10 of the UK's best alternative mountain and hill walks

Snowdon, Helvellyn and Ben Nevis are great climbs, so long as you don’t mind the queues on the trails. Carey Davies finds these walks just as challenging and scenic – but without the crowds

Lake District

Skip Helvellyn via Striding Edge
Give this a go instead High Street via Long Stile ridge

Helvellyn is a wonderful mountain, a huge throne of stone carved by glaciers, but the Lake District’s third-highest peak is yet another victim of the honeypot effect. Erosion has already wiped out some rare Arctic-alpine plants and is endangering the likes of the schelly fish, an ice age remnant found in the mountain’s Red Tarn.

Climbing High Street fell from Haweswater via Long Stile ridge shares ingredients with the ascent of Helvellyn via the famously airy arête of Striding Edge. You get a superb ridge and a stern glacial cirque, topping out on a broad plateau with the Lakeland fells laid out around you, but without the long procession of people. Long Stile is a mild scramble, but well within the abilities of most hill walkers, and the top of High Street (named after the Roman road that crossed its summit) is one of the finest vantage points in the Lake District.

A lone figure on a pinnacle on Scafell
A lone figure on a pinnacle on Scafell. Photograph: Nigel Wilkins/Alamy

Skip Scafell Pike
Give this a go instead Scafell

Climb Scafell Pike on a sunny bank holiday, and you have to jostle for the summit cairn with a crowd the size of a small festival. But those who climb to the top of England’s second-highest peak, its silent sibling, Scafell – less than a mile away and only slightly lower (14 metres) – can enjoy the same huge views, quite possibly from an empty summit and in a silence broken only by the occasional croak of a raven.

This contrast is remarkable, and partly thanks to Broad Stand, a treacherous crag that acts as a bulwark stopping people hopping between the two peaks. The most direct route up Scafell is from Wasdale, but the best is the long, challenging ascent via the Esk gorge, which is studded with waterfalls tumbling into icy blue plunge pools, perfect for the aquatically inclined – and thermally resilient – on a broiling summer’s day. Upper Eskdale feels like England’s answer to a Himalayan sanctuary, a spectacular hanging valley reached only by the dedicated pilgrim of the Lake District’s wilder corners.

The Highlands

The view across Loch Morlich to Cairn Gorm and the northern corries.
The view across Loch Morlich to Cairn Gorm and the northern corries. Photograph: Julian Cartwright/Alamy

Skip Ben Nevis
Give this a go instead Cairn Gorm and the northern corries

The most popular path up Ben Nevis – the Mountain Track from Glen Nevis – is perfect if you just want to tick the “Britain’s highest mountain” box. Getting up it is an achievement but the route can be a bit purgatorial – a series of switchbacks up the most formless side of the mountain. And it’s usually heaving.

For adventure on a similar size and scale but with fewer people, the circuit from the Cairngorm Mountain ski centre car park up to Cairn Lochan, over the awesome crags of the northern corries to Cairn Gorm (Britain’s sixth-highest mountain), and down via Sròn an Aonaich ticks several boxes. It takes in some of the most spectacular mountain architecture in Britain and skirts the Cairngorm plateau, the highest terrain in Britain beyond Ben Nevis itself. As on any hill walk, proper equipment, a close look at a mountain weather forecast and good navigational skills are essential.

Skip The Cobbler (AKA Beinn Artair or Ben Arthur)
Give this a go instead The Tarmachan Ridge

The view south west from Ben Lawers summit, showing Beinn Ghlas, Meall Corranaich and Meall nan Tarmachan.
View from Ben Lawers summit, showing Beinn Ghlas, Meall Corranaich and Meall nan Tarmachan. Photograph: Julian Cartwright/Alamy

Most Scottish hills never see anything like the crowds of some of their counterparts in England and Wales, but the Cobbler, in the southern Highlands, is one of the few exceptions to the rule. Though a splendid mountain, its proximity to Glasgow and the Central Belt, combined with the pull of its Tolkienesque, rock-fortress summit (the origin of its “nickname”) means the summer crowds are rarely absent.

Meall nan Tarmachan, a little further north, lacks such an unmistakeable profile but the traverse of its full length, balancing along rocky ridges and grassy arêtes surrounded by a sea of summits, is one of the best mountain walking experiences in the Southern Highlands. The mild –and avoidable – scramble on the descent from Meall Garbh does not quite offer the thrill of “threading the needle” (the head-swimmingly exposed scramble to the top of the Cobbler), but it adds a bit of spice to the mix.

Brecon Beacons

View from Twmpa towards Hay Bluff
View from Twmpa towards Hay Bluff. Photograph: Cody Duncan/Alamy

Skip Pen y Fan
Give this a go instead Hay Bluff and Twmpa

Last Good Friday, as the sun beat down on the top of Pen y Fan, highest peak in south Wales, saw an increasingly common phenomenon: walkers formed an orderly line to get that all-important summit selfie. The queue was a quarter of a mile long. Take a bow, Britain – we have literally taken our queuing habit to new heights.

If you don’t fancy the sound of this, head east, to the wonderfully overlooked Black Mountains. Hay Bluff, just south of Hay-on-Wye on the mountains’ main north-east-facing escarpment, and nearby Twmpa (which also goes by the unfortunate monicker of Lord Hereford’s Knob) provide a similar “top of the world” feeling, but with a fraction of the crowds. Semi-wild ponies roam the ridges, and kestrels and buzzards hang in the updraft. Go on a day of far-reaching visibility to make the most of the vast views over the rural patchwork of Herefordshire and into the hilly heart of Wales.

