Devon – Guide to the South West Coast Path
Venture out on to the South West Coast Path (South West Coast Path) when you stay at one of our delightful self-catering holiday cottages. We have properties, large and small, all around the coast.
The South West Coast Path stencils the coastline edge of Devon, Cornwall, and stretches of Somerset and Dorset. The North Devon coastline is some of the wildest and remotest in the British Isles, and the South Devon Coast offers access to some of the loveliest nature reserves in the south. From the wooded hillsides above Clovelly, the imposing jagged granite rock formations around Hartland, to the breathtaking dune systems at Saunton Sands and Croyde in the North to the fossil-strewn beaches of the Jurassic Coast and the bird reserves of the Exe Estuary – there’s a diversity of beautiful natural landscapes to discover on your chosen stretch of Coast Path.
With over 630 miles of trail to cover, it would take most of us several lifetimes to walk all of it. We have chosen some lovely stretches of the trail for you to head out on during your holiday. Read our guide to coastal cottages in Devon to inspire your choice.
Lynmouth to Valley of the Rocks (3 miles)
This charming section of the coast path reaches from Lynmouth to the Valley of Rocks to the west. Lynmouth is a very popular town that is affectionately called ‘Little Switzerland’. It’s also at the coastal edge of Exmoor National Park; you can find its visitor centre on the seafront. Visitors come to Lynmouth to walk inland up to Exmoor via the idyllic woodland valley that follows the course of the East Lyn River.
The coast path zigzags up the tall cliff face to Lynmouth’s twin town Lynton. If you don’t fancy the climb, you can take the funicular railway to the top. Once you have reached the plateau, you can take in some excellent views of Exmoor’s coastline and the Bristol Channel. The coast path snakes out of the town following the cliff tops high above the sea. The path is sealed and the gradient's fairly level, so visitors with more limited mobility can enjoy this stretch with relative ease.
If you like wild goats, there are small herds that live within the peculiar rocky outcrops and hills that characterise the distinctive Valley of the Rocks. Take a picnic and enjoy the surrounding land forms on the grass and rocks. There are public toilets at the Valley of the Rocks for your convenience.
Difficulty: easy (if you go via the cliff railway)
Saunton Sands to Crow Point (5 miles)
This lovely sandy circuit is a beautiful beach walk for the first half taking you through one of the UK’s largest and best-preserved sand dune systems. The best time to embark on a trail is at low tide – the sea rolls out for up to 0.25 miles. You’ll encounter dog walkers, kite-surfers, bodyboarders and surfers as you follow the beach. The beach and dunes here have been used for training exercises for the D-Day Landings of WW2, it’s also featured in some great British films like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, The Shout and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
At the most southerly point of the dunes, you will follow the beach along the northern shore of the Taw/Torridge confluence, past old brick ruins of a quay and a small military outpost. There’s a small lighthouse where the rivers diverge at Instow. Head inland following the marked path through the dunes and marvel at the wild orchids, and the thriving plant and birdlife. At dusk, you will spot foxes as they dart between their cover of marram grass across the blowouts.
The trail meets the ocean and the beach eventually, so keeping the water on your left this time, head back towards this wonderful section’s origin point. Visit Croyde, 1 mile to Saunton's north, for more dunes and a lovely beach. The village is home to some excellent pubs and restaurants too.
Difficulty: easy (you need a good sense of direction so as not to get lost in the dunes though if you leave the trail)
The Hobby Drive, Clovelly (4.5 miles one way)
Pick up the South West Coast Path from Bideford Bay Holiday Park and head west. This part of the trail is high above the bay, and as you walk you will soon find yourself in tangled woodlands, crisscrossed with narrow rivers and streams all tumbling down to the sea. Before you reach The Hobby Drive your way cuts across a few crop fields before passing over a wooded river via a tiny bridge. The Hobby Drive is one of the most obscure parts of the South West Coast Path, hardly anyone but locals know about it. First built for Clovelly residents by a local gentleman, Sir James Hamlyn Williams between 1811 and 1829. A one-time scenic drive for horse-drawn carriages and, since the covered road to the west was built after the arrival of the petrol car, the road fell into the past.
