Hameldown Tor
Hameldown Tor

The UK's best wilderness walks

Lesley Williams
By Lesley Williams
8 minute read

Wilderness walking routes crossing remote and pathless terrain can be an antidote to modern life and keep you safely away from crowded environments. True wilderness (entirely untouched by mankind) is hard to find, however these suggestions provide opportunities throughout the UK for some amazing and sometimes challenging walks away from it all.

Glenfinnan
View back to Glenfinnan (Cape Wrath Trail, Stage 2)

Wilderness – an area that is uncultivated, undomesticated or inhospitable

Getting away to enjoy the raw beauty of nature and the fresh air is healthy and safe, but to enjoy true wilderness is exclusively a reward for effort – for walkers, backpackers and runners prepared to cross pathless terrain far away from the trappings of the modern world.

You can find areas of wilderness throughout Britain, but while some small areas of southern and central England and Wales remain relatively wild, extensive areas of wilderness are now only found in Scotland and some more remote corners of northern England. It is imperative that we protect these spaces and keep them wild - leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but photographs.

Scotland

Think of wilderness and you think of Scotland, and much of the Highlands are indeed wilderness, too inhospitable for man to have created roads, tracks and paths.

Perhaps the ultimate wilderness walk is the Cape Wrath Trail, which is a 230 mile, three-week challenging route from Fort William to Cape Wrath, crossing remote, sparsely populated, potentially dangerous mountain country.

The route passes through the wild and rugged landscapes of Morar, Knoydart, Torridon and Assynt. There are no pack carrying services and often no clear paths. Limited re-supply points require self sufficiency for many days together, so it will test the limits of your endurance. A truly remote and challenging trek, but not a route for beginners!

If an epic adventure is not for you, consider uncovering some of the wilder and remote tracts of the Hebrides. Harris and Lewis offer opportunities for high, trackless terrain as well as more accessible routes exploring the beautiful coast and ancient monuments.

For a fantastic wilderness day out, make your way to the Uig hills on the western side of Lewis. Richard Barrett suggests you arrive at the end of the road south of Mealasta and begin the 12km circular route to climb Griomabhal, Naideabhal a-Muigh and Laibheal. Rocky slabs, scattered boulders and grass are crossed on broad ridges, with views on a clear day out to the Flannan Isles and St Kilda. (Walk 17, Harris and Lewis)

If choosing the right destination is proving difficult, there are no less than 50 walking and backpacking routes throughout the Hebridean islands described in The Hebrides, including routes on some of the least accessible islands. This book makes a great choice for many island adventures, but there are also specific guidebooks to most of the main Scottish Islands, including Jura, Islay and Colonsay, Uist and Barra, Rum and the smaller islands.

Further south, there are vast areas of wilderness in the Cairngorms, where it is still possible to spend all day walking without seeing another person. That is also true in many parts of Lochaber, the Southern Uplands and the Borders.

For a long and high wilderness day out, climb Beinn Mheadhoin, Ronald Turnbull’s favourite route, approached via Loch Morlich then up the northeast ridge, with an optional grade 1 scramble, and another onto the summit tor. Then return via the Shelter Stone and Loch Avon.

It’s a 36km route that will take between 11 and 12 hours over boulder strewn rough grass, boulders and rocky outcrops. One for mid-summer when the days are long! (Route 14, Walking in the Cairngorms)

Northern England

The North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is England’s last wilderness. Not all of it is wilderness, of course, as this area also includes remote valleys with ghostly reminders of the mining activities in the past. But there are huge areas of wild upland and moorland, and boggy bits too, where the only intervention by man has been to graze sheep for centuries.

Northwest of Middleton in Teesdale the moors separating Teesdale and Weardale offer real solitude, as do the western ranges of the Pennines above Dufton and northwards.

For a wilderness day out in the North Pennines, Paddy Dillon has a 24km route he describes as rugged, high-level, with bleak and exposed moorlands, sometimes with vague paths. Sound good?

