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16 Lakes of the Lake District

By Joanna Roberts
More by Joanna

Quick Guide to the Lakes

Like the spokes of a wheel radiating out from a central hub, the stunning glacial lakes, of the Lake District National Park, are scattered from a central mountainous massif. But regardless of orientation, whether they run north to south, east to west (or anywhere in between), ultimately the water within them eventually flows to the Irish Sea.

Read on for a tour of each of the sixteen major Lakes. Learn about each lake’s own unique characteristics, its place within the Lake District National Park as well as how to best visit it. Or click through the links below: 

Windermere

Photo by Nat Pawlowski.

Length: 10.5 miles
Ferry: Yes
Paddlesport permit needed: No*

Starting in the southeast corner, Windermere is both the largest and most visited of all the Lakes. Running north to south between Ambleside and Newby Bridge, it curves gently at Bowness, and attracts a plethora of water users, from picnicking families splashing in the shallows to wild swimmers, kayakers and sailors. Trips on the ferries are very popular too, and rowing boats can also be hired.

In rough weather, the tumultuous waters send even the hardiest souls running for cover – but on a calm summer’s day visitors and locals alike enjoy the cool waters from dawn until dusk.

Those looking for tranquil peace may be surprised to find power boats charging around – but with a ten mile-per-hour speed limit, there is usually enough space for everyone.

Fells & Walks

With over twenty miles of shoreline, it’s impossible to mention all the hills, but of note in the south is Gummer’s How, a pleasant and worthwhile walk with a fabulous lake view.

In the northwest, the lakeshore path offers an easy stroll amid the woods – it is good for bikes too. It’s popular to cross on the ferry from Ferry Nab near Bowness to explore the Western woodland. From here you can picnic near the peacefully-named Lilies of the Valley (a number of small islands) before walking higher up onto Claife Heights for a great circular option.

Esthwaite Water

Length: 1.5 miles
Ferry: No
Permit needed: No access except for private fishing

Moving slightly west, Esthwaite, perhaps the least well known of the lakes, sits between Windermere and Coniston Water, close to the village of Hawkshead. Accessible via small, winding roads, it’s far nicer to take the Hawkshead ferry across Windermere from Ferry Nab and jump on the local bus. This area is famous for its links to the renowned local author and conservationist Beatrix Potter. In fact, Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s longtime former farmhouse is a popular place to visit.

Fells & Walks

The lake itself is popular for fishing and has been designated a site of special scientific interest. When it comes to walking, there are few public rights of way near the water. A lovely way to experience the area around Esthwaite is by exploring the fabulous nearby woodlands, notably Grizedale Forest to the west, and Claife Heights to the east.

Coniston Water

Length 5.25 miles
Ferry: Yes
Permit needed: No

Continuing west we reach popular Coniston Water. It’s famous for the untimely death of Donald Campbell as he attempted to break the 300 mph water speed record in 1967. Look out for the Blue Bird Cafe on the north-western shore, named after Campbell’s multiple boats of the same name, or sample the locally-brewed Bluebird bitter.

Like much of The Lake District National Park, Coniston Water can get particularly busy during the school holidays, especially at the northern end. However, it is still a beautiful body of water, with its own ferry service – making for a great day out. There are numerous access points around the lake for launching kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards.

Fells & Walks

Rising magnificently above the village is the Old Man of Coniston. Many hillwalkers and climbers choose to drive up the steep, narrow way to park near the Walna Scar Road, an ancient packhorse route. But it’s equally possible to walk from the lake to the summit.

Enjoy, stay safe and be prepared is wise advice for any walking within the higher tops. The weather can change even on the warmest summer’s day. The best way to safely explore the higher reaches of the Lake District is with an experienced hiking guide.

For those seeking more sedate walking, the Cumbria Way follows close to the Western Shore and is well worth a wander.

Wast Water

Length: 3 miles
Ferry: No
Permit needed: No

For those with time to explore, head even further west to find Wast Water, the deepest of England’s lakes. Legend has it there is a village of garden gnomes placed somewhere within its eighty-metre depth. With its infamous screes on the eastern side and rugged mountains to the north, it’s easy to see why many visitors picnic on the western shore and enjoy the spectacular view. With only one road in and out, there is potential for congestion – especially during events such as the three peaks challenges.

