Straddling an expanse of moorland across west Somerset and north Devon, Exmoor might not be one the best-known national parks in the country, but this beautiful pocket of the Southwest is a wonderful spot for a staycation. With miles of unspoilt coastline, rocky river valleys, picturesque seaside villages, and vast, dreamy night skies, Exmoor is an ideal destination if you’re looking to get away from it all and enjoy being amongst nature.
To get you inspired, here are eight things to see and do in Exmoor National Park.
1. Tarr Steps
You can’t come to Exmoor and not visit its most famous landmark – the ancient Tarr Steps ‘clapper bridge’. A clapper bridge is a bridge that’s formed by arranging huge slabs over piles of stones, and this particular bridge isn’t only the longest of its kind in the UK – it’s also the oldest. Though the official listing is that the bridge is medieval, it’s believed to actually date back to the Bronze Age.
Local legend says that the devil used to sunbathe on the Tarr Steps – and, on a nice day, you might want to do the same thing! There’s a short circular walk from Tarr Steps that takes you along the River Barle and through beautiful woodland, where you might be able to spot red deer, dormice, otters, and perhaps even the rare Barbastelle Bat. For a more challenging hike, there’s also a circular walk from Dulverton to Tarr Steps – and if you get hungry, the Tarr Farm Inn is a great spot for some lunch.
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2. Dunster Castle
Another must-visit Exmoor attraction is the historic Dunster Castle, which is located in the lovely village of Dunster. This ancient, rosy-hued building dates back to the 13th century, and perched upon a densely wooded hill and surrounded by beautiful gardens, it’s instantly impressive.
The castle was built by the Luttrell family, who once owned much of Exmoor – and inside you can admire Tudor furnishings, 17th-century plasterwork and an incredibly grand staircase.
Outside it’s just as gorgeous: the terraced gardens are full of winding woodland paths, unusual Mediterranean and subtropical plants, and even a historic working watermill. There are also lovely views across the Bristol Channel and Exmoor coast. After you’ve explored the castle and grounds, be sure to leave some time to wander through Dunster village, where you can visit the remains of an Iron Age settlement, check out the famous Yarn Market, or just relax in a characterful pub.
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3. Valley of the Rocks
One of the most dramatically beautiful parts of Exmoor has got to be the Valley of the Rocks, which is just a half a mile from the village of Lynton. This rugged section of coastline is home to steep craggy cliffs, mysterious caves and incredibly strange rock formations. Legend has it that the devil once lived in the Valley of the Rocks, and when he discovered his wives partying with his neighbours, he became so furious that he turned them into stone – thus creating these unusual formations!
Whatever really created this unique landscape (and most likely it was the last Ice Age!), it’s one of the most beautiful spots in Exmoor. And with magnificent views of the blue sea and sky, as well as plenty of bracing sea air, a walk here is sure to blow any cobwebs away.
The Valley of the Rocks is also known for its feral, yet friendly, population of goats who live on the cliff tops, so keep an eye out for them, as well as the Exmoor ponies who often roam among the bracken. If you’d like to hike here, there’s a popular circular walk from Lynton that takes you through the best of the valley landscape.
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4. Lundy Island
If you’re hoping to spot some wildlife during your Exmoor break – or you just like the idea of taking a boat out and exploring secret locations – then you definitely won’t want to miss Lundy Island. Three miles long and only half a mile wide, Lundy Island may be small but it’s undeniably spectacular. And if you’re looking for peace and quiet, then this unspoilt and undisturbed island will certainly tick the box.
Lundy island is home to all manner of wildlife including seals, dolphins and puffins – and set against a backdrop of awe-inspiring natural beauty, it’s also a hiker’s paradise. Though it’s isolated and cars aren’t allowed, the island has over 4,000 years of history behind it, and you can explore the village with an inn, the Victorian church, and the 13th-century Marisco Castle.
If you’d like to get active, then why not try a spot of kayaking, snorkelling, diving or swimming? Lundy Island seals are playful and inquisitive, so you might be able to get very close to these intelligent mammals. To get to Lundy Island, you can take a ferry from either Bideford or Ilfracombe. Most people visit for the day, but there’s also accommodation on the island if you fancy a longer stay.
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5. Porlock Weir
Tucked away in the gorgeous Vale of Portlock is the picturesque harbour village of Portlock Weir, which is one of the loveliest places in Exmoor to enjoy an invigorating seaside stroll followed by a hearty pub lunch.