Just up the road from Middleton-in-Teesdale, this circular route climbs Hagworm Hill from the village of Holwick. There is a true sense of remoteness, as old bridleways and disused paths are followed, crossing numerous streams and through a national nature reserve to the high point at around 600m. (Walk 26, Walking in the North Pennines)

Dry Beck, near Green Trod
Dry Beck, on a broad and pathless moorland near Green Trod

Wales

The Cambrian Way is a challenging 470km (292 miles) mountain trek through Wales between Cardiff and Conwy following elegant ridgelines and crossing wild and rugged landscapes. The route isn’t waymarked, and there are extensive sections without clear paths.

Backpacking is advisable as accommodation options are sometimes limited.

Many mountain ranges are crossed, including the Black Mountains, Brecon Beacons, the Elenydd wilderness, Cadair Idris, the Rhinogs, Snowdon, the Glyders, Tryfan and the Carneddau.

Bwlch Siglen
Looking towards Bwlch Siglen (‘shaking pass’) from the summit of Maesglase (Stage 14 of the Cambrian Way)

For a fantastic wilderness day out in a quiet corner of the Brecon Beacons, this 16km circular walk approaches the craggy cliffs of Craig Cerrig Gleisiad National Nature Reserve, then upwards to the high, exposed moorlands of Fan Frynych and across to the spectacular cliffs at Craig Cwm Du.

It’s a route full of interest – a Roman road, waterfalls and far-reaching views, as well as an abundance of wildlife and interesting plants. (Walk 27, Walking on the Brecon Beacons)

Central and southern England

People have trampled over southern England for thousands of years, creating roads, railways and canals linking ever-growing towns and cities.

There is peace, solitude and semi-wilderness still to be found, you just need to know where to look! In the far east of England, there are few really wild and remote areas, however stretches of the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts offer opportunities for walks in relative solitude.

For a quiet yet beautiful 18km coastal walk, a section of the Stour and Orwell Walk traces around the Shotley peninsular. Starting at Chelmondiston just south of Ipswich, the quiet and tranquil route beside the River Orwell leads to Shotley Point, with a panorama of container shipping entering Felixstowe opposite.

A linear walk continuing on the Stour and Orwell Walk continues through farmland to Lower Holbrook. Alternatively, to return to the start, either reverse the route, or walk to the village of Shotley, then north to Church End, then on a footpath east to rejoin the coast path back to Chelmondiston. (Stage 4, Stour and Orwell Walk, Suffolk Coast and Heath Walks.)

Moving west across southern England, there are some wonderful walks where you can be alone all day, enjoying huge expanses of chalk downlands and big wide views.

People have, in fact, been living and walking on the chalk downlands for thousands of years, but the nature of the chalky hills has preserved the scenery, with modern intrusion appearing only in the villages nestling at the foot of the downs.

For a fantastic day out in an area of outstanding beauty, as well as a visit to the Iron Age earthworks of Barbury Castle, this 20km circular walk follows much of the Ridgeway National Trail high in the Marlborough Hills, with superb views and big open skies, descending along Smethe’s Ridge back to the village of Ogbourne St Andrew, just a short drive north of Marlborough. (Walk 16, Walking in the North Wessex Downs)

Further west again, and the moorlands of Dartmoor, Exmoor and Bodmin all have a remoteness and challenge, yet are mainly easily accessed. Beware misty conditions, as these moors can be challenging.

For a fantastic long weekend (3 days) crossing some of Dartmoor’s wildest scenery, follow the Two Moors Way, leaving Ivybridge up and across remote moors for 21km to the peaceful village of Holne. From there, a shorter 12km day enjoys the River Dart valley, then eventually climbs the slopes of Hamel Down, with good accommodation in nearby Widecombe in the Moor.

The final 17km day follows the Hamel Down Ridge with superb 360-degree views. Undulating tracks and woodland follow, before steeply dropping into the Teign valley at Chagford. From here there are limited bus services to Okehampton and Exeter. Alternatively, complete the entire Two Moors Way to Lynmouth!

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