Snowdon. Yr Wyddfa. Roll the names of this mountain around and feel your feet twitch. The summit of Wales sounds a siren call to walkers everywhere, but its magnetic appeal isn’t just about reaching the highest rock in Cymru or revelling in views that can stretch for hundreds of square miles. It’s in the exceptional beauty of the mountain itself.
For this is where the glaciers of the last Ice Age did some of their finest sculpting, cutting deeply into Ordovician rock to forge wild cwms separated by curving ridgelines and blade-thin rakes of crag, where water pools into glassy llyns and wildflowers bloom across vertiginous cliffs.
Eight different routes spider up through this exquisite mountain architecture, and they vary in character from a straightforward pull by the railway on the Llanberis Path to a heart-racing scramble across the tightrope of Crib Goch; from a friendly procession up the Pyg Track to the deserted miles of the Rhyd-Ddu Path. The only problem is choosing the best one to walk.
So Country Walking decided to walk them all. The whole team would go to Snowdonia and spend two days climbing up and down the mountain. We would compare notes and pictures, debate and celebrate the merits of the various routes. One thing was clear, though: every way up this mountain would involve hard graft. Snowdon may be Britain’s most summitted peak, but it’s one tough day out.
Read on to discover the ups and downs, tests and triumphs, of all eight paths – and find the route that is perfect for you. Whether it’s your first time up Snowdon or you’re looking for a new challenge, we guarantee you’ll find a summer adventure you’ll love on this king of the Welsh mountains.
THE GENTLE ONE: LLANBERIS PATH
WALKED BY: JENNY WALTERS
For a walker fresh to Snowdon, there is no friendlier way to hike to the summit of Wales than on the Llanberis Path. It has the gentlest gradients of all the ascents and is dotted with more teashops than you could rightly hope to meet on a mountain – Penceunant close to the start, Halfway House halfway up, and Hafod Eryri at the top. It’s also the most popular path – despite being the longest at almost five miles – and chances are you’ll enjoy the views with a merry band of other pilgrims.
The broad path forges a line up the northern side of the mountain beside the racks of the mountain railway, where the contours spread a bit wider and the going is easier than to east, south and west. In the early stages, your view ahead is filled by the grassy shoulder of Snowdon, as if the mountain is hunching away from you, trying to hide a surprise gift from prying eyes. The vista to either side and behind you is quickly glorious, though – dropping into the vast trench of the Llanberis Pass, sailing out across the village rooftops to the Isle of Anglesey, and flying up to the vibrant grass-green skyline of Moel Eilio and Moel Cynghorion.
And as the path steepens nearer the top, Snowdon starts to reveal sudden views and drama in a trail of breadcrumbs to tempt you ever upwards. The sideways-stacked cliffs of Clowgyn Du’r Arddu, fondly known as Cloggy and described by climber Leo Houlding as ‘the best crag in the world’, curl round a dark lake. The summit of Snowdon starts to triangle up and distinguish itself above the curving slope you’ve been climbing. And as you hit Blwch Glas you get your first view of that gift the mountain has been hiding – down into the great eastern cwm of Snowdon, etched by crag, floored by lakes and cradled by sharp ridgelines.
Here you’ll also meet walkers from four other paths – Snowdon Ranger, Pyg and Miners’ Tracks, and Crib Goch – for the last 400m to the summit. Some of them may have pale faces and white knuckles, but you’ll be grinning merrily for you won’t have had to negotiate a single tricksy bit of breezy rock to get to the top of Wales.
The Llanberis Path is the only route that tackles the north of the mountain so it’s simplest to return the same way, although a Sherpa bus means you can mix and match with other routes. And it is a dream of a descent. The well-graded track rolls underfoot without needing too much attention and you can walk into a panorama that pools wide across North Wales and into the Irish Sea. And if you leave it ’til teatime on a summer day, you’ll find the crowds are already celebrating with a drink in Llanberis, and you’ll have the late afternoon sunshine on Snowdon’s busiest path to yourself.
THE EXPRESS ROUTE: PYG TRACK
WALKED BY: MARK SUTCLIFFE
No-one is quite sure how this route got its ambiguous name. It could refer to the Bwlch y Moch – or Pass of the Pigs – where the path leaves the Crib Goch route, or it could refer to the famous Pen-y-Gwryd hotel at the foot of the mountain, where Hillary and Tenzing stayed when training for Everest.
