A friend said he wanted a challenge. The challenge had to be something we could complete in a weekend, and which would stretch our physical capabilities. Completing ‘The Three Peaks’ would fit the brief.
Given the three of us in the pub that night were all in our early-50s, and our physical training regimes between us were mixed, ‘The Three Peaks’ sounded like a tough enough assignment.
Which Three Peaks Challenge?
Yet, when someone mentions ‘The Three Peaks Challenge’ most people immediately think of the physical challenge of walking or running up Britain’s highest peaks, namely Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon, within 24 hours.
But, there is a lesser known walking challenge, ‘The Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge’, which takes in the three highest points in the Yorkshire Dales. The peaks are Pen-y-Ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough.
The challenge is to climb all three peaks in under 12 hours. The circular route is 24.5 miles long and passes through several points when you can stop for a rest and to top up your energy. Although it is challenging, it’s more attainable than the National Three Peaks Challenge.
Do It Yourself or Join a Group?
You can walk the Yorkshire Three Peaks as part of an organised event (click here for details), Or, you can do it independently.
Joining an organised event means you pay a fee, but get benefits, like food stops at set points, safety support and guides.
We decided to do it ourselves. Walking in large groups means you lose some freedom, and it is less complicated. You just turn up and go.
Where to start the Challenge
Most people start in Horton-in-Ribblesdale, at the southern end of the challenge. If you take the ‘anti-clockwise route’ from here, your first peak is Pen-y-Ghent, nearby.
Horton-in-Ribblesdale is the most popular starting point, so it’s a good idea to get there early (as in before 7 am so you can park easily) and avoid the crowds. It’s a busy place for ‘The Challenge’, particularly when there are organised events.
Therefore, an alternative starting point is Chapel-le-Dale. If you start from here, it’s a little quieter than starting in Horton-in-Ribblesdale, and your first Peak is Ingleborough.
We started in Horton-in-Ribblesdale. In retrospect, it’s probably best to start in Chapel-le-Dale. Why? If you get to ‘Horton’ early enough, it’s easy to find a parking space and to get going before the crowds turn up.
But, the main reason for starting in Chapel-le-Dale is you get the most boring, tiresome part of the walk out of the way early when you are fresh. That stage is the track from Ingleborough to Horton-in-Ribblesdale. It looks like a steady descent, which it is.
However, the track takes you through an area of limestone pavements. That sounds interesting, if you like your geology. But, when it’s wet (which it was when we went through) the track is slippery. And, when you are tired after 20 miles, walking along it is not fun.
Therefore, start in Chapel-le-Dale, and come down to a great finish of the challenge.
What’s the route like?
Prepare your lungs for a good workout. Wherever you start, you are going to be climbing up relentless ascents to the Peaks. Pen-y-Ghent is a short distance from Horton-in-Ribblesdale on the map, but the contour lines are close on the map, meaning you ascend to 694 metres above sea level in a short distance over the ground.
By the look of one of our team when he reached the top of Pen-y-Ghent, he was wondering if he was going to make it all the way round. There’s a steep, rocky section near the summit which you need to pick your way through before it levels off to the triangulation point at the top.
From there, you descend into the low ground towards Whernside (736 metres above sea level) via the Ribblehead Viaduct. It’s an easy enough walk to the viaduct and there is a car park at this point. There, you’ll find a van selling bacon butties, burgers and drinks, if you need a break and a top up. There’s also the Station Inn nearby if you feel like something a little stronger.
From the Ribblehead Viaduct prepare for a long, steady climb to the top of Whernside, the highest of the Peaks. This section feels endless, and the crowds of walkers at this point became noticeably bigger.
The track at the bottom part of the route up Whernside is a mix of rocks and gravel. As you ascend, the rocks and gravel give way to slabs of rock. So many people take part in the challenge that the park authorities have had to lay slabs down to lessen the erosion. Consequently, the route is narrow and tough on your feet. With the amount of walkers on the route that day, the path started to have traffic jams.
Be prepared to slow down or speed up on that section according to the amount of congestion.
Eventually, you reach the summit of Whernside, which has a dry stone wall running along it, perfect to shelter behind for a brew and some lunch. Face south and you can see Pen-y-Ghent and Ingleborough. It’s a magnificent view (if the weather is good).
The sight of Ingleborough to the south-west looks imposing, particularly because you know you’ve got to descend a long way before making the next ascent.
The path off Whernside is steep and rocky. It’s tough on your knees. If you have walking poles, this where they will be useful. The route soon flattens off and goes through pastures before you come to a barn containing a cafe. It’s a busy point where the walkers in organised groups stop off at their ‘watering points’.
You walk past the pub (The Old Hill Inn) in Chapel-le-Dale, turn right onto the footpath and begin the climb up Ingleborough. You walk across pastures until you reach the path paved with slabs of local rock and steadily climb towards Ingleborough.
The final ascent looks a lot tougher than it is in reality. The route looks like a swine, but it took a lot less time to climb than I thought. Just ‘get your head down’, get into a rhythm and you will soon reach the edge where you turn right and make the final push up Ingleborough.
You pass a track to your left, which leads to Horton-in-Ribblesdale, and make your way up a narrow, rocky section. This leads onto a barren, stony plateau at the far end of which is the triangulation point and summit. You’ll find a stone shelter where you get out of the wind for a while. You might also various people wearing ‘high-viz’ tops who are marshalling ‘group walkers’ to check in.
The final leg
It feels great to have reached the top of all three peaks. But, you still have another 4 miles to do before you’re finished. And, for us, this was the hardest section. It’s not steep but, as mentioned earlier, the path through the limestone pavement towards Horton-in-Ribblesdale is not enjoyable.
By this stage, the three of us were feeling the 20 miles of the challenge so far. Aching knees was the main affliction, with the odd sore tendon.
Once you are through the ‘pavement section’, you enter fields and drop into Horton. You will cross over the railway at the station and enter the village knowing you are only a few hundred metres from where you started (if you started here, of course).
Summing up the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge
We completed the challenge in under 11 hours, having started at 6 am. The early start got us away from the crowds of walkers to begin with. But, as you progress round the route, more walkers on the challenge join you.
On the day we did it in May, by the time we reached the top of Whernside, we could see hundreds of people following us in the distance. There were organised groups, groups of soldiers and lone walkers completing it. It was busy.
If you want to do it independently, check when the organised days are happening and pick a weekend when there is not an event.
The Yorkshire Three Peaks is a good challenge to complete. It is hard work, but exhilarating when you reach the top of each peak, and finish. It’s not a challenge to complete if you just want to admire the beauty and peacefulness of the Yorkshire Dales. To finish in under 12 hours, you need to keep moving at a steady pace, interspersed with a few short breaks.
The route is surprisingly tough on your feet from the stone paving around most of it. Your feet will take a pounding on the rock, so be prepared.
Consider starting in Chapel-le-Dale too. It is better to get the limestone pavement section out of the way when you are fresh.
Where to Stay for the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge
We stayed at the Langcliffe Caravan Park just north of Settle. The site has camping and caravan pitches, or you can rent a static caravan or a room in an apartment in their main building.
The site is about 15 minutes from Horton-in-Ribblesdale, and it’s a short walk into Settle for a curry after completing the walk!