The route passes through a variety of landscapes including tidal marsh, open moorland and limestone gorges. It begins to the south of the Ribble estuary, the route then runs through Preston and on to the historic town of Clitheroe. Next it heads up into the Pennines to reach its source on remote Cam Fell.
The idea of opening a walk along the Ribble called the Ribble Way was first suggested back in 1967 at the inaugural meeting of the Preston and Fylde branch of the Ramblers' Association.The Guardian reported in 1972 that the Ramblers Association were planning Britain's first riverside long footpath called the Ribble Way. At that time, the route being discussed was 103 kilometres (64 mi) from the estuary of the River Ribble at Walmer Bridge close to Preston to its source near the farmhouse of Far Gearstones in the West Riding of Yorkshire fells; just 45 kilometres (28 mi) of the planned route was designated right-of-way. The idea eventually attracted official support and was opened in 1985. The Ribble Valley is an area of 632 square kilometres (244 sq mi) of natural beauty from the north-west coast to the Lake District. The official course of the Ribble Way that is marked on the Ordnance Survey (2010) OS Openspace maps starts at Longton, the mouth of the River Ribble just west of Preston, 5 metres (16 ft) above mean sea level and finishes at Grove head, just north of Cam Fell, 558 metres (1,831 ft) above mean sea level. Grove head is actually the source of the Gayle Beck which feeds into the River Ribble near Ribblehead.