Either way, the Pyg is a cracking way to conquer Snowdon. Of the walking routes, it’s the shortest and involves the least ascent (Crib Goch is shorter but nobody’s suggesting that’s a quick way up!) and involves just the right amount of gnarl: enough for adventure, but not enough to be scary.
To get the best out of the Pyg, you’ll need to arrive at Pen-y-Pass car park before 8am: to secure a gold-dust-rare parking spot, to get ahead of the crowds that flock to this popular path, and to give yourself time to enjoy the ride. This route may be short but it deserves to be savoured.
The first section is a strenuous introduction as you climb steadily up to the Pass of the Pigs, but it then levels out to contour round the southern side of the dramatic wall of Crib Goch which prickles ominously into the skies above. The views across the valley are vast, over Llyn Llydaw and the glacial tarn of Glaslyn to the cathedral-like dome of Y Lliwedd, its rugged face shot through with sparkling white veins of quartz.
This is where the Everest teams trained for their expeditions and the summit of Snowdon can seem almost as daunting to the weary walker. But a pause for a drink gazing at this view will revive the spirit.
You’ll spot the Miners’ Track climbing up from the lake shore and it joins the Pyg to clamber up across the rocky flank of Garnedd Ugain, and up a set of zig-zags. The path is good, but it can feel like a lot of bends before you hit the summit ridge. The views back east have been steadily expanding all morning, but you should prepare for a bit of a head-rush as you crest Bwlch Glas. Here the panorama suddenly floods west over the Llŷn Peninsula, Anglesey and the Irish Sea, and out to the Isle of Man, Ireland and Scotland if you're very lucky. It’s one of the seminal vistas in British hillwalking and one that will, quite literally, take your breath away.
The path then traces the railway to the summit, where you can scale the cairn and claim your place on the roof of Wales. The Pyg makes a fun descent too, although most folk head down the Miners’ Track as its lower slopes are easier on tired knees.
THE SPARKLY ONE: MINERS’ TRACK
WALKED BY: MARK SUTCLIFFE
The Miners’ Track is named after the sturdy men of the valleys who made their living by digging copper ore out of holes in the rocks halfway up Snowdon. What is a major expedition for most walkers was their daily commute.
It’s the longest of the eastern approaches and while the overall ascent is almost identical to the Pyg Track, the going is generally easier – albeit with a quad-twanging haul up from Glaslyn. The Miners’ is also the most varied route on this side of the mountain, skirting the shorelines of three pretty little llyns and passing abandoned mine workings, before scrambling up through steep, shattered slopes to the summit.
On a warm day, the breeze across the gleaming lakes offers cool relief from the work of the climb and a paddle – or a plunge – into the icy, copper sulphate-tinged waters of Glaslyn may prove very tempting.
From Pen-y-Pass, the route kicks off along a wide, gentle track, almost a mountain motorway, which threads its way through the foothills below Llyn Llydaw. Then it crosses the reservoir on a narrow causeway and hugs its northern shoreline, past the atmospheric ruins of the Britannia Copper Mines.
The 200m haul from the head of Llydaw up to Glaslyn is a bit tougher, but there’s the option to take a breather at this lucid little lake before steeling yourself for the steep haul up to meet the Pyg Track. Having made this steep climb, you join the zig-zag path heading to the ridgeline at Bwlch Glas. It’s a tough ascent, but the sight of the summit, almost close enough to touch now, will spur you on to dig deep and conquer the last few hundred feet beside the railway.
Perhaps the Miners’ biggest appeal is that it isn’t too committing for first-timers, youngsters, or reluctant mountaineers who are wary of the gnarly stuff. The gentle walk in is a great way to instill enough confidence to attack the final slog to the top – and if the summit bid looks shaky, you can always turn to descend the Pyg Track when you meet it above Glaslyn. If you do make it all the way to the top, you’ll find the Miners’ Track a friendly descent route, particularly the final sweetly-graded miles to Pen-y-Pass. And those cool, sparkling lake waters are the perfect panacea for bootsore feet.
