The South West Coast Path (SWCP) is the longest national trail in the UK, and wraps around England’s southwestern peninsula, taking in some of the best views and villages in Cornwall. At 630 miles long it covers a remarkable continual coastline. The entire SWCP can be thru-hiked or section hiked, with week-long recommended routes forming key sections. This guide covers the 6-day long Atlantic Coast section of the SWCP, following Cornwall’s rugged northern coast from Padstow to St. Ives.
The Basics of Cornwalls South West Coast Path: Padstow to St. Ives
This section of the SWCP route takes you west along the UK’s southwestern coastline, making navigation an easy feat: as long as the ocean is on your right, you’re going in the right direction. The route is also way-marked by acorn symbols fairly frequently. The path leads up and down through coves, across clifftops and over beaches, providing incredible views at almost every turn. For sheer photographic opportunities alone, this hike is an absolute must on every hiker’s bucket list. Turquoise blue water, isolated beaches and hidden coves, rushing tides which add up to 22 feet of difference between low and high tide, the path tracing a fine line across violet heath, small fishing towns and surfer shacks, offer a kaleidoscope of Cornish beauty along this trail.
The path offers secure footing along most of the route, with occasional stretches across deep sand and dunes. There is a fair amount of up and down, too, with steps or gradual inclines along the cliffs. Though this is a popular hike for long-distance walkers, most of the walkers here are day walkers or locals (both the two and four legged kind), which gives the hike a wonderfully local and undisturbed feel. You won’t be following an ant trail of thru-hikers here. Cornwall is a cherished and much visited destination for surfers and holidaymakers alike, so you’re more likely to come across people travelling by van from one surf spot to another than hiking the trail. Prepare for day walkers and surf bums alike to be rather impressed with your big pack and daily mileage.
There are plenty of coastal towns and villages to seek out for food, water and accommodation during your hike. The natural landscape and extensive tides however mean that towns can be a few hundred yards distance from the trail itself, with small food and ice cream trucks more common along the closer beaches. Plan ahead by bringing enough water containers for a few hours each day, and make sure to refill them when an opportunity presents itself.
Getting to Padstow
Padstow is a bit tricky to get to by public transport alone, and locals will be quite amused if you try to catch a bus from one town to another, but it CAN be done! From London, catch a train to Bodmin Parkway station and a bus to Padstow from there. The nearest airport is Newquay, which connects flights to the UK, Portugal and Spain directly. From Newquay airport catch the A5 bus (and get some previews of the South West Coast Path) east to Padstow.
Getting back from St. Ives
From the small fisher town and artistic centre of St. Ives, get a regional train to St. Erth, which connects to Great Western Rail trains back to London. Alternatively, two connecting buses will take you back to Newquay airport.
The SWCP Route from Padstow to St. Ives
Day 1: Padstow to Treyarnon Bay
Length: 12 1/2 miles (20 km)
Time to walk: 5.5 hours
The SWCP’s Atlantic Coast section begins at Padstow’s bustling harbor where Cornish Pasty shops invite buying a packed lunch before setting off for the day’s hike. Walking up along the western coast of the Doom Bar estuary offers lovely views across this harbor known for its pirate activity and infamous sandbank which ran dozens of ships aground in the 18th and 19th centuries. Keeping west along the shoreline, the trail comes across the first of many popular surfers’ beaches along the route – Harlyn Bay, Constantine Bay, and Treyarnon Bay. Walkers will also come across their first lighthouse of the route at Trevose Head.
Day 2: Treyarnon Bay to Porth
Length: 9 1/3 miles (15 km)
Time to walk: 4.5 hours
With Padstow well behind, the route begins to feel more remote along this section, and seaside towns along the way get smaller from Porthcothan to Trenance. The path dips in and out as the coastline follows inlets and small peninsulas, providing amazing vistas. Beautiful isolated coves emerge after each clifftop turn, with one view seemingly more beautiful than the next. The second stretch of the day follows behind a long beach overlooking a popular surf spot at Watergate Bay. Porth Beach is a small seaside resort with a campground, accommodations and beach-side restaurant.
