time. On weekends locals pile out of Richmond and beyond to drink and chatter on the village green just outside the pub.
But the best of them all is Tan Hill Inn …
09 – DINNER & MUSIC ON THE MOORS AT TAN HILL INN
At 528 metres, Tan Hill Inn is the highest pub in Britain. Set at the top of a beautifully desolate moorland scene, nothing but windblown grasses and a few sheep frame the view for miles. It feels remote yet inviting.
The chatter of hardy patrons fill the pub with a rugged atmosphere. Hikers on the Pennine Way looking for a bed for the night, cyclists taking a break from the hard climb, lost drivers stopping off for food. There’s live music every Thursday, Friday & Saturday, the food is excellent. The recently constructed outdoor pods are an innovative pivot for a traditional old pub.
If the weather is good enough, we recommend grabbing a pint of their homemade Kings Pit Ale, finding a seat outside, and staring at the endless rugged vista.
10 – VISIT THE NORMAN CASTLE AT RICHMOND
Richmond is a market town at the entrance to Swaledale. Its cobbled square is surrounded by historic buildings and a mixture of independent stores.
The highlight, rising out of the town and peering over a bend in the River Swale, is Richmond Castle. As one of the great Norman fortresses, building began in 1071. Designed to subdue the unruly northerners, it fell into disrepair in the 16th century but was later restored. Today it is the best preserved Norman castle in England.
A pleasant walk from the castle along the river will bring you to another grand ruin – Easby Abbey. This well-preserved monastery has an impressive refectory and gatehouse and the church within its grounds contains rare 13th-century wall paintings.
MAP OF THINGS TO DO IN SWALEDALE
We have marked our favourite things to do in Swaledale on the below map.
The walk between Keld & Muker, using a section of the Coast-to-Coast Path, is marked in red (90 minutes). To complete a fantastic circular walk, follow the purple path along the other side of the river and through the forest (another 90 minutes). A short detour along the brown path will bring you to Kidson Force Waterfall (add 15 minutes). Whereas the detour marked in orange will take you to the breath-taking beauty of Swinner’s Gill (add 30 minutes).
WHERE TO STAY IN SWALEDALE
Known as the CB Inn, this converted 18th-century inn has cosy antique-filled interiors with wooden beams. It’s the quintessential English country pub stay with good food.
HEART OF THE SWALEDALE
A sister pub of the Charles Bathurst Inn this pub is located in Low Row in the heart of Swaledale. The Coast to Coast passes close by outside and there are wonderful views over the fields.
Wild and remote high up on the moors this is a wonderfully atmospheric and fun place. There are roaring fires, bleak expansive views, good value food and live music at weekends in summer.
THINGS TO DO NEAR SWALEDALE
There are plenty of things to do in Swaledale, but it’s also a great location for exploring some other stunning destinations in the UK. All these places are within a 90-minute drive and some are even shorter.
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