Yorkshire Dales national park: a ranger's guide

From the Yorkshire Dales' best walks and wildlife spotting, to great places to eat or stay, ranger Matt Neale has the lowdown
Pen-y-ghent and Ribblehead Viaduct on Settle to Carlisle railway, Yorkshire Dales national park
Pen-y-ghent and Ribblehead Viaduct on Settle to Carlisle railway, Yorkshire Dales national park. Photograph: Alan Copson/Getty Alan Copson/Getty Images/Robert Harding World Imagery

What's new?

I love going to traditional agricultural shows and events. This year I'm going to Muker Show (mukershow.co.uk) in Swaledale on 4 September. And on 8 September I'll be sitting at the base of Hardraw Force – the waterfall with the longest single drop in England – for the annual Brass Band Contest, now in its 130th year.

The Yorkshire Dales have been shaped over thousands of years by the people who've lived and worked here: over 95% of it is in private ownership. Learn about the trials and tribulations of hill farming at weekly sheep dog demos run in summer by farmer Richard Fawcett (sheepdogdemo.co.uk) in Hawes. Make a day of it and visit the Dales Countryside Museum (thedales.org.uk/dales-countryside-museum, adults £4, kids free) in the former Victorian railway buildings.

Where to eat/drink/sleep

In the Yorkshire dales you are never too far from a cosy fireside with plenty of local ales to choose from. For a good choice of beers try The Crown in Hawes. There's an open fire, you can take your dog in, and get a decent pint. Each and every dale has its own character and local delicacies, but I must mention the Wensleydale Creamery which is right on my office doorstep in Hawes. This is a great place to purchase Wallace's favourite cheese, but also to see how it's made – and to sample before you buy.

Park highlights

Mountain biking in the Dales.
Mountain biking in the Dales. Photograph: Alamy

If you are looking for an active holiday this is one of the best places in the country for walking, climbing, caving and cycling. I enjoy getting on my mountain bike and exploring the old packhorse trails and highways and I can always find a route I have never tried. Our website (yorkshiredales.org.uk) is a great source of ideas. If road cycling is your thing, visit cyclethedales.org.uk. You can even try out the route of the 2014 Tour de France, which is coming to Yorkshire next July.

For something a bit more laid-back visit the famous waterfalls at Aysgarth, or the village of Malham, with its outstanding limestone scenery, including the natural amphitheatre of Malham Cove, Gordale Scar, said to be the inspiration for Helm's Deep in Lord of the Rings, and the enchanting woodland setting of Janet's Foss.

There are over 2,000km of footpaths and bridleways to explore and you can take an easy stroll or a proper leg-stretcher. Every year 100,000 people visit the Three Peaks area, sometimes walking just one, but occasionally tackling all three of Yorkshire's famous fells, Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough, in one go, raising tens of thousands of pounds for charity by taking on this 24-mile challenge in under 12 hours. So many visitors, though, does place a considerable strain on this fragile landscape. so we've launched the Friends of the Three Peaks. For an annual membership of £10 you can support the work required to ensure people can enjoy the area in years to come.

My favourite spots

This is always changing, because since 2005, when a significant proportion of the park (63%, previously 4%) was redesignated as open-access land, there are endless opportunities to discover new areas and views. Although probably for the more adventurous map-carrying walker, open access offers a chance to wander off a marked footpath or bridleway to explore a gill or gain a different view.

My best wildlife encounter

Over the past eight years I have been working on red squirrel conservation here in Wensleydale and I always enjoy taking the trail from Hawes to the viewpoint at Snaizeholme, which offers a great chance of seeing our native squirrels in their own habitat. You can do it on foot (roughly a nine-mile loop) or by the twice-weekly minibus. Find more on our website at natureinthedales.org.uk/snaizeholme-red-squirrel-trail.