Great Dun Fell: Cycling Guide to the Highest Road in England

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Great Dun Fell is the second-highest mountain in the Pennines, 849 meters above sea level – but it is also home to the highest road in Britain.

Located in Cumbria in the northwest of England, it is also a highly-regarded climb, since it is renowned for its superb road surface and beautiful views.

Regardless of the excellent road surface, it makes for a challenge for even strong cyclists. With over 600 m of elevation gain, with no respite, and slopes of up to 20%, it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Cumbria, home to the famous Lake District, is an excellent region to cycle in, home to some other extraordinarily steep climbs, making the trip to England’s highest road a worthwhile one, with plenty of stunning but challenging rides to take on.

In this guide to the highest road in England, we’ll be covering:

  • Cumbria: England’s Best Region For Cyclists
  • A Guide To Cycling The Great Dun Fell: The Highest Road In The UK
  • Great Dun Fell: Routes And The Surrounding Area

Let’s get started!

Great Dun Fell Cycling Guide: Title Image
Credit: Helen Wilkinson, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Edited from the original.

Cumbria: England’s Best Region For Cyclists

Cumbria is the northwesternmost region of England, and home to some of the best scenery you’re likely to find in the country. The Pennines stretch through the region with lush green valleys peppered with beautiful lakes and forests.

By nature of the Pennines, Cumbria is home to some of England’s toughest climbs, including the legendary Hardknott Pass, the Struggle, and the Wrynose Pass.

All of these climbs aren’t necessarily the longest, but the topography of the area means they are exceedingly steep, with many that surpass 30% max gradients.

Although England isn’t exactly known for its lofty peaks, regions through which the Pennines pass – such as Cumbria – are extremely up and down, with nearly no respite. Not only that, but the brutal gradients of the region make for some very challenging routes for cyclists.

If you fancy yourself as a regular Marco Pantani, there is no better region in England for cyclists. Any route you choose amongst the Cumbrian hills will be littered with stunning views and challenging climbs.

Though Scotland has significantly higher mountains than Cumbria, surprisingly, there is no road as high as that of Great Dun Fell. The highest in Scotland is the Cairnwell Pass, at a height of 670 m, a full 179 m less than Great Dun Fell.

So, not only is the Great Dun Fell England’s highest road, but it is also the highest road in Britain.

A Guide To Cycling The Great Dun Fell: The Highest Road In UK

Key Stats

There are a few ways to measure the distance of the climb – but the most logical is to start at the right-hand turn as you leave Knock, where you can clearly see a ramp in the gradient and clear views into the mountains.

Having said that, the road starts going uphill just outside of the town of Dufton, and you’ll ride a false flat for the first 1.7 km, so don’t expel all of your energy here!

  • Climb category: 2nd
  • Distance: 7.3 km
  • Average gradient: 8.6%
  • Maximum gradient: 19.8%
  • Elevation gain: 627 m
  • Elevation change: 628 m
  • Min elevation: 214 m
  • Max elevation: 842 m
  • KOM elapsed time: 22:37
  • QOM elapsed time: 28:29

Though the K/QOM are, of course, exceedingly quick, as a fairly fit amateur cyclist you can expect the climb to take you around 45 minutes.

A wide-angle view of Great Dun Fell with the radar station at the summit.
Credit: Ian S, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Edited from the original.

Great Dun Fell Cycling Overview

Although less well-known than some other climbs in the region, Great Dun Fell is measured as one of the toughest climbs in the whole of the UK.

In contrast to many of the more famous climbs of the region, the Great Dun Fell will be more of a long, sustained effort rather than an intensely excruciating push.

So, the difficulty, particularly when compared to other famous British climbs, is going to heavily depend on your strengths as a cyclist. Those with more endurance miles under their belts will likely find it significantly easier than the Struggle, for example.

But, for the puncheurs, it’s going to potentially be a little more difficult to pace yourself sensibly.

Though, for those who take on the tough slopes, you’ll be treated to stunning views and an incredible sense of achievement, and – perhaps most of all for some – you’ll have the bragging rights of having cycled to the highest road in England!

Like most of the UK, summer is undoubtedly the best time, but due to the altitude and latitude of the climb, you’ll probably want to avoid going in the depths of winter, so as to avoid snow and ice.

One of the best things about the climb is it has extremely low traffic (the top half is closed to cars), unlike many other climbs you’ll likely find in the UK, and the superb paving makes for a pleasant descent, too.

