One of the Whernside Tarns with Whernside in the distance

Whernside Tarns Wildcamp

Walk Summary

A walk up to the Whernside Tarns from Ribblehead via the Craven Way followed a night of wild camping and an early visit to the summit of Whernside and a return to Ribblehead the following morning.

Distance: 12.8 miles
Total ascent: 2060ft
Walk Rating: *****
Parking: Roadside, Ribblehead
Route: Download Route [GPX]

Photo Gallery

Walk Report

It has been over two years since my last wild camp, when my friend Chris and I had camped alongside Birks Tarn on Birks Fell above Wharfedale. So when Chris asked if I fancied joining him on another camp I jumped at the chance.

Chris didn't have any particular locations in mind so I made a few different suggestions in the Dales, Lake District and North Pennines. The one that most caught Chris's fancy was Whernside Tarns. It was a spot that I'd long thought would be nice to camp alongside and it had the added bonus that Chris had never visited them before.

"In the two years since my last wild camp Chris had been on a number of camping trips and was now a seasoned hand at pitching his tent. I on the other hand was not."

We arranged to meet at 1pm at Ribblehead. Unfortunately some temporary traffic lights in Gargrave held me up considerably and I arrived half an hour late. I hate being late but thankfully Chris was very forgiving. It had been quite a pleasant day as I'd driven from home but almost as soon as I'd turned into Ribblesdale there had been rain showers.

Our original plan had been to do a bit of pottering about looking at caves and limestone features near Ribblehead before donning our backpacks and heading up on to Whernside. With the skies a bit dodgy we didn't want to get too wet before we'd even started so instead we went to the Station Inn for a pint!

By the time we'd had a drink there were some brighter patches appearing on Whernside so we went back to the cars and grabbed our gear. We set off initially on the main 'tourist' path heading up on to Whernside, passing the viaduct, the Blea Moor signal box, the southern end of the Blea Moor tunnel and the wonderful waterfall of Low Force.

At grid reference SD757824 we left the main path on to Whernside to continue on Craven Way, an old way that links upper Ribblesdale and Dentdale. To start, the path was quite narrow but after a while it broadened out into a superb green path over covered limestone. We briefly had another shower and up to the left the upper reaches of Whernside were once again covered in cloud. However, by the time we reached a ruin at Duncan Sike Foot there were positive signs to the north with sunshine over Dent station and beyond there was a great view of Mallerstang Edge and High Seat.

As the path curved around to the west the views began to include more of Baugh Fell, Aye Gill Pike and Arant Haw in the Howgills. Upon arriving at the limestone of Boot of the Wold we turned uphill alongside a wall. This path has only recently been marked on the map as it is part of the route of Wainwright's Pennine Journey. Although it was a fairly short climb my legs were beginning to tire from the extra weight of my backpack and I was looking forward to taking it off when we reached the tarns.

Unfortunately, and rather disappointingly, the first and largest tarn of the three main Whernside Tarns was about three-quarters empty. While it had been a dry summer I was still quite surprised by this. Assuming the other large tarn immediately to the west, but out of sight, was in a similar state we pressed on to a third smaller tarn to the south and at a slightly higher elevation.

It was with some relief that his third tarn still had a fair amount of water. This was important because Chris wanted a source of water that he could filter for use. It was quite breezy so we decided to pitch our tents on the west side of the tarn in the lee of a very slight raise which was just high enough to take the edge off the wind.

In the two years since my last wild camp Chris had been on a number of camping trips and was now a seasoned hand at pitching his tent. I on the other hand was not. Whilst I wasn't quite as bad as my last time out when I'd almost pitched it inside out it did take me a while to get it looking like it might at least resist the wind.

Whilst we were getting the tents set up some low cloud had settled over us but almost as soon as we'd finished it blew over. Walking a few metres to the west a dramatic view of Great Coum greeted us as the upper reaches of the fell were wreathed in cloud. By this time it was about 6.30pm and for the next hour or so we enjoyed increasingly superb views to the west where the setting sun occasionally appeared through the banks of cloud rolling across Great Coum and Calf Top towards us. One moment where a circular glow briefly appeared was particularly memorable. The fiery orange as the sun finally began to set behind Great Coum was also a magical scene.

After eating some dinner we sat by the tarn chatting until it had gone dark so it was time to head to the tents. As usual I didn't sleep well. The noise of the flapping tent in the wind, the cramped conditions and my thin sleeping mat weren't conducive to a good night's sleep. I was still awake when at around midnight I heard Chris say that Emma Raducanu had made history by winning the US Open. Not long after midnight the wind suddenly dropped and I was able to finally get some broken sleep.

At around 5.30am I decided to take a look outside of the tent. What I saw took my breath away - a stunning sky of oranges and reds above the tarn. As I was gathering my clothes and camera I heard Chris stir in the other tent so I called out telling him to take a look outside. Very soon we were both up and out of our tents. With a fine sunrise in the offing I suggested we leave the tents and take a walk up on to the summit of Whernside.

It took us about 25 minutes to reach the summit and all the while we were able to enjoy the red glow to the east. Being on the summit of Whernside at 6.40 in the morning in such conditions was exhilarating, not least because there was no one else about. Eventually the sun rose high enough to pass behind some clouds so we made our way back to the tents. After breakfast and a brew we packed the tents up and began to make our way back to Ribblehead.

We'd enjoyed the walk along Craven Way so much we decided to repeat it on the way back. For a bit of variety we first followed a thin path to reach the narrow embankment separating the first tarn we'd visited the previous evening with another large tarn. This second tarn was also surprisingly full compared to its neighbour. It also had a great view towards the lower end of Dentdale. A slight descent to a large cairn brought even more of Dentdale into view, in fact it is one of the best viewpoints for Dentdale I've come across.

We followed a thin path to another well built cairn, which was also a good viewpoint, before passing a stone shelter. Not long afterwards our little diversion brought us back to our outward route. Turning left we dropped back down to Boot of Wold where we turned right to follow Craven Way back to the tourist path. It was only on stepping back on to this latter path that we finally saw the first people since we'd left it the previous afternoon.

One of the main appeals of wild camping is the chance to enjoy a sunset and sunrise in the hills. On my previous camping trips I've had mixed success in this area. The dramatic clouds and patches of light in the evening and the incredible skies in the morning made this trip the most successful in this respect. It was also great to catch up with Chris again and hopefully we won't leave it as long again until next time.

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