A guide to family-friendly cycling routes in the Lake District

Karen Gee and her children
Karen Gee and her sons
Three years ago, Karen Gee and her family decided to move to Cumbria in search of a more outdoor and active lifestyle. Here's Karen's favourite family-friendly cycle routes in the Lakes.

Three years ago, my husband and I decided to up sticks, leave the suburban life behind and move our family to Cumbria in search of a more outdoor and active lifestyle. At the time our two boys were 6 and 8 years old and able to ride their bikes independently, but were too young to ride on the road with busy traffic. They were on small wheels which meant they had to work much harder than us to travel any distance.

On our arrival, the first thing we had to confront was just how steep the Lake District is. It may seem a bit obvious, but it’s hard work cycling up hills! It’s hard work when you’re 6 years old and haven’t fully mastered how to use gears, and it’s equally hard when you’re a 40-something used to cycling on the flat.

Over the course of three years our climbing and stamina have improved and with every ride the boys get more skilled. They are now aged 9 and 11, and much better mountain bikers than me. At the moment I can still outpace them on the road, mainly due to the fact I’ve got bigger wheels! It won’t be long before they’re leaving me far behind, but I’m enjoying it while I can still keep up.

It’s been an exciting time discovering what the Lake District has to offer and it seems right that we share some of our favourite family friendly places to cycle.

A couple of words of advice:

The Lake District is mountainous, and all these routes have some ascent and descent. Don’t underestimate the affect this will have on a child’s ability to cover distance. Just because they can ride 10 miles on the flat doesn’t mean they can do the same in the Lake District.

Remember what goes up must come down. Descending at speed, either on or off road requires skill. Start easy and build up distance and difficulty once everyone in your family is confident. There are plenty of cycle coaches in the area offering family skills sessions and guided rides.

The weather in the Lake District changes quickly, so always be prepared for rain, cold weather and low cloud. It rains at least 200 days a year and is the wettest place in England. I’ve learnt never to set out without a waterproof – if you’re lucky you won’t need it!

Western Shore of Windermere

Distance: up to 9 miles round trip

Type of bike: hybrid or mountain bike (also suitable for trailers, bike seats and tagalongs).

Terrain: undulating traffic free cycle path (uses quiet road if coming via Windermere Car Ferry).

This route was our first experience of cycling in the Lake District and is great for all ages. There are 3 miles of traffic free cycle paths and a further couple of miles of very quiet roads south of Wray Castle on the western side of Windermere.

The best thing about this route however, is that you can turn it into a real mini-adventure by catching the Windermere Bike Boat from the eastern shore of the lake. As the name cunningly suggests, this is a boat that only carries cyclists and their bikes. It runs from May half term to the end of the summer holidays (daily during holidays and weekends in term time).

It’s a magical feeling parking your car at the Brockhole Visitor Centre on the busy A591 between Windermere and Ambleside and riding down to the tranquillity of the lake shore to await the boat. The captain will then load your bikes for you as you climb on board.

After the excitement of the lake crossing you’re immediately onto the traffic-free section of the western shore cycle path. The most popular route is to head north towards Wray Castle, where you can picnic on the lake shore and enjoy the most stunning view over the lake. If it’s not picnic weather, there’s a tea room and plenty of activities in the Castle (admission fees apply). Alternatively, you could try the more undulating southern route, which eventually turns into a quiet road. 

All to quickly it’s time to ride back to the jetty and await the boat back across the lake – a perfect way to end a day full of adventure.

The Bike Boat on Lake Windermere. Photo by Karen Gee

Grizedale Forest

Distance:  Anything from 2 miles to over 14 miles.

Type of bike:  Mountain bike or hybrid. Forest roads suitable for trailers, bike seats and tag-a-longs if your legs can manage the hills.

Terrain: Forest roads or technical single track. Steep gradients on most routes.

I have a love/hate relationship with Grizedale Forest, as we’ve had some of the best and some of the worst bike rides there. I’ve discovered that if you ride in the right place for the right age and ability of your child it’s great - get it wrong and you face dissent as some of the forest roads are very steep and very boring for younger riders. 

