As Wales’ first National Park and the third most popular National Park in Britain, Snowdonia is something special. It stretches over 827 square miles of unspoilt scenery with rocky mountains, clear blue lakes and thick forests. It has plants and insects you won’t find anywhere else in the world. And at the heart of it is the peak of Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. Or so I’d been told at least – the first time I’d visited you could barely see a metre in front of you through thick fog and drizzle. So when the last day of our recent weekend trip to North Wales dawned blue and bright, I knew exactly where to go.
When the sun shines in Snowdonia, you have to get out there among it all – however you can. Ideally we’d have had a couple of days to climb Mount Snowdon and hike in the mountains, or even half a day for a shorter walk. But all we had was a car and a few hours. After a bit of research I came up with a road trip through some of the park’s most scenic drives. So if you’re limited on time – or not much of a walker – you can still get a taste of Snowdonia’s beautiful scenery. The route covers 39 miles altogether and takes around 1.5 hours to drive (depending on how many photo/tea and cake stops you make along the way).
Our route started in the town of Porthmadog on the North Wales coast. This was our base for the weekend, and it’s the hub for the West Highland and Ffestiniog railways and close to one of my favourite Welsh spots – the quirky Italian-style village of Portmeirion. From Porthmadog we followed the A498 past the village of Tremadog and through the Aberglaslyn Pass to the town of Bedgellert. The road carries on through the forest then along the banks of the Llyn Dinas lake. The 60-acre lake is home to salmon and trout – and maybe even the throne of Britain. Legend has it that ancient British king Vortigern hid the throne under a great stone by Llyn Dinas for safekeeping and it’s still there somewhere (though nowhere I could see…).
We drove on around the edge of Llyn Dinas and it wasn’t long until we came to an even more beautiful lake – Llyn Gwynant. On a still morning the lake was perfectly flat with the mountains and white fluffy clouds above reflected in it like a mirror (well at least they were until a dog jumped in for a swim – but if it wasn’t about 10 degrees in there I might’ve been tempted myself). The start of autumn’s a gorgeous time to visit Snowdonia with a mix of greens, golds and reds everywhere you look. The road follows the Nant Gwynant river from the lake and climbs 600 feet upwards in just two miles. At the top there’s a viewpoint where you can look look back down to the lake and over to the Cwm Dyli hydro-electric power station.
At the top of Nant Gwynant we took a diversion to the left on the A4086 to the Pen-y-Pass. This is the start of three of the main walking routes up Mount Snowdon. The car park was packed with hikers getting ready to start the climb up – and the café full of others celebrating getting back down. The road up here started life as a miners’ path in the 1830s to transport copper ore from Snowdonia down to Llanberis. It still winds the same way downhill to Llanberis. This is where catch the Snowdon Mountain Railway to the top if you don’t fancy walking. Or where you start the Llanberis Path if you do – it’s the longest but least strenuous walk up to the summit next to the railway line. There are a ton of other outdoor activities too like mountaineering, climbing and mountain biking, as well as diving in Llyn Padarn lake if you’re feeling brave.
From Llanberis we backtracked to the Pen-y-Pass and followed the A4086 over the hills past the grey slate cottages in the village of Capel Curig. Then from there we took a right onto the A5 towards Betws-y-Coed on the edge of Snowdonia. The road gets flatter here and there are more trees and less mountains. Betws-y-Coed is another hub town, with a pretty village green surrounded by shops, hotels and an old church. There’s the Miners’ Bridge and walks along the riverside or out to the Pont-y-Pair and Swallow Falls waterfalls. Then you can replenish some calories at Cwmni Cacen Gri, who do a mean Welshcake.
The road out of Betws-y-Coed leaves Snowdonia, but if you’ve not had enough beautiful scenery by now there are a couple of different directions you can take. If you go north along the A470 you’ll reach the medieval seaside town of Conwy. It has the 13th-century Conwy Castle as well as city walls to walk around and the UK’s smallest house to squeeze yourself into. Or head south on the A5 to Llangollen and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. It’s a seriously impressive piece of engineering, built in 1805 to carry the Llangollen Canal over the River Dee. At 38 metres up it’s Britain’s longest and highest aqueduct, just wide enough for one canal boat, and you can take a boat trip across or walk along the towpath for even more scenic views.
So have I convinced you to explore Snowdonia by car, or is there a even more scenic Welsh road trip that I should try out next?