Into the mist - walking England's highest mountain, Scafell Pike

When we started planning our trip to the Lake District, one mountain came to mind: Scafell Pike.

The highest mountain in England is one we’d long thought about climbing. It doesn’t have a reputation for being the prettiest walk, so we lowered our expectations and had to admit that we were climbing it for the fact it is the highest mountain in England.

As Wainwright said, it demands attention.

“Scafell Pike is the toughest proposition the ‘collector’ of summits is called upon to attempt, and it is the one above all others that, as a patriot, he cannot omit.”

Alfred Wainwright, A pictorial guide to the Lakeland Fells, Book Four

The great thing about climbing Scafell Pike (not to be confused with nearby peak, Scafell, which is almost as tall!) for me was that it was so much prettier than I’d been expecting. I actually found most of the route really beautiful and not the slog we’d been expecting.

The title of being the highest mountain in the country implies an intimidating hike to the top. We can happily attest that - despite it not being easy - it is an achievable walk, taking around 4-5 hours to complete (using the shortest route from Wasdale Head).

Essential information about climbing Scafell Pike

Getting to Scafell Pike

You can climb up to four different locations: Wasdale Head (the most popular and shortest), Dungeon Ghyll in Great Langdale, Boot in Eskdale or Seathwaite in Borrowdale.

Although they may look like they’re all within a couple of miles away on a map, they are pretty long drives apart (Dungeon Ghyll is 20 minutes from Ambleside, whereas Wasdale Head is 1 hour 20).

There is a National Trust Car Park at Wasdale Head which is free for members and costs £6.50 for non-members. During peak season we’ve heard it can get so busy that you can’t get a space so try and arrive early. We climbed in September and were the second car in the car park at 9am. If you go on a weekend locals told us you need to go even earlier.

Scafell Pike Routes

Scafell Pike Routes

There are four routes to the summit of Scafell Pike, but by far the most popular starting point is Wasdale Head. A National Trust employee said that of the 250,000 people that ascend Scafell Pike each year, 100,000 go from Wasdale Head.

This is primarily because it is the shortest and easiest of all the choices. Whilst it is uphill almost the entire way, you’ll only have to cover 3 miles (5km) each way.

The alternatives are from Seathwaite in Borrowdale, Boot in Eskdale or Dungeon Ghyll in Great Langdale. These are significantly longer than Wasdale Head, ranging from 5.5 miles (8.8km) to 7.5 miles (12 km) each way. Whilst they are described as being much more picturesque, they are:

“a full day expedition, and the appropriate preparations should be made. Paths are good, but only in the sense that are distinct; they are abomindably stony, even bouldery - which is no great impediment when ascending, but mitigates against quick descent.”

Alfred Wainwright, A pictorial guide to the Lakeland Fells, Book Four

If you’re looking for the prettiest route we’ve heard it’s from Borrowdale, we were originally going to go for this option but feared we might not be fit enough.

Unless you’re a seasoned hiker we’d recommend going from Wasdale Head. It’s half the distance and is still picturesque.

Read Next: Crinkle Crags & Bowfell - two of Wainwright’s favourites

If you want to read more about Wainwright’s routes on Scafell Pike, check out the book which includes Scafell Pike below

Scafell Pike Height and Difficulty

Despite being the highest mountain in England, it’s no Everest. The walk is not technical in any way and there isn’t even much scrambling, it’s certainly not as difficult as many walks in Lakeland such as the stunning Crinkle Crags and Bowfell. The track ascends 950m from Wasdale Head across 3 miles (5 km). It took us just over two hours to climb to the summit from the car park.

It is relentlessly steep though and I can’t remember any significant flat section to ease off. Whilst we found the route pretty, Wainwright clearly didn’t agree:

“… is a tiring and uninteresting grind, designed to preserve its users from fears and falterings. The path is good, well-cairned, and practicable in mist.”

Alfred Wainwright, A pictorial guide to the Lakeland Fells, Book Four

Whilst the path is in decent condition for the Lake District, it’s still rubbly and uneven, unlike many popular trails in other parts of the world.

Weather on Scafell Pike

The weather on Scafell Pike is changeable. Within an instant you can go from blazing sunshine to freezing cold thick cloud (we know because it happened to us). Check the forecasts before you embark and be prepared for all weather. For our entire walk we could see the summits of the fells until just five minutes before we reached the summit, the cloud descended and we literally couldn’t see anything but the small section of trail directly in front of us. Luckily there are very obvious cairns to follow.

Whilst Scafell Pike is less than 1,000m tall, it still has an almost alpine climate. The summit is bare of life and can get incredibly cold. Bring layers, wet weather gear and plenty more to wrap up in case.

Read Next: Tarn Hows & Black Fell - The easiest Wainwright

How to avoid the crowds on Scafell Pike

The key to making this climb more enjoyable is all about timing. Midday at a weekend in the summer holidays (July - August) will guarantee you crowds and a crushed experience.

