Field Guide: Snowdonia, Wales

Boasting breath-taking mountain peaks, pristine lakes and rivers, a rich heritage and a vibrant Welsh culture, Snowdonia is one national park you simply have to visit

9th November 2022 | Words by Matthew Jones


Snowdonia (Eryri in Welsh) is one of three national parks in Wales, along with the Brecon Beacons and Pembrokeshire National Parks. But Snowdonia is both the oldest and largest of the three, having acquired National Park status way back in 1951.

With a total land area of 823 square miles (2,130 km2), it takes in a broad swathe of rugged North Wales, with the park boundaries sweeping south from historic Conwy to bustling Llanberis in the northwest, before heading inland to Bala. The park’s southern fringes include picturesque Aberdyfi (Aberdovey) and the little village of Mallwyd, nestled in the Dyfi Hills.

It’s a rich and varied landscape, boasting some of the most magnificent scenery in Britain. There are peaceful valleys, broad estuaries, sparkling rivers, magical waterfalls, beautiful lakes and no less than 37 miles of coastline, including windswept clifftops and pristine beaches.

But of course, Snowdonia is most famous for its mountains. There are actually nine different mountain ranges within the park, including 15 summits above 3,000ft. The most famous is mighty Yr Wyddfa, or ‘Snowdon’ in English, the park’s namesake. At 1,085 metres (3,560 ft), it’s the highest peak in Wales, and the UK’s highest mountain outside of Scotland.

Majestic Caernarfon Castle by night, Caernarfon, Snowdonia, North Wales.

Aside from majestic mountains and dazzling landscapes, North Wales is also rich with legend, history and culture. The park has several UNESCO World Heritage sites along with prehistoric remains, magnificent castles and a more recent industrial history that is indelibly associated with the slate trade.

Snowdonia has also become known as the UK’s adventure capital. So, as well as attracting hikers, hillwalkers and climbers, today it’s also a mecca for adrenaline junkies who can tackle everything from epic ziplines and mountain bike trails to underground caverns, white water kayaking and even an artificial surf lagoon. 

How To Get There

Snowdonia is only a few hours from most of the UK’s major cities, with excellent road, rail and coach links.

Via car

From the Northwest of England and the Midlands, most visitors travel via the M56 and A55 or the M6. If you’re travelling from London and the south of England, then you can use the M5, M40 and M1 motorways. From South Wales, the A458, A487 and A470 all take you to southern Snowdonia.

Via train or bus

Bangor and Llandudno are both served by direct bus and train services from most parts of Britain including London and Manchester. From South Wales, Arriva operates services to Porthmadog, Caernarfon and Bangor. Check out the National Rail, National Express & Transport for Wales websites for more information.

Travelling within Snowdonia

Although most visitors get around by car, it is possible to use the public transport network. To get to the towns of Betws-y-Coed and Blaenau Ffestiniog, there are inland rail connections via the Conwy Valley Line.

Various Sherpa Buses also run regularly within the park. The service travels around the foot of Snowdon and links many of the main car parks, villages and tourist attractions in the area. It’s popular with walkers hiking up Snowdon. Here's a handy PDF map of the Snowdon Sherpa network.

Various other bus services link key towns and villages too. For more information check out the timetables on the Gwynedd Council website.

When To Go

Snowdonia, and Wales more generally, is famous for getting all four seasons in a single day. The weather is notoriously difficult to predict, so it’s wise to bring a sturdy waterproof jacket, regardless of when you plan to visit. That being said, spring is often warm, dry and sunny, whilst being slightly quieter than the peak tourist season that runs from May through to September.

The park gets noticeably less busy in the colder months. The character of the park also changes in winter, meaning that Snowdonia is a great option for cold-weather hillwalkers and mountaineers, as long as you’ve got the right kit, which often includes crampons and an ice axe.

