Challenging walks

Challenging walks

After more of a hike than a stroll? We've rounded up some Wildlife Trust nature reserves that'll take your breath away.  

Matthew Roberts

Challenging walks

What better way to keep fit, discover new places and embrace nature than taking on a challenging walk? Whether you are looking for a hike that lasts until sunset, a yomp through dense vegetation or a trek through some of the most remote and wild trails – our reserves have it.

From hill-top hikes to tough tree-fringed treks, a challenging walk through some of the UK’s most breathtaking countryside is richly rewarding whatever the season and whatever the weather
Family Walking (c) Peter Cairns/2020VISION

Peter Cairns/2020VISION

Find a challenging walk near you

Do a little research in advance and find out some of the best Wildlife Trust reserves for a challenging walk.

North

Durham Wildlife Trust

Hedleyhope Fell - One of the largest mid-altitude heathlands remaining in County Durham, Hedleyhope Fell, whilst somewhat remote and at times wild, is a beautiful place to walk. There are three well sign-posted routes to follow and an energetic three mile walk will take you right across the reserve offering stunning views of the surrounding countryside or perhaps a glimpse of one of the five specie of owl found here.

Other species to look out for include numerous butterflies, the common lizard and slow worm. Visit in autumn to walk among the heath’s impressive display of colour. Waterproofs and walking boots are recommended.

Cumbria Wildlife Trust

Hutton Roof Crags - This reserve contains some of the best areas of limestone pavement in Britain, with a wealth of unusual and specialist plants and animals. Pavement occurs in a mosaic with woodland, scrub, grassland and heath. On the thinnest soil look out for the silky blue flowers of the blue moor grass, while in the more open areas look for the striking dark red helleborine and fly orchid.

In summer, delight at the sight of willow warblers and skylark, along with the resident birds that include nuthatch, greater spotted woodpecker and woodcock. From April marvel at a succession of butterflies ranging from the brimstone to the green hairstreak.

Whitbarrow - A great reserve, rich in wildflowers and butterflies, which presents stunning views of the Cumbrian fells and Morecambe Bay. Occupying 100 hectares on top of the Scar including the summit cairn, Whitbarrow is a striking place to delight in a long walk.

Made up of Carboniferous limestone laid down over 350 million years ago, limestone pavements, low crags and scree now flood the land. The very thin soils over much of the site provide ideal growing conditions for a variety of specialist and interesting plant species including the hart's-tongue fern and early purple orchids.

Northumberland Wildlife Trust

Whitelee Moor - Due to its active blanket bog and heather heaths, Whitelee Moor is a site of European conservation importance and is home to a variety of plants including sphagnum mosses, bog asphodel and cotton grasses. On the lower slopes meanwhile, birds such as merlin and buzzard occupy the land. Adder and common lizard are also common here as well as palmate newts that utilise the small pools along the burn. To walk around the whole site takes eight hours as there are few proper paths, but the majority of the reserve is open-access land.

Butterburn Flow - This remote site is the largest of the Border Mires, at 450 ha, and has many interesting sphagnum moss species. Containing large intact areas dominated by bog mosses, including sphagnum mosses, cross-leaved heath and cranberry, trekking around the reserve can make a feisty challenge. Several species of local and rare plants can be found here including the greater sundew and tall bog sedge. Peregrine, dunlin, curlew, meadow pipits and skylarks meanwhile, can often be seen skimming the skies.

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust

Spurn National Nature Reserve - A walk along Spurn is not for the faint-hearted. A 3-mile sandy spit protrudes into the North Sea, with the Humber Estuary on one side and the sea on the other. Partially paved, walkers are invited to make the trip down to the end and back, perhaps crossing over the sand dunes on the return journey so to appreciate both the coastal and estuarine habitats and the variety of wildlife that can be experienced here.

Visitors must take note of tide times advertised on site, so that they cross the sandy strip in plenty of time. Those wishing to extend their walk can also call in at nearby Kilnsea Wetlands Nature Reserve. Just north of Spurn – new wetland habitat has been created here to compensate for the loss of habitat on the eroding Holderness coastline, for the benefit of wading birds. Look out for golden plover, lapwing, merlin, hen harrier and Brent geese in winter.

