Walks in the Dales and the Lakes, compare.

December 2, 2020

On a walk in the Dales I like to explore, on a walk in the lake District I tend to crave excitement. Both walks in the Dales and the Lakes offer a sense of adventure, just a different one.

The Lakes charms are more obvious, publicised and up front. The Dales appeal is more hidden, requires research and exploration to find them.

Crummockdale and Striding Edge
Crummockdale and Striding Edge

Walks in the Dales tend to be shorter and the average visitor spends more time exploring the history, pretty villages and rivers of the area. Walks tend to be part of the experience – not done necessarily for their own sake. A walk in the Dales is as much likely to have a castle as its focus point, or a pretty riverside or even a picturesque village than to catch a summit or spend hours on lofty ridges and high moorland. The appeal in the Lakes is the landscape.

Comparing Two Recent Walks

In October I enjoyed two superb walks. In one I climbed Little Fell and High Seat in the Dales, on the second a walk round the head of Haweswater. Both were in good weather with great views but each felt very different.

High Seat in the Dales and High Street in the Lakes
High Seat in the Dales and High Street in the Lakes

High Seat in the Dales

On High Seat the route was largely trackless with some rough walking underfoot. It required some concentrated navigation skills. Bearing in mind this is the 4th highest mountain in the Dales the climbing was not difficult. However it was full of interest. The two summits were not memorable, a pile of insignificant stones on each. However the biggest surprise were the wonderful legends surrounding the much larger cairns of High Seat and Gregory’s Chapel, google them or better buy a book. Add the legends of Dick Turpin, King Arthur’s father and the sad story behind Hangingstone Scar and you have a walk in remote country full of interest. As with many Dales walks look for the history behind the walk.

Haweswater in the Lakes

By comparison the head of Haweswater is well travelled. Even the lesser fells of Selside Pike and Branstree have a good path. However the setting is spectacular, the walk past Small Water delightful. The steep climb up Harter Fell even involves a little hands on scrambling, more if you leave the path. Rock is at the forefront of the views both short and long. It was invigorating and predictably fun. It was a walk I thoroughly enjoyed but much more so for the dramatic scenery than any hidden secret.

Typical Scenery in the Dales and the Lakes
Typical Scenery in the Dales and the Lakes

Another major difference between the two walks was the number of people I saw. On High Seat there was just myself and two companions, in the Lakes there were always people nearby. Lack of people makes a difference. They make the walk more of an adventure of exploration rather than an exciting adventure.

On the walks described above I have compared upland walking. The differences and motivations for walking in the Dales and the Lakes are no different on lower level walks.

So why are they different?


The water.Rivers or Lakes
The water.Rivers or Lakes

Geologically the Lakes are more dramatic. Recent (relatively) volcanic activity has created a rocky, mountainous landscape. In addition the Lake District is full of….lakes! Not only lakes but many mountain tarns. Bodies of water combined with the rockier landscape makes for a large choice of invigorating, exciting walk. It is why people walk and holiday in the Lake District.

The geology of the Dales does not include dramatic mountains formed by ancient volcanos, it is more genteel and rolling. That does not mean there is not some wonderful exposed rock, particularly the limestones and scars to the south of the area, but it does mean you have to search for the perfect spot. The porous nature of the rock also means that there is limited lakes and tarns in the area. The scenery is less obvious, many ways more comforting.


Lead Mining in the Dales, Slate in the Lakes
Lead Mining in the Dales, Slate in the Lakes

However walking in the Dales has other appeals. Leaving the few honeypots to explore the wider area is an adventure. It appeals to the explorer in me. Any walk is likely to have hidden surprises. Some of these are a natural result of the geology (follow a mountain stream and there is every chance it will simply disappear) or the wild flowers on the mountain slopes but many will be the result of man’s influence.

A walk is likely to pass the remains of the vibrant lead mining industry that thrived in the 19th century. The exceptional viaducts of the Settle to Carlisle railway dominate other walks. Less noticeable is the Polish War Memorial on Buckden Pike, the beacon on Pen Hill or the caves at Mossdale Scar. There is always something to find if you look.