View down one of the steep sections of Great Dun Fell.
Credit: Michael Graham, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Edited from the original.

The Climb

As you take on the right-hand bend, you are met with what seems a fairly flat, straight road heading towards the summit.

However, when you notice that you’re going much slower than you’d expected, do not be alarmed! The slowly increasing gradient provides almost an optical illusion – with the road seeming flatter than it actually is. You’re actually climbing at around 6% at this point!

The gradient slowly increases, unbeknownst to the eye, for around a kilometer until you are quickly certain you’re climbing as you approach the first bend: a ramp of 15%.

Although the average gradient is just 8.6%, there are some sharper sections of the climb that are almost 20%, with long, sustained sections of around 15%.

The kilometer following the first bend is one of these, a relentless gradient that continues for uncomfortably long.

The gradient eases significantly for a very short while as you approach a cattle grid, which, if you’re riding on some retro 23c tires, you’ll definitely need to dismount for, considering your slow speed.

After the cattle grid, you are immediately struck with another tough section. The good news, however, is that at the top of this steep section, you’ll be rewarded with a short flat in which you can admire the full scale of the landscape around you.

With views of the Knock Ore Gill chasm to your left, you’ll continue to gasp for air on the short flat section before taking on the final few sections of the climb.

You can now see the full road ahead, and the challenging 15% slopes dotted with a few flats to catch your breath.

Although it may seem like a lot to go, you may be comforted at this point knowing that you’ve completed well over half the total elevation of the climb.

Though, don’t relax too much, as the following section is certainly the most challenging of the whole climb. Get in your lowest gear, and take it slowly, you’ve got a couple of kilometers to go.

The next section is best taken as slowly as possible, but doubtless, the lactic acid will build up in the legs.

Thankfully, a much-needed ease of gradient will soon appear before your eyes like an oasis in the desert, and you can perhaps even ramp it up a gear or two for a few hundred meters in this section.

Before long, you’ll be hit with the final 20% ramp, though luckily it is only around 200 meters long. The final push is a tough one, but once you’ve completed it, you’ll have reached the top!

At this point, it’s worth taking a little break to ease the pain in your quads and catch your breath, and you can revel in the fact that you’re at the top of the highest road in England (and Britain as a whole)!

It’s a great sense of achievement, considering you’ve relied only on the power in your legs to get you up so high! Enjoy the moment, before a beautiful descent back down the surprisingly well-paved road into a classically-Cumbrian lush green valley.

Early morning view across the water in the Lake District.

The Great Dun Fell: Routes and Surrounding Area

Cumbria is a fantastic region for cyclists, and so there are many different options when it comes to including the UK’s highest road in your ride.

Unfortunately, the Great Dun Fell is a one-way road.

You cannot include it in a smooth loop, it is always a detour. But, if you’re keen on big climbs then it’s definitely a worthwhile endeavor.

As with most climbs in Cumbria, it is possible to include it as a slight detour in the Pennine Cycleway, particularly if you’ve already chosen to take the Lake District “detour”.

(The official Pennine Cycleway route doesn’t actually pass through the Lakes, but it is one of the most beautiful sections of the route.)

If you were to take the road between Windermere and Ullswater – aptly named “The Struggle” – then you’d be in a prime position to take on the Great Dun Fell, too.

After descending back down into Ullswater, you’d just need to follow the road around the stunning lake to Penrith, before taking a right-hand turn towards Knock, where the climb begins.

However, if you don’t fancy adding on an extra 40 km and brutal climb to an already tough bikepacking trip, there are plenty of other options to include the Great Dun Fell in a ride.

The same route discussed earlier would also make for a fantastic one-way day ride from Ambleside. Around 100 km, and including two of England’s toughest climbs, it’s a big day, but some of the most beautiful riding in England.

Starting from Ambleside, make your way up the Struggle before descending down to Ullswater, and following the road to Penrith. Out of Penrith, you can head towards Knock, climb the Great Dun Fell, descend back down, and get the train back from Penrith.

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Jack is an experienced cycling writer based in San Diego, California. Though he loves group rides on a road bike, his true passion is backcountry bikepacking trips. His greatest adventure so far has been cycling the length of the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, and the next bucket-list trip is already in the works. Jack has a collection of vintage steel racing bikes that he rides and painstakingly restores. The jewel in the crown is his Colnago Master X-Light.

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