There’s many a route to Haystacks in the Lake District. However, the most exciting, adventurous and possibly life-changing course, in my opinion, is along the High Stile Ridge. My journey doesn’t quite follow this path today but I’m out for adventure, why don’t you come with me, virtually at least.
I might also suggest you have a tent in that bag you have on your back and have booked the second night in the Black Sail Hut. So, let’s crack on.
The Best Route To Haystacks – The HIGH STILE Ridge
After a careful (or nerve-racking) drive down the tiny roads around Lampugh and Croasdale, you’ll eventually get to a car park at Bowness Knott, a wee crag on the side of the ridge. It’s a spacious parking area and free.
From Bowness Knott follow the route out and round, up the Western flanks of Great Bourne for a beast of an ascent. Why not set off in the late afternoon and give you time to pitch a shelter of some description before sunset?
Wild camping gives you the chance to get up at 2 am for a pee and end up setting up a tripod and DLSR to take some night photography. Very rewarding if you get a clear sky.
Next morning as the sun rises, you relax over breakfast, map in hand and Starling Dodd in mind. This was the last Wainwright Alfred visited and wrote about before publishing the seventh book in the Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells series.
Starling Dodd summit is pretty much a junkyard, but a beautiful one at that. Iron fencing from a time gone by, surplus to current requirement, is left to rust but marks the ‘top’.
What Red Pike lacks in summit appeal it gains in the amazingness that surrounds it. The views over to Grasmoor are just breathtaking, honestly stunning, and the scree down to Bleaberry Tarn is an adventure in itself. This is my favourite ridge in the whole of Lakeland. Many reasons for this are the adventures I’ve had on the sides of these hills, ascending my different routes.
Hiking from one side to the other is fantastic enough, but I implore you to explore these mountains as Wainwright did in the 60s, finding adventure and excitement scattered all around. The Pictorial Guide is simply the best way to facilitate this. I like to take a seat now and again and read what AW wrote after exploring these mountains.
Drop down to the tarn for lunch, contour East and pick your way up to High Stile this way. Try to follow the little black dotted lines on the Ordnance Survey map. ‘Legend’ has it that these are physical paths and not the green, dotted rights of way. You’re guaranteed to be out of your comfort zone, and when you reach the next peak, you’ll more than deserve the vista.
On to the great High Stile, another fantastic place to camp if you get the chance. You might try sometime to ascend High stile via Grey Crag. There is a path of sorts, but it’s very easy to be diverted by the rock and end up doing a bit more scrambling than you anticipated.
You can see in the photo above the ascent to the right which will take you up to the summit over Grey Crags. Dark crag near the top is the subject of another mini-adventure all by itself.
If you find a hole to thread in the fallen boulders, East of the crags, be careful in your quest. The squeeze is on a small cliff face (see panoramic above), and you’ll need to take off most of your clothes to get through. On a clear day, the views of Comb Crags and the aptly named Sheepbone Buttress sweeping up to High Crag was to me on that day nothing short of mind-blowing.
Climbing up to High Crag presents to me another wild camping opportunity for me on a later date. This time it’s a simple gap in fallen rocks. It’s just big enough for one person to nestle inside. Much like a little cave, the attraction would be waking up the next morning. Assuming the rocks didn’t decide to fall after tumbling 15000 years in the ice age, the views would be enough to delight.
Passing over the summit isn’t the highlight of this trip, having so much fun off the beaten track. However, the top presents you with a good chance of a beautiful photograph with neighbouring fells as a backdrop. And there are lots to come.
I think the photo below gives you a good indication of your descent off High Crag. It’s steep!
Gamlin End down to the col. before you pass over Seat, can undoubtedly be a monster after the day you’ve had. Be careful not to tumble, take your time and stop if you need to now and again. There’s plenty around you to take your mind off your aching calves.
Hopefully, by now, you understand why I say this is the best route to Haystacks. However, that’s just half the adventure.
Now we come to the Scarth Gap, the hause between the Buttermere and Ennerdale Valleys. Another great place to stop and take stock, you’ll need to decide here whether you’re going to call it a day and dive South into Ennerdale for a 6-mile trek back; or to crack on over Haystacks.
Is your route to Haystacks going to terminate here? Should you pull out now your journey has still been a raging success but don’t take Haystacks lightly, you may get more than you bargained for.