Fells & Walks

Soaring high above Wast Water are the impressive central fells. These steep, rocky peaks include Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain.

To the north is Great Gable, gifted to the nation after the First World War in memory of all walkers and climbers who lost their lives. The annual gathering of pilgrim-like walkers on Remembrance Sunday each year is truly amazing.

Ennerdale Water

Length: 2.5 miles
Ferry: No
Permit needed: No (unless large groups)
Swimming: Not allowed

On the most westerly spoke of the flowing Lake District wheel is Ennerdale Water. With its comparative remoteness there is a totally different feel to this part of the national park. A variety of water use restrictions and limited vehicular access all add to the relaxed and magical feel. Dale simply means valley and is commonly seen in place names within the national park and beyond.

Fells & Walks

Many walkers will use Ennerdale for easy access up into the higher fells. There is a wide-open track running along the northern shore up towards the Black Sail Youth Hostel – which makes for a perfect resting place before the steeper ascents.

Passing along the rocky footpath which hugs the southern shore is the mighty Coast to Coast route. Starting further west at the historical St Bees, the Coast to Coast traverses the Lake District before continuing on through the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors, finally reaching its end on England’s east coast.

Want to know more? Read more about this amazing long distance trail in our blog.
It’s also perfectly possible to combine both the track and path to enjoy a circular walk.

Experience it yourself by joining Wilderness England on a fully guided tour along England’s Coast to Coast walk.

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Loweswater

Photo by Nat Pawlowski.

Length: 1.25 miles
Ferry: No
Permit needed: Yes

The first of three interlinked and truly wonderful lakes, Loweswater may be small but it packs a punch in the tranquillity stakes. Attractive to open water swimmers and hidden at the northern end of the Buttermere Valley, an evening here is miles away from the nearby urban bustle of west coast towns.

Fells & Walks

Peaceful woodland walks meander along the western shore, extendable as a circular route along the edge of Burnbank Fell. Across the road is access to the steep but delightfully named Darling Fell.

Visit Buttermere Valley on a small group tour of the Lake District.  

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Crummock Water

Loweswater

Length 2.5 miles
Ferry: No
Permit needed: Yes

The largest of the three interlinked Lakes is Crummock Water. With its expansive bays to the north, and its westerly lakeshore path, Cummock Water may be a considerable journey from the honey pot of Windermere – but it’s deservedly popular with visitors staying in the nearby towns of Keswick or Cockermouth. This lake is another much-loved spot for wild swimming. Fancy a dip, anyone?

Fells & Walks

The nearby summit of Grasmoor rises steeply to the east, and like all of the Lakeland Fells was popularised by the late Alfred Wainwright in his series of exquisite and fairly epic pictorial guides. Whilst the drawings and research were mainly done in the 1950’s, the books remain hugely popular, with millions of copies selling worldwide.

For a more sedate stroll, then the western shore of Crummock Water is a far more relaxing proposition.

Buttermere

Buttermere

Length: 1.25 miles
Ferry: No
Permit needed: Yes

Last in the interlinked trilogy, Buttermere is a popular destination. Serviced by public transport in the summer season, access by bus is a great way to journey from Keswick. Traveling via Borrowdale and up over the steep Honister Pass.

Fells & Walks

Continuing the theme of a westerly lakeshore path – walks around Buttermere can be relaxed low level affairs or as access to the higher fells. Haystacks is within striking distance, and also happens to be Wainwright’s favourite hill and where his ashes were scattered. Little did he know just how popular ‘his’ walks would become.

For industrial heritage fans, the nearby slate mining area of Honister is well worth exploring – with the added bonus of fantastic views back towards Buttermere and Crummock Water.

Visit it Buttermere and Borrowdale on a trip to Northumberland and the Lakes. 

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Bassenthwaite Lake

Length: 4 miles
Ferry: No
Permit needed: Yes

Furthest north is Bassenthwaite Lake, the only “true” lake in the Lake District. All the others are technically “meres” or “waters.” Sandwiched between two busy main roads, Bassenthwaite Lake is a surprisingly peaceful place, very popular with open water swimmers (do look up the Bassenthwaite Swim Babes if you are passing) and also home to lots of wildlife.

