The South West Coast Path is England’s longest way-marked footpath, stretching 1,013 kilometres from Minehead in Somerset, along the coasts of Devon and Cornwall, to Poole Harbour in Dorset.
This National Trail actually originated as a route for the coastguard to walk from lighthouse to lighthouse patrolling for smugglers in the bays below – hence the reason it closely hugs the coastline.
Although it’s not the quickest way to get from point A to B, the views are stunning throughout.
On the flip side, because it rises and falls with every river mouth, it is also one of the most challenging trails in the UK.
The cumulative elevation is 35,031 metres, almost four of the Himalayas’ tallest peaks combined.
A significant amount of the land that the South West Coast Path crosses has special status, whether it be a national park or one of the heritage coasts.
The two World Heritage Sites that walkers pass through are the Dorset and East Devon Coast, known as the Jurassic Coast, and the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape.
The path is covered by England’s right-of-way laws, meaning that footpaths are open to the public even if they pass through private property and is regularly maintained by the South West Coast Path Association.
The charity undertakes considerable fundraising to help care for and improve the path, a tough challenge due to ongoing cliff erosion.
- The best way to see England’s coastline
- Voted ‘Britain’s Best Walking route’ twice in a row by readers of the Ramblers Walk magazine
- Regularly features in lists of the world’s best walks
- Can be done in its entirety or broken up into shorter but equally amazing routes
With careful planning it is possible to walk the South West Coast Path in its entirety, as a series of day walks or just choosing one sub-section.
There are regular train services from other parts of the UK to the southwest where you can take local transport to your starting point on the path.
Key nearby stations include Barnstaple, Exeter, Newquay, Penzance, Plymouth and Weymouth. Travelling by train means that you don’t have worry about long-term parking or have the hassle of returning to your starting point to pick up your car at the end of your walk.
If you choose to drive, the area is well served by major roads (M5, A303, A30) and most of the gateway start and finish points along the Coast Path are served by a network of A and B roads.
Car parks are readily available at all coastal towns, with informal parks at the more remote locations along the Coast Path. However, if you are planning to walk for two days or more, you will need to arrange longer term car parking.
To save finding long-term parking for your car and then having to return to your start point, the best option is to use public transport. This way you can plan walks that start and finish at different places, rather than having to circle back and cover the same ground again.
For those coming from further afield Plymouth and Poole are the nearest international airports, with links to France and Spain as well as regional flights but Exeter and Newquay are also good options.
Although a seasoned walker in good physical shape could manage the full 1,013 kilometres (630 miles) in around 30 days, a more leisurely pace allows time to stop and see some of the sights just off the Path.
Most walkers and online forums recommend taking seven to eight weeks. Few people have the luxury (or energy) to be able to walk it in one go, so most split it between several holidays, choosing to complete the path over several years (or a lifetime!).
Grade and difficulty of the walk
It is not just the length of the Path that makes it tough to complete in one go. It is a highly challenging route, with a total of over 35,000 metres of up and down. Although most of it is quite a manageable gradient, there are some steeper sections and at times the path is loose underfoot with gravel or shingle.
For those who choose to break it down into smaller sections of a few days or a week, you can choose sections of the South West Coast Path that suit your fitness and hiking ability.
If you are new to the Coast Path, a key tip is to not plan to walk as far as you usually would. As mentioned above, it is a challenging route, with plenty of up and down, so it is better to be ahead of schedule and have time to explore, than having to rush to reach your planned overnight stop with throbbing feet and blisters forming.
For anyone planning to tackle the full path, you should be well-versed in long-distance trails and have done plenty of practise walks over varying gradients and terrains whilst carrying food and water.
As with most National Trails, there is no need for a permit to complete some or all of this route, which means you can keep coming back time and time again.
Guided or Self-Guided
Although there are organised walks and holidays, this route is usually done without a guide. This allows you to customise your itinerary and the trail is easy to follow thanks to its way-marking.
