Whinlatter is billed as “England’s only true mountain forest”. Managed by Forestry England, the sprawling plantations creep up the surrounding fells, reaching a maximum altitude of just over 1600ft on the slopes of Grisedale Pike. Glimpses of this pyramid-like peak come and go as visitors explore the forest, as do views of Skiddaw, Bassenthwaite Lake and even the Helvellyn range to the south-east.
Undecided as to how best to go about exploring this huge site? It’s not surprising; there’s a lot to choose from here. There are, of course, the usual forestry walking trails – miles and miles and miles of them. There are seven coloured routes, two children’s activity trails and two strenuous-graded mountain trails, climbing to Lord’s Seat (1811ft/552m) and Grisedale Pike (2595ft/791m). And, with each junction marked by a numbered post, it’s easy to make up your own route.
Cycling and mountain biking trails range from well-surfaced forest roads to the purpose-built Altura Trail, a red-graded route designed for more adventurous riders with good off-road experience and adrenalin to spare. Bikes, including e-bikes, can be hired from the Cyclewise shop at Whinlatter, which also organises mountain biking skills courses to suit all abilities.
For a squirrel’s eye view of the forest, take to the treetops in the high ropes course run by Go Ape. Zip lines, nets, rope ladders and swings, all several feet above the ground, make for a thrilling experience that’s bound to produce the odd scream now and then. Slightly more sedate, Go Ape also runs hour-long Segway tours.
You have to be 10 years old and at least 4ft 7ins tall to take part in the high ropes course, but don’t despair if the kids don’t quite measure up; there’s also the WildPlay trail incorporating a climbing wall, log swing and an enormous climbing frame. Still too much? Well, for the youngest family members, there’s the secret path and hidden carvings of the fairy kingdom as well as Gruffalo sculptures.
There are five car parks spread across Whinlatter, with most of the activities easily accessed from the visitor centre car park about four miles west of Keswick. In summer, this can also be reached by bus from the town centre.
As well as having public toilets, the visitor centre houses a small shop and the popular Siskins café which serves light lunches, hot and cold drinks and a good selection of very tasty cakes. Diners enjoying an al fresco lunch out on the balcony have the added bonus of being able to watch woodland birds pecking away at the feeders hanging from nearby trees. Whether it’s summer or winter, there’s always a colourful array of species tucking in. For another ornithological experience, the visitor centre sometimes has a screen displaying live footage from the webcam trained on the ospreys’ nest near Bassenthwaite Lake. These massive birds of prey can also be viewed using telescopes set up during the breeding season – April to the end of August – at the two viewing platforms in Dodd Wood.