The mountains of Snowdonia provide the most dramatic and alluring of all Welsh scenery, a compact, barren land of tortured ridges dividing glacial valleys, whose sheer faces belie the fact that the tallest peaks only just top 3000ft. It was to this mountain fastness that Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last true prince of Wales, retreated in 1277 after his first war with Edward I; it was also here that Owain Glyndŵr held on most tenaciously to his dream of regaining for the Welsh the title of Prince of Wales. Centuries later, the English came to remove the mountains: slate barons built huge fortunes from Welsh toil and reshaped the patterns of Snowdonian life forever, as men looking for steady work in the quarries left the hills and became town dwellers.
Thousands of hikers arrive every weekend to hike up Snowdon massif (Eryri) over steep, exacting and constantly varying terrain. Several of the ascent routes are superb, and you can always take the cog railway up to the summit café from Llanberis. But the other mountains are as good, and far less busy, and give unsurpassed views of Snowdon. The Glyderau and Tryfan – best tackled from the Ogwen Valley – are particular favourites for more experienced walkers.
But Snowdonia isn’t all about walking. Small settlements are dotted in the valleys, usually coinciding with some enormous mine or quarry. Foremost among these are Blaenau Ffestiniog, where a mine opens its slate caverns for underground tours, and Beddgelert, whose former copper mines are also open to the public. The only place of any size not associated with slate mining is Betws-y-Coed, a largely Victorian resort away from the higher peaks.
A huddle of grey houses, prodigiously brightened with floral displays in summer, makes up BEDDGELERT. A sentimental tale fabricated by a wily local publican to lure punters tells how the town got its name: Gelert’s Grave (bedd means burial place), an enclosure just south of town, is supposedly the final resting place of Prince Llywelyn ap Iorwerth’s faithful dog, Gelert, who was left in charge of the prince’s infant son while he went hunting. On his return, the child was gone and the hound’s muzzle was soaked in blood. Jumping to conclusions, the impetuous Llywelyn slew the dog, only to find the child safely asleep beneath its cot and a dead wolf beside him. Llywelyn hurried to his dog, which licked his hand as it died.
BETWS-Y-COED (pronounced “betoos-er-coyd”), sprawled out around the confluence of the Conwy, Llugwy and Lledr valleys, overlooked by the conifer-clad slopes of the Gwydyr Forest Park, and centred on the low cataract of Pont-y-Pair Falls, is almost totally devoted to the needs of visitors, particularly walkers – there are seven outdoor gear retailers but no decent grocery shop. The town has the best choice of accommodation in the region, but after an hour mooching around you’ll soon want to head out into the hinterland. Serious mountain walkers should continue west, but for everyone else there are some delightful and popular easy strolls to the local beauty spots of the Conwy and Swallow falls.
Gwydyr Forest Park, just outside town, is one of the top trail-riding locales in Wales. The classic route is the Marin Trail with mostly forest track ascents and numerous singletrack descents of varying difficulty. The scenery is great, with mountain views along the higher sections. For rental, contact Planet Fear, Holyhead Rd.
BLAENAU FFESTINIOG sits at the head of the bucolic Vale of Ffestiniog, hemmed in by stark slopes strewn with heaps of splintered slate. When clouds hunker low in this great cwm and rain sheets the grey roofs, grey walls and grey paving slabs, it can be a terrifically gloomy place. Thousands of tons of slate were once hewn from the labyrinth of underground caverns here each year, but these days the town is only kept alive by its extant slate-cavern tour, and by tourists who change from the Conwy Valley train line onto the wonderful, narrow-gauge Ffestiniog Railway, which winds up from Porthmadog.
The Romans roofed their Welsh houses with slate and Edward I used it extensively in his Iron Ring of castles around Snowdonia, but it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that the demand for Welsh roofing slates rocketed. For the 1862 London Exhibition, one skilled craftsman produced a sheet of slate 10ft long, 1ft wide and a sixteenth of an inch thick – so thin it could be flexed – firmly establishing Welsh slate as the finest in the world. By 1898, Snowdonia’s quarries were producing half a million tons of dressed slate a year. At Penrhyn and Dinorwig quarries, mountains were hacked away. Workers often slept through the week in damp dormitories on the mountain, and tuberculosis was common, exacerbated by the slate dust. At Blaenau Ffestiniog, the seams required mining underground, with miners having to buy their own candles, the only light they had. In spite of this, thousands left their hillside smallholdings for the burgeoning quarry towns. Few workers were allowed to join Undeb Chwarelwyr Gogledd Cymru (the North Wales Quarrymen’s Union), and in 1900 the workers in Lord Penrhyn’s quarry at Bethesda went on strike. They stayed out for three years, but failed to win any concessions. Those who got their jobs back were forced to work for even less money as a recession took hold, and although the two World Wars heralded mini-booms as bombed houses were replaced, the industry never recovered its nineteenth-century prosperity, and most quarries and mines closed in the 1950s. What little slate is produced today mostly goes to make floor tiles, road aggregate, and an astonishing array of kitsch ashtrays and coasters etched with mountainscapes.
