How to scramble Gordale Scar, Yorkshire Dales

It’s no epic, but its grand setting – in a waterfall among spectacular Dales limestone scenery – is more than enough to make Malham’s Gordale Scar a classic scramble.

Britain's greatest scrambles: Gordale Scar, Yorkshire Dales

by Ben Weeks |

Distance 11km | Ascent 300m | Scramble rating Grade 1 | Go there anytime heavy rain or freezing temperatures haven’t rendered the waterfall and rock unclimbable.

Nestled in the middle of the Craven Fault system, Gordale Scar, a 35km geological fracture running from the borders of Cumbria into the Yorkshire Dales, can trace its history back over 300 million years. Its precise formative process isn’t certain, but it’s generally held that the gorge was formed by excessive amounts of glacial meltwater following faults (major fractures) through the rock and carving out the immense limestone canyon found here today.

Two things run through the bottom of the gorge. Firstly there’s Gordale Beck, a stream which swells and retreats through the seasons at the whim of rainfall and snowmelt. In the Scar itself, the Beck tumbles down a series of waterfalls over limestone steps. From below, they appear to provide enough of an obstacle to prevent any passage, but the second thing that runs through the gorge suggests otherwise; a right of way.

This dashed line on the map might seem improbable on the ground, but sure enough a clear path leads into the ravine and, from above the waterfalls, an obvious path leads away. All that’s left is to conquer the bit in-between. This is the scramble, and although relatively short, it shouldn’t be underestimated. However, its brevity means it’s best enjoyed as part of a wider exploration of the Dales’ other landscape superstars.


To make the most of your day, we’d suggest starting from the village of Malham and walking to Gordale via the beautiful Janet’s Foss waterfall, after which you will arrive at the wonderfully located Gordale House campsite through which the path to the Scar leads.


The size and significance of the ravine isn’t obvious on the approach, which leads from the open campsite into a narrowing valley, following the course of Gordale Beck. Then suddenly, swinging right around a grass spur, the jaws of Gordale are revealed

Looking out of the jaws of Gordale Scar
Looking out of the jaws of Gordale Scar.


The steep sides of the gorge are home to rock climbs, so be wary of anything dropping from above. Even if there are no climbers hanging from the limestone crimps, you may be able to spot the tell-tale metal bolts. Pick your way over the rocks to the bottom of the falls where a small wooden sign advises: “TAKE CARE. DIFFICULT CLIMB UP”.


Take stock of water levels, weather forecasts and your own scrambling experience here. The majority of the rock to the left of the lower fall must be dry (as shown to the left) if you’re going to proceed, but the final decision must lie with you depending on the conditions.


Pick your way carefully up the exposed rock, aiming for as dry a line as possible. Small pockets of water gather in limestone bowls, and a damp foot or two can be expected, but in the main the way is obvious and the holds pleasingly plentiful. Most holds are secure, but watch out for patches of slippy polished rock.

Climbing up beside the lower falls of Gordale Scar.
Climbing up the water-sculpted rocks beside the lower falls of Gordale Scar.


At the top, the second falls can be seen over to the right cascading through a window in the limestone. There are more slippy rocks at the top of the scramble, so care is needed before joining the path, which climbs to the left, becoming a set of man-made steps before exiting the valley up its western flank.


Downclimbing the Scar isn’t recommended, and would make for a disappointingly short day anyway. A far better idea is to continue your limestone exploration with an onward walk to Malham Tarn, and then head back to Malham village via the spectacular Malham Cove.


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