Snowdonia on a budget: a five-star hostel in the heart of the national park

In the third of our series, an upgraded former YHA hostel is the perfect base for cycling, swimming and scrambling in Sir Edmund Hillary’s footsteps
South Downs | Yorkshire Dales

“You get one of the best views of Snowdonia from Capel Curig,” Christian told me as he welcomed me to The Rocks.

Of course, this is something you might expect to hear from the co-owner of a Capel Curig hostel. However, even an old Snowdonia hand like me had to admit that the view from the hostel of the Snowdon horseshoe, the ridges on the mountain’s eastern side, is indeed pretty spectacular.

It’s now 70 years since Snowdonia in north Wales became a national park. To celebrate this milestone, I cycled five miles from Betws-y-Coed railway station to spend a few nights in a hostel that’s even older. The building has served as a hostel for 75 years and was a YHA property until 2010. Now styling itself as Snowdonia’s only five-star hostel, The Rocks at Plas Curig was taken over by Christian and Annie three years ago. They gave the place a thorough makeover and added numerous decorative touches such as Annie’s eye-catching semi-abstract landscape paintings.

The Rocks Hostel in Plas Curig
The Rocks Hostel in Plas Curig Photograph: PR

There are 59 beds spread over 14 rooms, though all the dorms are being booked out as private bedrooms while Covid prevails. Thus I had a four-berther to myself. The cubby beds, arranged in two bunks, each had a handy little shelf and reading lamp and formed four snug cocoons. This is not a partying hostel, so the blissful silence at night was broken only by the cry of a lone tawny owl. The room also had a rather fine view of the steepling Clogwyn Mawr, with rabbits feeding on buttercups in the field below my window.

Downstairs I found two lounges and a large, airy dining room stocked with plenty of board games. A tiny shop in the reception sells Welsh-made products including soaps, spirits, beers and ciders (I invested in a little bottle of Blue Slate gin from the Dinorwig Distillery in Bala). There’s a shed for bikes and a fancy firepit for barbecue-lovers. Meanwhile, Covid measures include a four-person limit in the enormous, fully equipped and sparkling-clean guest kitchen; each bathroom being allocated to two specific bedrooms; mask-wearing indoors; and plenty of hand sanitiser.

An area near Llyn Crafnant.
An area near Llyn Crafnant. Photograph: Philip Smith/Alamy

I spent my first full day cycling around Gwydir Forest Park. A couple of miles from the hostel, on the west side of the Conwy valley, it contains two reputedly excellent mountain bike trails. However, on my fragile road bike, I stuck to the quiet single-track lanes that haul themselves over this hilly forest. I nosed around Llanrhychwyn church, a cool, dark cave of a building often said to be the oldest place of worship in Wales. Near Llyn Crafnant I sat amid the calls of cuckoos, while a redstart hopped from tree to tree close by, its orange tail all aquiver. Having acquired a picnic in the small market town of Llanrwst, I ate it in the company of a little egret hunting for its own tea in the Afon Conwy. And when I returned to base in the early evening, fellow hostellers Claire and Karen regaled me with the story of their sighting of the day: a golden eagle over Snowdon. Claire had stayed at the hostel in its YHA days – “It was much more austere back then” – and declared herself more than happy with the current upgrade.

Hero Douglas with Tryfan in the background.
Hero Douglas with Tryfan in the background. Photograph: Dixie Wills

On my second morning I went abroad on foot. My guide for the day, Hero Douglas, was born and bred in Capel Curig and this summer is launching a local micro-adventure service. As we walked from the hostel to the foot of Tryfan (917m), she filled me in on tormentils, “map lichen” and the local lore. “Around here, they say ‘Snowdon’s for walkers but Tryfan’s for climbers’, because you have to use your hands no matter which way you go up.”

Bunks in the former YHA hostel.
Bunks in the former YHA hostel. Photograph: Rocks Hostel

Both George Mallory and Sir Edmund Hillary trained on Tryfan before taking on Everest. However, as a grade one scramble (the easiest level), it also makes for an excellent test of the beginner’s brain, eye and foot. There are myriad possible ways up the north face and, without Hero’s guidance, I feel certain I would have accidentally climbed into one of the gullies from which scramblers are frequently saved by the local mountain rescue team. At the summit, Hero climbed one of the two 3m-tall rock monoliths – named Siôn and Siân – and leapt fearlessly onto the other, thus gaining the freedom of the mountain, according to tradition. A lover more of unbroken legs than of freedom, I declined her offer to give it a go.

Library at the Rocks Hostel.
Library at the Rocks Hostel Photograph: PR

After a satisfyingly prolonged ridge walk we dropped down to swim in the surprisingly warm (well, not cold) Llynnau Mymbyr before I rolled back to the nearby hostel to deposit my drenched clothes in the drying room and my drenched body in a hot shower.

For those who fancy a wider exploration of Snowdonia, Christian at The Rocks now offers bespoke “slow and immersive” people-carrier excursions for groups of up to eight. But there’s so much to see and do close at hand, you may find yourself content simply to walk or ride from the hostel door.

• Accommodation was provided by The Rocks at Plas Curig. Private double £60 a night. Rail travel was supplied by Transport for Wales, advance single £18 from Birmingham New Street to Betws-y-Coed

• A picture caption was amended on 22 July 2021 because the image is of the area around Llyn Crafnant not the lake itself as an earlier version implied.


Dixe Wills

The GuardianTramp

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