THE TOUGH ONE: WATKIN PATH
WALKED BY: JENNY WALTERS
When Prime Minister William Gladstone climbed on a large boulder to declare the Watkin Path open in 1892, a crowd of 2,000 people gathered to see it. Today, you’re unlikely to spot more than a handful of walkers on its four miles – possibly because this route takes more sweat than any other path up Snowdon. It starts at Pont Bethania just 65 metres above sea-level – almost 300 metres lower than the eastern routes from Pen-y-Pass – and it’s the only trail that tots up over 1,000 metres of climbing.
It all starts gently and very prettily too, as you curl up through woodland and the waterfall-tickled valley of Cwm Llan, which doubled as the Khyber Pass in the 1968 film Carry on up the Khyber. You’re following a route that workers once trod to the South Snowdon Slate Quarry and it was Liberal MP, Sir Edward Watkin, who decided to extend the route to the top of Snowdon in what was the first officially designated footpath in Britain.
It’s at the quarry that your hard work really begins, as you step steeply up the flagged path to Bwlch Ciliau and one of the great reveal views at which this mountain excels. You hit the ridge in a dip between the great cliffs of Y Lliwedd and the Snowdon summit, and the deep blue of Llyn Llydaw appears far below, backed by the tooth-topped wall of Crib Goch.
There’s a brief breather as you follow the crest that separates the two glacial cwms of Dyli and Tregalan, before the sting in the Watkin’s tail, and the gruelling tack to the left to reach the marker stone atop Bwlch Main. The gradient is nose-to-slope steep and the going is rubbly underfoot, with an unnerving drop to your port side. Some walkers won’t like it, but it’s short, there are enough solid footholds, and it’s not too exposed, so even acrophobics should find it do-able. It’s pretty hair-raising in descent, though, and despite the graft we’d suggest the Watkin Path as an upward route.
And as you reach the stone that marks the meeting with the Rhyd-Ddu Path your toil is soon forgotten, as Snowdon conjures another of its surprise views, across the arcing cliffs of Llechog to Mynydd Mawr and out to sea. The ridge of Bwlch Main stacks down to your left and below that the South Ridge – an airy arête where very few walk, although it can be linked to the lower reaches of the Watkin Path and makes for a fun way down.
Turn right, though, and you’ll soon reach the summit and its café – where you may well spot 2,000 people. Go on and treat yourself to a cream tea – of all the people up here, you’ve earned it.
THE SHY ONE: SNOWDON RANGER
WALKED BY: RACHEL BROOMHEAD
If any path on the Snowdon massif can accurately be described as unassuming, it’s this one. It’s quiet, gentle and distinctly unimposing. It doesn’t discriminate between outward or inward journeys, with the descent saving creaking knees from too many steep inclines and the ascent allowing oodles of time to catch one’s breath.
After a brief climb from the hostel of the same name on the west side of the mountain, the Snowdon Ranger just, well, potters around for a bit. For well over a mile, it meanders pleasantly towards England and Wales’ highest mountain without the slightest sense of urgency. And that, in a place where blind summit-bagging is too often the goal, is thoroughly refreshing.
For on this path, the walking is all about the scenery. Immediately behind the Snowdon Ranger hostel, Mynydd Mawr rears up above the deep-sea blue of Llyn Cwellyn, its enormous mass shimmering in shades of spring green, while further south, the bobbing domes of the Nantlle Ridge and Moel Hebog form a graceful backdrop. Snowdon itself, from this angle, looks postively genteel. In contrast to the superhero cliffs and razor-sharp ridges of the east side, the mountain adopts a more refined demeanour here, presenting itself as a broad ridge which tumbles down to the hidden lake of Llyn Ffynnon-y-gwas.
After stumbling upon the lake, the path ramps up and starts its moderate climb to the top, though it still has one more surprise in reserve. Shortly before meeting the railway tracks, the northern ridgeline of Moel Eilio and Moel Cynghorion pops up over a rickety fenceline. The ridge shimmies away from the mountain in elegant curves, like the pattern left by a snake in sand. Suddenly Snowdon, which is now just a short climb away, is secondary. The Snowdon Ranger might take its time about it, but the views are worth the wait. Walk it for quiet, rest and unexpected beauty.
