Bounded by the Cleveland and Hambleton hills, the moors are dotted with early burial grounds and ancient stone crosses. Pickering and Northallerton, both market towns, serve as gateways to the moors.
The North York Moors will always be associated with doomed trysts between unlucky lovers and ghosts who wander vengefully across the rugged plateaus of their lonely and windswept surfaces. Though the earth is relatively fertile in the river valleys, the thin, rocky soil of the heather-clad uplands has been scorned by local farmers as wasteland, suitable only for sheep grazing and healthy (but melancholy) rambles. During the 19th century, a handful of manor houses were built on their lonely promontories by moguls of the Industrial Revolution, but not until 1953 was the 1,440-sq.-km (554-sq.-mile) district designated the North York Moors National Park.
Encompassing England's largest expanse of moorland, the park is famous for the diversity of heathers, which thrive between the sandstone outcroppings of the uplands. If you visit between October and February, you'll see smoldering fires across the landscape -- deliberately controlled attempts by shepherds and farmers to burn the omnipresent heather back to stubs. Repeated in age-old cycles every 15 years, the blazes encourage the heather's renewal, with new growth for the uncounted thousands of sheep that thrive in the district.
Though public bridle and footpaths take you to all corners of the moors, two noteworthy and clearly demarcated trails make up the most comprehensive moor walks in Europe. The shorter of the two is the Lyle Wake Walk, a 64km (40-mile) east-to-west trek that connects the hamlets of Osmotherly and Ravenscar. It traces the rugged path established by 18th-century coffin bearers. The longer trek (the Cleveland Walk) is a 177km (110-mile) circumnavigation of the national park's perimeter. A good section skirts the edge of the Yorkshire coastline; other stretches take climbers up and down a series of steep fells in the park's interior.
Don't even consider an ambitious moor trek without good shoes, a compass, an ordinance survey map, and a detailed park guidebook. With descriptions of geologically interesting sites, safety warnings, and listings of inns and farmhouses (haunted or otherwise) offering overnight stays, the guidebooks sell for less than £4 each at any local tourist office.
The isolation and the beauty of the landscape attracted the founders of three great abbeys: Rievaulx, near Helmsley; Byland Abbey, near the village of Wass; and Ampleforth Abbey. Nearby is Coxwold, one of the most beautiful villages in the moors. The Cistercian Rievaulx and Byland abbeys are in ruins, but the Benedictine Ampleforth still functions as a monastery and well-known Roman Catholic boys' school. Though many of its buildings date from the 19th and 20th centuries, they do contain earlier artifacts.
The old market town of Thirsk, in the Vale of Mowbray, 39km (24 miles) north of York on the A19, is near the western fringe of the park. It has a fine parish church, but what makes it such a popular stopover is its association with the late James Herriot (1916-95), author of All Creatures Great and Small. Mr. Herriot used to practice veterinary medicine in Thirsk. You can drop in at a visitor center, the World of James Herriot, 23 Kirkgate (tel. 01845/524234; www.worldoffamesherriot.org), which is dedicated to his life and to veterinary science. The Kirkgate surgery, where he practiced from 1930 until his death in 1995, and the house next door have been transformed into The Herriot Experience. You can view the surgery and see various exhibitions and displays on veterinary science. It's open daily from Easter to September from 10am to 5pm, and from October to Easter from 11am to 4pm (last admission is always 1 hr. before closing). Admission is £5.50 adults, £3.90 children 5 to 15, £4.30 seniors, family ticket £16; children under 5 are free.
Along the eastern boundary of the park, North Yorkshire's 72km (45-mile) coastline shelters such traditional seaside resorts as Filey, Whitby, and Scarborough, the latter claiming to be the oldest seaside spa in Britain, located supposedly on the site of a Roman signaling station. The spa was founded in 1622, when mineral springs with medicinal properties were discovered. In the 19th century, its Grand Hotel, a Victorian structure, was acclaimed the best in Europe. The Norman castle on the big cliffs overlooks the twin bays.
It's easy to follow the main road from Bridlington north to Scarborough and on to Robin Hood's Bay and Whitby. As you drive up the coast, you'll see small fishing ports and wide expanses of moorland.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.