Everyone knows Cumbria as a playground for hiking and biking, but it’s also got some driving routes which are nothing short of national treasures. Now, we’re not ones to encourage driving, but if you’re in Cumbria without a bike or with tired legs and fancy a little road trip to relax and take in some views, here’s a few ideas for some classic circular road trips. We hope they will take your breath away and inspire you to get out of your car and explore the beautiful Cumbrian landscape.
Lake District Road Trips
While the very best of Cumbria is seen on foot, you can see a lot on a classic Cumbrian road trip
The other Route 66
Did you know Cumbria has its own Route 66? Yes, the A66! It may not be as iconic as the Mother Road in the USA, but mile for mile we think it can compete for scenery and it gives access to some great UK mini road trip adventures around the spectacular Northern, Central and Western Lake District.
Lots of options for motor tourists
Although millions come to Cumbria to hike and bike around the lakes and mountains, the pretty, winding roads also draw another type of tourist; the motorist. With tree lined country drives, routes around the Lakes and roads that wind through pretty country villages and over wild mountain passes, there is plenty to keep a motor-tourist happy.
There are classic short, sweet drives around some of the main lakes like Coniston and Windermere. Or for those seeking solitude there are wild country rambles on single track back-roads. While those in search of thrills can tackle the classic Lakeland Passes.
Looking down to Buttermere from a walk above the Honister Pass
World class driving experiences
The Cumbrian roads are a draw for car enthusiasts from all over the world; in fact the road from Windermere to Keswick was voted by a car rental company as the third best drive in Europe. These days visitors are encouraged to leave their cars at home, to reduce environmental impacts in the National Park, and to rent one locally if needed. It’s not easy deciding on the best economy car hire but there are plenty of options to suit all budgets and the eco minded can even rent electric vehicles locally, which means you can drive with a clean green conscience, and the excitement of not knowing if you’ll have enough charge to get home!
Here’s three suggestions for routes we think will showcase some of the best of the Lakes.
Circular Road Trips in Cumbria
A Northern Lakeland Circuit
This circuit takes in three big Lakes, some classic Lakeland villages and towns and a Lakeland pass, with lots of stopping off options en route.
Keswick town has lots of amenities and things to visit
Begin in the charming market town of Keswick in the Northern Lakes and head South on the A66/A591 to make your way down to Thirlmere, a peaceful reservoir in the shadow of Hellvellyn, surrounded by woodlands and with a very quiet road for light vehicles on the Western side. Continuing on the A591 you head south over Dunmail Raise and can visit the pretty Lakeland village of Grasmere and the busy honeypot town of Ambleside.
If you want to see a little of the lake Windermere, drive on to Waterhead (a little South of Ambleside) where the pier for the steamers is. You could always stop for a short cruise before turning tail and heading north again up and over the A592, Kirkstone Pass. If you want a challenge, try finding and driving up The Struggle from Ambleside; it’s not called that for nothing.
Once over the Kirkstone Pass you’ll head down towards Patterdale and Ullswater. You could take a break at the Aira Force waterfall before heading up on the A5091 through Dockray to Troutbeck to rejoin the A66.
Driving through Patterdale at night
Heading west along the A66 you’ll be on your way back to Keswick, with great views of Blencathra and Skiddaw (if the weather is kind). Before heading back to town it’s worth taking the detour to visit the atmosphere Castlerigg Stone Circle signposted off the main road a few miles before Keswick.
The Borrowdale & Buttermere Circuit
This circuit takes in you to three of the quieter Lakeland waters, deep into some quiet Lakeland valleys and up and over two classic Lakeland passes, with plenty of places to stop off and admire the view or do something more active instead.
Derwent Water from Keswick end
Starting in Keswick, head out of town to pick up the B5289 towards Borrowdale. This will take you for a drive around the eastern side of Derwentwater and south along the River Derwent into the beautiful Borrowdale Valley, once an important mining area. After winding through the valley and leaving the river you will come to the dramatic Honister Pass at the top of which you’ll find the Honister Slate Mines, complete with a unique Via Ferrata for an out of car adventure. Heading down the other side of Honister will bring you to Buttermere, one of the less visited Lakes and a great spot for ice creams before driving on.
Looking down into the Honister Pass as it heads to Buttermere
The B5259 takes you past Crummock Water before you turn to head west on the B5292 to return towards Keswick up and over the Whinlatter Pass. The Whinlatter Pass is famous for its forest, forest trails, mountain biking centre and a great Wild Play area at the Whinlatter Forest Centre near the top, well worth a stop. Heading on and down the Whinlatter Pass brings you back down to rejoin the A66 with Keswick just a few miles to the east.
If you want to add one more lake to your tally and a few extra miles, head North instead on the A66 and you’ll soon come across Bassenthwaite, the only lake that’s called a lake in the Lake District and one of the few you can circumnavigate! To complete your loop, turn east onto the B5291 near the northern head of the Lake which will take you to the A591 which returns on the eastern side back to Keswick in the shadow of Skiddaw. There’s some beautiful country house hotels on the way back, like the Lyzzick Hall, where you could always stop off for a late afternoon tea to round off the day.
Hardknott, Wrynose and Coniston Circuit
This circuit crosses the Lake District taking you over the most dramatic of the Lakeland passes, the Hardknott and Wrynose passes. It’s a heart-stopping drive over the single track passes and the scenery really will take your breath away.
The Hardknott Pass was not named randomly and, if you’re the driver, you can almost guarantee a hard knot in your stomach as you climb your way up this single track road which has an incline as steep as 1:3 in places! The Hardknott and Wrynose Passes take you right through the middle of The Lake District linking Ambleside, The Duddon Valley and Eskdale in the Western Lakes.
The start of the HardKnott pass warns of the excitement ahead
For an exciting circuit start in Ambleside and head out on the A593 towards Coniston. Watch out for a minor road turning a few miles out which is signposted for The Langdales and Wrynose. This is the way to go for some Hardknott fun. The road winds through to Little Langdale then over the Wrynose Pass to the Duddon Valley. At Cockley Beck a right hand turn takes you up Hardknott Pass, past the warning signs and onto the most dramatic hairpin winding part of the route. Take your time and pray you don’t meet anything coming the other way! When you finally come down you will be in the Western Lake District and end up in pretty little village of Eskdale. Before you reach Eskdale, the road passes Hard Knott Fort, once a lonely outpost of the Roman empire and a spectacular place for a stop and visit.
The views across the fells are to die for
From Eskdale turn left, heading south east and follow the road as it winds across wild fell until you rejoin the river Duddon and eventually end up at the A595. Hold your nerve and you’ll get there. Take the A595 east for a short distance then turn onto the A593 heading north east to Coniston and then back on to Ambleside, completing the ciruit. If you want a bit of relaxation after the stress of the passes you can stop off in Coniston for tea or take a detour down the minor road on the Eastern side of the lake (access via B5285) where you can even stop off and paddle.
Windermere in winter
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