Stunning scenery provides a backdrop to this lovely reserve. The steep wooded slopes of Smardale gill contrasts with the views of open rolling countryside from the viaduct. A great place for flowers, butterflies and birds.


Near Kirkby Stephen
Kirkby Stephen
CA17 4HG

OS Map Reference

Sheet No 91
Grid referencs: Smardale entrance NY 739 082
Newbiggin-on-Lune entrance NY 704 054
A static map of Smardale

Know before you go

49 hectares

Entry fee

All donations are gratefully received.

Parking information

Restricted car parking on site. This car park is small, popular and often full, especially at weekends in summer. Please park considerately. The Trust is seeking planning permission for a new car park, which we hope will open in 2019.

Bicycle parking

Not especially allocated but they could be chained to a fence.

Grazing animals

Cattle at times

Walking trails

The reserve provides 6km/3.5 miles of level walking and commects with a number of public footpaths. Walk across the grade 2* listed viaduct and share the breathtaking views.


Smardale Gill: 6km/3.5miles level walking: wheelchair/pushchair friendly surface from car park to central viaduct, then grass. Ramps at the Smardale and Newbiggin end.

Waitby Link: we are improving access, which is currently difficult. Plans include a walkway to Smardale and a level track towards Waitby for 0.8km/0.5miles.


On a lead

When to visit

Opening times

Open all year round

Best time to visit

April to August

About the reserve


Stunning scenery provides a backdrop to this wonderfully varied nature reserve that stretches from Newbiggin-on-Lune almost as far as Kirkby Stephen.

The species-rich grassland attracts a variety of pollinating insects and the industrial archaeology of the railway line adds constant interest.

The steep wooded slopes of Smardale Gill and the enclosed cuttings along the Waitby Link contrast with the views of open rolling countryside experienced along the route.

Smardale Nature Reserve now comprises three separate nature reserve that collectively occupy a 8km/5mile section of the disused railway line that once ran from Tebay to Darlington. 

Smardale wildlife highlights

  • Smardale Gill is one of the only two sites in England that’s home to the Scotch argus butterfly. The tiny northern brown argus can also be seen here
  • Discover a range of unusual plants: bloody crane’s-bill, rock-rose, horseshoe vetch, frog, fragrant and greater butterfly orchid can all be seen in the grassland
  • Redstart and pied flycatcher can be seen in summer, whilst green woodpecker, treecreeper, raven and sparrowhawk are resident year round
  • In spring bluebells, primrose and early purple orchid.
  • In summer orchids, bird's eye primrose, melancholy thistle, bloody cranesbill and butterflies. In summer, bird species include redstart, wood warbler and pied flycatcher whilst buzzard, treecreeper and sparrowhawk may be seen all year round.
  • In autumn find fellwort, devil's bit scabious, scotch argus butterflies. Later in autumn and through the winter flocks of birds such as goldfinch, field fare and redwing feeding on the berries.
  • At any time look out for red squirrels and roe deer or explore the archaeology and geology.

What makes Smardale Gill so special?

The woodland has probably been present since medieval times and plants such as bluebells, primroses, wild garlic and ferns carpet the ground in spring.

The grassland, which has colonised the railway cutting and embankments, is species-rich due to the underlying limestone and is managed by grazing in winter. 


Woodland has probably been present in Smardale Gill since the medieval period and as a result a great diversity of plant species can be found here.

In spring you will find bluebells, primroses, wild garlic and many fern species on the woodland floor. Many of the trees are multi stemmed, evidence that coppicing has occurred in the past.

Limestone grassland

The grassland, which has colonised the railway cuttings and embankments, is also very rich in species due to the underlying limestone rock. Unusual plants to look for here include bloody cranesbill, fragrant and butterfly orchid.

Smardale Gill is one of only two sites in England where the Scotch argus butterfly can be seen. Other butterflies include dark green fritillary, common blue, northern brown argus and dingy skipper.

Keeping it special

Non-native tree species, planted in the woodland in the past, are gradually being removed. The grassland areas are managed by late summer/autumn grazing and manual scrub control.

The Trust first purchased land at Smardale Gill in 1978, however there have been a number of subsequent acquisitions.

The railway line was purchased from British Rail in 1991. The disused Smardale Gill Viaduct is owned by the Northern Viaduct Trust and urgent repair work was completed in February 2015.

The site became a National Nature Reserve in 1997. For further information visit the Smardale Gill viaduct and Trust website.

What makes the Waitby Link so special?

As well as providing a continuous woodland corridor for wildlife, the Waitby Link is also a fascinating geological time tunnel.

When the railway was built, an impressive cutting was carved through the carboniferous limestone to provide a level track bed, which now provides a rare opportunity to see an assembly of rock types that depict a range of geological processes

Waitby Link wildlife highlights

  • Spot red squirrels feasting on hazelnuts or racing between the trees
  • Fragments of species-rich grassland contain fly, common spotted and fragrant orchid; pepper saxifrage occurs near the entrance
  • Look out for flocks of fieldfare in the autumn and winter  


Recent history

The Trust first purchased land at Smardale Gill in 1978 and there have been a number of subsequent acquisitions. The Smardale railway line was purchased from British Rail in 1991; and the Waitby Link was purchased in 2017. Smardale Gill Viaduct is owned by the Northern Viaduct Trust.

Getting to Smardale

By car:

Smardale Gill car park: from A685 between Ravenstonedale and Kirkby Stephen, take the Smardale turning and turn left at T-junction.

Bear right over the railway and turn left for the car park. Alternatively, from A685 Newbiggin-on-Lune take the Kelleth/Great Asby turning, then take the immediate left for Kelleth and park on roadside. From there it’s approx. 250m to walk to the entrance.

By bicycle:

The nature reserve is 2.3km/3miles from National Route 70 Walney to Wear (W2W).

By public transport:

The nearest train station is Kirkby Stephen West on the Settle to Carlisle line. Buses run from Kendal, Sedbergh and Brough to Kirkby Stephen.

Contact us

Andrew Walter
Contact number: 01539 816300

Environmental designation

National Nature Reserve (NNR)
Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)
Special Areas of Conservation (SAC)

Further information about Smardale Nature Reserve

Thank you to our funders.

Eden district council colour RGB logo

Financial support by Eden District Council.

The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority’s Sustainable Development Fund is open to individuals, businesses, community groups or voluntary sector bodies. It provides an accessible source of money for a range of projects that result in positive benefits for the National Park’s environment, economy and communities, while enhancing and conserving local culture, wildlife and landscape.

EAFRD and LEADER funder logos for smardale

Upcoming events at Smardale Nature Reserve

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