Over the course of the South West Coast Path there are thousands of signs to help hikers on their way. All of these will have the National Trail acorn logo on them.
At some path junctions way-mark posts have multiple arrows – but the arrow at the top nearest the acorn will always indicate the direction of the Coast Path. Below that, separated by a black line are other arrows that indicate the direction of side routes.
As with any walk in the UK, summer is typically the best time to go due to the higher likelihood of sun, no rain and longer days.
Since it’s in the south of the country, you might expect warmer, drier conditions than up north, but as any local could tell you, weather in the UK can be varied and unpredictable and there are no guarantees. The main season for the route runs from May to October.
Spring is also a popular option as it allows you to dodge some of the crowds and also see flowers starting to bloom.
As mentioned above, most people choose to break the route down into much smaller chunks – whether this is a day, a week or even a month.
Below is the suggested itinerary if you were to walk the entire length. Short on time? Just choose a section and save the rest for next year.
Normally the route is completed from north to south, but there is no reason why it cannot be walked in the opposite direction as it is well signed in both directions.
Week 1: Minehead to Westward Ho! – covering Exmoor and North Devon
Length: 7 days – 87 miles / 140 kilometres
Rugged high moors and woods of Exmoor National Park lead onto the surf beaches of Woolcombe.
Minehead to Porlock Weir – 9 miles
Porlock Weir to Lynmouth – 12 miles
Lynmouth to Combe Martin – 13 miles
Combe Martin to Woolacombe – 13 miles
Woolacombe to Braunton – 15 miles
Braunton to Instow – 13 miles
Instow to Westward Ho! – 11 miles
Week 2: Westward Ho! to Padstow – covering Hartland and North Cornwall coast
Length: 7 days – 78 miles / 125 kilometres
The toughest but most spectacular section of the walk. Here the coastline has been shaped by the full force of the Atlantic resulting in dramatic cliffs and a switch back of hills and valleys.
Westward Ho! to Clovelly – 11 miles
Clovelly to Hartland Quay – 10 miles
Hartland Quay to Bude – 15 miles
Bude to Crackington Haven – 10 miles
Crackington Haven to Tintagel – 11 miles
Tintagel to Port Isaac – 9 miles
Port Isaac to Padstow (including river crossing) – 12 miles
Week 3: Padstow to St Ives – covering Cornwall’s Atlantic coast
Length: 6 days – 66 miles / 106 kilometres
This section of Coast is a mix of rugged wild cliff tops interspersed with headlands, surf beaches and estuaries.
Padstow to Porthcothan – 13.5 miles
Porthcothan to Newquay – 11 miles
Newquay to Perranporth – 11 miles
Perranporth to Portreath – 12 miles
Portreath to Hayle – 12 miles
Hayle to St Ives – 6 miles
Week 4: St Ives to The Lizard – covering the far west of Cornwall
Length: 6 days – 69 miles / 111 kilometres
Walking around the tip of Cornwall offers a week of contrasts – mixing beautiful seaside towns with remote and wild sections of coast.
St Ives to Pendeen – 14 miles
Pendeen to Sennen Cove – 9 miles
Sennen Cove to Lamorna – 12 miles
Lamorna to Marazion – 9 miles
Marazion to Porthleven – 11 miles
Porthleven to The Lizard – 13 miles
Week 5: Lizard to Par – covering South Cornwall
Length: 6 days – 72 miles / 115 kilometres
The least difficult and strenuous walk (although still has some taxing sections), with little bays, picturesque fishing villages and prominent headlands.
The Lizard to Coverack – 11 miles
Coverack to Helford (including river crossing) – 13 miles
Helford to Falmouth (including river crossing) – 10 miles
Falmouth to Portloe – 14 miles
Portloe to Mevagissey – 12 miles
Mevagissey to Par – 12 miles
Week 6: Par to Torcross – covering South East Cornwall, Plymouth and the South Hams
Length: 7 days – 94 miles / 151 kilometres
A stand-out week for the beauty of its estuaries, farmed landscapes and the historic port of Plymouth.