Day 3: Porth to Perranporth
Length: 10 miles (16.9 km)
Time to walk: 4.5 hours
Starting off at Porth, it’s possible to walk a good stretch of the way to Newquay along the beach at low tide, which saves a few ups and downs (at the expense of some deep sand). From Newquay beach and aquarium the route picks up again, and leads towards the scenic Towan Head, a small peninsula. From here the path winds behind a popular surfer’s beach – Fistral Beach. Coming up to Pentire there are two options to cross the Salt Cover River – either through an estuary crossing Salt Cove on foot at low tide, or via ferry at high tide. Make sure to know where the tide will be when you make your choice of which route to take, as an error here will add a good extra hour’s walk to your day. After crossing the estuary the route leads behind the huge and beautiful Crantock Beach, and from there to more remote cliffs and beaches to a straight path towards Perranporth.
Day 4: Perranporth to Porthtowan
Length: 8.8 miles (14 km)
Time to walk: 4 hours
Setting off to a steep climb with rewarding views across Perranporth’s beaches, the route soon leads through isolated lilac heath and along narrow cliffs. Walkers pass old mining quarries and soon Perranporth Airfield. The Blue Hill Tin Streams are home to a tin factory that is continuing the 4000 year old tradition of tin mining and crafting, and the small but beautiful beach here makes an ideal lunch break. Further along the route, St. Agnes is a beautiful town with ample restaurants and accommodation, should hikers decide to enjoy this part of the walk a little longer. This section features beautiful coves and beaches all along the coastline, and the coastal path between towns features some of the remotest sections of the trail.
Day 5: Porthtowan to Gwithian
Length: 11.5 miles (18 km)
Time to walk: 5 hours
This stretch of the path leads through the town of Portreath, and from then on it is easy to navigate along the coastal path which runs undisturbed along the cliff edges. There have been a few landslides along the cliffs in the last years, including a large landslide at the aptly named Hell’s Mouth in 2011. A lovely roadside café is situated near the Hell’s Mouth cliffs, offering lunches, local beers or afternoon tea for hungry walkers. The path continues out to Godrevy Point, from whence there are beautiful views to Godrevy Island. Make sure to soak up the last Atlantic views along this section, as you’ll be facing across Carbis Bay during the final day, with your goal of St. Ives in sight.
Day 6: Gwithian to St. Ives
Length: 11 miles (18 km)
Time to walk: 5 hours
From Gwithian, the path leads through the dune mazes of the Towans, where walkers need to pay close attention to follow the acorn marker of the South West Coast Path. With St. Ives in sight across the bay, it may come as a surprise that the final day is quite so long, as the route leads through Hayle to cross the river, which adds a few hours to the day. The final stretch up from Hayle leads through a lovely church yard and cemetery with a small café and beautiful and rather affluent housing in the outskirts to St. Ives, where cobbled lanes, harbour-side pubs and ample Cornish charm await.
Accommodation on the South West Coast Path
The Cornish coast is a popular holiday destination, and has accommodation for every budget. There are lovely campsites along the route, although some might surprise you with prices of up to £27 per night for a single tent pitch. There are also hostels, hotels and B&Bs along the path, which should be booked in advance during busy summer months.
Food along the South West Coast Path
Cornwall is known for its fantastic seafood, and attracts an array of celebrity chefs to its shores. Most famously perhaps, Padstow is home to Rick Stein’s cookery school and restaurant, and fish and chips eateries. Of course, all local establishments benefit from the fantastic seafood produce, and wonderful food can be found in towns along the trail. Another Cornish treat that makes a fantastic hiker’s lunch is the Cornish pasty – a filled pie, traditionally designated to be eaten with one hand by miners. The hike’s destination of St. Ives has wonderful restaurants to satisfy every hiker’s appetite – from artisan bakeries to harbour-side pubs and high-end restaurants.