Having special protection as a nature reserve, the lake has a returning pair of ospreys who can be watched via remote video through links at the nearby Whinlatter Visitor Centre, or local viewing points.

Fells & Walks

For those looking for a bit more of a challenge, to the east is the mighty Skiddaw, England’s fourth highest mountain. For a more gentle and extremely rejuvenating wander, Dodd’s Wood is worthy of an afternoon stroll and sits directly on the public bus route.

To the west are the equally inviting Wythop Woods, all Forestry Commission managed – and with enjoyable access out to Sale Fell.

Derwent Water

Length: 3 miles
Ferry: Yes
Permit needed: No

Heading slightly south, we reach Derwent Water. A popular major lake, Derwent has its own Ferry service and easy access from the market town of Keswick.

A journey down the lake takes you into Borrowdale – a valley famed for many things including Herdwick sheep, and interestingly this super popular area is also the wettest in England.

Fells & Walks

There is a smorgasbord of potential walks near Derwent Water. Catbells, popular with its rocky mid-terrain, and relatively quick height gain – has fantastic views over the lake and to the higher mountains. Lower level, you can pick up a continuing section of the Cumbria Way as it follows the lake along the western shore. The Coast to Coast route also passes just south of Derwent Lake.

Thirlmere

Length: 3.5 miles
Ferry: No
Permit needed: No
Swimming: Not allowed

Moving east, we reach Thirlmere. We should perhaps point out that “mere” is an Old English word for a body of water. Originally much smaller, Thirlmere was dammed in the late 1800s to provide water for the city of Manchester, in the process expanding in volume and submerging local hamlets.

Throughout England, reservoirs tend to have greater usage restrictions placed on them, which means that swimming is not allowed, although responsible paddle sport users are welcome. Banded on one side by the A591, access is easier from the narrow road to the west – Thirlmere has the added advantage of being on a regular local bus route.

Fells & Walks

Woodland walks are enjoyable from the western shore, and access is possible up onto the fells. Hop across the A591 and you’ll find more woodland and a parallel path which leads up towards Dunmail Raise (the high point of the road between Thirlmere and Grasmere). For experienced hikers and hillwalkers, it’s possible to complete a high level circular route taking in the summit of Helvellyn, one of the Lake District’s mighty soaring peaks.

Ullswater

Length: 7.5 miles
Ferry: Yes
Permit needed: No

The most north-easterly of the lakes is Ullswater, a majestic body of water which can be thoroughly enjoyed by a trip on the historic steamers (ferries). Rowboats and canoes can also be hired at the south end of the lake. Teeming with flora and fauna, this area was particularly beloved by Romantic poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, and lakeshore along Ullswater inspired his famous poem “Daffodils.” Similarly to other popular parts of the Lake District, Ullswater is very popular on sunny school holidays. Learn more about English authors here.

Fells & Walks

Among the many and varied places you can walk in the area, you might like to follow the low level Ullswater Way, which circumnavigates the lake. Aira Force also has some lovely paths amid plenty of trees and calming running waters. There are more challenging hikes in the region, such as climbing St Sunday Crag on the National Parks of the UK hiking trip.

Learn more about Ullswater and nearby walks.

Haweswater

Length: 4 miles
Ferry: No
Permit needed: No public access
Swimming: Not allowed

Our most easterly spoke on the glacial wheel is Haweswater. Originally a small natural lake near the now flooded Mardale, this body of water is a managed reservoir. Despite its proximity to the motorway, it can feel surprisingly remote along the western shore.

Fells & Walks

Here we once more meet the Coast to Coast route as it descends steeply from Kidsty Pike at the southern end to meet the lakeshore path. Vehicular access is along the eastern shore, which experienced hill walkers can use to access the higher peaks of Harter Fell and High Street, named for the old Roman road which once passed over the tops.

More gentle terrain (and numerous rights of way) can be found at the northern end of the reservoir near the hamlet of Burnbanks, as the Coast to Coast makes its way east out of the national park.

Walk the Coast to Coast and visit this lake.

Rydal Water

Length: 0.75 miles
Ferry: No
Permit needed: No Public access

Heading in towards the centre of our glaciated landscape we find our final three of the sixteen lakes,  starting with Rydal Water. On the main bus route through the Lake District, and with numerous parking places, Rydal is a popular place to visit. Nearby Rydal Mount is well worth a visit for Wordsworth fans.

