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Helvellyn is, by far, our favourite mountain in Lake District. When we climbed it first time, we instantly fell in love with it. There are many paths to the summit, and coming from all directions, but we always opt for the most exciting and challenging route – via Striding Edge and Swirral Edge. In the English Lakes ‘edge’ usually means exposed ridge. In Helvellyn’s case the two ‘edges’ are short rocky ridges – great fun for hikers looking for a bit of excitement.
Fortunately, there is a bypass path along Striding Edge, therefore this walk can also be enjoyed by walkers without strong head for heights! Alternatively, paths coming from the south and north are less challenging and shorter. We will, however focus on hike from Glenridding, the eastern approach, as in our opinion it’s the most exciting route of ascent to Helvellyn’s summit, and one of the best winter hikes in Europe!
Hiking to Helvellyn via Striding Edge, fact sheet
- Height: 950 masl
- Total time: summer: 5-6 hours, winter 7-8 hours
- Total distance: 8 km
- Parking: large visitors car park in Glenridding (charge applies). Alternatively, free on street parking
- Level of difficulty: 3.5 – some scrambling involved, short steep section, both ridges are a bit exposed
- Helvellyn weather: Helvellyn weather forecast
- Which map: OL5 The English Lakes- North East: Penbrith, Patterdale, Caldbeck
Annual hiking ‘me time’
It seems that every year, in November, I go for an ‘all by myself trip’. It’s always very spontaneous, and usually these trips are some of the best ever. That November I had my eyes on Scottish Highlands, but winter weather conditions were brutal, so I started looking at other locations and somehow Helvellyn caught my eye. I admit, I have a soft spot for rocky mountains, and if there are ‘ridges’ involved, I just can’t resist. And so, I drove south to Lake District in England.
I ensured that conditions in Lake District were good: I checked webcams as well as weather forecasts for mountains and Keswick. ‘All clear’, a bit of sunshine and no rain/snow, so I left winter gear (ice axe and crampons) at home.
Great! I left Edinburgh just after 6 am and only when I reached the M74 motorway it was getting brighter. Not to mention that Scottish Borders (between Edinburgh and M74) were properly frozen (-7.5 degrees!), and I actually remember thinking to myself that, thanks goodness, conditions on Helvellyn were milder…
You can only imagine my confusion when I left the M6 (continuation of M74 highway) and had a first glimpse of the Lake District mountains… all summits nice and white!
Oh dear, I thought, should I turn back? Should I choose another mountain? For a moment I considered swapping Helvellyn for Skiddaw (which I planned for next day) as I knew Skiddaw would be easier to climb in snow, but wasn’t really sure if I could hope for better conditions next day… probably not.
To tell the truth, I really wanted to hike Helvellyn in Lake District. I decided to give it a go and see what happens; if the wintry conditions prove to be too challenging I would turn back and try another time.
Free parking in Glenridding
The walk starts in Glenridding village. There is a large visitors car park (‘pay and display’, toilets and rubbish bins) just off the main road and I left car there. Only on the next visit I discovered that there are free parking spaces available nearby, along Greenside Road (in residential area between Fairlight and Traveller’s Rest). Please keep this in mind if you don’t have spare change.
How to find Helvellyn trail head
Still a little bit uncertain, I packed my rucksack and headed towards the stunning outdoors. At first I walked along Greenside Road, past Traveller’s Rest pub, and soon came to a junction. I continued to the left, past a campsite, along the stone wall. Soon I reached a gate and crossed it. I continued to the left, along the wall, crossed the stream and found myself facing grassy slopes of Little Cove.
Hiking Helvellyn in Lake District
Past the stream, path was well defined and built of large boulders, well maintained and very easy to follow. There were no other paths in sight so I had no doubt I was heading in the right direction. Path ahead of me steepened as I approached Little Cove, therefore I stopped to have a break and turned around to admire the views to Glenridding village. Views were spectacular, even thou I only walked 30-40 minutes from car park and haven’t gained much height yet!
Blue ribbon of Ullswater, Glenridding village, small fields and grassy meadows, all in warm autumnal colours, created a picturesque vision. I was stunned. Suddenly I felt so energised and refreshed, ready to continue the hike. Just when I reached the top of Little Cove and was hoping for some flat ground, I realised that I have another hill to climb before I even see Helvellyn! Path became more rugged as it led up the grassy slopes of Birkhouse Moor. It turned left just before the summit and finally I reached a rather wide ridge, now with direct views to Helvellyn, and, most importantly, to the starting point of Striding Edge.
