Looming over Keswick, Skiddaw is England’s fourth highest mountain. It might lack the ruggedness of the three higher tops – Scafell Pike, Scafell and Helvellyn – but its bulk and its smooth, curvaceous lines lend it a magisterial presence that’s unmatched in the North Lakes. While the geology of the other three are dominated by the Borrowdale Volcanics, the slates of Skiddaw are the oldest rocks in the region, laid down by sedimentary processes almost 500 million years ago and giving rise to generally more rounded hills.
At 3054ft (931m) above sea level, Skiddaw’s position close to the northern edge of the Lake District means those who climb it will be treated to particularly good views across the Solway Firth to the hills of southern Scotland. Summer sunsets from the top can be truly spectacular. The easiest, and most popular route to the summit climbs from the car park at the end of Gale Road. This is located at almost 1000ft on the fell’s southern flanks, giving walkers a head start on those setting out from valley level. The constructed trail, sometimes known as the Jenkin Hill path or simply the ‘tourist route’, is relentlessly steep but makes for otherwise easy-going. On the way up, the subsidiary summit of Lower Man provides a bird’s eye perspective on Derwentwater far below. Bypassing Lower Man, a walker of reasonable fitness should be able to reach the top in less than two and a half hours.
The elongated summit plateau is a flat expanse of bare slate. A couple of simple, stone-built shelters offer respite from the strong winds that often thrash the exposed peak. There is also a trig pillar and a toposcope, indicating what other hills can be seen from the summit on a clear day.
Approaches from the north tend to be quieter and longer than the Jenkin Hill path, the best of the lot being the ridge route up to Ullock Pike and then along Longside Edge to Carl Side. This involves slightly more exposed and rockier ground, culminating in a lung-bursting push up a rough scree slope.
Gentler, grassier slopes drop away to the east, over Sale How and down to Skiddaw House, the highest hostel in England. Located at 1542ft (470m) above sea level and 3.5 miles from the nearest road, Skiddaw House was built in 1829 for the Earl of Egremont. Up until the late 1950s, it housed shepherds as well as gamekeepers and shooting parties, only beginning its present incarnation as a youth hostel in 1987. Facilities are simple, but the remote location is five-star.
For a taste of the Skiddaw massif without having to climb to the summit, try little Latrigg, sitting at its southern foot. It’s easily ascended from Keswick and the views from the bench close to its 1207ft (368m) top are among the finest in the district, looking out over the town and its lake. For the less able-bodied, there is a limited-mobility path from the Gale Road car park. It is made of well-compacted stone but with a short section with a 1:7 gradient, it’s not suitable for people operating their own wheelchairs.