THE SECRET ONE: RHYD-DDU PATH
WALKED BY: RACHEL BROOMHEAD
The Rhyd-Ddu path is a bit of a conundrum. In the same breath, Snowdon connoisseurs call it both the quietest and the most beautiful of the mountain’s paths. How can that be? With its spectacular views, rugged ridges and safe paths, walkers should by rights be racing up here in their hundreds. Possibly it’s because it lies on the west side of the mountain, making it harder to link up with the likes of the Llanberis or Pyg Tracks. But still, the lovely Snowdon Ranger Path (see page 51) leaves from just a couple of kilometres further up the road and provides a ready-made circular walk. But best not to dwell on the Rhyd-Ddu puzzle too much and just walk it, before everyone else discovers it.
Ironically, it was actually the first of all the paths to be documented. Thomas Johnson used this route in 1639 on the first recorded ascent of the mountain, and although it can just as easily be walked on the way down, the Rhyd-Ddu Path still looks its finest during the ascent, the way Snowdon would have first appeared on that inaugural climb.
The path’s appeal lies in its poise. It holds itself with style, striking just the right angles and with just the right dimensions to charm the socks off everybody who climbs it, whether they be mountaineers or ramblers. Starting from the tiny village of Rhyd-Ddu north of Beddgelert, it meanders over old quarrying tracks before climbing sharply to the Llechog ridge, where the ground falls away spectacularly on the left hand side. Viewed from further up the path, Llechog looks just as impressive as it feels – an impenetrable wall of ribbed rock which wraps around the cwm underneath Snowdon’s west face and holds it in a stiff fatherly embrace.
But the real drama lies just around the corner. Meeting on an exposed col, the Rhyd-Ddu merges with the South Ridge to tackle Bwlch Main: Crib Goch’s little brother. Here, all of Snowdon’s beauty and grandeur is pushed together and pinched at the top, like the edge of a fine pastry. The result is a ridge with the same rocky prowess as Crib Goch but none of the precarious margins. It’s a thrilling ride, the path bouncing along its grassy and rock-strewn spine until it arrives, with a last gasp rocky flourish, at Snowdon summit. When you emerge and see your first fellow walkers of the day, do us a favour and ask them why they too didn’t come up the Rhyd-Ddu path.
THE SCARY ONE: CRIB GOCH
WALKED BY: NICK HALLISSEY
Crib Goch is not a walk. It’s a climb, a scramble, a serious mountain route: a mile-long, 3,000ft high gable, almost sheer on both sides and slanting severely upwards at the end. And it is the thrillseeker’s preferred route to the summit.
The path to Crib Goch (or ‘Red Ridge’) splits off from the Pyg Track at Bwlch y Moch. Careful path management has taken place of late, to stop unwary Pyg Trackers straying onto the ridge-path in error. The route sets out its stall instantly, with a direct ascent up 1,063ft of pyramidal buttress. Keen scramblers will love it, especially due to the beautifully solid, tactile and reliable rock that bewitched the 1953 Everest pioneers on their training climbs. Average mortals will simply want to scream; many decide at this point that it’s time to turn round and go back down.
But the true splendour/horror of Crib Goch is only revealed at the top. Here the vision seen on page 40 unfolds: a mile-long ridge, knife-edged at first, stretching all the way to the summit of Garnedd Ugain, far ahead.
You’ll teeter, grip and bum-shuffle your way along to a rocky pinnacle, after which comes a steep down-climb to the grassy mesa of Bwlch Coch. And then it’s upward over another half-mile of rocky bastions to Garnedd Ugain. Only here does it become a walk, descending to the marker at the top of the Pyg Track for the final push to Snowdon.
Crib Goch is even more perilous as a descent route; in many places, it’s very hard for two walkers to pass each other safely, hence it is mostly one-way traffic. Your descent options are to return along either the Pyg Track or the Miners’ Track. Or, if Crib Goch hasn’t slaked your thirst for adventure, continue to Y Lliwedd , seen in the background below, and complete the Snowdon Horseshoe.
But it is Crib Goch that will live on in your memory. It is Snowdon’s greatest terror – and its ultimate thrill.