I followed grey stone wall and ignored the good, wide paths forking to the right, towards Red Tarn (lake) and Swirral Edge. The ground has already changed from grassy slopes to frozen winter wonderland, the grass disappeared and I walked over a white, thickly woven, frozen carpet. My eyes were set on rocky bump in front, which I could see from afar, completely frozen. I also noticed silhouettes of fellow walkers, static on the horizon and thought that, like them, I will soon have to assess the situation and the risks, decide whether I will be able to tackle Striding Edge or will be forced to turn back. The figures were still for ages, not moving at all, and I became anxious; if they’re not continuing the hike the conditions must be rather bad…
Slowly I approached a group of hikers, still considering and assessing the risks of setting their feet on Striding Edge. We exchanged thoughts and they decided to turn back, explore nearby tarn (lake) instead.
One thing was certain – I liked the frozen ridge teasing me. I took first big step and I instantly I knew that all will be fine, and I’m going to love it. Rocks were covered by thick, almost solid frost. I was going to be the first person hiking Striding Edge that day, snow was undisturbed. I knew that such thick frost will give me good grip and it was safe to walk. Oh, how I loved it!
It was an amazing experience! My only regret was not being able to share this moment with Bea, but I knew that we will be back to Helvellyn very soon. Simply, it was just too good an experience to keep it to myself!
As I continued along Striding Edge I felt my confidence grow. The ridge wasn’t very exposed, I also noticed a ‘bypass’ path following it below. Looking back I saw other walkers approaching the ridge, watching me… and then following me, encouraged by my good progress!
Only at the very end of the ridge I faced a steep climb down over rock face and decided it was time to take bypass path. A moment later I started last ascent towards the summit of Helvellyn. It was steep and rocky but not difficult; just when I felt tired I noticed that, hooray, I have made it! I was at the summit plateau of Helvellyn.
I can’t really describe how happy I felt. Apart from breathtaking views in all directions, I was also chuffed with myself that I made it safely to the top! Oh, I just couldn’t wait to repeat this experience! Oh, I loved it! I wanted to hike via Striding Edge again!
Having had a short break and some snacks, I checked the map and headed north, where the descent route began.
Swirral Edge begins a bit farther from summit plateau and is shorter than Striding Edge, but it felt more tiring. Especially in winter, the large rocks were awkward to pass (or walk over). Swirral Edge was less popular with other walkers and the frost patterns were, again, completely undisturbed, quite amazing actually.
Luckily, the most awkward section was very short and soon a narrow path emerged. I welcomed it with relief. The path soon forked: one leg descended to the right, down to Red Tarn and towards Birkhouse Moor. It then merged with same path I used for ascent.
Alternative return route from Helvellyn to Glenridding
However, I recommend taking another route to come back to Glenridding car park.
As I mentioned, path along Swirral Edge forks (to the right, to Red Tarn). Ignore this fork and continue straight ahead on Swirral Edge, approaching another hill, Catstye Cam. It’s not much of an ascent, but the summit is a nice viewpoint. At the summit cairn (pile of stones) path turns sharply to the right and steeply descents along south-eastern slopes of the hill. It soon widens and becomes easy to walk, soon joins a wide track. It’s a good, alternative option for return route, and although it’s longer, it’s a very pleasant walk along a stream. Please follow this track all the way – it becomes a small country road (ignore right turn to the bridge) and meets Greenside Road. Turn right at the T-junction and you will have found yourself at the starting point of Helvellyn hike.
Looking for a hearty meal after Helvellyn hike?
I recommend having a good, hearty meal at the Traveller’s Rest. It’s walkers friendly, dogs friendly (‘all friendly!) and makes a good place to warm up in winter; in the summer one can have a pint of local ale in pub’s garden. Traveller’s Rest is always hiving with hikers and walkers.
Wild Camping on Helvellyn and nearest campsite
Wild camping isn’t really allowed in Lake District (in whole of England actually), however it is practised by many walkers. The tent should not, however, be seen from the road or nearest dwellings. So why not spend a night at Helvellyn summit plateau? In fact, there are also numerous good camping spots along RED trail (see map below), but less suitable locations along GREEN trail.
There aren’t many parking bays along roads in Lake District, staying overnight in a camper is a bit tricky. It’s especially difficult in more populated areas, like vicinity of Glenridding and whole northern Lake District.
Helvellyn via Striding Edge and Swirral Edge hiking map
What we loved about hiking Helvellyn in Lake District
Helvellyn is our top choice when coming to Lake District. It provides a lot of excitement, some challenge when daring the edges and most importantly amazing views and hiking experience. Conquering Helvellyn is a great adventure, in winter and summer alike!
*Level of difficulty explained: 1– easy walk, mostly flat 2-easy hillwalk, good path 3-moderate, possible some steep sections 4-long hillwalk, possibly some scrambling involved, possibly pathless 5-difficult, possibly pathless, long, requires technical skills