LLANBERIS, ten miles west of Capel Curig, is the nearest you’ll get in Wales to an alpine climbing village, its main street thronged with weather-beaten walkers and climbers. At the same time, this is very much a Welsh rural community, albeit a depleted one now that slate is no longer being torn from the flanks of Elidir Fawr, the mountain across the town’s twin lakes. The town is inextricably linked with Snowdon, the highest British mountain outside Scotland.
Hardened outdoor enthusiasts sometimes dismiss Snowdon (3560ft) as overused, and it can certainly be crowded in summer when a thousand visitors a day can be pressed into the postbox-red carriages of the Snowdon Mountain Railway, while another 1500 pound the well-maintained paths. But this fine mountain massif sports some of the finest walking and scrambling in the park: hike early, late or out of season if you want a bit more solitude.
The Snowdon Mountain Railway is Britain’s only rack-and-pinion railway, completed in 1896. Trains (sometimes pushed by seventy-year-old steam locos) still climb to the summit in just under an hour from the eastern end of Llanberis to the smart summit café (mid-May to Oct). Inside is a bar and a post office where, for a few pennies, you can enchant your friends with a “Summit of Snowdon – Copa’r Wyddfa” postmark. Times, type of locomotive and final destination vary with demand and ice conditions at the top: to avoid disappointment, buy your tickets early on clear summer days.
The following are justifiably the most popular of the seven accepted walking routes up Snowdon.
The easiest and longest route up Snowdon, following the rail line, which gets gradually steeper, to the “Finger Stone” at Bwlch Glas (Green Pass). This marks the arrival of the routes coming up from Pen-y-Pass to join the Llanberis Path for the final ascent to Yr Wyddfa, the summit.
The easiest of the three routes up from Pen-y-Pass, a broad track leading south then west to the dilapidated remains of the former copper mines in Cwm Dyli. Skirting around the right of a lake, the path climbs more steeply to the lake-filled Cwm Glaslyn, then again to Upper Glaslyn, followed by a switchback ascent to the junction with the Llanberis Path.
A steeper and stonier variation on the Miners’ Track, leaving from the western end of the Pen-y-Pass car park and climbing up to Bwlch y Moch (the Pass of the Pigs) before meeting the Miners’ Track prior to the zigzag up to the Llanberis Path.
If you’re not equipped or confident enough to get out on the rock by yourself, there are various companies who will guide you. You could also consider cycling up the mountain: in addition to many easy rides, the Llanberis Path, Snowdon Ranger Path and Pitt’s Head Track to Rhyd-Ddu are open to cyclists.
High Trek guide everything from straightforward hillwalking to scrambling, rock climbing (all abilities), navigation and winter climbing.
Rental and a good source of information about local rides.
Tourists hike up Snowdon, but mountain connoisseurs prefer the sharply angled peaks of Tryfan and the Glyderau, with their challenging terrain, cantilevered rocks and fantastic views back to Snowdon. If you’re going to attempt the walks, arm yourself with either the 1:50,000 OS Landranger #115 or the 1:25,000 OS Outdoor Leisure #17 map.
(1.5 miles return; 1hr; 200ft ascent). An easy hike on a well-graded path leading up to Llyn Idwal, nestled in the magnificent cirque of Cwm Idwal. The area was designated Wales’s first nature reserve in 1954, after botanists discovered rare arctic-alpine plants growing here. Tackling the rough, rocky paths right around the lake can turn this into a half-day outing, partly beneath huge sloping cliffs – the Idwal Slabs.
(5 miles; 4–6hr; 2000ft ascent). The standard route up Tryfan, from the car park at Idwal Cottage. You’ll need to use your hands for the final section up the South Ridge of Tryfan, past the Far South Peak to the summit. You can then tackle the 5ft jump between Adam and Eve, the two chunks of rhyolitic lava which crown this regal mountain. Don’t underestimate the seriousness of the leap: it’s only when you see the mountain dropping away on all sides that it hits home quite how disastrous it would be to overshoot.
The little watersports town of BALA (Y Bala), on the border of the park, twenty miles southwest of Llangollen, sits at the northern end of Wales’s largest natural lake, Llyn Tegid. Nearby, waters crash down the Tryweryn River, perfect for whitewater rafting.
Water is released on around 200 days a year at the National White Water Centre, crashing down a mile and a half of Grade III rapids where numerous rafting options include the Taster involving two runs down the course: wet-suit hire extra. The two-hour session typically gives you four runs, or you can step up a notch to the Orca Adventure involving two runs down in a normal raft followed by a chance to tackle the rapids in a more challenging two-person inflatable.