Yorkshire Dales

The Summit of Buckden Pike, Upper Wharfedale.
The summit of Buckden Pike, Upper Wharfedale. Photograph: David Forster/Alamy

Skip Yorkshire Three Peaks
Give this a go instead Wharfedale Three Peaks

More than a mere long walk, the magnificent 23-mile circuit of Pen-y-Ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales is a sort of cultural rite of passage. But in the 130 years or so since the original “Three Peaks” walk was devised, the troubling effects of its popularity – overcrowding, erosion and parking chaos – have reached near-crisis levels.

The Wharfedale Three Peaks, a high-level horseshoe around the top of glacier-gouged Upper Wharfedale, is a very worthy alternative, and of similar length and sternness. The “summits” of Birks Fell, Buckden Pike and Great Whernside (confusingly smaller than its namesake) are more like wide whaleback ridges, but you stay up in the sky for longer, and on a sunny day sinking a pint outside the White Lion at Cray, around the 10-mile mark, is a simple piece of paradise. By the end you will be tired, happy and saturated with wonder.

The Upper Wharfedale Fell and Rescue Association will run a marshalled Wharfedale Three Peaks challenge on 29 June, with the full 22-mile route, plus shorter options.

Skip Malham Cove and Gordale Scar
Give this a go instead Warrendale Knotts and Attermire Scar

Warrendale Knotts and Ribblesdale, between the town of Settle and Langcliffe village, North Yorkshire
Warrendale Knotts and Ribblesdale, between the town of Settle and Langcliffe village. Photograph: John Bentley/Alamy

This may not be “mountainous” territory in the strictest sense but the sublime karst architecture of the Yorkshire Dales can be as jaw-dropping as anything found at higher altitudes. The echoing enormity of Malham Cove is the world-famous A-lister, and neighbouring Gordale Scar gets its fair share of attention, too, as cars choking the fields and roads around Malham at weekends attest.

Nothing really comes close to the scale of Malham’s limestone spectacles but there are some remarkably overlooked gems around the Dales. Warrendale Knotts and Attermire Scar rise spectacularly from the folds of the landscape near Settle, their rippling layers of rock reflecting the ebb and flow of the tropical sea they were born in. And nearby Victoria Cave, where the bones of hippos, rhinos, elephants and hyenas were excavated in the 19th century, is another poignant location to contemplate lost worlds lying underfoot.

Peak District

A walker on the summit of Parkhouse Hill looking across to Chrome Hill in upper Dovedale.
The summit of Parkhouse Hill looking across to Chrome Hill in upper Dovedale. Photograph: Steve Taylor/Alamy

Skip Mam Tor and the Great Ridge
Give this a go instead Chrome Hill and Parkhouse Hill

Chrome Hill and Parkhouse Hill are what might happen if you took a pair of Alpine mountains, shrunk them to about a 20th of the size, and plonked them amid the green pastures of the White Peak. They are, rather mind-bendingly, the calcified remnants of huge coral reefs which existed in a teeming tropical sea about 330 million years ago – vividly illustrating the wonder of limestone formation – and their crags and slopes are a botanical treasure trove.

As mini-mountains with wide-ranging views, they make a fitting and far quieter alternative to Mam Tor and the Great Ridge – the sweeping edge separating Edale and the Hope Valley which is probably the most popular hill walk in the Peak District, which is in turn one of the most popular national parks in Britain. I would offer a word of warning, though: those who are sensitive to heights may find Parkhouse Hill packs quite a punch for its small size.


Sign and stone marker for top of the Watkin path on Snowdon
Sign and stone marker for top of the Watkin path. Photograph: Alamy

Skip Snowdon via the Llanberis, Pyg or Miner’s paths
Give this a go instead The Watkin Path

The previous descriptions of overcrowded hills are just a warm-up for Snowdon, which by the last count receives almost half a million visitors a year. Ascending via one of the popular paths, such as the Miner’s or Pyg, can sometimes feel like an exercise in queuing for the summit from the first step you take. Yet here as elsewhere, the honeypot effect is concentrated into a smallish area: even on a sunny bank holiday it is possible to climb Snowdon in relative peace. (Remember, though, that none of its paths will offer anything like perfect isolation, and the approach to the summit is always likely to be bedlam).

A few years ago, I would have hesitated to recommend the Watkin Path, with its idyllic series of pools and waterfalls near the start, because it involved a steep and rather scrappy final climb to Snowdon’s summit, but a new path has now been laid on key sections thanks to the British Mountaineering Council’s fundraising efforts. Descend to the south via Bwlch Main and Allt Maenderyn for a fantastic and lesser-trodden circuit.

Skip Tryfan and the Glyderau
Give this a go instead The Carneddau

The outlying Carneddau peak of Yr Elen, Snowdonia, North Wales.
The outlying Carneddau peak of Yr Elen. Photograph: Julian Cartwright/Alamy

The wind-ravaged tops of the Carneddau are a world apart: a series of wide, whale-backed mountain ridges that could easily be mistaken for Arctic tundra. Despite being the UK’s largest continuous expanse of high ground south of Scotland, the Carneddau are easily overlooked in favour of the more “glamorous” Glyderau, on the opposite side of the Ogwen valley, which entice walkers en masse with pulse-racing scrambles and bristling ridges. But in the great Carneddau, once you get up high on those roomy ridges you can stay high on them for hours, striding along in a lofty place – where ravens, dotterels and certainly sheep often outnumber people – soaking up the sheer joy of space. You can’t go wrong with the circuit of Pen yr Ole Wen, Carnedd Dafydd, Carnedd Llewelyn and Pen yr Helgi Du. The Carneddau even hide a lesser-known classic scramble, the Llech Ddu Spur – perfect for the adrenaline-seeker looking to dodge the crowds of the Glyderau.

Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips


Carey Davies

The GuardianTramp

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