On our first visit I ignored the advice that families with smaller children should ride from Moor Top car park. From here there is a 2-mile trail past Goosy Foot tarn, or the 3 or 7-mile Mushroom Trails which involve hunting down wooden mushrooms from a series of clues. Instead, on our first visit we decided to do the 10.5 mile Hawshead Moor route as the boys had managed similar distances at other forests before. But they weren’t clinging onto the side of a Lake District Fell - oh, what naïve newcomers to the area we were! Mile after mile of steep forest trails, starting out with the brutal climb up from the visitors centre, led to a day of moaning and whinging, and I vowed never to return!

Thankfully the stunning views over Coniston Water got the better of us, and over time we’ve learnt to love Grizedale. One of my favourite memories was when the boys got off their bikes to explore a little path and came back saying they’d found a living room, complete with a sofa and TV. Like many primary age children, both boys have fantastic imaginations. They’ve been known to build dens in all sorts of places, so I was somewhat dismissive with my response. Eventually they persuaded me to follow them along the track, and I had to eat humble pie when I discovered not only a sofa and tv, but a lamp and full length set of curtains too!

Wooden Living Room in Grizedale Forest

Our most disastrous ride also took place at Grizedale, just after Storm Desmond in 2015. It was between our first Cumbrian Christmas and New Year, and the county was empty as everyone was staying away. We had the forest all to ourselves. What should have been a truly fabulous experience, was made memorable for all the wrong reasons when we suffered not one, not two, but three punctures and discovered that a) our pump was at home on the kitchen table, and b) our CO2 canisters didn’t really work with mountain bike tyres. With the daylight fading fast, temperatures plummeting, no-one around to ask for help and lots of pushing ahead of us, we realised the need to be fully prepared when out in the Lakes. Our winter cycling preparations are now significantly more robust.

Time moves on, and we now go to Grizedale for the red grade North Face Mountain Bike trail, which offers lots of tricky technical features as well as some brilliant singletrack descent. The red sections are linked by long stretches of forest road, so we’re able to ride as much of the red route as we feel able to, before the swift descent back down to the visitor centre.

Whinlatter Forest

Distance:  Less than 1 mile up to 12 miles or more.

Type of bike:  Mountain bike or hybrid.

Terrain Forest roads or blue and red grade singletrack.

Whilst Grizedale has some advanced red grade riding, it’s lacking any waymarked blue routes, so Whinlatter Forest in the north of the Lakes is where we introduced the boys to singletrack mountain bike riding. There’s a lovely flowing blue trail, the Quercus (named after the Latin for Oak Tree). The route is great for all abilities as it can be ridden in sections if you’re not ready to tackle the full distance. The very first section is only about 300m long, but when we started my boys were happy to just loop back around this for ages!

Over time we progressed to riding the full 4.6 miles which rise up the southern side of Grizedale Pike before the rewarding fast flowing berms on the descent, usually to whoops and cheers from us all.  Along the trail there are some optional red graded technical features such as rock gardens and drop offs, which have been useful for us to practise more challenging features without committing to a full red route.

When it’s not too cold, we stop off to refuel at this fabulous table and chairs, which has stunning views over Skiddaw with Bassenthwaite Lake just visible in the distance.

Whinlatter lunch stop at the table and chairs. Photo by Karen Gee.

As with the blue route, the two red routes at Whinlatter can be ridden in sections, until you’re ready to tackle the entire distance in one go. In the past few months we’ve progressed to riding the full 6-mile North Loop, at which point I realised that my boys are now so much more proficient at mountain biking than me.  “You’d better push this bit Mummy” is now a common refrain!

Great views in Whinlatter. Photo by Karen Gee.

Kentmere Valley road ride

Distance:  Up to 12.5 miles round trip from Staveley (25 miles if starting at Kendal).

Type of bike: Road bike or hybrid.  Suitable for trailers, bike seats and tag-a-longs.

Terrain: Quiet, undulating road which steepens significantly towards the head of the valley.