The Miners’ Track and Pyg Track climbing the lower slopes of Snowdon from Glaslyn

Hiking and hillwalking

As the most mountainous region in Wales, hiking, hillwalking, mountaineering and climbing are all unsurprisingly popular activities. The three major mountain ranges are the Glyderau, the Carneddau and the Snowdon massif. But it’s also well worth exploring the Moelwynion, the Moel Hebog range and the rugged Rhinogydd, as well as the peaks of southern Snowdonia, especially lofty Cader Idris.

Top of most visitors’ bucket list is an ascent of Yr Wyddfa, or Snowdon (not ‘Mount Snowdon’, as it’s often incorrectly called). There are various paths to the summit, the best-known being the Llanberis Path (which starts, unsurprisingly, from Llanberis) and the Miners’ and Pyg Tracks, which both start from Pen y Pass. For a quieter way up, try the Rhyd Ddu or Snowdon Ranger paths. The toughest walking route up in terms of metres of ascent is the Watkin Path, which is also one of the most scenic. If you’re an experienced mountain type, you could tackle the famous Crib Goch ridge route (a Grade 1 scramble in summer). Though not technically difficult, the exposure is severe, so you’ll need a good head for heights. 

Other hiking highlights include Tryfan and the Glyderau from Llyn Ogwen, a magnificently jagged mountain range with some spectacular features, including the famous cantilever rock, the shattered rock formation that is Castell y Gwynt (‘Castle of the Winds’) and the Devil’s Kitchen (known as Twll Du in Welsh, which translates as ‘black pit’).

The famous Carneddau ponies are the only population of true wild horses in the UK.

Across the waters of Ogwen are the Carneddau, a sprawling upland plateau that features several peaks over 3,000ft, including noble Pen yr Ole Wen, Carnedd Dafydd and Carnedd Llewelyn. This area is home to the famous Carneddau ponies, the only population of true wild horses in the UK.

There are dozens of other great peaks to bag across Snowdonia too, including several smaller mountain ranges where you’re unlikely to see more than a handful of people all day, even in peak tourist season. Good examples include the Rhinogydd and the Moelwynion as well as the Dyfi Hills. These are the ones to head to if you want to avoid the crowds and get a taste of true mountain tranquillity.

If you’re up for something a bit longer – like a multi-day backpacking adventure – then you could walk one of several long-distance routes that traverse the national park. These include the Snowdonia Way, the Snowdonia Slate Trail and the northern section of the epic Cambrian Way.

Snowdonia is also blessed with some of the UK’s finest beaches.

You’re similarly spoilt for choice when it comes to lower-level walks – for example, the sweeping expanse of Harlech Beach and its grassy dunes makes for a gorgeous seaside stroll. For epic estuary views, walk or cycle the Mawddach Trail that runs along the spectacular Mawddach Estuary below the foothills of Cadair Idris. Then there’s the old Fisherman’s Path from Beddgelert along the raging Aberglaslyn pass. If you want a spectacular forest walk, there are miles of trails in Beddgelert Forest, and some of the UK’s oldest native oak woodland around the Vale of Ffestiniog, including Coedydd Maentwrog and Ceunant Llennyrch.

Other adventures

Blaenau Ffestiniog is the one-time ‘slate capital of the world’. It’s a Snowdonia anomaly – technically not part of the national park, it’s a town surrounded by cascading slate tips and old quarries. It’s a truly unique place, and deservedly is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. A visit to the Llechwedd slate caverns is the best way to explore this heritage. They have now been rejuvenated, with a series of tours and attractions on offer. The guided Deep Mine Tour takes visitors 500 feet underground and explores sixteen subterranean levels, replete with evocative illuminations.

Llechwedd has plenty to offer when it comes to high-octane thrills too. There’s a giant zip line, Titan 2, as well as an underground cavern traverse. There’s also Bounce Below, an enormous underground trampoline net complex, where visitors can jump, bounce and slide through a disused slate mine. It features six cargo nets built into an area twice the size of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Zipworld Snowdonia at Llechwedd, Blaenau Ffestiniog, an epic zip line strung across a disused slate quarry.