I speak about Haystacks in detail in ‘Haystacks – The Wainwright Summit‘ but let me say that the geology can be a day’s study in itself. Knowing a little about the volcanic activity in this area 450 million years ago will stand in good stead for a visit to Haystacks.
I’ve taken loads of groups to the summit of Haystacks over the years. The conversations still go on. Which side is the correct summit? Well, Wainwright’s summit is to the North! And this is where we take our summit photos on the Wainwright Weekend Walk every year.
Wainwright’s book on the Western Fells states very clearly that he wished to spend the rest of his time on Haystacks, specifically at Innominate Tarn. In 1991, after his death, his wife Betty and a few close friends scattered his ashes by the water. Still, the precise spot is a well-kept secret.
Innominate Tarn and Haystacks are our destinations on the Sunday of our Black Sail Hut Retreat each year. Speaking about Wainwright is nice, and discussing the local history and the geology of the mountain. It’s also an excellent trek. Even though the route may look ‘easy’. Leave the Hut, ascend Loft Beck. Then pass Innominate Tarn and summit Haystacks before dropping from the Scarth Gap to stroll down the valley. It’s far from easy, taking in 34,000 steps! That’s about 9 miles in real terms.
Coming off Haystack to the East you’ll descend by the side of Loft Beck into the head of Ennerdale. This is also very steep. It’s then a short walk to the YHA Black Sail Hut. Book your night here with the YHA.
The Black Sail Hut
On our annual Black Sail Retreat, we book all beds in the hostel for the night. We get sole occupancy and nobody else staying. As ‘they’ are rewilding Ennerdale, the most remote of the Lake District valleys, it’s very peaceful, eerie and stunning with it. If you’re passing, you’re free to use it as a pit stop, get shelter or even get a coffee (if there’s somebody in).
The panoramic as you leave the valley is impressive with Great Gable standing strong. If you’re heading up the valley, the Gables welcome you with open arms and they offer you a challenge.
After decades of domination by the Forestry Commission growing pine, the 4300-acre valley is undergoing a slow transformation. The rewilding project started long after Wainwright wrote of ‘a dark, funereal shroud of trees’ in the valley. An agreement between landowners, the Forestry Commission, the National Trust and United Utilities progresses slowly, but surely.
To help native trees repopulate, the number of plant munching sheep is being reduced and replaced by Galloway cattle.
Read more about the project at Wild Ennerdale.
It’s a long hike through Ennerdale, 6 miles in fact between the Black Sail to Bowness car park, 8 miles if you’re dropping from Windy Gap. However, it’s a delightful one.
After Haystacks and your visit to the Black Sail, to at least get your first photo, I would recommend you follow our walk through the forest. You can’t avoid the forest track that takes you North West from the Black Sail but precisely 2 miles along, coming to the trees, you should spot a track dropping sharpish to the river. Coming to a well-built bridge, which you should cross, you’ll get another sweet photo opportunity with the River Liza.
Assuming your navigation and map reading skills are up to par, you can follow the winding paths through the woods. The River Liza, now left to run wild through the forest, is rather unmissable at some points. Coming to the next bridgehead, take the hidden path by the water into the trees where you’ll appreciate the raging river.
You have a pleasant few miles back to the car. Cross the river at a clear track that heads almost directly North then, back on the forest track, follow your nose back to Bowness Knott.
Route To Haystacks
You’ve climbed up a steep Great Bourne and camped wild on the summit. Visited Starling Dodd, Wainwright’s last Wainwright, you’ve powered on to soak up the views from Red Pike.
Adventuring down Red Pike scree, you’ve enjoyed afternoon tea at Bleaberry Tarn before scrambling up Grey Crags to thread the Squeeze.
High Stile and High Crag were a nice walk before you got to the dramatically steep descent leading to the Scarth Gap. Haystacks was a wonder and paying your respects to AW at Innominate Tarn was a fitting close to your inward journey.
Your night with new friends at the Black Sail Hut was a blast and your walk out of the valley humbling.
Here’s the route to Haystacks that we took.
Hope you enjoyed the trip, survived the night on Great Bourne. It seems like a distant memory now doesn’t it? I hope you were as thrilled as I was to descend the scree off Red Pike to then scramble up to High Stile. Visiting Wainwright’s final resting place after following him around the 214 fells was a highlight for me.
Hope you’ll consider joining me again on another hike.