Dartmoor's Wild Side - Enjoy Walking, Cycling, Letterboxing and More

PUBLISHED: 17:49 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:53 20 February 2013

Burrator Reservoir from Sheeps Tor (pic credit Adam Burton)

Burrator Reservoir from Sheeps Tor (pic credit Adam Burton)

Dartmoor's timeless landscape of tors and moorland has plenty to offer outdoor enthusiasts. Here is a taster of some of Dartmoor's many attractions to include walking, cycling, letterboxing, Dartmoor ponies, history and heritage.

It's been called the last remaining wilderness in southern England and it's easy to see why Dartmoor's unique landscape has so much appeal. The granite rock at its core has resulted in the formation of the characteristic tors, of which there are about 160, that give the moor its distinctive appearance, while the layer of peat on the surface is responsible for the often boggy nature of the moor and the particular plants that grow there.

As well as the high moor, the National Park, which covers some 368 square miles, includes the 'in-country' surrounding it - the hills and pastures and deep valleys where the countless moorland streams merge into clear, fast-flowing rivers. This variety of landscape is part of Dartmoor's charm. The high moor appeals to trekkers and those seeking wide open spaces, while the moorland fringes are ideal for gentle strolls and riverside picnics. These steep-sided valleys offer a variety of scenes: on the west side of the moor is Tavy Cleave, rocky and rugged with sharp tors towering over it, while on the east side can be found the dramatic wooded Dart Gorge and the sylvan beauty of Lustleigh Cleave.

Discover Dartmoor... by bike

Whether you're a hard-core mountain biker or a casual weekend cyclist, pedal power is a great way to explore the moor. Dartmoor is a dream destination for two wheels, with the option of traffic-free trails including dedicated cycle paths, pretty woodland tracks and ancient green lanes, with something to suit all abilities.

You are not allowed to ride over open moorland unless you are following a public bridleway, cycle path or Forestry Commission road, so for keen cyclists the Off-road Cycling Map is a must. This covers the whole of the National Park and grades routes from easy to severe.

From April to September there's a Sunday mini-bus service called the Dartmoor Freewheeler which takes cyclists and their bikes up onto the moor for a fiver.

Family-friendly cycle routes to try

The Plym Valley cycle route on the south-west edge of Dartmoor is ideal for an easy traffic-free family expedition. It follows a former railway line over some spectacular viaducts, as does the Granite Way which largely follows the route of a former line between Okehampton and Lydford.

...or for the very fit

The circular Dartmoor Way is a waymarked 90-mile network of quiet lanes that surround the moor and encompass both lush wooded valleys and rugged windswept moorland, including some killer hills.

Discover Dartmoor... on foot

As well as the open moorland, there are nearly 450 miles of footpaths and bridleways on Dartmoor and a guided walk is an ideal way to explore. The National Park runs a programme of walks from April to October, ranging from a one- or two-hour stroll, ideal for slower walkers or children, through to more strenuous four- to six-hour walks. Some guided walks have a theme such as the Kelly Mine walks which explore Dartmoor's mining history; for flora and fauna fans there are birdwatching walks in spring, haymeadow walks in summer and fungi forays in autumn, while 'Sketch and Stroll' offers guided walks with a local artist. You can also join an evening stroll or the popular 'Megaliths by Moonlight'. Some walks even include a cream tea - it's not all rugged trekking across a windswept landscape clutching Kendal Mint Cake!

Guided walks on the more remote high moor give you the opportunity to strike out into the wild heart of Dartmoor with the benefit of an experienced guide who can interpret the landscape. These cover more demanding terrain and longer distances, while the 'Beginner's Guide to Map and Compass' will get you acclimatised to navigating off the beaten track.

As a general rule you should be equipped for walking in what can sometimes be a challenging environment, especially when up on the high moor where weather conditions can change suddenly. Good walking boots that have been worn in are a must, as well as waterproofs, a hat and gloves. If you are going onto the high moor then the ability to read a map and use a compass is essential. Take water, food and a hot drink if you are going for a longer trek.

Easy-going Dartmoor for young and old

The less mobile or elderly can enjoy Dartmoor's fabulous vistas too. There are a number of tours with a National Park Guide in the summer using fully accessible vehicles that can carry wheelchairs, and refreshments stops and optional strolls are included. For youngsters there are 'Family Strolls' and 'Story Walks' and activities such as stream dipping where children can get up close to Dartmoor's wee beasties and bugs.


Letterboxing is a Dartmoor tradition that combines orienteering and treasure hunting. Started in 1854 by James Perrott of Chagford, who put a jar for the business cards of the few brave souls who reached the remote location of Cranmere Pool on north Dartmoor, letterboxing is now an enormously popular pastime. There are literally thousands of letterboxes hidden across the moor, including less challenging locations such as tea shops and pubs, which are found by following a set of clues. Once the waterproof container has been discovered, the finder stamps the Visitors Book inside with their personal stamp and stamps the find in their own book. The Letterbox 100 Club publishes a catalogue of Dartmoor letterboxes with their clues.