For waterborne adventures, the National White Water Centre near Bala is a must-do. Focused on the natural rapids of the River Tryweryn, the waters here are dam-controlled, with high flows that make it perfect for enjoying white-water kayaking and rafting sessions.

Coed y Brenin is also famous amongst mountain bikers. This forest park was Britain’s first purpose-built mountain biking centre and it is still one of the sport’s top destinations. Eight purpose-built mountain bike trails start from the visitor centre and range from easy trails for families and beginners to technical routes for expert riders.

The most recent addition to the region’s plethora of adventure attractions is Adventure Parc Snowdonia – a world-first inland surf lagoon and the only guaranteed surf break in the UK. Impressive tech delivers a variety of wave profiles, so absolute beginners can surf safely alongside the pros. There’s expert surf tuition available, and reliable waves make this the ideal, family-friendly training arena.

The complex also now includes Adrenaline Outdoors, a multi-activity adventure area that features one of the longest artificial caving courses in the world, climbing & racer walls, leaps of faith, some pretty extreme slides, a netted aerial assault course, high rise bag jumps, and a ninja parkour floor trail.

Flora & Fauna

In spring, Snowdonia’s lower slopes are swathed in purple saxifrage, while meltwater feeds the waterfalls and rivers.

Summer is a great time to enjoy cloud inversions, as rising sea mist envelops the valleys, leaving Snowdonia’s peaks poking out of the cloud like floating islands. This is also when the unique and rare Snowdon Lily (gagea serotina) flowers on the slopes of Yr Wyddfa.

Autumn and winter’s low sun casts long shadows across the landscape, appearing to make the mountains soar even higher. Their jagged peaks and bare hillsides stand out in stark relief. Purple heather and yellow gorse jostle with reds, oranges and yellows of autumn as the trees lose their leaves. In deep midwinter, the hills are blanketed with pure white snow as abandoned slate buildings sit stoically, braced against ice-cold winds. The slate spoil that cascades down the mountainsides are the only blot on the scene, but even those have a strange beauty, shimmering grey and purple when slicked with rain.

Feral mountain goats are a common sight in many of Snowdonia’s mountain ranges, including the Glyderau and the Rhinogydd.

The uplands of North Wales are home to ravens, peregrine falcons, ring ouzels, meadow pipits and wheatears. Snowdonia is also an important site for chough. Various mountain ranges are home to populations of feral goats, which you’ll normally smell before you see them, and the Carneddau are home to wild ponies. You might spot the vivid red brushes of dog foxes in the hills too, as well as hares. 

At the edges of lakes and along streams in the National Park you might spot grey wagtail, dipper and common sandpiper. Herons, kingfishers, water voles, otters and brown trout are all endemic species too. In the waters of Llyn Tegid, a geological throwback known as the gwyniad also survives. Trapped in the lake at the end of the last Ice Age, these small, char-like fish still survive today.

Mosses, lichens and liverworts are found in Snowdonia’s ancient oak woodland.

The park’s acres of woodland add to the variety of bird habitats. In summer they attract redstart, pied flycatcher and wood warblers. Due to the humidity of the climate, one of the main features of the Welsh Atlantic woodland are the mosses and liverworts – hence their nickname of ‘Welsh rainforest’. Owls and badgers also inhabit the woods and forests of Snowdonia.

The coastline and estuaries provide another huge wildlife resource. The sand dunes contain rare plants and are home to species such as the rare sand lizard. The estuaries provide important food sources for a variety of wading birds.

Where to stay, eat and drink

Almost all of Snowdonia’s towns and villages have something unique to offer for the visitor. Accommodation ranges from bunkhouses and B&Bs to boutique hotels and traditional inns. There are any number of holiday lets and Air BnBs to pick from too, as well as various camping and glamping sites throughout the park.

Llyn Gwynant and Hafod y Llan are two of our favourite campsites. Both are low-key, low-impact sites that make perfect basecamps for ascents of Snowdon.

