Although they are only an hour apart, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors offer travellers notably different experiences. From the scenery to geology and history, there is much to explore in each park that sets them apart. In this blog, we will compare and contrast both parks to help you decide which one is right for your next adventure.
The Yorkshire Dales is a National Park characterised by contrast. The wilds press against the pastoral. The fells clamber high, and the dales drop low. The landscape holds its history both close and far, under a sky dark as liquorice. Perhaps it is because of this dynamic dichotomy that pushes and pulls, rises and falls, that the region sings such a distinctive and melodic tune.
The song begins beneath the soil, in the darkness that swallows the roots of trees. Here, we find a topography known as karst – a type of subterranean landscape caused by the dissolving of bedrock (in this case primarily limestone) which in turn creates a myriad of sinkholes, potholes and underground streams. The Dales National Park is one of the finest examples of a karst landscape in Britain, and the rugged countryside hides a vast underground network of twisting tunnels, secret springs and a warren of far-reaching caves. From the eerily lit passageways of Stump Cross Caverns, where the prehistoric remains of wolverine and reindeer have been found, to the cavernous chamber of Gaping Gill, which measures 129m long, 31m high, and 25m wide, this underground landscape is a fascinating one to explore.
Above ground, the region has been sculpted, scoured, and shaped over many millennia by ice. Straddling the Pennines (the mountainous spine of England) the Dales is a wonderfully diverse landscape full of ribboned glens, windswept hills and thundering waterfalls. A place also shaped by man, the intricate network of farm and field boundaries create a mosaic of arable land. Still, one of the most important sheep breeding areas in the country, swaledale and dalesbred sheep roam across the limestone pastures, moors, and rough fells while cattle graze in the lower reaches of the valleys.
In the heart of the National Park, the distinctive shattered peaks of Ingleborough, Whernside, and Pen-y-Ghent rise into an arching sky. Their rugged and flat-topped summits are the subject of the popular Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge, a race that involves summiting all three mountains in under 12 hours. While such a feat isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, walking in the National Park certainly should be. From relaxed and accessible riverside wanders to long routes that traverse the rugged rolling moors, there’s a trail and a view for everyone.
The Dales is also a highly legible landscape, its history evident in the topography of the land – from the drystone walls and hedgerows to the old stone-built buildings and shadowy undulations where ruins have given in to wind, fern and rainfall.
Pretty market towns gossip with stories of yonder, their cosy pubs a hub of chatter and locally brewed beer. Large medieval estates and religious sites, such as Bolton Castle, Barden Tower and Bolton Abbey, also survive.
Visiting the Yorkshire Dales, whether exploring the caves; walking through wildflower meadows; spending time in the pretty towns and villages or simply sitting by a river, watching the world potter by, is a thoroughly enjoyable and lovely thing to do.
The wide open spaces that characterise the North York Moors are as evocative as wild. Encompassing moorland, woodland, coastline and dale, the National Park is a wonderful place to walk, cycle, climb, swim and explore.
Located in the northeast of the county, it contains one of the largest expanses of moorland in the whole of the UK. With much of the heath being open-access land, visitors are free to roam carefully where they wish.
In Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel, Wuthering Heights, the North York Moors are an untamed, boundless place. In the winter, the bitter wind is unrelenting and the blizzards that blow eclipse the line between land and sky. When the bell heather begins to bloom in the warmer months, the moor is transformed into a bright purple sea that shifts lazily under a syrupy sun. Like the rest of the National Park, the moors are an invigorating and enchanting place to be regardless of the season.
The Moors are also an essential habitat for wildlife. The bubbling call of curlews floats high above the heath, and the chattering disapproval of grouse breaks the quiet of a morning stroll. A merlin’s wings beat rapidly as it hunts small birds such as pipits, larks and wheaters; the UK’s smallest bird of prey, there are only about 1300 pairs left in Britain, 40 of which are believed to live in the National Park.
The hair-like leaves and delicate flower heads of the aptly named wavy-hair grass can be seen rippling in a breeze that meanders across the moorland. On the edge of the heath, plants that are relics of the last Ice Age grow. Common juniper (which can live up to 200 years) has aromatic prickly needles, which, when crushed between finger and thumb, is transportive to an evening full of ice cubes, angostura and open fires.
Beyond the moors, the National Park also encompasses areas of old woodland. Native trees climb up and down dale; a canopy of oak, ash, birch and rowan breaking the sky into a bright, leafy jigsaw. Hazel and hawthorn also grow, the latter’s snowy bloom marking the point that spring blossoms into summer. Walking by the river, you’re likely to see the swamp-loving alder – its dark, fissured bark growing stronger and harder in the soft, watery ground. With many trails winding their way through the trees, there are lovely walking options suitable for all. The calming effect of forests are also becoming increasingly well known; with time spent among the timber found to decrease stress levels and boost our immune systems. So while it’s easy to get caught in the humdrum of the everyday, taking some time out to walk in the woods is good for your body and mind.
Unlike the landlocked Yorkshire Dales, the Yorkshire Moors encompass a 26-mile stretch of Jurassic coastline. In the north, many of the river valleys join the River Esk that winds its way towards the coast and eventually tumbles into the North Sea. Seaside cottages nestle together above crescents of white sand and old fishing villages look out over seaweed-strewn bays. In the summer, waves rush turquoise and clear over powdery beaches. In the colder months, brown cliffs crumble beneath wintery tides.
For those interested in history, the archaeological record of the National Park is also very impressive, with each generation having left its mark on the landscape. Visitors can walk around the largest Iron Age hill fort in the north of England and explore Roman fortifications, medieval castles and amazing abbeys. A place rich in both antiquity and biodiversity, it only takes a mindful walk, ride or run to feel the gentle press of its quiet drama.
Both the Yorkshire Dales and the Yorkshire Moors are areas of outstanding natural beauty, their landscapes reflecting a great wealth of natural history and human heritage. Spending time within their bounds encourages a type of joy only felt when tarmac gives way to track, houses give way to trees, and the noise of traffic gives way to birdsong, wind and water (and perhaps the occasional baa of a sheep).