Brae Pasture, South House Pavement and Southerscales - For a real challenge, look no further than Ingleborough SSSI and National Nature Reserve, which makes up part of Yorkshire’s well-known three peak challenge. Three Wildlife Trust nature reserves are nestled amongst this corner of the Yorkshire Dales; Brae Pasture, South House Pavement and Southerscales, on which you can clamber over the narrow clints (blocks) and grykes (fissures) of the limestone pavement. Wonder at the classic Yorkshire landscapes, lined with drystone walls and dotted with grassland and blanket bog habitat.

In winter, marvel at the delicate ferns, mosses and lichens, whilst keeping an eye on the sky for a passing buzzard.

Wales

Radnorshire Wildlife Trust

Ffoesidoes is over 2,000 foot up high in the Radnor Forest, close to the highest point Black Mixen, but is well worth the rewarding views down the Harley Dingle. Containing over 60 acres of sub-montane dwarf shrub heath, heather and crowberry which is often filled with Emperor moths decorate the land. Keep your eye out for the bronze-age burial mound and enjoy the bird song of skylarks, meadow and tree pipits.

For those thirsty for a challenge, trek through the tall and springy heather for a more difficult walk. Keep watch for the appearance of the local heather weevil and wide bodied rove beetle.

Cefn Cenarth - Remote upland sessile oak woodland dripping with mosses and lichens, this unspoilt area is great for seeing pied flycatchers and redstart in spring. There are two sections – north and south. In between, and almost connecting them, is a recently clear felled area of conifer plantation which is now being restored to oak woodland. The rich mossy land supports a wealth of colourful invertebrate including the brassy coloured ground beetle and green oak tortrix moth.

The nearest village is Pant-y-dwr, from which you can drive from on a minor road before taking a forestry track and parking in a small quarry by the reserve. Alternatively, walk further, using footpaths and very minor roads.

Cnwch Bank - Part of Beacon Hill common, Cnwch Bank is dominated by large areas of heather. Look out for wet flushes with water purslane, sphagnum moss, lesser twayblade, and the insectivorous lesser bladderwort. High up on this wind-swept moorland, breeding birds include meadow pipit, stonechat, merlin, red grouse, linnet, peregrine and raven whilst hen harrier and red kite are visitors.

The common can be reached on foot via many rights of way shown on the OS map. The best access by car is at SO 192 748. Go through the gate and park 100m beyond.

Tylcau Hill - Why not stretch your legs on this lovely 5.5 mile walk taking in Gors Lydan Barrow and medieval huts? You could start it at the Tylcau Hill car park and have a wander around the reserve too.

Tylcau Hill can be reached from Beacon Hill on foot on public rights of way. This hillside of diverse flower-rich farmland, with old hedgerows and scrub, has been spared from agricultural improvement. Mountain pansies bloom on the higher slopes, while in the wooded dingles clumps of oak fern poke through. Wet flushes have wonderful humps of cushion moss with hollows full of sphagnum and butterwort. Marsh arrowgrass, quaking grass and patches of devil's-bit scabious can be found dotted about. Look out for adders tongue fern and lady's mantle below the gorse-clad cwm.

Both male and female cuckoo have thrilled visitors, two springs running. Butterflies and moths include the small pearl-bordered fritillary, green hairstreak and the brightly coloured scarlet tiger moth. Bullheads loiter under stones in the Camddŵr Brook and otter spraints have been seen on several occasions, along with common lizards, frog and toad.

Gilfach Farm - Set in the lovely Marteg Valley just north of Rhayader, Gilfach is a 410 acre hill farm. The farm is a mosaic of habitat including traditional hay meadows, rocky outcrops, rhos pasture, wet flushes, hill-side scrub and oak woodland. Follow the walking trails through meadows peppered with anthills, look out over the valley with its glorious views and spot a dipper on the River Marteg as it tumbles down through the reserve and over the waterfalls – where in November you might just glimpse a leaping salmon.

Though many visitors park at Marteg Bridge (just off the A470 about three miles north of Rhayader) you can also drive on through the reserve, turning right down the lane to the Old Farmyard and Welsh longhouse where there is a small car park, visitor information and toilets. The 136 mile Wye Valley Walk runs through the reserve.

Burfa Bog - Long distance walkers on the Offa’s Dyke Path pass within 500 metres of Burfa Bog with its mosaic of wet and dry grassland and streamside alder woodland. Look out for wetland plants including marsh marigold, meadowsweet, cuckoo flower, ragged robin, and lesser pond-sedge. The reserve is rich in grassland fungi including the pink waxcap hygrocybe calyptraeformis. Breeding birds include tree sparrow, whitethroat, spotted and pied flycatchers, bullfinch, marsh and willow Tits, linnet, kestrel and yellowhammer. Butterflies include dark-green fritillary, orange tip, speckled wood, small heath and ringlet.