The famous lone tree at Llyn Padarn, Llanberis, Snowdonia.

Other accommodation inevitably tends to be clustered around the bigger towns and villages. The most popular are:

Llanberis

Situated within easy reach of Snowdon on the edge of Llyn Padarn, Llanberis is a bustling town with plenty of shops, cafes and pubs. It has strong climbing and mountaineering associations, and is still a favourite amongst climbers today. It’s also home to the famous Snowdon mountain railway that runs all the way to Snowdon’s summit.

If you’re in Llanberis and are looking for a cheap and cheerful meal, Pete’s Eats always delivers. It’s a much-loved climbers’ café and bunkhouse famous for its convivial atmosphere and massive plates of food. There’s also The Heights Bar and Kitchen and The Peak Restaurant.

Bala

This historic market town lies on the edge of Llyn Tegid, the largest lake in Wales. Unsurprisingly, it’s a mecca for waterborne adventures by boat, kayak and more, whilst also being popular with anglers. The town has plenty of cute shops, museums and restaurants to enjoy too.

Try Y Cyfnod Cafe Bistro for hearty, unfussy food with good vegetarian and vegan options.

Dolgellau

Dolgellau is well placed for those who want to explore the southern areas of Snowdonia, including the coast. Great local trails include the Precipice Walk and the Mawddach Trail, while nearby peaks include mighty Cadair Idris. You’re also close to Coed y Brenin here.

Harlech

Harlech’s famous castle dominates this compact but vibrant coastal village. It’s full of charm, with some gorgeous shops, cafes and delis, as well as a sweeping golden beach with fantastic dunes.

Don’t leave without trying the hufen iâ (ice cream) from Hufenfa'r Castell, near the castle itself. This little shop makes fantastic ice creams, chocolates and sorbets, using milk and cream from Welsh dairies, with no artificial colours or flavours.

Blaenau Ffestiniog

The historic slate quarrying town of Blaenau Ffestiniog retains a real local feel. It tends to be quieter than the more well-known tourist hubs, even in peak season, but actually has some pretty good places to eat, including a Mexican taqueria, a great fish and chip shop, and several other takeaways. The Isallt Coffee House is also worth popping in for coffee and cake.

Betws-y-Coed

Surrounded by the Gwydyr Forest and enclosed in a narrow valley gorge, Betws-y-Coed is a unique village. It has plenty of outdoor shops if you need to pick up walking gear, as well as several bars, cafes and restaurants. Our pick of them all is Hang-in Pizzeria on Station Approach. It’s a sustainable, family run pizza parlour that makes freshly prepared wood fired pizzas to eat in or take away, plus authentic Mediterranean sharing boards and other delicious food, all while supporting global conservation efforts.

Betws’ main attractions are the famous Swallow Falls and Fairy Glen, which although popular are undoubtedly two of the most enchanting beauty spots in Snowdonia.

The pretty village of Beddgelert in the heart of Snowdonia.

Beddgelert

One of Snowdonia’s prettiest villages, Beddgelert is situated at the confluence of three rivers. It has no less than four inns (our personal favourite being the Saracen’s Head), as well as several excellent cafes and restaurants (Bistro Hebog is a particular highlight). There’s also a famous pizza and ice cream parlour. The village is ideally situated for hillwalking, with several peaks visible from the centre of Beddgelert, including Moel Hebog.

Maentwrog

Situated in the Vale of Ffestiniog just off the A487, across the valley from imposing Plas Tan y Bwlch, Maentwrog is a small but picturesque village surrounded by some of Snowdonia’s most ancient woodland. It’s well placed for walkers exploring the Moelwynion range, and is also close to the harbour town of Porthmadog and the unique Italianate village of Portmeirion (known for its links to cult TV show The Prisoner). The village pub is the bustling Grapes Hotel, a historic coaching inn known for its hearty food, excellent beer garden and warm welcome. Just outside the village is the Oakeley Arms, which is another popular local pub .


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