The Hobby Drive ends at the top of Clovelly High Street where you can walk down to the harbour to enjoy a rest or a spot of lunch. The views across the bay to Lundy here are just fabulous. Clovelly is a lovely unspoiled North Devon village where you will see donkeys instead of cars on its streets. It’s a cute village full of traditional fishermen’s cottages, all painted white and black and a great holiday destination for your exploration of the South West Coast Path. For great places to eat and shop, head to the nearby town of Bideford.
Difficulty: easy to moderate (the path is mostly covered and level. In Clovelly, the streets are steep and cobbled. At the beginning of this section, before you reach the Drive, it is a woodland/farm track.)
Hartland Lighthouse to Hartland Quay (6 miles)
Until the arrival of the A39, Hartland was one of the most remote villages in the UK. Its lighthouse is even more isolated, but nowadays you can park your car and climb the South West Coast Path up over the gigantic outcrop of granite cliffs. You can see the lighthouse far below for a viewing point – back in 1983, the MV Johana was driven aground on the neighbouring beach. There’s not much left of her to see all these years later but the sharp-eyed can still see some traces. The jagged black rock formations along this coastline have earnt it the Lord of the Rings-inspired nickname ‘Mordor-on-Sea’ – it is dramatic and a memorable part of this lovely national trail.
You will come down to the fortified Hartland Quay, which was once one of the only harbours along this stretch of coast. The quay was built at the end of the 16th century, as there was a need for lime, coal, and slate to be shipped and cereal to be shipped out. With the arrival of the steam age, the harbour fell into disrepair and the outer wall was destroyed in a storm in 1896.
Today, there is a pub at Hartland Quay and a shop and museum that is open during the height of the holiday season. This walk is a bracing one for those that love an exposed walk high above the Atlantic Ocean. For great places to eat and shop, head to the nearby town of Bideford.
Difficulty: moderate (the path is very hilly and is little more than a track for the most part)
Slapton Sands and Torcross Beach (1.5 miles one way)
Located in the South Hams, this piece of South Devon coastline is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Slapton Sands is another place with strong ties to WW2, as it was here (as well as Saunton Sands) that the allied forces used to rehearse the D-Day landings. Walk along the seafront for 1.5 miles and then back to the village past the ley.
From the air, it looks like part of Slapton is located on a strip of land that cuts across the middle of a bay, but in reality, the body of water landside is a clearwater lake called Slapton Ley. The ley is a nature reserve and home to many rare plants and creatures; it’s a wonderful section of the South West Coast Path to enjoy with your companions.
Difficulty: very easy (short and beautiful!)
Dawlish to Cockwood (River Exe Estuary) (3 miles)
Have you ever been to the South West on a train? If you have, chances are you might have been along the section of track between Dawlish Warren and Teignmouth. Trains hurtle down the rails that run in and out of the tunnels in the red sandstone cliffs. The waves pummel the shoreline and the track defences; it’s a truly dramatic sight.
You can also follow the wide tarmacked South West Coast Path which unfurls in parallel to the tracks. The sandstone rock stacks in the sea and up and down the few miles of coast, combined with the trains make this a unique English setting. As the coast path ventures further east, you will eventually come to the very wide estuary of the River Exe. The immediate area is home to some of the biggest bird reserves in Devon. Keep an eye for shipwrecks on the long mudflats and in the reeds. It’s a very atmospheric walk with the bonus of being very flat and paved all the way.
Difficulty: easy – this is perfect for mild strolls and is great for those with enhanced mobility needs.
If you are hoping to hike the South West Coast Path, why don’t you stay in a self-catering cottage and tackle the trail in manageable sections? Stay In Devon has an exciting portfolio of self-catering holiday cottages for you to view. Seek out your perfect holiday cottage on the coast and walk an appealing stretch of the trail when you get to Devon.