Hiker's Guide to the South West Coast Path

The former tin mine of Wheal Coates, now protected British heritage | CleanerShrimp
The former tin mine of Wheal Coates, now protected British heritage | CleanerShrimp

Hiker's Guide to the South West Coast Path

Britain’s coastal walks are hard to beat. The invigorating sea breeze, the stunning variety of flora and fauna, the rugged cliffs which stretch on for miles, the promise of a cosy pub waiting for you at the end of your day - it’s all these things and more that make visitors from the UK and beyond flock to visit year on year. 

So what better long-distance trail to complete than the South West Coast Path, where you’ll be able to experience its unique charm again and again? Taking you to some of the south’s finest and most popular sights, and truly off the beaten track as well, the UK’s longest National Trail is multi-award winning for a reason. 
Hiking the Salt Path in England |  <i>Crispin Jones</i> Pretty Cornish town |  <i>TheDigitalArtist</i> Sunshine, fresh sea air, and the welcoming harbour of Charlestown on the South West Coast Path |  <i>Humberts</i>
Whether you choose to walk the whole route or pick and choose your favourite places to visit, this remarkable journey into England’s coastal culture never disappoints. Discover the South West Coast Path for yourself on one of UTracks' affordable self-guided walking tours.

A fascinating history of the South West Coast Path

This has to be the only footpath in the world that owes thanks to smugglers for its origins. In the 19th century, thanks to vast lengths of rocky, uninhabited coast, the Coastguard would have to patrol the entirety of the southwest peninsula in order to try to foil those looking to avoid heavy taxes on goods such as tea, brandy, gin, rum and tobacco.

Because the guards needed to be able to examine every nook and cranny, every cove, inlet and bay, the path formed as a result hugs the edge of the land, affording the modern hiker a thorough tour of the coast packed with incredible views. Recognising its potential, it was made into a protected National Trail in the 1970s (largely funded by Natural England), meaning there’ll always be right of way on this stunning route, even where it passes through private land. 

Walking the Salt Path, or South West Coast Path, in England |  <i>Roy Curtis</i>

What to expect on the South West Coast Path

A long and sometimes strenuous journey packed with more rewards than you could imagine. Walkers normally take 6 to 10 weeks, depending on fitness and what they want from the route, to complete the full journey. As a result, it’s more usual to split it into chunks, completing one or two legs at a time, or to simply opt for walking some of the finest sections, such as the areas between St Ives and Megavissey

From the way it came to be and the general popularity of the southwest coast, you can expect good, well-formed trails which make for excellent hiking. The challenge comes in the ascent and descent - whilst there are no mountains to climb, the nature of coastal walking is, of course, undulating, dipping down and up between cliffs and beaches. With no serious gradient or length of ascent, however, it’s nothing you can’t train for with some extra stair-climbing on your way to work or at the gym ahead of your adventure.
Porthleven harbour, Cornwall |  <i>Mark Sandamas</i> A seagull overlooking it all in Polperro, Cornwall |  <i>Sekau67</i> A way marker around Tintagel along the coast in Cornwall |  <i>lbradxx</i>

The final thing to take into account is the weather. As walks in the UK go, this is one of the best for temperatures and conditions thanks to its southerly location - but as we’re talking about the very western edge of the country, you can expect some buffeting from prevailing Atlantic winds and the potential for a few rainy days. With plenty of cafes, pubs and hotels along the way, of course, there’s always somewhere to hide from the elements and offer you a break when you need it. 

The South West Coast Path route 

If you’re wondering what the South West Coast Path actually involves, it’s easy enough to imagine by simply pulling up a map of England. Look to the corner jutting out the bottom left, and trace its outline - that’s the whole path. It covers 630 miles (1014km) of coastline across Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset, visiting charming coastal towns and some of the region’s most exciting sights along the way. 

Typically walked anti-clockwise, the trail starts at Minehead in Somerset. Things kick off with a bang, as you pass above the highest coastline in Britain and the dramatic landscape of the Valley of the Rocks, where unique sights abound between the steep, craggy cliffs and the potential to spot feral goats and the wild ponies of Exmoor. A section of marshland and nature reserves offers you a break before you officially enter Cornwall, heading along secluded coves to Padstow via the iconic ruins of Tintagel - the cliffside castle ruins where King Arthur is said to have lived. 
Cape Cornwall on the Cornish Coastal Path |  <i>John Millen</i>

By now, you’ll be used to the undulating nature of the trail and able to fully appreciate its stunning variety, working your way up and down beautiful cliffside paths leading to beautiful beaches (some of the UK’s finest) and quaint fishing villages. Wildflowers, sea stacks and the potential for fascinating fauna keep things endlessly interesting, delivering you to St Ives, one of Cornwall’s most picturesque ports. 