South

Cornwall Wildlife Trust

Helman Tor - Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s largest inland nature reserve spreads from the slopes of Helman Tor. It is made up from a large wetland complex with a variety of habitats including wet and dry heathland, acid grassland, large areas of willow and oak woodland and numerous ponds. All of these habitats are linked by the Wildnerness Trail – a way marked trail forming a five mile circuit that is brought alive with birdsong and sundews. In the warmth of summer heaths are alive with dragonflies and damselflies, while in autumn the heathland is ablaze with colour.

Devon Wildlife Trust

Dart Valley - Experience a wild and remote wooded Dartmoor river valley with rushing water close by trekking through the Dart Valley. This walk is full of surprises. Follow a wild river through a wooded valley for four miles and clamber your way over granite boulders and round tree trunks. If the walk gets too challenging take a rest by the river where several flat rocks provide the ideal perch for watching kingfishers, dippers and damselflies. Why not paddle and look out for otter spraints?

Make a circular walk of the reserve by climbing up out of the valley on to high moorland, meeting up with the Two Moors Way footpath and relish the panoramic views of the nature reserve below. Can you spot the River Dart through the woodland canopy? The upper slopes of the reserve just below the Two Moors Way are also home to the rare pearl bordered and small pearl bordered fritillary butterflies. Depending on the route taken your walk could last between one to six hours.

Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust

Laurie Lee - A six mile circular walk in the slid valley, Laurie Lee Wildlife Way has very steep hill climbs and rewards walkers with the most breathtaking views. Taking in four of Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves; Frith Wood, Snows Farm, Laurie Lee Woodand Swift's Hill, the trail links together the stunning landscapes that inspired the work of Gloucestershire’s most famous twentieth century writer, Laurie Lee. Can you make it around all 11 installed poetry posts?

Somerset Wildlife Trust

Cheddar Complex Nature Reserve - A chance to explore the desolate beauty of the Mendip Hills, the Cheddar Complex is made up of three Somerset Wildlife Trust reserves; Velvet Bottom, Black Rock and Long Wood. The remote landscape is fractured with traditional stone walls and offers panoramic view across the Levels and Moors. The area is famous for its caves and the spectacular Cheddar Gorge, which runs close to the reserves. Look out for redstarts on their summer migration, while peregrine falcons breed locally and can be spotted hunting over the reserve.

Sussex Wildlife Trust

Malling Down - Stand almost anywhere in Lewes and Malling Down dominates the view to the east, its chalk hills towering up and overlooking the town. It really is worth the climb to the top, if only for the view that takes in the town, the wet meadows surrounding the River Ouse, the South Downs stretching away, or the expanse of the Low Weald farmland. In summer however, there are a thousand things to command the attention, including the very rare silver-spotted skipper that has started breeding here.

Midlands

Shropshire Wildlife Trust

Catherton Common - Leave the spectacular heights of Clee Hill, head north-east and you come to Catherton Common, a sweeping open landscape with big skies. This heathland, with its subtle shades of tawny, gold and russet browns, reveals a marvellous diversity of life quite absent from the bright green intensively managed grassland of most contemporary agriculture.

From late summer into autumn listen for the chirping of bog bush crickets – look closely to see their impressive antennae (which are longer than their bodies). Listen for skylarks and the piping calls of meadow pipits; yellowhammers and linnets are often here too. If you are after a particularly long walk, the common adjoins Cramer Gutter, another Shropshire Wildlife Trust nature reserve - a flower-rich meadow highly valued for its marsh gentians.

Scotland

Scottish Wildlife Trust

Ben Mor Coigach - Dominating the landscape north of Ullapool, Ben Mor Coigach is Scottish Wildlife Trust’s largest reserve. Covering 6,000 hectares, the site is a very wild place – right from its summit to the North West coast. Take a trek on the reserve’s Postie's Path, a 10km coast walk delivering spectacular coastal views.

Visit for red and black-throated divers in early spring and great-northern divers in winter. Meanwhile, eider, shag and black guillemots ride out the seas’ swell and dive for their dinner all year round.

If you can't get to these places

Even if you live in a town or a city, challenging walks can be closer than you think. Why not dust off that map and plot a course from your home to the nearest nature reserve, via every green space you can see. Look out for wildlife corridors along the way and think about how linking up the landscape could create huge benefits for wildlife.

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