As I come to the summit cairn, I am in for a shock. There is another human being. We chat for a minute and then he sets off down the ridge. Now I have the place to myself and can sit in the sunshine, scanning all the peaks of north Wales, from Cadair Idris in the west to the Berwyns in the east. In between, to the north, is Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon), with the jutting shoulder of Crib Goch visible. It seems strange to think that while almost every peak I am looking at may either be deserted or host to a handful of walkers, Snowdon on this bank holiday Sunday will likely have tens of thousands of feet tramping over it.
Visitor numbers to Snowdonia have soared in recent years, with the area around Snowdon itself becoming particularly busy as new attractions have opened. Aside from walking up the mountain, you can zipwire, raft, cave, climb, ride a steam train and even scuba dive and surf, all within about 10 miles of the summit. I have done every one of these activities and enjoyed them, but they do draw in large numbers of people, and sometimes all you need is a peaceful mountain walk. In that case, the southern area of the national park is the place to head for.
Below the peak I’ve climbed, Aran Fawddwy, there is a small lake that is the source of the Dyfi, a river that flows south-west down a magnificent valley and out to sea at Aberdyfi. With some variation, this marks the southern boundary of the park. To the north, between myself and Snowdon, is another river valley, the Wnion, which connects Lake Bala (Llyn Tegid), Dolgellau, and eventually Barmouth. Between these two rivers, inside a 25-mile-long extended triangle of mountainous land, are some of the best walks, bike rides, small towns and beaches in Wales.
Walks and towns
Cadair Idris has two major paths up it: the longer and more challenging Minffordd, from the south, and from the other side the Pony Path, which is short and sweet. Cadair itself stands out like a giant tooth, with its two roots pointing to the sea. Between is one of the loveliest valleys in Britain, the Dysynni, where there is Bird Rock, a great lookout point to survey the valley, and a good campsite nearby. There is good swimming in the river here and perfect peace assured by a lack of mobile signal. Walk a mile up the valley to see Castell y Bere, an evocative ruin since the 1290s, when it was abandoned after sieges. From here there is an alternative route up Cadair Idris that joins the Pony Path below the summit and returns via the Minffordd path and Mynydd Pencoed ridge.
On the coast is Tywyn, whose beachfront is an unattractive concrete strip, but does lead to a magnificent long stretch of sands. You could stroll all the way to Aberdyfi, three miles away to the south, without putting your shoes on, then get the mainline train back – a 10-minute ride. Tywyn town is worth looking around. The visually striking Magic Lantern cinema, built in 1893 as a town hall, showed its first film in 1901 and is still going strong. There is also a steam railway, the Talyllyn, that takes you inland to Dolgoch waterfalls; from there, head into the hills and take the south-westerly trail over the Tarrens, a series of grassy hills whose ridgeline leads down to Aberdyfi with great views. From Aberdyfi, after refreshments, there’s the beach walk back to Tywyn, or the train.
Up the Dyfi estuary is Machynlleth, with its “independent” high street. There are wholefood shops, a vibrant art gallery and the Centre for Alternative Technology, with its open days and postgraduate courses. The Welsh coastal path comes through and, though it’s just outside the Snowdonia boundary, the route south along the River Dyfi goes close to a series of bird reserves, including one for the ospreys that reliably manage to raise about two chicks a year. At the mouth of the estuary is Ynslas and the Dyfi nature reserve, famous for its orchids. If you make the 15-mile trek to the coast at Borth, there’s a train ride back to Machynlleth (which links east to Shrewsbury).
On the north side of the Cadair Idris range is the Mawddach estuary, along whose southern shore runs National Cycle Trail 8 (in full, it’s a superb 243-mile route that links Cardiff with Anglesey). Start at Dolgellau and walk or cycle the 13 miles down to Fairbourne, home to a miniature railway and also, sadly, the first town in Britain to be officially abandoned to coastal erosion. In practice that means it is still there, but it might not be for much longer. The walk/ride across the wonderful railway bridge into Barmouth is a classic (there’s a bus back to Dolgellau). In summer you could get the tiny ferry back across the estuary, then the Fairbourne steam train, which links to the mainline.
Use Ordnance Survey map OL23 to devise your own walks. Local transport links help avoid circular routes. The coastal mainline railway is particularly useful, plus there are bus services and narrow gauge railways.
Food and drink
Barmouth’s Davy Jones Locker is the classic cafe for the end of the Mawddach walk, but Dolgellau is also blessed. One gem is TH Roberts cafe, serving breakfasts and lunches. The sturdy, traditional wood-and-glass interior is perfect, as are the cakes. For something a little more dainty, head across town to Gwyndy Tearooms, where the cuppas come in bone china and the cakes on display trays. The food is superb. If you want something simpler before a day on the hill, Yr Hen Efail also gets excellent reviews. In Machynlleth there are several choices, including Y Gegin Fach and Ty Medi, which serves excellent vegetarian and vegan food. If you are heading out to Ynslas, try the community-run Cletwr.
There are beautiful campsites in the area. On the coast there is Cae Du (camping from £15 a night), which has rock pools on the adjacent beach and is just a mile south of the unspoiled 13th-century chapel of Llangelynin. Smugglers Cove near Aberdyfi is lovely and has two boats to stay in, too (camping from £20 a night, boats from £60 a night). Bird Rock is a big, rolling site that allows campfires (pitches from £10 a night), while farther north on the Mawddach estuary is Graig Wen, which also has yurts, cabins and B&B (pitches from £16 a night, self-catering two nights from £150).
The area is also well supplied with good pubs with rooms. Y Llew Coch (doubles £90 B&B) at Dinas Mawddwy is a good base for climbing Aran Fawddwy and its famous ridgeline. Nearer to Dolgellau and Cadair Idris, the Cross Foxes (doubles from £100 B&B) has excellent food, while the Wynnstay (doubles from £95 B&B) in Machynlleth is a traditional coaching inn right in the centre of town.