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Dartmoor: Wild Ponies, Strange Geology, and Prehistoric Megaliths

Dartmoor, England

Dartmoor, a national park, is a huge moor — open land with scrubby vegetation — dotted with wild ponies running free, granite peaks called tors (popular hiking destinations), and Neolithic ruins such as the Scorhill Stone Circle.

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A short drive further north takes us out of Cornwall and into the neighboring county of Devon, where we venture into remote and windswept Dartmoor.

Perched on the edge of the moor, the tiny town of Chagford is an easy home base for exploring Dartmoor. The small-town atmosphere here makes you feel like you’ve stepped into a time warp. It has a classic English village feel, with a picturesque church and cemetery, and cozy pubs that double as inns for hikers to spend the night.

One of England’s most popular national parks, Dartmoor is one of the few truly wild places left in this densely populated country. A “moor” is characterized by open land with scrubby vegetation. England’s moors are vast medieval commons — rare places where all can pass, anyone can graze their livestock, and — in the case of Dartmoor — ponies run wild.

Dartmoor sits on a granite plateau, and occasionally, bare granite peaks called “tors” break through the heather. Rising like lonesome watchtowers, these distinctive landmarks are the goal of popular hikes.

Haytor is the most famous of these rocks. For the tenderfoot, the climb to its summit can be a challenge. It’s not El Capitan, but it’s hard to beat that “king of the mountain” feeling, and the rewarding views that come with it.

A well-planned walk through the moors rewards day hikers with vivid memories. Stone-slab “clapper” bridges — some medieval and some even ancient — remind hikers that for thousands of years, humans have trod these same paths and forded these same streams.

Tall stones guided early travelers. This one — erected by pagans, long before Christianity arrived — was later carved into a cross.

The iconic ponies of Dartmoor run wild. Their ancestors were the working horses of the local miners. Living in the harsh conditions of the moor, these ponies are a hearty breed, known for their stamina. Today they’re beloved among hikers for the romance they bring to the otherwise stark terrain.

Of the hundreds of Neolithic ruins that dot the Dartmoor landscape, the Scorhill Stone Circle is my favorite. Tranquil and nearly forgotten — erected some 4,000 years ago by mysterious people for mysterious reasons — it’s yours alone… the way a stone circle should be.

It’s just you and your imagination. Enjoy the quiet. Ponder the 40 centuries of people who’ve made this enchanting landscape their home, and the wisdom of today’s English to protect it and keep it pristine.