Fells & Walks

With plenty of choice, it can be hard to choose where to walk. Of note in the area is Loughrigg Fell to the South, or a lake shore wander towards Grasmere. Heron Pike, to the north, is a very worthy higher peak. And the Coffin Route, running parallel to the road yet still hidden amongst the trees, is a great way to combine circular options.

Grasmere

Grasmere

Length: 1 mile
Ferry: No
Permit needed: No

It may be relatively small, but Grasmere has a lot to offer. Popular with open water swimmers, the area is also well situated for family picnics on the southern shore. Parking however is very limited near the lake itself, so it’s best to walk in from Grasmere village or Rydal.

Deservedly popular, the chocolate box village has plenty to offer – a highlight to William Wordsworth fans will be a visit to Dove Cottage.

Fells & Walks

Nestled within the central fells, there are walks in all directions of Grasmere. A woodland wander to the east of the lake towards Rydal Water is very pleasant, along with a gentle stroll along the southern shore. For fans of the higher tops, a walk west into Easedale will pick up the Coast to Coast route which can be combined with Gibson Knott and Helm Crag for a circular route.

Visit Grasmere and the Lake District on our Self Drive.

Learn More

Walk the Coast to Coast to visit Grasmere.

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Elter Water

Length: 0.5 miles
Ferry: No
Permit needed: No

And so our tour of the lakes concludes with the most central of them all, Elter Water, in the valley of Langdale. The National Trust owns and manages much of the area, so car parking charges help to continue their great work. Served well by pubs, hotels and cafes, there is a surprising amount to do in this area once covered by great ice sheets

Fells & Walks

With the Cumbria Way passing along the northern shore, it’s possible to link a walk from Elter Water further into Langdale, and return via local bus. Within the valley, there are many popular high peaks. And in good weather, the steep path up to Stickle Tarn offers impressive views of the eye-catching Pavey Arc.

For a short enjoyable stroll, follow the Cumbria Way east to Skelwith Force, a waterfall near Skelwith Bridge.

End Note

With booming visitor numbers and increasing pressures on the Lake District, it’s more important than ever to enjoy the national park mindfully. Considerate parking, a willingness to make alternative plans, sensible and safe precautions on the water and fells, along with a leave no trace mindset (such as closing gates, keeping dogs under control and taking litter home) are all super important.

Keep aware of any blue-green algae notices if you are planning on swimming or being in the water – it gathers more in the warmer months and can be toxic to both animals and humans. The national park authority also asks that lake users wash and dry any equipment (including swimsuits) between visits to different bodies of water in order to prevent the spreading of invasive non-native wildlife species. Also, as with any activity, safety is important. Wild swimming, paddling and other water-related activities carry certain risks, so please be mindful and careful if embarking on any. The same can be said about hiking the mountains of the Lake District. When in doubt, it’s always better to travel with a guide.

For more information and up-to-date access details, the official National Park website is very useful. They also show the real-time status of car parks, helping visitors to plan accordingly.

And finally, although they don’t quite make the official sixteen lakes of the Lake District, of deserved mention, are Hayeswater a former reservoir with a straightforward but steep access walk, as well as Brotherswater (to the south of Ullswater) and Tarn Hows (just north of Coniston), both with easy access. Each of these are also well worth a visit.

*Permit for paddlesports (such as kayaks, canoes and paddleboards).
Check for motorboats and sailing as these may need to be registered. Also, check for fishing as a permit may be required.

Jo Roberts

Learn more about the author, Jo Roberts, and her writing on her website, Writing Inside Out.

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Meet the Author: Joanna Roberts

Settled now in Cumbria, England. The Lake District National Park is a place I love for work and play. Originally from Devon and brought up in Wiltshire I also spent time living in the Scottish Highlands, working for Outward Bound Loch Eil. So, Outdoor Education and personal development work is within my very core. Over my career I have worked with both adults and young people helping folks learn and grow in some amazing places; from Nepal and Peru to Norway and Poland. In recent years I have guided a lot in Northern England and love enabling guests to get the very most out of their holiday.

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