Malham Cove, North Yorkshire - The Limestone Trinity (Free Route)

Route Summary

This route covers the dramatic landscape of Malham Cove, Gordale Scar, Janet Foss waterfall and Malham Tarn - Britain's highest lake. Please note currently that there is a request from Yorkshire Dales National Park to use the alternative route.

Difficulty: Strenuous

Distance:  7.0 miles (11.3 km)

Walking Time: 03h 30m

Type: Circular

Start location

Malham National Park visitor centre, BD23 4DA

lat: 54.060202

lon: -2.153044

Getting there

By Car: Malham is on a minor road a few miles north of Skipton on the A65. There is a large Pay & Display car park next to the visitor centre.

By Bus: There are limited services to Malham from Skipton and Settle. See Dalesbus services pass through the village in the summer. See

Route Map

malham route



Turn left out of the National Park Visitors’ Centre onto the main road through the village, past the Methodist Chapel on your left. Opposite the River House Hotel you’ll see an old smithy, behind which a stone clapper bridge crosses to the far bank of Malham Beck. Once over this, turn right and follow the Pennine Way downstream. After passing through two swing gates, you reach a kissing gate where you should turn left off the Pennine Way in the direction of “Janet’s Foss”, as indicated. The path winds along the side of a wall and Gordale Beck for about 15 minutes, passing three handsome old stone barns and a concrete bridge to the right which you should ignore. Another gate leads into the National Trust owned Janet’s Foss woodland, past a succession of mossy crags and fallen tree trunks on its approach to the famous waterfalls and pool (A). (A) The beck reaches a crescendo at Janet’s Foss, where it plunges over an outcrop into a deep pool ringed by mossy boulders and trees. “Foss” derives, like its namesake “force”, from the Norse word for “waterfall”; “Janet” is a Fairy Queen of local folk lore, suggesting this magical glade has been popular with the area’s inhabitants for many centuries. Elderly residents of Malham still recall the time when the pool was used for an annual mass sheep dip. Stripped to the waist, shepherds would wash their flocks to encourage the growth of new wool – a spectacle around which a small festival grew up over the years. As you approach the falls through the wooded gorge below them, look out for fallen tree trunks into which people have hammered lucky pennies as offerings to the fairies who inhabited these glades.


The path climbs left of the falls and on across a field to meet Gordale Lane. Turn right onto the tarmac and follow it for a few minutes, past Gordale Bridge (where the alternative walking route as advised by the National Park turns off - see [3] below) until you reach a right hand bend. Go through a gate on the left and along a footpath, signposted to Gordale Scar, through the campsite. Continue along a well-made path running to the right of the stream to reach the ravine (B) itself. (B) Hidden until the last second by a bend in the surrounding cliffs, Gordale Scar comes as a complete revelation – a vertical trench bounded by 100-metre/328-feet cliffs that seem almost to meet at their tops. Through this narrow defile the stream froths down two superb waterfalls, the higher of the pair cascading over a rock arch above the first. The geological explanation is that the gorge was formed by the collapse of a massive underground cavern, but this fails to convey the gloomy magnificence of the scene, which has long fascinated visiting artists The Romantic poet Thomas Gray (1716–71) claimed he could only bear to stay in the Scar for a quarter of an hour at a time, and then, “not without shuddering”. And after being invited here by the local landowner, Lord Ribblesdale, in 1811, James Ward declared the vista “unpaintable”, before proving himself wrong with a rendition as awe-inspiring as it was huge. His enormous canvas, measuring 3.7m x 4.3m/12ft x 14ft, now hangs in the Tate where it is regarded as the apotheosis of the so-called “Regency-Gigantism” school of Romantic landscape painting.


You now have a choice. The traditional route continues by crossing the beck and climbing up the left side of the waterfall and does require an easy scramble. This route is not now recommended by the National Park, due to erosion of the tufa which characterises the scar. If you wish to follow the National Park’s alternative option, do not fancy the scramble or there is ice or flood water, please use the alternative route as detailed below (b). The traditional route directions continue with (a). (a) If you decide to climb, seven or eight moves are all that’s required to carry you above the obstacle. The reward for the little scramble is a superb view back down the gorge and access to the radically different landscape above. Once atop the gorge, keep to the obvious path, which gradually drifts to the left of a dry valley in the direction of the Malham Tarn road. After crossing the ladder stile where the alternate route re-joins, continue along the wide path. The last stretch shadows a drystone wall, funnelling you into a corner where a stile carries you over to Street Gate.b) If you decide to take the requested alternative route, return back down the path to the tarmac road. Turn right and follow the road for 40 meters until you reach a gateway on your right at Gordale Bridge, signposted “Malham Cove 1 mile”. Go through this gate and keep to the clear path ahead, which runs up the side of a drystone wall to a second gate. Turn sharp right (northeast) after the gate, making for a third gate visible on the far side of the field, just beyond a wall junction. From the other side of this gate a clear path strikes steeply right (northeast) up the hillside to the crags above. It offers excellent views looking behind you. Running in parallel with the drystone wall lining the cliff edge, it then goes along the top of the ravine before making a slight descent to re-join the main Gordale Scar path at a ladder stile over a wall.


