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Explore Dartmoor National Park: the complete guide

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Dartmoor

Many consider Dartmoor to be the pride of Devon. Home to some of Britain’s most ancient landscapes and the impressive panoramic views you will ever lay eyes upon, it is clear to see why the moor has gained its reputation. Covering a huge proportion of Devon itself, Dartmoor National Park is within easy access of numerous luxury holiday cottages in Devon, making it a must-visit for any holiday.

Jen from Visit Dartmoor, the Official Dartmoor Tourism Organisation, comments: “Dartmoor National Park is 368 square miles of breath-taking beautiful landscapes, everything from rugged, wild open spaces with awe inspiring granite tors, to magical, secretive woodlands and crystal clear rivers. You can visit Dartmoor on foot, or by bike, ride a horse, or drive across stunning scenery to watch the wild ponies and their foals, there is something for everyone!

Dartmoor is proud of its fantastic food, so be sure to make time for a cream tea or a delicious pub lunch. The best place to begin any trip to Dartmoor is to call in at one of the National Park Visitor Centres, you’ll find them at Princetown, Haytor and Postbridge.”

So, to help you explore all of these natural wonders and more, here is our complete guide to Dartmoor.

Walks around Dartmoor

Walking on Dartmoor

There is no better way to see Dartmoor than by foot, so however long you’re staying in the area, be sure to get a walk in – anything from a short stroll to a day hike will reward you with truly stunning views! Wherever you visit there are countless trails to be found. You could even go on a guided Dartmoor walk with experts to find out about the area’s unique history along the way.

Dartmeet walk

Dartmeet

On the very edge of Dartmoor, the Dartmeet is one of the most rugged and beautiful areas of the national park. At the spot where the east and west branches of the River Dart meet, a steep, wooded valley lays. This is the perfect stop for an easy-going ramble with a huge payoff in terms of views. Explore the verdant forest, picnic by the old stone clapper bridge or venture into the middle Dart Valley for a longer walk.

Lydford Gorge walk

Lydford Gorge(3 miles)

Lydford Gorge is one of the highlights of Dartmoor, and one of the best ways to take in all of its beauty is on this route by the BBC – a three-mile circular walk. Taking around two hours, the walk starts at the National Trust shop at Lydford Gorge, where you can pick up maps and information.

First, follow the trail through Lambhole Wood, where you can take in a mixture of lime, elm, hawthorn, cherry, laurel, and horse chestnut trees, all inhabited by diverse wildlife. Then, proceed on to Watervale Wood to enter the gorge. At the bottom of the steep slope is the 90ft high White Lady Waterfall, which is quite a sight to behold. Here, you might also spot herons and kingfishers. Walk through Oldcleave Wood, which is full of oaks, and Tunnel Falls, where erosion has formed a series of potholes. Finally, traverse down the granite to Pixie Glen and the Devil's Cauldron

Princetown prison and panorama walk

Princetown(5 miles)

This walk is perfect for those who don’t want to head too far away from ‘civilisation’, or who have a mix of interests. The gentle 5-mile stroll follows the railway line from Princetown, and takes in three tors, plus plenty of fascinating archaeological sites.

Start in Princetown car park and head onto Dartmoor, where you will immediately be struck by the sweeping hills before you. Follow the trail for a mile and then turn right to Foggintor Quarry, before continuing to King’s Tor. Follow the track around the tor until the track divides, where you take the left fork of Swelltor Quarry, which provided the rock for London Bridge in 1902. You will pass old quarry workings and eventually re-join the old railway line. Walk back to Princetown and on to Dartmoor Prison Museum to find out more about the town’s history detaining Prisoners of War.

Two Bridges, Wistman’s Wood and Bellever Tor circle

Two Bridges, Dartmoor(10 miles)

This day walk is perfect for keen hikers who want to make the most of the beautiful landscape with a longer walk. Start at Two Bridges, follow the footpath and onto the moorland as you walk with the West Dart River on your left. After around 2 km, you will reach the stunted oaks of Wistman’s Wood, with some trees up to 400 years old.

Head north-east out of the woods and head up Longaford Tor for beautiful views of the woods, before heading down via White Tor to the abandoned gunpowder mills with various old buildings and chimneys. Then, a clear path leads over the B3212 road and into Bellever Forest. This haven is full of coniferous trees, which you can explore before walking out and up to Bellever Tor. Take a closer look at the cists around the tor before taking the route back along the B3212 road.

Wildlife of Dartmoor

Meadow pitpit bird in Dartmoor

Dartmoor’s untouched expanses of land make it the ideal environment for many different species of wildlife, making it one of the most exciting wild places in Devon for animal lovers. Alongside the prolific Dartmoor pony, here you can find birds of prey such as buzzards, goats, sheep, otters and highland cows.