THE UNUSUAL ONE: Y LLIWEDD
WALKED BY: NICK HALLISSEY
On a summer’s day, scores of people will cross the ridge of Y Lliwedd. But they will almost all be coming down from Snowdon, rather than going up. It isn’t commonly viewed as an ascent route, so the main users are people walking the full circuit of the Snowdon Horseshoe. Y Lliwedd is usually the last leg of the horseshoe, because its opposite wing, Crib Goch, is safer as an ascent route than a descent. So people go up Crib Goch, top out on Snowdon, then descend Y Lliwedd. It’s a one-way relationship, and that’s a bit of a shame, because in its own right, Y Lliwedd is stunning.
You access it by breaking off the Miners’ Track at Llyn Llydaw. The climb is long but free of peril, at least until a ‘bad step’ outcrop at the 700m contour. Having negotiated this (the best option is to skirt round it to the right), the ridgeline of Y Lliwedd is spectacular. Its sheer cliffs – over 1,000ft high – are some of the finest in Snowdonia. And happily, the other side of the ridge is broad and safe, meaning it lacks the razor’s-edge horror of Crib Goch.
But carry on over Y Lliwedd and you’ll come across another reason why it isn’t a common ascent route: a massive loss of height. In order to connect with the Watkin Path at Bwlch Ciliau, you have to drop a good 500ft down Y Lliwedd’s steep north-western flank. And with every step, the main pyramid of Snowdon becomes taller and more foreboding. No other ascent of Snowdon involves such a dispiriting loss of height – and the prospect of then having to toil up the scree-laden top section of the Watkin Path may be just as galling.
But get over it. This is an ascent for iconoclasts, walkers who don’t mind doing what everyone else isn’t – and it provides an eyes-forward study of Snowdon’s superstructure that is hard to match.
Couple it with a descent via the Pyg or Miners’ Tracks (not Crib Goch) and you have a fabulous mountain day, and you will do what most Snowdon walkers don’t: appreciate Y Lliwedd properly.
YOUR REWARD: THE SUMMIT!
Here it is: the view from the highest ground in Wales. You may have forgotten in the fun of climbing the mountain that your goal was to stand on the summit of a nation and survey the world, and there can be few vistas that range as far and wide as this one. It spreads across the lakes and peaks of Snowdonia, and rolls across the chequered green hills and glinting waves beyond to bounce off England, Ireland, and Scotland – ticking off a staggering 24 counties. In fact, the longest theoretical line of sight in Britain is from Snowdon to the Merrick in the Galloway Hills: theoretical because nobody yet has had the crystalline atmospheric conditions that would make it a reality. Maybe you’ll be the lucky one...
And on sparkling summer days you’re unlikely to be the only one up here, particularly if your arrival coincides with the train up from Llanberis. In fact, you’ll likely need to queue before triumphantly circling up the last few steps to the topograph that shows you what’s what in the great wheel of view.
The merry crowds put some people off Snowdon – they think it’s too busy and too commercial – but there’s something hard to resist in the carnival atmosphere as everyone grins out at the panorama, having the time of their life on the top of a nation.
And there are ways to find quieter moments. Most people start climbing after breakfast and arrive up top around lunchtime, so if you get up early or leave a little later on a long midsummer day you’ll find it a bit more tranquil. Experienced and well-equipped walkers may even try climbing it at night, when a full moon casts a spectral twilight across dark peaks and silver llyns, and the head-torches of other adventurers twinkle on the peaks of Mynydd Mawr and Moel Hebog across the valley.
By day and by night, the top of this magical mountain is a place of myth and mystery. It’s Welsh name, Yr Wyddfa, means ‘the tumulus’, for this is where the great giant Rhitta Gawr is said to be buried. He wore a cloak of mens’ beards – well, it can get chilly up here – and was killed by King Arthur. Arthur too is said to have died here, just beneath the summit at Bwlch y Saethau.
The café of Hafod Eryri sits atop that tumulus and it’s a good spot to raise a toast to your summit achievement. Opened in 2009, the granite building hunkers into the mountain and it’s a vast improvement on its predecessor, which was described by Prince Charles as ‘the highest slum in Europe’. It can also be a handy refuge should you arrive on the top of Wales when conditions aren’t quite as perfect as in this glorious panoramic photo.
This content originally appeared in Country Walking Magazine.