There's drama from the start as you follow the River Dove, wriggling through a narrow gorge between Bunster Hill and the towering pyramid of Thorpe Cloud. There are exciting stepping-stones to cross, then a limestone path urges you to climb to a bold rocky outcrop high above the river. Lovers' Leap has a fine view across the dale to the pinnacles of the Twelve Apostles. It's not the sort of place you'd think of throwing yourself from at all. However, in 1761 an Irish dean and his lady companion, who were out horse riding (or were they horsing about?) fell off the rock. The dean died of his injuries, but the lady survived to tell the tale.
Spires and caves
The Dove writhes round another corner. Above your head, flaky fingers of limestone known as the Tissington Spires rise out from thick woodland cover. On the right there's a splendid natural arch, which is just outside the entrance to the historic Reynard's Cave. (For the more intrepid, closer views can be gained part-way up a rough slippery side track). The dale's limestone walls close in as boardwalk eases the way by the rushing river. As the valley opens out again two gigantic rock stacks face each other across the Dove. Pickering Tor has a small cave at its foot. A little footbridge allows you across to the other side to the foot of Ilam Rock. This 80ft (24m) leaning thumb of limestone has an overhang on the south side that's popular with climbers. It also has a cave at the bottom, which is only 6ft (2m) at the entrance, but opens out to over 30ft (9m) inside. You will get a better view of them when you cross the little footbridge to the cave at the foot of the rocks. On this side you're in Staffordshire and the paths are less populated – unless it's DofE season!
Hurt's wood and Dovedale
The continuing walk into Hall Dale heralds a less formal landscape. The dry dale climbs up the hillside past thick woodland to the left. This ancient woodland is called Hurts Wood and has wych elm, whitebeam, ash and rowan. You may hear and see many birds: warblers, redstarts and black caps; and wild flowers: dog's mercury, wood anemone and wood forget-me-not. Soon you're walking down a quiet lane with Ilam and the Manifold Valley on your right and Bunster Hill on your left. A path takes you across the shoulder of the hill, across the ridge and furrow of a medieval field system, then back into the valley of the Dove.
Take the dead-end lane up the west bank of the River Dove. Cross the stepping-stones then turn left along the wide footpath which wanders through the pretty wooded dale between steep-sided limestone crags.
The path climbs some steps up to the rocky outcrop of Lovers' Leap, then descends past the magnificent Tissington Spires and Reynard's Cave. The dale narrows over boardwalk and past a spring-line cave, before rising slightly over a short, polished, limestone section.
The dale widens again. Leave the main track for a path to 'Stanshope', crossing the Ilam Rock footbridge and following a narrow woodland path on the far bank. Ignore a path junction ("Ilam, steep ascent") after 200yds/183m). Cross a stile then bend left into Hall Dale, following the dry valley bottom up out of the woods into a rugged limestone-cragged gorge.
As the gorge becomes shallower, you enter pastureland with the attractive village of Stanshope now on the skyline. Ignore a path to the left by a stile then take the next path left (at Point B). Cross one field heading due south then follow a wall as it bends rightwards in the next. At a shady tree at the start of the next field, veer diagonally left and uphill. Go straight ahead in the next field for 50yds (46m) then diagonally right across a third to a country lane.
Turn left to walk along the lovely quiet lane (Ilam Moor Lane), enjoying magnificent views across the Manifold Valley down to the right and towards Bunster Hill ahead.
After roughly 800yds (732m) and immediately before a farm drive entrance (Ilamtops Farm) cross a stile. Head across the drive to a second stile, then veer gently rightwards from the drive and fractionally downhill over grassy pasture to the top of Moor Plantation woodlands. Cross a stile into access land and continue descending across the next field.
The MAIN route (experienced walkers only) contours across the hillside over the challenging section and through a notch in the hillside before descending steeply to the edge of access land above pasture. Head left and follow the wall line, eventually emerging onto the Dovedale Lane opposite the gauging station. Turn right to return to the car park.
The ALT route: One field beyond the end of Moor Plantation woods, fork right and down into a shallow grassy valley. Cross a tall stile onto a farm track, then turn left at a junction by a house. The track runs above a lane, skirting beneath Bunster Hill. Head uphill along the edge of access land, bending right with the wall-line to the Dovedale Lane and car park.
Good paths, lanes, fields, polished limestone, one rough rocky eroded section, some stiles including tall stile on alternative route
Partially wooded dales and high pastures, caves
Dogs should be kept on lead
AA Leisure Map 7 Central Peak District
Dovedale pay car park, near Thorpe (open 9am-7:30pm)
At car park (small charge), Milldale
Seasonal flooding risk - may be impassable in winter. A section on Bunster Hill contains an eroded rough rocky section of bare polished limestone. This can be slippery in dry weather and treacherous in wet conditions and is not recommended for inexperienced walkers (please follow the alternative route).
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.