Dramatic mountain and lake views, epic skies and mysterious folklore are just a few of the reasons to pay a visit to Wales’ largest national park. Between its foothills the roads snake through valleys bordered by mountainsides one minute, engulfed by dense, twisting forest the next. A little eerie and a little magical, the landscape seduces the eye while the melodious North Wales accent romances the ear.
Snowdonia National Park
The national park is spread across 823 square miles of wild, mountainous countryside, vast stretches of sandy coastline and seemingly inaccessible rocky terrain favoured by feral goats and adventurous sheep. To the north the mountains are the most photographed attractions of the region. Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales and England (3,560ft) overshadows the other summits, including Carnedd Llewelyn and Tryfan. On Snowdon, a seasonal mountain railway carries travellers to the very top. Somewhere far below, the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways gently transport their sightseeing passengers through the wilderness from the coastal town of Porthmadog, also known as the ‘Gateway to Snowdonia’, to Blaenau Ffestiniog and Caernarfon respectively.
Castle, near Llanberis
Owing perhaps to their gentler geography, the west coast and central areas of the national park are quieter, with the exception of the sandy shoreline and seaside towns at Barmouth and Harlech, where visitors from far afield descend throughout the summer. In the south are quiet villages such as Dolgellau, where the nearby summit of Cadair Idris, provides a more moderate physical test for those not ready to take on the trials of Snowdon itself.
Hafod Eryri Visitors Centre,
summit of Snowdon
After the summer crowds have left, it’s the turn of the more adventurous walkers, cyclists and climbers as the changing seasons present fresh challenges. At times it is possible to travel for miles without seeing a soul and although mists and rain hamper the view at any given moment, catch a clear sky and there’s no place like it. For less energetic visitors there are a string of heritage sites to discover, including the remains of forgotten fortresses and industrial sites that appear as old as the land itself.
Across the region are small communities built over centuries around the mining industries of slate, copper, lead and gold; mineral wealth that reached its peak in the late 19th century before dwindling as recession hit and working relations between the English mine owners and Welsh employees worsened. The decline hit local communities hard as competition from other countries, world wars and developments in tile production all took their toll. Slate production continues today, but on a much smaller scale, and in drastically altered conditions than the miners faced during its heyday. The best place to learn about the industry is at the National Slate Museum at Llanberis. Housed in the old Victorian workshops of the Dinorwig quarry, visitors can follow the story of mining, see the tools of the trade still in situ, and a photography exhibition that captures the skill and endurance of the workers. As part of a tile-making demonstration visitors are invited to try their hand at splitting and shaping a block of slate, under the watchful eye of the experts.
In Snowdonia’s documented history the landscape was ruled for 500 years by the medieval dynasty of the Princes of Gwynedd. Their local feuds and wars with the English saw the building of fortresses and palaces, many accessible to the public today, while the ancient hilltop site of Dinas Emrys at Craflwyn holds the clues to the origins of the national symbol of Wales: the fearsome red dragon. Legend dictates that this dragon lived in a cave beneath the hillside, which it shared with a white dragon of English origin. The two fought constantly, the red dragon being superior in strength. Both creatures were, however, eventually toppled by the dragon slayer, Merlin.
The high, misty mountains and deep crystal lakes of Snowdonia belong to stories of heroes, kings and mountain-dwelling creatures, with the legend of King Arthur the best known of all. It is said that Arthur, spiritual leader of the country, will return to save the day in Wales’ greatest hour of need. Various stories exist of his connections with Snowdonia; most popular is that of his sword Excalibur, which is said to lie at the bottom of Lake Llydaw at the foot of Snowdon.
The newly launched Princes of Gwynedd walking trails allow visitors to explore the story of the Welsh princes across their dominion – from their birthplaces to where they held court, including the castles at Dolwyddelan, Criccieth, Y Bere, Dolbadarn and ruins at Deganwy and Dinas Emrys, plus a number of religious buildings. Devised by the Welsh heritage organisation CADW, the Princes of Gwynedd Heritage Tourism Project is the first step to connect historic sites thematically across Wales, helping people to engage with the stories of Wales.
Beautiful views are two a penny in Snowdonia and driving across the park is, ironically, especially rewarding. The route through Capel Curig is not one to miss (incidentally also the wettest place in Europe, but don’t let that deter you!). Pull off the road here where you can to enjoy the views across Lake Mymbyr towards the famous Snowdon Horseshoe mountain ridge. Step from the car and into scenery that is beyond words.