The South West Coast Path is the longest walking trail in the UK, and also one of its most famous and highly rated.

In the Lonely Planet Guide to Great Britain it is the first attraction mentioned and often features in lists of the world’s best walking trails. Very few hardy souls do the entire 630 miles in one go, it's much more common to break it down into shorter segments.

UK south west coast path

Classic sweeping views of the South West Coast path

Walking the South West Coast Path

The South West Coast Path

Distance: 630 miles/1,014km

Duration: 30 – 60 days, or shorter sections

Start point: Minehead, Somerset

End point: Poole, Dorset

Difficulty: Moderate to hard, with repeated climbs and descents

Suitable for: There’s a small scenic section for everyone but the whole route is for those with time and stamina.

The route skirts the shoreline of England’s South West peninsular, providing a constantly changing nautical panorama that ranges from popular seaside resorts to wildly remote rocky headlands.

The 630-mile trail passes through Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset. As it rises and falls with every river, beachhead and cliff top, the total elevation, or height walkers have to climb, is a hefty 114,931 feet (35,031 meters). That’s four times the height of Everest.

Nevertheless the coastal path is generally well signed and maintained, there is a wide selection of places to eat and stay, and a huge selection of sights, attractions and viewpoints on every stretch. And for the less experienced walker there is another great attraction: it’s almost impossible to get lost on the South West Coast Path.

Sculpture at the start of the South West Coastal Path Minehead South West England UK

SWCP sculpture on Minehead promenade marks the path's start (or end) point

South West Coast Path route

Walkers usually start at the special SWCP sculpture of giant hands holding a folded map on the seafront promenade at Minehead in Somerset and end at the metal monument next to the dunes at South Haven Point on the edge of Poole Harbour, Dorset.

This north to south direction is the norm but it can equally be walked from Poole to Minehead: the waymark signs point in both directions. For the sake of convention most guides and day-by-day plans describe it in the anti-clockwise direction from Somerset to Poole.

It starts with a particularly dramatic section along the Exmoor coast. This includes its highest point, the flat-topped, heather-clad bulk of Great Hangman Hill near Combe Martin (1,043ft/318m).

The surf beaches of North Devon are followed by the high, dark, brooding cliffs of the Hartland headland. Cornwall is a sequence of charming bays, beaches and estuaries, before the path returns to the green inlets and harbours of South Devon.

Torbay involves more beach resorts and Victorian hotels, before the grand finale of the World Heritage Jurassic Coast of spectacular rock formations and geological drama on the shores of East Devon and Dorset.

This is the UK’s most popular holiday region for a reason. The path includes many memorable scenes that will have walkers unpacking their cameras, including: Clovelly’s unspoilt whitewashed and flower-bedecked cottages tumbling down to its tiny harbour, the clifftop castle ruins of Tintagel, the sandy crescent of Mount’s Bay, Penzance, dominated by St Michael’s Mount, the grand natural harbour of Falmouth and the dramatic red cliffs of East Devon leading into the extraordinary formation of the Chesil Beach.

South West Coast Path sections

Very few walkers complete the path in one go; for most it’s a longer-term project that’s broken up into more easily-manageable sections. Exactly how you split it up depends on how much time you have for each stretch, and how challenging you want to make it.

The official South West Coast Path website has various suggested itineraries, including this 52 day programme broken up into eight week-long segments:

Section one: Minehead to Westward Ho! (7 days, 87 miles)

Section two: Westward Ho! to Padstow (7 days, 78 miles)

Section three: Padstow to St Ives (6 days, 66 miles)

Section four: St Ives to The Lizard (6 days, 69 miles)

Section five: Lizard to Par (6 days, 72 miles)

Section six: Par to Torcross (7 days, 94 miles)

Section seven: Torcross to Seaton (6 days, 72 miles)

Section eight: Seaton to South Haven Point (7 days, 92 miles)

UK Cornwall St Michaels Mount i

View of St Michael's Mount from Marazion, Cornwall

Need to know

Minehead is easy to reach by road, although a glorious alternative is the West Somerset steam railway, which runs a regular service from Taunton to the seafront.

At the other end, most walkers jump on the Sandbanks ferry at South Haven Point across the entrance to Poole Harbour. The three-mile walk through the town to Parkstone Rail Station may seem the longest of the whole route, so note that buses and taxis are an option.

The vast majority of the 8-odd million who venture onto the path every year are doing small sections, perhaps just to buy an ice cream in the next beach cafe. On some stretches there may be no other walkers all day but be prepared for crowds and queues passing close to resorts on sunny summer weekends.

The path is so long that small sections can still provide a fulfilling holiday in their own right. Particularly scenic stretches might include Minehead to Woolacombe, Bude to Padstow, St Ives to Penzance, Exmouth to Lyme Regis and Weymouth to Poole.

Secret spots

It’s not all famous postcard scenes and the path offers plenty of little-trumpeted discoveries that can provide the best memories of all. Hidden treasures include Britain’s smallest church deep in the cliff top woods at Culbone near Porlock, the pretty National Trust valley reaching the sea at Branscombe in East Devon and the strange geological secret waiting to be discovered at the mouth of Boscastle Harbour (clue: it makes a strange noise).

About the author

The South West Coast Path

Daniel McCrohan

Daniel is a prolific guidebook writer who divides his time between exploring Asia for Lonely Planet and Britain for Trailblazer. As well as writing close to 50 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, he has worked on more than a dozen Trailblazer walking guides, and has hiked and camped his way across many parts of the UK, China, Mongolia and India.

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