If you’re not quite a mountaineer but would like to say you climbed a country’s highest mountain, Britain is the place for you. The tallest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales are all fairly easy to reach, in areas offer plenty to do when you're not on the mountain. Relatively fit and experienced hikers can summit any of the peaks, whose maximum heights range from 3,209 to 4,409 feet, in a day hike of 7 to 11 steep miles.
The peaks are so popular that some people, usually looking to raise money for charity, climb all three within a 24-hour period by tackling the “National Three Peaks Challenge.” You can find plenty of satisfaction in a more leisurely pace that lets you take in the charming towns and landscapes surrounding the peaks themselves.
Climbing a peak in Britain entails broad vistas, exercise and meeting new people – not to mention a way to burn off those calories you’ve taken in via hearty British breakfasts.
A few words of caution: Like many British mountains, these are mostly treeless, which can make them a beast on hot days. No matter the temperature, bring plenty of water. And since weather conditions near the top can change in minutes, be prepared for anything.
From tallest to smallest, here’s a look at the highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales.
Scotland: Ben Nevis
About the Peak: Ben Nevis (“ben” is derived from the Scottish Gaelic word for “peak”) is the highest mountain in all of Britain at 4,409 feet. That seems impressive until you consider that Mount McKinley, or Denali, in Alaska is 20,320. Still, it makes for a long, steep slog of about 4 miles each way. It generally takes between 5 and 8 hours to go up and back, depending on hiking speed and how long you spend picnicking on its flat, scree-covered top.
You can do it on your own, but if you’d like to be part of a group, or if you want to try a route besides the established trail, go with a guide. Find a list of operators here.
Starting point: Most Ben Nevis visitors stay in nearby Fort William, “the outdoor capital of Scotland.” It’s a cute little town that feels a bit like an American mountain town, with plentiful pubs and lots of healthy-looking backpacker and cyclist types wandering through town. It’s got a plethora of lodging options from bunkhouses to bed and-breakfasts, making it a good base for exploring Ben Nevis and the surrounding West Highland mountains.
About the Peak: Of the three peaks here, Snowdon is definitely the easiest to summit: You can reach the top by train (trains run mid-May through October) and there’s a visitor center at the summit! To climb it, you have six routes to choose from, and it’s not as technically demanding as Ben Nevis or Scafell Pike. You can also easily go up one route and come back via another by paying the small fee to ride a Snowdon Sherpa shuttle bus. Depending on which route(s) you take, you’re looking at about 7 to 10 miles total.
Starting Point: Weighing in at 3,560 feet, the peak is a centerpiece of Snowdonia National Park, known for its miles of jagged peaks. The area is also full of history and culture and home to many Welsh speakers (don’t worry: both Welsh and English are on signs).
England: Scafell Pike
About the Peak: Where Nevis is a Ben, Scafell is a pike (also meaning “peak”). Its higher reaches are so rocky, with boulders scattered about everywhere, that the route is not so much a steep walking path (as at Ben Nevis) as a marked route through debris. Find the way by following painted rocks and cairns (rock piles that lead the way). The biggest cairn marks the top.
At 3,209 feet, it’s the least impressive of the three highest in Britain. But don’t underestimate it: Even fit folks often take an entire day to climb up and back the approximately 11-mile Wasdale Head route. The amount of scrambling required can be exhausting, especially on the more scenic (but more challenging) alternate routes.
Starting Point: Scafell Pike is in Britain’s famous Lake District, home to most of England’s tallest mountains (as well as lakes, as the name implies). On top of its recreational activities, the district is full of quaint places to stay, eat and drink, as well as a host of museums and historical sites. Many Scafell adventurers stay at the Wasdale Head Inn, “the birthplace of climbing,” which has housed climbers and hikers since Victorian times.
by Christy Karras
Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak, rises behind Fort William and Loch Linnhe in the highlands of Scotland. (Photo by Joe Cornish/Visit Britain)
Wherever you hike, make sure you have water and are prepared for changing conditions. (Photo by Rod Edwards/Visit Britain)
Mount Snowdon and the landscape of Snowdonia National Park from the Pinnacles and Capel Curig. (Photo by Joe Cornish/Visit Britain)
Scafell Pike and Wastwater lake are visible in this view over the Lake District. (Photo by Joe Cornish/Visit Britain)