Slate mining is still active in parts of the Lakes but it is more of a side show. Tourism has dominated the area for over 100 years and that is noticeable wherever you walk.

Land Management or Tourism

Stalking Track (Dales) or Walkers Path (Lakes)
Stalking Track (Dales) or Walkers Path (Lakes)

The Lake District has developed its tourism industry as a priority. The Dales is different and land management concerns have over ridden tourism development. Neither one approach is better than another but the results are different for the walker. It is a major reason why much of the Lakes is packed all year whilst the Dales is comparatively empty – aside from hot, summer weekends and a few hotspots such as Malham.

An obvious example of the influence of land owners between walks in the Dales and the Lakes is in the upland areas. Much of the Dales is dominated by vast grouse moors. It is wonderful walking country, straightforward but it is a managed and controlled landscape. Sometimes the walker feels like an imposter. Many avoid it as they can feel unwelcome. As a result the sky larks and buzzards provide the company up on high, not people.

Great Whernside and Stickle Pike
Great Whernside and Stickle Pike

In the Lakes the land is ‘managed’ by walkers striking out on the numerous paths and heading for the summits. There are no footpath or access land issues. It provides a more welcoming environment.

The other major influencer of the land is sheep farming. Along with dry stone walls sheep provide the backdrop for both walking in the Dales and the Lakes. The influence is more obvious in the Dales and creates more of an upland farming environment. In the Lakes the splendid Herdwicks are more decorous than profitable.

Villages and Towns

Starbotton and Hawkshead
Starbotton and Hawkshead

The villages and towns also have differences. It is immediately obvious that they look different. The Dales use attractive and usually local Yorkshire stone, the Lakes offer a splendid compassion of local slate or white washed pebble dash. The Lake District villages and towns are however set up for tourism, it is obvious in the shops , pubs and other businesses. The Dales villages have largely retained their character but in places look a little run down, they have lacked investment. There are fewer businesses in the Dales, less money coming in and less jobs for the locals.

There is also a fundamental difference in where the build up areas are located. In the Lake District they form a spine down the centre of the area. In the Dales the largest places circle the outskirts of the most beautiful areas.

As a personal aside the beer in each area is superb. Simply the best in the country.

Exploring or craving Excitement

Polish Cross and a Yewbarrow scramble
Polish Cross and a Yewbarrow scramble

As a younger walker I certainly craved the excitement of the Lake District. As a more experienced walker I enjoy exploring the Dales.

Walking in the Dales I recently came across a small voluntary contribution ‘cafe’ (a barn with a kettle) at the remote hamlet of Halton Gill. It made my day not only because it was a surprise but also because it so typified the Dales. There was even a farm dog sniffing around.

Walking in the Lakes I enjoyed testing myself once again on Halls Fell on Blencathra. I have climbed Blencathra over 30 times, the thought of it still excites me. The weather is always different and it is exhilarating.

Embrace the differences of walks in the Dales and the Lakes, do them both!

Enjoy your walking


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  • Ailie says:

    Even though I’ve lived in Provence for over 30 years and have an intense love of the dry limestone mountains here, something in my DNA is clearly completely English!

    I just read your ‘Dales or Lakes?’ blog with great interest and nostalgia and the photos of your favourite tarns tugged at a sort of homesickness. I guess this is particularly intense as we are still locked down here. For the first four weeks of this second lockdown (as in the first) we were only allowed out for one hour’s exercise within a maximum radius of 1km of our homes. I did feel rather like a hamster. A couple of weeks ago they relented and now we can go out for 3hr’s exercise within a 20km radius. Not ideal but much better.

    One day I’ll come back to the Dales.

    Lovely. Thank you.

  • Lance says:

    Love the Dales. Hate the Lakes too crowded on and off the hill. Harder to get parked and expensive.

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