The sturdy granite quay curves around a pretty pebble beach, which is a popular spot with dog walkers and bird spotters, as well as photographers. If you walk west along the beach, you’ll pass rocky cliffs and hidden coves, and after a while you might even discover the ancient ‘Smugglers Cave’ that’s half-buried under the shingle.
Back in the village there’s a scattering of pubs, cafes, independent shops and hotels, so if you’re in the mood for some food or drink – or just a sit-down – there are plenty of cosy spots. Porlock Weir Hotel and Locanda on the Weir are ideal if you fancy an indulgent meal, and if you prefer a pint in the sea air, head to the Ship Inn. You might also want to check out the Porlock Weir Boat Shed Museum.
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6. Dunkery Beacon
Exmoor certainly isn’t short of great walking trails, but one of the best – particularly if you’re one for views – is Dunkery Beacon. Standing at 1,705ft, this is the highest point in Exmoor National Park, and from the summit you can enjoy sweeping vistas of Devon and Somerset – and on a clear day you can even see across the Bristol Channel to Wales. At the top of the hill you’ll find a series of Bronze Age burial mounds that make Dunkery Beacon a site of special scientific interest.
To reach the summit of the beacon, you can park in a car park close to the village of Wheddon Cross, and from there it’s only a 0.6 mile climb to the cairn at the top. The walk is accessible, following a gently inclining footpath. Though if you fancy a more rigorous walk, there’s an eight-mile circular walk from Wheddon Cross to Dunkery Beacon, which takes you through wild open moors, tranquil farmland, and dense, ancient woodland.
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7. West Somerset Railway
If you’ve done enough hiking, then why not step aboard an old fashioned steam train and enjoy travelling along the longest heritage railway route in Britain? The West Somerset Railway runs for 20 miles along the Bristol Channel coastline and through the Quantock Hills, taking you from the coastal town of Minehead to the village of Bishops Lydeard, with ten stops along the way.
All of the stations are worth getting off at, so you can spend a leisurely day admiring the Exmoor landscape from a whole new perspective, while doing plenty of exploring along the way.
Climb off at Watchet to wander around this old harbour town, or if you fancy stretching your legs with a hike, hop off at either Stogumber or Crowcombe Heathfield to ramble through the Quantock Hills.
If you’re interested in history, be sure to alight at Washford to check out Cleeve Abbey, which is one of the best examples of traditional Cistercian architecture in the Southwest. If you’re into your cider, you might want to take a tour of Torre Cider Farm while you’re here, too.
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8. Lynton & Lynmouth
Since Victorian times, the seaside resorts of Lynmouth and Lynton have been popular holiday spots, and today they’re just as lovely as they ever were. With picture-perfect views of the coast and valleys, this area isn’t known as ‘Little Switzerland’ for nothing!
Packed with rows of fishing cottages and bobbing boats, Lynmouth is a lively village that’s located at sea level, where you can enjoy a spot of people-watching in the harbour, admire the Rhenish Tower on the harbour wall, or browse the shops on the pedestrian-only High Street.
The charming village of Lynton sits 500ft above Lynmouth – and if you don’t fancy the climb, the good news is that the two villages are connected by grade a II-listed Cliff Railway, which is the highest and steepest water-powered railway in the world. Climb aboard this ingenious Victorian invention to stroll through these quaint narrow lanes and explore the many independent shops, galleries, pubs and tea rooms.
If you fancy stretching your legs later on, there’s a beautiful riverside walk from Lynmouth to Watersmeet, where the East Lyn River and Hoar Oak Water merge.
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Though it may not be as well known as neighbouring Dartmoor, Exmoor is a beautiful and diverse region that’s ideal for a UK break. With rugged cliffs, towering headlands and picturesque coastal towns to the North, and vast, sweeping moors covered in purple heather to the South, there are plenty of hiking opportunities here – and the crystal clear waters are perfect for swimming, too.
But if you fancy taking it easy, and prefer to spend your holidays in cosy pubs and cafes, or wandering through characterful villages and exploring historic castles, there’s just as much to keep you happy!
Are you planning on visiting Exmoor this year? Or do you have any of your own Exmoor tips you’d like to share with our readers? We’d love to hear about your holiday plans! Leave us a comment below, or join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum.