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Seven of the best walks in Dorset: Where to wander and stay on a hiking holiday

Explore the Jurassic Coast on foot with these scenic routes for all abilities

Natalie Wilson
Tuesday 13 June 2023 13:04 BST
Durdle Door is a tourist hotspot in the summer
Durdle Door is a tourist hotspot in the summer (Getty Images)

A 1,024 square mile area of coves, castle ruins and dramatic coastline make Dorset a UK hotspot for an active staycation on England’s southern shores.

The diverse landscape of the British county includes Christchurch, Purbeck, Weymouth and Bournemouth, and the area has become known for its iconic rock formations from Durdle Door to Lulworth Cove.

England’s only natural Unesco World Heritage Site, the famous Jurassic Coast, stretches from Studland Bay to Exmouth in Devon and offers charming seaside villages, beaches littered with fossils and a vast space for long walks.

With over 3,000 miles of trails and paths, the rolling rural hills and country lanes beg to be explored on foot as post-card towns and cosy pubs link bridleways and byways – and don’t worry, signposts, maps and tours are available to guide you along the way.

Here’s The Independent’s selection of simple strolls, challenging hikes and winding walking routes to accompany quaint stays on a Dorset walking holiday.

Read more on UK travel:

Golden Cap Walk, Seatown

A view to Golden Cap, Dorset (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Starting short and simple, the famous South West Coast Path, the UK’s longest National Trail, connects Seatown to Golden Cap, the highest point on England’s south coast and a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This four-mile circular walk combines a steep climb with stunning views of Charmouth and Chesil Beach and ancient woodland on Langdon Hill. Beginning and ending in Seatown car park, return inland past the historic ruins of the 13th century St Gabriel’s Chapel on the National Trust estate in Bridport.

The Golden Cap walk takes on average just over two hours to complete and, while the multi-terrain can be challenging, this is a strong and easy-to-follow choice of coastal walk for families that is also perfectly situated for some post-climb pub grub in the Anchor Inn at Seatown.

Where to stay

Copse Gate Farm is a charming B&B set in Bridport, 4.2 miles from Golden Cap. Rooms feature countryside views and private bathrooms on the working farm with cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens.

Old Harry Rocks Walk, Studland

Old Harry Rocks in east Dorset (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

One of Dorset’s best-known landmarks, Old Harry Rock, part of several rock formations carved from the waves, has stood alone with just a stump since Old Harry’s Wife tumbled into the sea after eroding in 1896. Nonetheless, people still flock to this popular open vantage point that accommodates cyclists, picnickers and walkers year-round.

This gentle walk is another circular coastal trail, 3.5 miles from South Haven Point in Studland to the chalk grasslands of Ballard Point and the Purbeck Way. South Haven marks the start (or end) of the 630 miles South West Coast Path. With the loop back to Studland, the walk will take you through Celtic earthworks and wildlife such as Peregrine falcons over roughly two hours. Ballard Point is a great place for picturesque views across Poole Bay to Bournemouth and Hengistbury Head, while grasslands and wildflower conservation fields dot the hillsides along the way.

Where to stay

Studland View Cottage provides cosy accommodation with a private terrace and patio for al fresco dining. Set 450 yards from Knoll Beach, the cottage features an uninterrupted view of Old Harry Rock and direct access to the Jurassic Coastal Path.

The Purbeck Ridgeway, Corfe Castle to Swanage

The ruins of Corfe Castle overlook the quintessentially English village of Corfe (Getty Images)

This route highlights some of the best panoramic coastal views in Dorset. It starts at Corfe Castle, the ruins of a Norman stronghold, and follows a stretch of the Purbeck Ridgeway before joining the South West Coast Path into Swanage. The route itself takes four to five hours to walk and is almost eight miles long, taking in the Victorian obelisk on Ballard Down and Old Harry chalk stacks on the way. At the end of the linear walk, jump on the 20-minute steam train at Swanage for a much faster return inland. Swanage is home to more than just a railway; find Blue Flag beaches, seafood spots, scuba diving and coasteering adventures on the popular Dorset seafront, a rewarding end to the long stroll.

