The Rivers of the Yorkshire Dales

November 11, 2020

With very few lakes or mountain tarns in the area (plenty of reservoirs though!) the rivers of the Yorkshire Dales provides the watery backdrop to some of the best walks.

Each of the main dales of the region has their own river. In fact many of the dales are named after the river, such is their importance. As opposed to rivers in the higher lands they have not created the valleys, the glaciers did this. but gracefully meander along its foot. One interesting fact is that all bar two of the main rivers head east to the North Sea, only the Ribble and the Lune go west. The west coast is the closest sea to the Yorkshire Dales.

I have looked at each of the major rivers of the Yorkshire Dales and added the best walks to explore them.

River Ribble

Sawley on the Ribble

75 miles. Starting at Gavel Gap in the moors above Ribblehead the River Ribble flows between Ingleborough and Pen-y-Ghent to Settle following the famous Settle to Carlisle railway. Leaving the Dales at Settle the Ribble heads west to Preston before entering the sea between Lytham St Annes and Southport.

The wetlands at Long Preston, but more specifically at the estuary, are believed to be two of the most important bird sanctuaries in Britain. The river has many mills from the industrial era and is famous for salmon fishing and watching them leap during the autumn months.

River Aire

Near Malham Tarn

92 miles. Malham Tarn is the accepted start of the River Aire although it disappears at Water Sinks. It appears south of Malham at Aire Head, still in Malhamdale. However after the village of Airton the valley open out in to Airedale and passes Gargrave, Skipton and Leeds. It joins the River Ouse after Castleford.

The Aire is probably the least known of the major rivers in the Yorkshire Dales. This is partly due to its innocuous beginnings and partly due to the fact it is not named after the dale it starts in, Malham. However it ties in many of the main industrial mills of West Yorkshire and was a powerhouse in the 19th century.


Bolton Abbey

65 miles. The small hamlet of Beckermonds marks the start of this famous and much visited river. It flows powerfully through Wharfedale (home of Grassington and Bolton Abbey) before emerging from the Dales at Ilkley. From here the character of the river changes and it is serene progress to the River Ouse to the east of Wetherby.

The power of the river is reflected in the waterfalls at Linton and more specifically the ‘deadly’ Strid. However it is also the home of the Dales Way, Bolton Abbey and the lovely villages of Buckden, Grassington and Appletreewick. Brown trout are the anglers delight but this is very much the walkers river.

River Lune

Near Kirkby Lonsdale

53 miles. The River Lune skirts the western fringes of the Dales, starting at Newbiggin in the Northern Howgills. Heading initially west, it turns south near the M6 before passing close to Sedbergh, Kirkby Lonsdale before completing its trek near Lancaster.

The River Lune is not one of the traditional rivers in the Yorkshire Dales and passes on the fringes of much of the area, However its course to the west of the Howgills is glorious, it has a famous bridge (Devils) at Kirkby Lonsdale and is a fisherman’s delight. Two of its tributaries are significant Dales rivers. The first is the River Dee flowing through Dentdale and the second is the River Rawthey and its spectacular source near Cautley Spout.

River Ure, Wensleydale

Aysgarth Falls

74 miles. Just a few metres south of Hell’s Gill near the Moorcock Inn is the dramatic start to the River Ure. It is off valley but soon joins one of the main dales, Wensleydale. Flowing east through the dale it often floods the valley floor. However the progress becomes more tranquil as it heads south past Masham, Ripon before meeting the Ouse just beyond Boroughbridge.

Wensleydale is one of the most popular dales and is full of history and natural wonders. Aysgarth Falls, Hardraw Force, Bolton Castle, Middleham Castle and the market town of Hawes are to name but a few.

It is unusual tough that Wensleydale takes its name not from the river but a local village towards its eastern end. Originally however this may not have been the case.

River Swale

Autumn colours near Reeth

73 miles. To the west of Swaledale the sourse of the River Swale is set to be at Birkdale, it could be higher up the slopes of Nine Standards Rigg. From here it flows rapidly in to Swaledale at Keld before continuing past Reeth, Richmond and in to the wide vale near Catterick. The river heads south to meet the River Ure and the River Ouse just beyond Boroughbridge.

The River Swale is recognized as the fastest flowing river in England. It is also prone to flooding. Swaledale is narrower than the other main dales, the 19th century lead mining industry has laid bare the slopes particularly to the north and it has a large catchment. It is at its best near Kisdon Hill to the west and as it passes the castle and abbey ruins of Richmond.

River Eden

Source of the Eden

90 miles. The River Eden starts on the slopes of Little Fell in Mallerstang, a few metres from the source of the River Ure. It is amazing to think they meet the sea many 100s of miles distant on opposite sides of the country. It heads south past Kirkby Stephen before entering the Eden Valley. The river flows through Appleby, Temple Sowerby before continuing sedately north to Carlisle and the sea at the Solway Furth.

Mallerstang is a dramatic, rarely visited dale near the source of the river. In the valley floor lie the ancient remains of Pendragon and Lammerside Castle, to its side is the continuation of the magnificent Settle to Carlisle railway. The flood plains of the Eden Valley are empty of people and therefore full of birdsong, meadows and traditional farming.

River Nidd

Near Glasshouses

59 miles. Nidd Head Spring high on the slopes of Great Whernside provides the source of the River Nidd. It then flows past 3 reservoirs to the popular town of Pateley Bridge. From here the dale opens out and the river winds past pretty villages to Knaresborough, north of Harrogate and on to the River Ouse, the destination for so many of the Dales rivers.

Although bleak the three reservoirs of Angram, Scar House and Gouthwaite offer some excellent walks. Further south the mills and industrial remains of a thriving cotton industry pepper the riverside walks, as do the small but affluent villages. Further east Knaresborough is a charming Georgian market town.

Enjoy your walking


For a full list of my ‘Best of …’ walks follow this link

1 Comment
  • Chris Sayles says:

    Just a minor point Jonathan. Yes, you are technically correct in saying that the Aire joins the Ouse after Castleford, but a long way after. The aire joins the Ouse at Airmyn, just before the Ouse passes under Boothferry bridge on its way to Goole. The Aire is joined by the Calder at Castleford.

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