However, we chose to walk at 9am on a Monday in Mid-September and saw only a handful of people. We’d feared the horror stories of over crowded car parks and queues on the walk, but saw nothing like this. This is probably also why we enjoyed it more than many people, ascending with no one in front of you at all is so much more inspiring than trudging in someone else’s wake.

Walking Scafell Pike

Start Point: Wasdale Head

The day started in characteristic gloomy Lakeland fashion, but the rain held off. After arriving at the car park to only find one other person parked, we were feeling pretty lucky!

The track starts off following the river and immediately opens up to the picturesque Wasdale scenery.

It’s not long before the uphill walk starts, something that won’t end until you get to the summit cairn. The start is a gradual incline, following the Lingmell Gill.

For an “uninteresting grind” it was looking pretty beautiful to us.

The path is pretty well laid, but it can occasionally become slippery when wet, so take care when the river crosses the path.

For the first kilometre, the track meanders uphill gradually before turning to cross Lingmill Gill. Your first piece of excitement on the track!

For some the river crossing will be simple, but after a period of heavy rain it can be high and run fast. Most of the rocks were submerged, making it trickier than it normally would be. However, if you don’t feel confident about hopping over rocks, you can choose to take your boots off and wade through the lower part.

It may be freezing cold, but it’s better than falling in! I (Cat) had to do this and it was brutally cold but otherwise very easy to cross.

From here the steepness of the track grows dramatically. The path becomes stepped and it’s a long continuous slog upwards.

This is the worst section of the walk; the river soon disappears into the mountains and you don’t even have a view of the summit to focus on for motivation, only brief glimpses of Scafell, the mountain you won’t summit!

Climbing to Hollow Stones

After passing a series of black bags holding stones to relay the path, the continuous slog uphill will change. You’ll get a more undulating section that becomes rougher underfoot and more interesting.

You’ll also get your first glimpse of the summit of Scafell Pike.

Sadly, you’re only halfway in terms of distance! But the remainder is a lot easier.

The track curves to the left, crossing a section of boulders (easy to navigate) before reaching a path that begins to zig zag up the mountain and head behind the crag faces you just saw.

Climbing to the summit

You’ll start seeing the tops of the surrounding mountains in the Eskdale and Great Langdale Valleys.

Despite the gloomy start, we were really lucky to have a brief clearing in the weather. The clouds were a lot higher than the peaks, revealing these gorgeous views.

The view of Great End from Scafell Pike

We could even see Crinkle Crags and Bowfell and Skiddaw (which was also under a constant cloud when we climbed it). It is one of the best views of the Lake District, sweeping to the far fells in all directions.

The view just keeps getting better as you head up (the only sad thing is that you can’t see Scafell Pike among them).

It’s now that the path becomes at its most scrambly. It’s pretty much rubble from here to the summit and the path isn’t too clear. It’s not like other Lake District fells though, there’s no need to use your hands here, so it’s not a true scramble like the section under the summit on Catbells.

We strongly recommend keeping an eye out for the large cairns. Not only is this the safest route, but due to the high numbers of people climbing Scafell Pike, this will limit the path erosion.

It wasn’t long before we were about to get to the summit, but the track turned from this:

To this:

We were five minutes from a clear view at the summit! That great view was limited to only a few metres by the time we reached the summit. However, this didn’t wash away the feeling of achievement as we’d just climbed England’s tallest mountain!

We took a few moments to take in the summit, the memorial and then turned to try to get out of the gale force winds and freezing temperatures. It’s hard to believe how quickly the weather turned and how cold it became. We went from being in t-shirts to needing a fleece, wooly hat and gloves!

Descending Scafell Pike

Having reached the top in just over two hours, we were on cloud nine (no pun intended). The descent seemed to go quickly as we had new vigour. The pain of constantly ascending seemed to disappear and we moved pretty rapidly.

It wasn’t long before we were below the clouds and had this spectacular view of Wastwater in Wasdale. The steps do become a bit slippery if it’s been wet and I did slip over so it’s worth not trying to go too quickly down this section!

We’d timed our walk perfectly (despite the cloud at the top). On the way down we passed quite a lot of people who had just started climbing up who wouldn’t get any view at the top. They would also be sharing the summit with around 30 others. Even worse, very heavy rain came in just half an hour later (just as we were at the car).

We’d made it back down in under two hours and in time for lunch. Climbing England’s highest mountain is definitely a morning well spent.

Whilst I agree that the Wasdale Head route is fairly tiring, I disagree with Wainwright in it being uninteresting. There is a section where the path seems to be uninspirational, but the path from Wasdale Head overall is beautiful and continues to offer a new view at every turn, presenting great fell after great fell before reaching the summit.

If you’re thinking about climbing Scarfell Pike, we’d definitely say go for it, just don’t forget plenty of layers even in summer.

Read Next: Everything you need to know to hike Catbells

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Are you planning to hike Scafell Pike? Have you done it and have some tips we don’t mention? Let us know in the comments below!

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