Aerial photo of Ullswater islands
Golden light over the edge of Ullswater
Waterfall at Ullswater
Ullswater winding through the valley.

Ullswater is in the north east of the Lake District and the narrow lake runs for nearly 9 miles through a valley of sweeping vistas.

The lake is shaped like a hockey stick and is compared to Lake Garda in Italy, Its south-western shores are backed by an expansive mountainous plateau, 9 miles long and 4.5 miles wide, which is topped by the mighty Helvellyn (950m).

I started my day by heading to the lake’s western shores to visit Aira Force. Regarded as one of the finest waterfalls in the Lake District, this cascade features in every single guide and must-visit list of the region.

Having visited some impressive waterfalls in my lifetime, I was extremely sceptical about how magical this torrent of water could actually be. However, my scepticism was quickly put to bed upon arriving at the base of the falls.

Aira Force may not be the highest, widest or most dramatic of waterfalls, but it is its location and surroundings which add to its grand allure. Set within a steep gorge and enclosed by a colosseum of towering nature, the main fall cascades for 70ft from beneath a stone footbridge.

Aira Force Waterfall

Waterfall near Aira Force

Around the falls there is a network of tracks, paths and bridges which wind through a wonderful arboretum containing over 200 species of conifers from all over the world, one of which is over 100ft high. 

Having arrived at the falls shortly after sunrise, I had the main waterfall to myself for around 10 minutes. Standing on the second stone footbridge at the base of the falls, I could not help but feel I had strolled into a set from a fairy-tale movie. This brief moment of solitude allowed me to truly appreciate the falls’ beauty and added a little bit of magic to the entire experience.

From Aira Force, take the time to follow the woodland trail half a mile upstream to the second wooden footbridge that crosses the river. En route, you will pass the powerful High Force alongside a dozen of other, smaller cascades.

Aim to visit Aira Force as early as possible as it is an extremely popular location, with the lower car park often full before 10am. Being on the footbridge surrounded by dozens of people would definitely take away from the allure of this magical area.

Sunrise over Ullswater with wind rippling the surface

Sunrise at Ullswater

There are three National Trust car parks which give you access to the waterfalls. The most popular is the main car park on the shore of Ullswater which also has tearooms and toilets. From here, a full loop up to the high cascades footbridge and back is 2.8km.

If the main car park is full, there are two others - Park Barrow and High Cascades - situated on the side of the A5091 between the lake and the village of Dockray. A full circuit of the waterfalls from either car park is 2.2km.

For those who would like to stretch their legs a little further, I'd recommend combining this walk with a hike up to the summit of Gowbarrow Fell. This 5km loop takes you high above Ullswater, away from the crowds of the waterfall and offers panoramic views of both the lake and surrounding fells.  

I completed the circuit from the High Cascades Car Park; the path has one steep section but is not at all difficult. A detailed guide to this hike can be found on the National Trust website.

If the weather forecast looks good, the view from Green Hill (a peak slightly below Gowbarrow) is an incredible location for sunrise. Although Green Hill is part of the Gowbarrow Fell loop, it can be easily reached by a short out-and-back walk from the main fall at Aira Force.

From Aira Force, I followed the shoreline of the lake south to the village of Glenridding.

A canoe waits at the shore of Ullswater near a manmade stone jetty

Paddle out and explore the island

Helvellyn, Angle Tarn and beyond

After a brief pit stop at the wonderful Helvellyn Café (I had breakfast and lunch there so I would recommend visiting), I decided to spend some time on what is arguably England’s most beautiful lake. 

Sailing boats, canoes and kayaks are available to hire from Glenridding Sailing Centre situated on the southern shores of Ullswater. Pre-booking hire via their website is recommended, with lifejackets and safety cover both provided.

From their boat landing next to Glenridding Beck, you can paddle out and explore the three beautiful islands and numerous beaches scattered across the opposite shore.

Not fancying capsizing on a kayak with all my camera gear, I opted to rent a more stable Canadian canoe and paddled out to Wall Holme Island before exploring Blow Wick Bay.

I struck gold with the weather and had a perfectly calm day with glorious sunshine. Being able to see the surrounding fells from the surface of Ullswater offered a unique and incredible experience.

I only rented the canoe for an hour (£20) but would recommend packing a picnic and spending several hours visiting each of the islands and exploring the very tranquil bays along its eastern shore.

For those who would rather explore the surrounding fells, I can recommend two hikes beginning from the southern shores of Ullswater: Helvellyn and Angle Tarn.

The tougher of the two is an ascent of England’s third highest peak, Helvellyn, via Striding or Swirral Edge. This classic loop can lay claim to being one of the best mountain hikes in the UK. The hike tackles a wide variety of terrain, including two dramatic and exposed ridge scrambles, alongside having some of the best summit views in the Lake District.

I will warn people that this hike is difficult and not for beginners. However, for those with a good head for heights and mountain walking experience, I would 100% recommend taking on this hike, especially if the weather forecast is good.

The final ascent to the summit is via one of two ridges: Striding or Swirral Edge. Both are narrow, exposed ridges which finish with a short but steep climb requiring the use of your hands.

The most classic route to the summit is to ascend via Striding Edge and to descend via Swirral, however with Swirral Edge being the easier of the two ridges, plenty of people opt to go up and down this route. 

Having completed this hike in both the summer and winter, it’s a route which will not disappoint and will offer mind-blowing views from the summit. Starting and finishing at the large car park in Glenridding, this 11km circuit involves 800m of ascent and should take 4-6 hours to complete depending on your ability.

For those who fancy a shorter and easier hike, consider heading up to Angle Tarn from the neighbouring village of Patterdale. Parking at the Patterdale Hotel car park (£4 for 24 hours), this 8km out-and-back hike involves 360m of ascent and should take around 3 hours.

Alongside offering terrific views over Ullswater Lake and the surrounding fells, you’ll also be able to walk the shores of Angle Tarn, an enchanting glacial lake described by Alfred Wainwright as "the best of Lakeland tarns".

Looking out from Rydal Caves
Back to basecamp: An overview of the whole trip

After experiencing its endless natural beauty, sweeping vistas and cultural heritage, it is evident why this special slice of Britain is visited by over 20 million people each year.