Firing ranges

Certain areas of Dartmoor are used by the Ministry of Defence for training purposes, including three live firing ranges - Okehampton, Willsworthy and Merrivale. The public is excluded when firing is taking place. Range boundaries are marked by red-and-white posts and red flags indicate firing. Details of the firing programme can be found on www.dartmoor-ranges.co.uk or call freephone (0800 4584868.

Wild camping

In areas of Dartmoor covered by the Dartmoor Commons Act you are allowed to camp as an individual or as a small group without asking for permission for up to two nights in the same place; exceptions are moorland enclosed by walls or fences, farmland (unless you have permission), archaeological sites, near the roadside or within sight of roads or houses.

It is illegal to camp or park overnight in car parks, lay-bys or on moorland verges. Larger groups, tents or motor homes should use designated campsites. There are also camping barns, some of which are part of the YHA network, and these offer simple accommodation for larger groups: details are available from the National Park.

Ancient Dartmoor

It's not just its geology that makes Dartmoor special, but the evidence of human history that stretches back thousands of years. During the Stone Age and the Bronze Age our ancestors lived on the moor and have left glimpses of their lives in the hut circles and enigmatic stone rows and circles we see today. In medieval times men worked hard to extract valuable tin from the many streams rising on the moor and in more recent centuries tin and other metals were mined deep underground. So industry and farming have left their mark over time.

The National Park contains the largest concentration of Bronze Age remains in the country, partly because the granite has weathered the test of time. Ceremonial monuments on the moor include stone rows, circles and cairns.

You may also come across the crumbling walls of long-abandoned farmhouses or the remains of Dartmoor's industrial past such as blowing houses, where tin ore mined from the moor was crushed and smelted. Below is a selection of some of the ancient archaeological features you might see.

Cairns or burial mounds - rounded piles of stones, may be turf-covered and sometimes with a circle of upright stones around them; 1,310 in total.

Ring cairns - a grave marked by a ring of stones, there are 210 ring cairns on Dartmoor.

Stone rows - lines of upright stones of varying sizes, often near burial mounds; there are 75 of these.

Stone circles - upright stones, many now fallen; there are 18 in total.

Standing stones or menhirs - isolated tall upright stones.

Hut circles or round houses - there are the remains of more than 5,000 Bronze Age huts on Dartmoor.

Reaves - prehistoric field boundaries, visible as low, rounded earth or stone banks.

Boundary stones - upright stones with a letter or letters carved on them to mark parishes, land ownership or similar.

Route markers - often medieval granite crosses, sometimes with carved letters, indicating safe tracks across the moor.

Dartmoor ponies

The Dartmoor pony is an ancient and indigenous breed well suited to the windswept and rugged terrain of the moors and is the logo of the National Park Authority. Alongside the native Dartmoor pony you may also see Shetland ponies, introduced 100 years ago. The ponies are not truly wild: they are all owned by local farmers who have grazing rights on the moorland. The ponies live on the moor all year round in small herds and between May and August the foals are born. Pony numbers have dropped dramatically in recent years, but they are an essential element in moorland grazing schemes.

Flora and fauna

The bogs and mires of the high moor are home to a diverse range of rare flora and fauna. Blanket bog, the name given to the covering of peat found on areas of the higher moor, includes the extraordinary sphagnum moss which was used as wound dressing during wartime. Rare plants found in this habitat include the carnivorous round-leaved sundew and birds such as golden plover and dunlin.

Valley mire is the peaty waterlogged habitat found in the valley bottoms and supports a thriving acid wetland plant community, with rarities like the bog orchid and Irish lady's tresses, along with the southern damselfly, curlews and lapwings. Away from the open moor this habitat becomes rhs pasture, a purple moor grass and rush pasture which supports a huge variety of species from the marsh plume thistle to the marsh fritillary butterfly, from roe deer to dormice. Dartmoor ponies have successfully been introduced into these rare pastures to stop the habitat becoming overgrown.

Another habitat is the wet woodlands of willow and alder which are home to birds such as willow tit and woodcock. Dartmoor is a birdwatcher's paradise: during the winter it is a stop-off point for visitors such as curlews and during the summer the sky is filled with the wonderful liquid song of the skylark, huge buzzards effortlessly ride the thermals and dippers bob around the moorland rivers.

Dartmoor is also home to some ancient woodland, including Wistman's Wood, a remote copse of stunted oaks near Two Bridges. At this Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) the oaks literally drip with lichens and ferns between moss-covered boulders. There are more than 40 SSSIs within the National Park.

Dartmoor's seasons are marked by its flowers: in spring, banks of primroses, wild daffodils and violets along the green lanes, followed by sweet-scented bluebell woods. In early summer there are flower-filled hay meadows, which include the rare greater butterfly orchid, and in late summer the moor is flushed purple with ling and bell heather.

Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA): www.dartmoor-npa.gov.uk.

If you have an enquiry about visiting Dartmoor, call the High Moorland Visitor Centre on (01822 890414)

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