Where to stay

Mortons Manor is housed in a 16th-century manor house in Corfe, close to Corfe Castle, with its own traditional restaurant, terrace and spacious rooms.

Lulworth Cove to Durdle Door

The famous stone archway of Durdle Door (Getty Images)

The region’s defining Jurassic Coast is a 96-mile-long World Heritage Site, from the picturesque staycation destination of Exmouth in Devon all the way to the idyllic Studland Bay in Dorset. To experience just a slice of the prehistoric geology, this 6.2-mile trail is a great way to explore the coastline. From the start point, the route observes natural landmarks such as the crescent-shaped blue waters of the famous Lulworth Cove, the limestone arch at Durdle Door and Bat’s Head picnic spot.

There are many popular walks between the hotspots, all varied in length and difficulty, with equally stunning views for anyone who doesn’t fancy embarking on the full 96-mile Jurassic Coast challenge. We recommend turning back inland from Durdle Door to see the most sights for your steps.

Where to stay

The Castle Inn in West Lulworth is a beautiful setting just moments from Lulworth Cove beach. Each room features quirky decor, while the restaurant and bar, complete with al fresco dining spaces, offers English cuisine, buffet breakfasts and vegan options.

Isle of Portland Circular Walk

Portland Bill Lighthouse, Weymouth (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

This walk begins in the centre of the Isle of Portland, a tiny island tied to Weymouth by Chessil Beach and the southernmost point of Dorset. Active quarries have cut white Portland limestone since the Romans, with the stone seen in the architecture of both St Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace.

The eight-mile route, which takes between three to four hours, passes the Portland Bill Lighthouse before looping back to the historic buildings and coastal fortifications of Blacknor Fort and Rufus Castle. Stop at Portland Bill for lunch at The Lobster Pot before continuing the climb through wild beaches and steep ridges. On a clear day, the moderately challenging circular route boasts great views of crystal waters and seabirds in the English Channel on a complete lap of the island.

Where to stay

The Sunset Lodge is a comfortable, seafront place to stay in Chiswell, Portland. It features three bedrooms, spectacular sea views and a terrace just 10 yards from Portland Beach.

Hengistbury Head to Sandbanks

Beach huts at Hengistbury Head in Bournemouth (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Covering 10 miles of Dorset’s coast, the promenade between Hengistbury Head and Sandbanks in Poole is a top choice for those wanting to explore some of the Dorset coastline at a gentle pace that doesn’t involve hiking in the hills. The one-way walk starts in Hengistbury Head – an unspoiled pebble beach attached to Southbourne – but shorter routes to Mudeford and Alum Chine are plenty if the full stretch isn’t for you. Possible stops include Southbourne Beach, Bournemouth Pier and Durley Chine, ideal for refuelling with lunch at a beachside kiosk or a swim in the sea during the three-hour-plus walk. The flat promenade makes for a gentle family stroll to get from A to B while enjoying the best of Bournemouth’s beaches.

Where to stay

The Harbour Hotel in Christchurch is set on the banks of one of Dorset’s most picturesque estuaries, just 20 minutes by car from the heart of Bournemouth. It offers a luxury spa and award-winning restaurant wrapped up in an impressive Victorian building.

Durlston Head to Dancing Ledge

Soak in the views of the Dorset coast above Dancing Ledge (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

This is another relatively short walk at just under six miles from Durlston Head to Dancing Ledge. The route takes in two of the region’s popular attractions, Durlston Head Country Park and Nature Reserve and Dancing Ledge natural pool and flat rock, off the South West Coast Path. From Durlston Head, take to the Purbeck coastline by following the path to the Great Globe onto the coastal path, passing caves, Anvil Point Lighthouse and finally scrambling down a stone wall to take a dip from Dancing Ledge.

The almost six-mile round trip takes roughly two to three hours to complete due to the rocky terrain and the return route offers a journey through Townsend Nature Reserve, where walkers will pass among the cattle and ponies grazing on the rare limestone grassland.

Where to stay

The Lookout apartment in Swanage, less than a mile from Swanage Bay, benefits from views over the Purbeck Hills, modern appliances and proximity to several of Dorset’s best hiking routes.

Read our reviews of the best Dorset hotels

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