Par to Polperro – 13 miles
Polperro to Portwrinkle – 12 miles
Portwrinkle to Plymouth (River crossing) – 13 miles
Plymouth to River Yealm (River crossing) – 15 miles
Wembury to Bigbury-on-Sea (River crossing) – 14 miles
Bigbury-on-Sea to Salcombe (River crossing) – 14 miles
Salcombe to Torcross – 13 miles
Week 7: Torcross to Seaton – covering South and East Devon
Length: 6 days – 72 miles / 115 kilometres
A softer landscape with a mix of farms and seaside resorts but plenty of impressive geology.
Torcross to Dartmouth – 10 miles
Dartmouth to Brixham – 11 miles
Brixham to Babbacombe – 11 miles
Babbacombe to Exmouth – 16 miles
Exmouth to Sidmouth -13 miles
Sidmouth to Seaton – 11 miles
Week 8: Seaton to South Haven Point – covering Dorset’s Jurassic Coast
Length: 7 days – 92 miles / 148 kilometres
More incredible geology and scenery along the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site.
Seaton to Seatown – 14 miles
Seatown to Abbotsbury – 12 miles
Abbotsbury to Ferry Bridge (Wyke Regis) – 11 miles
Ferrybridge around Isle of Portland – 13 miles
Ferrybridge to Lulworth – 14 miles
Lulworth to Worth Matravers (through Lulworth Ranges) -14 miles
Worth Matravers to South Haven Point -14 miles
If you don’t fancy a week’s worth of walking, the South West Coast Path is just as good for short walks and gentle strolls as it is for long distances.
Just decide what takes your fancy and base yourself in one of the many towns mentioned above.
Along the coastline of Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset there are plenty of places to stay within easy reach of the Coast Path. Options are varied, regardless of your budget, and include B&Bs, hotels, guest houses and camping.
Most hikers opt to stay in Bed & Breakfast accommodation, but there are luxury hotels and hostels too. For families, a good option is to book a holiday cottage or a campsite as a base from which to explore the surrounding coastline.
As with most well-known trails, the summer and Bank Holiday weekends can be very busy, so ensure you book well in advance and don’t start planning your route or walks until you’ve secured accommodation.
There are official campsites close to the Coast Path but there is no right to wild camp on the actual Path unless you have sought landowners’ permission first.
There’s so much to discover on a walk along the South West Coast Path that you could plan holidays there for the next 10 years and still see something new each time.
Whether your interest lies in land forms, the abundant wildlife that thrives among the rock faces and sand dunes, stargazing away from light pollution or filling your stomach with outstanding food – there’s something for everyone.
The views, wildlife and heritage have inspired numerous artists and writers and it’s regularly used as the setting for films and TV shows. As well as the varied topography and geology, there are plenty of fascinating sites of archaeological, historical or religious importance along the path.
One of the key benefits of walking Coast Path is the food. The area is an absolute haven for foodies, with traditional pubs, beachside cafés, delis, rooftop bars, pop-up street food vendors, Michelin star restaurants and everything in between. Once you’ve got your steps in you can enjoy a Devon or Cornwall cream tea or piece of Dorset apple cake guilt-free!
If you’re finishing up in Poole Harbour then tag on a couple of nights to relax and unwind. Your feet will likely need a little rest, but if you’ve got energy to spare then there’s plenty to do.
Shielded from the sea, Poole Harbour is a watersports heaven, whether you’re harnessing the wind, paddling or using a motor. Alternatively, catch a tan on golden Sandbanks Beach, take a boat trip or soak up some history at Corfe Castle.
|Difficulty||3/5 - 4/5|
|Starts at||Minehead, UK|
|Finishes at||Poole Harbour, Poole BH15 1ZB, UK|
|Length of route||1013 Km|
|Average time to complete||40 - 52 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||Yes|
|Highest point||136 metres|
|Countries visited||England, UK|