This circular walk climbs the tree-clad gorge of Aira Beck to pass two waterfalls, before continuing to ascend through natural woodland and meadows to the hamlet of Dockray. The lower, larger waterfall, Aira Force, is the more famous of the two. It offers an impressive sight from the viewpoint stone bridges above and below the falls. The beck cascades some 70ft (21m) vertically down a narrow, rocky chasm into the pool beneath the lower bridge. The view directly down the chasm and waterfall from the upper bridge is breathtaking, and not for those averse to heights. Torrent in a woody glen Aira Force was mentioned several times by Wordsworth, notably in 'The Somnambulist':
Doth Aira-force, that torrent hoarse,
Speak from the woody glen!
Particularly when in spate, the upper falls of High Force, which fall some 35ft (11m), are also impressive. Broader than Aira Force, the falls are also open to a closer approach. View them from the east bank, when ascending, from the outcropping bed of waterworn rocks above. Care must be taken, particularly when it's wet, as the rocks can be very slippery and there are no safeguards to prevent a fall.
A walk for tree-lovers
While the waterfalls are a major attraction, the area surrounding the beck is a delightful mix of pine and exotic trees. It was purchased by the National Trust when the estate of Gowbarrow Park came up for sale in 1906. It had been owned by the Howard family of Greystoke Castle, who landscaped the area around the waterfalls. In 1846 they created a pinetum and pleasure garden, planting over half a million native and ornamental trees and establishing a network of tracks, footpaths and bridges. They planted more than 200 specimen conifers, including firs, pines, spruces and cedars from all over the world. One of the most notable, passed on the walk, is a Sitka spruce from North America which now stands at around 120ft (37m) high. Higher up, towards High Force, the woods have a more natural aspect, dominated by oak trees. In the moist environment of the sheltered valley, many of the trees are thickly clad with mosses and ferns. The main fern species cloaking the trees is the common polypody.
Head to the far end of the car park and follow the obvious path through the gap to the right of the National Trust shop. Bear right at an early fork in the path and enter the pinetum via a metal gate. This area is known as The Grove. Follow the path round to the right, over the footbridge, to cross Aira Beck. Climb the steps and fork left by the huge Sitka spruce to follow the terraced track up the east bank. At the next fork, the main route goes up the steep steps on the right, but first head left to gain the bridge at the base of Aira Force and its impressive view of the falls. At the top of the steps, keep left and you'll soon see a stone arched bridge to your left, another great place to view the falls –this time looking down on them.
As you continue with the beck on your left, the character of the walk changes. It's usually quieter and the path is significantly rougher. Soon after climbing to join a path from the right, ignore the steps descending left to a wooden footbridge.
Continue up the main path to the delightful rocky falls of High Force. There's a viewpoint from the rocky slabs above the falls –in times of spate it is probably safest to leave a close inspection until you're on the return leg and can view High Force from the opposite (west) bank. Ignoring another wooden footbridge over Aira Beck, keep to the stony path up the east bank. Go through a stone wall to enter a small natural wood of hazel, silver birch, oak, ash, alder, rowan and sycamore. It seems light and airy compared with the denser woods found at the start of the walk.
Beyond the trees, the path leads easily across open ground. Pass a path to Gowbarrow Fell on your right and go through a gate. Staying with the main path, bear left at a fingerpost (towards Dockray) and cross a beck via a wooden bridge.
Follow the obvious track into Dockray and a junction with the road (A5091) opposite the Royal Hotel. Turn left along the main road, and continue to a car park in an old quarry. Go through a gate on the opposite side of the road to the car park.
Descend the open area to another gate. Bear right above the west bank of the beck. Follow the path above the beck, later passing a wooden footbridge over a narrow ravine. Don't cross it but continue down the west bank on a clear path. As you begin climbing some steps, you'll again see the stone bridge over the top of Aira Force on your left. Just after ignoring some steps descending left, keep left at a junction, following signs for the car park. Bear left at the next fork and then turn right at a T-junction of paths in The Grove to return to the car park.
Stony paths, steps and surfaced road
Pinetum, tree-lined river gorge, woods and open meadow
Under very good control; narrow paths with steep drops, sheep pastures and open road
AA Walker's Map 2 Central Lake District
National Trust's Aira Force pay-and-display car park, off A592
At car park
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
Cumbria's rugged yet beautiful landscape is best known for the Lake District National Park that sits within its boundaries. It’s famous for Lake Windermere, England’s largest lake, and Derwent Water, ‘Queen of the English Lakes'. This beautiful countryside once inspired William Wordsworth and his home, Dove Cottage, in Grasmere is a popular museum. Another place of literary pilgrimage is Hill Top, home of Beatrix Potter, located near Windermere. Tom Kitten, Samuel Whiskers and Jemima Puddleduck were all created here.
Much of Cumbria is often overlooked in favour of the Lake Distirct. In the south, the Lune Valley remains as lovely as it was when Turner painted it. The coast is also a secret gem. With its wide cobbled streets, spacious green and views of the Solway Firth, Silloth is a fine Victorian seaside resort. Other towns along this coastline include Whitehaven, Workington and Maryport. Carlisle is well worth a look – once a Roman camp, its red-brick cathedral dates back to the early 12th century and its 11th-century castle was built by William Rufus.