For the next leg, things get a little wild and remote, passing through not one, but two, recognised Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. A quick pitstop in Penzance before continuing over more rugged cliff tops, temperatures only improve as you head further south into Cornwall’s sub-tropical climes. Another iconic site, St Michael’s Mount, appears, a stunning island castle and community linked by cobblestones to the mainland, and then it’s onto Falmouth, a charming port with remarkable culinary renown.
Mevagissey Harbour |  <i>John Millen</i> Shaded forest tracks along the South West Coast Path in Cornwall & Devon |  <i>jplenio</i> Reflections in Mevagissey Harbour

Continuing onto Plymouth, there are some incredible highlights to be seen here if you love flora, with the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan both worthy detours. The largest city on the whole route is your next stop as the route passes through the streets of Plymouth, a bustling, modern port. Onwards to Exmouth, where you’ll discover one of the quietest parts of the route is also one of the most uniquely beautiful, before heading into East Devon one of the most spectacular sections, the Jurassic Coast. 

Vibrant red rock and vast white cliffs define this stunning area, and more balmy temperatures create even more variety across this route. Setting the scene for the finale, it’s all golden sands, turquoise waters and abundant wildlife to accompany you on the final leg to Poole.
Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door and St. Oswalds Bay - Jurassic Coast, Dorset

Towns of the South West Coast Path

One of the best things about the South West Coast Path is the balance it achieves. There are plenty of sections of wild and wonderful walking in dramatic locations, but these are broken up by respites in charming coastal towns packed with character. Here are some of the best.


Fish and chips from Rick Stein's seafood restaurant in Padstow
A working harbour sandwiched by breathtaking golden beaches, this is a wonderful place to spend a day or two. Put on the map by Rick Stein’s famous seafood restaurant, it’s foodie heaven, with plenty of options to treat yourself to some world-class cuisine. And when you’re not enjoying the freshest catch of the day you’ll ever have, head out on a wildlife safari to spot seals, dolphins, puffins and more.

St Ives

St Ives harbour in Cornwall |  <i>Simon Godfrey</i>
One for art lovers, St Ives offers a refreshing change of pace, with Tate St Ives and the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden all within walking distance in the town centre. The Tate houses exhibitions celebrating the wealth of artists and work inspired by the southwest coast, and it’s a special experience to explore the incredible sculptures and work of Barbara Hepworth through her home, studio and gardens too. 


The Jubilee Pool in Penzance on the South West Coast Path |  <i>Benjamin Elliott</i>
An old harbour town infused with modern vitality, Penzance’s quaint, ramshackle streets conjure a lived-in atmosphere that never fails to draw visitors in. Independent galleries and boutiques wait to be found in cobbled backstreets, whilst the promenade on the seafront will take you happily back to the times of the Victorian seaside holiday. Make sure to also stop by the Jubilee Pool, a beautiful art-deco sea-water lido that now also hosts a delightful geothermal pool - ideal for resting weary limbs. 


The colourful seaside setting in Mevagissey |  <i>Nick Fewings</i>
Picture a charming Cornish fishing port in your mind's eye, and it’s likely the picturesque scene you’re imagining is not far off Mevagissey. Dating back to the 14th century, an array of coloured houses, cafes, pubs and galleries surround the old harbour walls and give life to this stunning little town. While you’re there, make sure to spend a day at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, an internationally acclaimed restored garden with over 200 acres to explore. 


Highlights of the South West Coast Path



Exmoor ponies |  <i>Peter Hoogmoed</i> Roe deer in England |  <i>Hans Veth</i> Gannets
You don’t need to take a boat to experience the incredible sea life that lives in the southwest. Walking along clifftops, you could see pods of dolphins jumping on the horizon, whilst guillemots, shags, gulls and gannets flock around sea cliffs. And on land, keep your eyes peeled for wild ponies in Exmoor, with the chance to see majestic deer and bounding hares along the rest of the way. Bountiful fauna only adds to the wild magic of this stunning route.



Sampling Cornish pasties at a local bakery.
The real challenge of the South West Coast Path lies in making sure you can still walk after trying all the delicious culinary treats on offer along the way. The seafood, of course, is a must; from high-class Michelin star cuisine all the way to beautifully salty battered fish, fresh from the local chippie. Don’t miss out on other local marine bounty such as the tender brown crab, fat, hand-dived scallops and oodles of oysters which will also be found all the way along the route. Stop off at local bakeries and pop a hot Cornish pasty in your pack for lunch; and for the sweet-toothed, cream teas - a fresh scone topped with clotted cream and jam, accompanied by a cuppa - form the perfect cafe pit stop. 


A delicious pint of beer and hot sausage roll in a pub in England.
With all the pubs you’ll find on route, many will be CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) approved, which means you’ll be able to choose from the finest local ales, bitters and lagers along the way. It’s the southwest, which of course means you’ll want to try some classic ciders too, plus the most local of tipples, scrumpy - a type of still, often cloudy cider which reigns in the sweetness for a fuller flavour. And in recent years, the southwest has become home to many incredible distilleries - look out for small-batch Cornish gin or Devon’s own limoncello. 

The South West Coast Path: a true coastal odyssey

In England, we have a saying: ‘to blow the cobwebs away’. It means to reinvigorate yourself, to get rid of all that’s clogging you up, with a walk, or exercise. There’s no finer way to do this than on a coastal walk, with a fine sea breeze as your constant companion. So just imagine beautiful long days on the South West Coast Path, with views for days, miles in your legs and wind in your hair - you’ll come back an entirely new person. 


South West Coast Path Walking Tours


South West Coast Path, South West Coast Path walking tours, Cornwall walking tours, Guide to the South West Coast Path, England walking tours, United Kingdom, England

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