Exploring the area, you will be intrigued by different natural features depending on the season. In spring, be taken aback by fields of dense bluebells, in winter, marvel at the often-snowy knolls of the landscape. Wildlife here is largely ambivalent to humans, so you can get quite close to the characterful sheep and ponies. Alternatively, visit the Otters and Butterfly Sanctuary near Buckfast, where you can learn about tropical butterflies and their beautiful colours, and see various varieties of otter.

Attractions

Tiger at Dartmoor Zoo

Once you’ve spend a few hours walking around the dramatic landscapes of Dartmoor, you won’t want to leave. Luckily, there is much more to do here besides hiking! Whether you’re a family looking for kid-friendly days out or a couple interested in learning more about local history, there are loads of great activities in the Dartmoor area.

Dartmoor Zoo

If you’re visiting Dartmoor with the family and are looking for an extra activity to enjoy after a walk, Dartmoor Zoo is a must. Set in 33 acres of beautiful woodland, the zoo is home to a host of animals including big cats, wolves, snakes, bears and much more. The zoo is the story behind the popular film, We Bought a Zoo. In 2006, the Mee family bought the zoo and transformed it, preventing the animals from being lost and bringing a huge amount of interest to the area. If you’re interested in rare species, this is the ideal afternoon out, as the zoo boasts everything from Siberian tigers to ring-tailed coati and raccoon dogs!

Dartmoor Prison Museum

You might not expect to find a prison on one of the country’s most beautiful untouched national parks, but, in fact, Dartmoor Prison is one of the moor’s most famous features. Situated just off the moor itself in Princetown, the prison has been in use for over 200 years. Now, however, it is Dartmoor Prison Museum that provides a fascinating pit-stop for visitors.

The prison was once used to contain French and American prisoners of war from the battle with Napoleonic France between 1803 and 1815. Over the course of its history, it held famous prisoners such as Frank Mitchell AKA “the Mad Axeman”, who escaped and was eventually murdered by the Kray gang, and Eamonn de Valera, the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland wrongly made a political prisoner. Now, the museum features a whole host of amazingly-preserved artefacts, such as the inventive tools prisoners made to attempt escape or smuggle in restricted items.

Museum of Dartmoor Life

The Museum of Dartmoor Life is perfect for those looking to find out more about the history of local Dartmoor communities and their way of life. From the first human settlers on the moor, through the Victorian industrial revolution and to more recent times. Here, you can explore a reconstructed Bronze Age hut, Victorian kitchen, blacksmith’s shop and many farming exhibition, as well as learning about industries such as glassmaking, quarrying and rural crafts that were essential to the area. There are also discovery zones and chances to dress up the little ones!

War Horse Valley Country Farm

As any literature lover will know, Dartmoor was the setting of War Horse, a novel by Michael Morpurgo that became a West-End production and then a hit Stephen Spielberg film. Morpurgo wrote the story after meeting World War One veterans at his local pub in Iddesleigh, Devon, and tracks the war through the journey of a horse named Joey and his trainer, Albert. You can immerse yourself in the world of this moving story at War Horse Valley Country Farm, which offers everything you could need for a great day out – plenty of trails to walk in the picturesque valley, lovable animals including alpacas, calves and miniature Shetland ponies, and a museum featuring exhibitions on World War I, the novel, Morpurgo’s career, vintage farm machinery and more. There’s even a tea room!

Powdermills Pottery

Local crafts are an integral part of Dartmoor’s history, and pottery is one of the most famous products the area is known for. This legacy of craftsmanship is celebrated at Powdermills Pottery, where potter Joss Hibbs carried the mantel, hand-making beautiful pieces and selling unique housewares handcrafted by thirty other Dartmoor-based artisans. Housed in traditional granite buildings at the very centre of Dartmoor National Park, you can visit the pottery to see the kiln and process, browse through Joss’ pieces and even enjoy a delicious cream tea during the summer months.

Outdoor activities

If you fancy turning up the adrenaline a little – or even just want to see Dartmoor from another perspective, there are many outdoor activities on Dartmoor to try out.

Cycling

Cycling on Dartmoor

Due to the impressive hills and valleys all over Dartmoor, the National Park is one of Devon’s most popular areas for mountain biking – but also for a casual cycle. Several companies like CRS Adventures offer bike hire and guided tours, showing you all the best tracks and trails, whether you want to try something easy going or branch out into the pulse-raising downhill runs. Forest Cycle Hire on the edge of Dartmoor also provide bikes and trails guidance in Haldon Forest, a 3,500 acre woodland that is hugely popular with local riders for its purpose-built trails catering for beginners through to professionals.

