What do the highest peak in England, the highest peak in Wales and the highest peak in Scotland have in common? Other than the fact that they’re all the highest peak in a British country, that is. That isn't Northern Ireland... You guessed it: the Three Peaks Challenge.
For anyone, like us, who's a bit sad that Ireland and Northern Ireland are being left out, there are in fact four and five peak challenges that take in all country high points in the British Isles.
The Three Peaks Challenge
The highest peaks in England, Wales and Scotland make up the Three Peaks Challenge. This is sometimes called the National Three Peaks Challenge to avoid confusion with all the other Three Peaks challenges, like the Yorkshire and the Welsh. Its fame has come from the 24 hour Challenge. You can guess what that involves.
Although there doesn’t seem to be one person who single handedly invented the Three Peaks Challenge, the first mention of doing them all in 24 hours was in the 1926 Fell and Rock Climbing Club Journal. Although back then it was referred to as a “stunt” rather than a challenge... Since then, the challenge has become an icon of both achievement in the UK’s mountains but is also sadly associated with horrendous minibus driving, litter and overtourism.
We think trying to climb the highest peak in England, Wales and Scotland is a great challenge. But you really don’t need to do it all in one go. A more leisurely trip would probably give you a better experience: less of a jam-packed, box-ticking highlights trip, more of an adventure. For example, there’s a Three Peaks sailing challenge and adventurers have been known to run, cycle or use public transport to get between the mountains. Or, like most people, tackle each mountain individually.
Before we give you the routes, here are some quick Q&As about the Three Peaks Challenge and the highest mountains in the UK.
Which of the Three Peaks are the hardest?
Well, that kind of depends on what you find difficult. Although Ben Nevis is the highest, the path to Scafell Pike is the least well marked. Or you might find Snowdon the hardest because you're doing it last and you're exhausted. We guess you'll have to try them all and make the decision for yourself.
What are the Three Peaks called?
We've said it before but we'll say it again: the Three Peaks are Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon. They're in Scotland, England and Wales respectively and are the three tallest mountains in the UK. Out of these, Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the UK.
Are there other similar UK mountain challenges?
Yes, actually, lots. We do like a bit of peak-bagging in the UK. There are the Welsh 3000s in Wales, taking in all the peaks over 3000ft (there are 15 of them). You might try bagging Munros in Scotland - or Corbetts. In England there's the Wainwrights, all 214 of them. Or perhaps Marylins take your fancy: peaks with a distinctive prominence (150 metres or more), unlike Munros, but regardless of height. We bet the chap who named them had a good giggle at that pun too.
Now, without further ado, here are the three peaks that feature in the challenge and an idea of how to climb them.
1. Highest Peak in Scotland: Ben Nevis
- Height: 1,345 m (4,413 ft)
- Ascent: 1287 m (4,225 ft)
- Location: Glen Nevis, Fort William
Ben Nevis is a huge mountain in the Scottish Highlands. The most popular route up Ben Nevis is, unsurprisingly, known as the Tourist Track. It is the most straightforward and direct route up the mountain, from Achintee in Glen Nevis to the summit cairn. The route is also variously known as the Mountain Track or Pony Track – the Tourist Track doesn't sound that adventurous, and frankly makes people underestimate how difficult it is. You're going to feel pretty unequipped in shorts and flip-flops, guidebook in hand and camera around your neck. Still, compared with the more demanding CMD (Carn Mor Dearg) scramble ridge, it’s the simple option.
Ben Nevis is purportedly the hardest mountain (and highest peak) of the Three Peaks Challenge. That’s why people tend to do it first if they're taking the 24 hour challenge. You get a great feeling of accomplishment as you make it to the summit and can kind of convince yourself that it’s all downhill from here… taking in the highest peak in England and highest peak in Wales kind of way!
2. Highest Peak in England: Scafell Pike
- Height: 978 m (3,209 ft)
- Ascent: 884 m (2900ft)
- Location: The Lake District, Cumbria
Scafell Pike is the highest mountain in England, although it’s only a few metres above its close neighbouring peak, Scafell. There are several routes up the tallest mountain in England, but the most popular for the Three Peaks Challenge is from Wasdale Head. This is a very direct route that’s almost entirely uphill. Parking close to the base of the mountain, you take a steep hike up to the fells and then turn south to summit. You can read the details of all the routes in our dedicated article: The Tallest Mountain in England and How to Climb it.
Scafell Pike is usually completed second by 24 hour Three Peaks Challengers. Apparently that means it’s slightly harder to climb than Snowdon, but we’d contest that. It depends so much on the weather, for a start. The Lake District doesn’t seem to get winter conditions (i.e. snow and ice) as consistently as Snowdonia. Not that most people take on the Three Peaks Challenge in winter… although if you’re looking for a theme that wouldn’t be a bad one! There are no obvious highway-of-a-path routes all the way up to the summit of the highest peak in England, so that’s probably why it’s classed second hardest.
3. Highest Peak in Wales: Snowdon
- Height: 1,085 m (3,560 ft)
- Ascent: 678 m (2,225 ft)
- Location: Snowdonia, North Wales
Like Scafell Pike, there are several routes to climb the highest peak in Wales: Snowdon. We cover all the routes up in detail in out guide, Climbing Snowdon | Your Guide to the Routes, so we won’t go into detail here. What you need to know is that most people tend to take the either Pyg Track or the Miner’s Track on the Three Peaks Challenge. Or go up one and come down the other. Both are easily accessed from a carpark right at the bottom of the mountain. It’s steep going, but if you’ve managed the other two then you’re probably not afraid of a slog up hill.
Thanks to the handy carpark at Pen-y-Pass, you can start your ascent of Snowdon a pretty long way above sea level. There is also – at least in summer – a cafe at the top of Mount Snowdon to celebrate your success at. Okay, so there’s a cafe at the top all year round, but it’s only open in the summer. Don’t be disappointed. Or, you could hike back down from the summit trig point straight away and head for the famous Pete’s Eats in Llanberis. They literally sell pints of tea. Your choice!