Many, many moons ago I used to belong to a hiking club at university, and my favourite hikes were always those in Kentmere. It’s such a stunning valley, with typical Lakeland scenery but without the hordes of tourists. It’s wonderful that now, so many years later, it’s where I’m teaching my children to enjoy the joys of road cycling. 

Kentmere Valley has provided them with the perfect introduction to hill climbing, as the dead-end road is quiet - so much so that we often encounter more cyclists than vehicles. This allows the boys to concentrate on getting up the hills rather than worrying about constant traffic.

This is a 'there and back' route, with the gradient increasing along the valley, meaning we’ve been able to ride as far as each boy has been able to manage, before turning around for an easier ride back and the promise of hot chocolate and cake at Staveley. The boys original target was to get up the steep climb at the head of the valley to St Cuthbert’s Church, where there are stunning views back along the valley.

Both boys had achieved this by the age of 8, so the next challenge was to continue along the final half a mile to the end of the road, at which point the tarmac peters out so that only off-road bikes can continue – it’s another hard push to this point, and my youngest (now 9) can achieve this.

The next challenge I set his older brother was to take the right hand turn before Kentmere village. Here the road rises very steeply before levelling out for a breath-taking ride along the side of the valley along the aptly named 'High Lane' to Hallow Bank. Ill Bell, High Street and Harter Fell loom high in the distance and we really get the feeling of being in the remote Lake District fells at this point. The return ride is a wonderful opportunity to experience the exhilaration of a fast descent. He’s managed this on 26” wheels, and I fear that when he moves up soon onto 700c’s I’m going to be left far behind!!!

Kentmere Road. Photo by Karen Gee.

Green Quarter Fell

Distance: 10.7 miles.

Type of bike: Mountain bike.

Terrain: Remote and steep bridleways, farm tracks and quiet roads.

Note this route is challenging and remote, so you must be prepared for all eventualities. Up on the top it’s wild and exposed, and the ground can be very boggy after heavy rain.  There’s always the risk of low cloud coming in, so you should know how to navigate with a compass and map, and stay together as a group.

In the years before children my husband and I used to enjoy riding the remote bridleways of the Lake District during our weekend camping trips, when we’d escape the city on a Friday night and return to our apartment exhausted but exhilarated late on a Sunday evening.

Never did we imagine that over a decade and a half later we’d be riding those same routes with our two boys. And certainly, when the boys were on their tiny little bikes those days seemed a distant memory. However, by the time the boys were aged 8 and 10 they had several years’ experience riding at trail centres coupled with regular mtb coaching sessions, and suddenly were ready to try something more challenging.

It was my birthday during the Easter holiday, and a perfect Lakeland spring day.  We decided to go for it and do a “proper” Lakeland mountain bike route.

Staveley is the base for many of the famous Lake District mountain bike routes including Garburn, Gatescarth and Nan Bield. We avoided these 'biggies' and headed north along the side of Staveley Head Fell. The first section is on road and the protests at the steep and unrelenting climb made me wonder whether this was a bad idea, but then the road ran out. Suddenly we were on wide farm tracks that made their way up to narrower tracks running across Green Quarter Fell. What fun! Soon we were on top of the world, with breathtaking views in all directions – westwards and north over the Lakeland Fells, eastwards towards the Howgills and south east towards the coast.  And just to top it off, there wasn’t another soul in sight the entire ride.

We rode over the boggy Cocklaw Fell before descending down towards Longsleddale Valley, which in itself offers some great riding but was one to leave for another day. Instead we continued westwards, sometimes riding and sometimes pushing up the steep tracks, marvelling that at one time these would have been the main route between the remote Lakeland farms. The descent down to Hallow Bank made all the struggling uphill worthwhile, especially when we discovered an honesty box on the wall containing homemade flapjacks – what a perfect birthday treat to give us fuel for the final stretch along the road back to Staveley.

As my boys are getting older and able to cope with longer and more challenging riding both on and off-road, I’m really looking forward to exploring further within the Lake District. If you have a family-friendly route you’d like to recommend, please log in and leave a comment below.

Karen Gee is Cycling UK member and the founding editor of the family cycling website Cycle Sprog.