Horse riding

Horseriding on Dartmoor

If a leisurely trot on a well-mannered horse sounds more like your cup of tea, Dartmoor is the perfect place to try a horse-riding tour. Dartmoor Stables are a riding centre where you can craft your skills on horseback before going on a ride around the moor in a small group. This is a relaxing way to see Dartmoor, and interact with these beautiful creatures and the same time.

Rock climbing

Climbing the Dartmoor tors

Another outdoor pursuit that Dartmoor is famous for is rock climbing. From abseiling off tors to climbing small rocks (otherwise known a bouldering), there are a variety of ways to try out this sport on Dartmoor (or test out new crags if you’re experienced!) Adventure Okehampton offer various climbing outings for groups, where experts will ensure you are safely roped-up, before showing you how to climb up various tors for some of the best views on the whole of Dartmoor!

Eating and drinking

Picnic

After a day full of all these exciting activities, it will be time for some refreshments. In various Dartmoor-based towns and villages, you can enjoy delicious food, whether it’s a light lunch, a pub dinner, high-end restaurant meal or some produce to take home at cook at your holiday cottage.

Riverford Organic Café

If you’re a clean eater, and want to try out truly local produce that is grown, prepared and cooked by the same people, the Riverford Farmers’ Field Kitchen in Buckfastleigh is the perfect place for a pit stop. Here, organic vegetables are the star of the show, and the fresh seasonal produce grown by Riverford themselves come together in delicious dishes, from salads and vegetable dishes to incredibly tempting desserts.

Ullacombe Farm

Ullacombe Farm Café in Bovey Tracy is ideal for a relaxing lunch right on the Dartmoor border. Begun as an honesty box selling fresh eggs, Ullacombe is now a successful family-run farm shop and cafe, selling delicious, wholesome meals. Everything from pies and quiches to scones and cakes are hand-cooked and baked in the kitchen, using only the finest ingredients from local producers. Whether you fancy a cream tea with homemade scones, cream and Ullacombe’s own raspberry jam, or a mouth-watering Sunday roast, there is something to whet every palate.

The Stable Restaurant

The Stable Restaurant at Bearslake Inn is a gem of a restaurant located between Okehampton and Tavistock. Inside this traditional Deon Longhouse, the friendly atmosphere is matched by amazing-quality food and drinks. Specialising in turning local produce into a high-end, yet unpretentious dining experience, The Stable Restaurant seats up to 40 people, and serves a hearty lunch menu during the day, plus honest good food come evening. Their wine menu is also enviable!

The Rugglestone Inn

Widecombe in the Moor

As soon as you arrive at The Rugglestone Inn you will be taken in by the charm of this Dartmoor pub, where traditional brickwork is covered by climbing plants and wisteria next to a pretty stream. Inside the grade II listen building, this is an incredibly popular place to eat, where the home cooked menu of locally sourced produce from suppliers such as Dartmoor Farmers Association, Gribbles Meat & Game and Hawkridge Dairy impresses, whether in a jacket potato or an evening meal. Sample meals such as steak and stilton pie, spicy meatballs or cheese and spinach cannelloni – all equally delicious. The food is complemented by an extensive local real ale selection, giving you a true taste of the area.

Two Bridges Restaurant

Princetown

At the heart of Dartmoor National Park is the Two Bridges Restaurant, a restaurant set in the beautiful and idyllic location of the Two Bridges point. Inside this 18th-century building, a fantastic a la carte and table d’hote menu is crafted out of local British produce. This restaurant gives a real fine dining experience, with beautifully-presented dishes perfectly put together by expert chef Mike Palmer. His creations include dishes such as Creedy Carver duck with fondant potato, orange, raisins and chorizo, and basil and ricotta ravioli with wild mushroom, hen egg, leek and truffle.

Tavistock Farmers’ Market

Tavistock

Voted ‘Best Farmers’ Market in the South West’, Tavistock Farmers’ Market was founded in 2000, and has since gone on to become a stronghold of the Devon local produce scene. The market is held on 2nd and 4th Saturday of each month, and hosts several stalls with everything on sale produced in the local area.

Everything you see has been grown, reared, caught, brewed, pickled, baked, smoked or processed by the stallholders, making this the perfect outing for environmentally-conscious individuals or those with dietary requirements. Stalls include (to name a few) Bread of Devon, Dartmoor Conversation Meat, Lifton Strawberry Fields, Rising Sun Garden Centre, and the Salcombe Fish Wife. There is also regular entertainment such as livestock encounters, beekeeping sessions and more.

Image credits: Gerry Smith (Flickr) / Ben J Gibbs (Flickr) / Stephen Steven Hodge (Flickr) / Brian Ralphs (Flickr) / Ross Elliott (Flickr) / Takver (Flickr) / Snowflake Girl (Flickr)