Continue straight ahead from here along the broken-surfaced track, heading due north, with a wall to your right. Bending away left from this wall, the path eventually drops downhill to arrive at a gate next to Great Close Plantation. Ignore the trail leading ahead beyond the gate and instead turn left along the side of the wall bounding the trees. Ignore the small wood on the hillside to the left and when a second coppice appears ahead of you make for the left hand side of it. Skirt the south edge of this second clump of trees until you arrive at a gravel track, where you should turn right and then left almost immediately onto the Pennine Way, as indicated by a finger post sign. From here you can either keep to the Pennine Way, which glances the southern tip of nearby Malham Tarn (C), or follow a broader track southwest to crest a rise from where views of the lake and house are best. (C) Originally formed by glacial meltwater, the lake Malham Tarn – the highest in Britain – presents a serene spectacle against its backdrop of moorland ridges. The eastern shore is dominated by the stately façade of Malham House, an elegant aristocratic bolthole that formerly belonged to Lord Ribblesdale. The mansion nowadays serves as a field centre run by the National Trust.


Both trails eventually converge on a small car park. Turn right on to the road, cross the stream and pick up the Pennine Way, which turns left through the gate just beyond stream. After approximately 100 metres turn left again as indicated by a finger post to pass the famous Water Sinks, where the stream on your left suddenly disappears. The next leg down Watlowes follows an obvious path but is rocky, muddy and hard going in wet weather. After 5 minutes or so you reach a small clearing; stay with the clear path going left, which then circles right to a stile on the left. Cross the stile and descend a steep, rocky path. This eventually takes you to the lower level of the valley, where it splits below some dramatic crags. Once on level ground the rest of the route to the head of Malham Cove (D) is relatively plain sailing. (D) The view from the top of Malham Cove stands as a grand finale to a circuit that’s been a popular excursion since Victorian times, when its landforms inspired Turner, Ruskin and Charles Kingsley. More visitors than ever are now coming to Malham to experience these great sights, but thanks to sensitive management by the National Trust you still have to walk – and in one instance scramble – to reach the most impressive viewpoints, which has ensured these limestone treasures remain relatively undiminished by the attention lavished on them.


Turn right along the Pennine Way when you reach the rim of the Cove – our featured viewpoint – picking your way across the limestone pavement, or over the crags to its right. At the point where the rocks peter out, the path plunges left through a gate in a drystone wall to start its stepped descent back to Malham. After passing through a gate at the bottom of the steps it’s worth making a short detour on a path to the left to admire the cliffs from below. The remaining stretch into the village runs above the beck via a good path, scaling a rise to re-join a lane on the northern fringes of Malham. Turn left onto this tarmac lane and follow it for 5 minutes past the entrance to Beck Hall into the centre of the village. The National Park Visitor Centre lies a few minutes’ walk further down the same road, past the Buck Inn and Methodist Chapel on your right.



Please note the following conservation note from Yorkshire Dales National Park

The water that flows over the waterfalls at the heart of the ravine is rich in dissolved limestone. This has precipitated out onto the mossy rocks to create the soft tufa screen that is such a feature at Gordale. Climbing the footpath up it damages the tufa so please avoid doing so by using the alternative route.

Terrain: Well made paths throughout, some crossing steep, rocky ground that can get slippery in wet weather, plus on the traditional route one very short scramble which involves some hand holds (but as detailed above there is an alternative walking route round the climb.)

Where: Malham, 11km/7miles northwest of Skipton, Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Why: Malham Cove; Gordale Scar: a dramatic ravine with leaning sides; Janet’s Foss waterfalls;  Malham Tarn: Britain’s highest lake.

When: Early summer when the limestone slopes are ablaze with wild flowers.

Downsides: Malham village draws big crowds on weekends and bank holidays.

Maps: OS Explorer OL2.

Visitor Information: Yorkshire Dales National Park Visitors’ Centre, Malham  BD23 4DA (tel 01969 652380
Exhaustive local info for the Malham area, with dozens of useful links
The national park’s homepage
Background on local landmarks
Introduction to the NT’s holdings around Malham Tarn and Moor
Computer generated video of the formation of Malham Cove

Eating & Drinking: Pubs and cafes in Malham

Sleeping: hotels, B&B, self-catering, camping, YHA, bunk-barns in or near  Malham