Trail magazine’s 'Walks of a Lifetime' series takes you on a guided tour of the greatest mountain routes in Britain. This time we’re in Snowdonia to take on the spectacular Nantlle Ridge, with experienced mountain connoisseur Tom Bailey as our guide...
The Nantlle Ridge is about 9km long in total. It runs in a south-west direction from the village of Rhyd-Ddu, west-south-west of Snowdon. There’s a bend in the B4418 at map point 1 (SH566526). If you’re lucky and there aren’t many other people out, then this is a great place to park and start the route from. Equally, there’s a car park in Rhyd-Ddu where you can pay and display if you so wish. A footpath from the village gets you to the same starting point.
Y Garn, our first and I have to say the mightiest peak of the day (not in height, but just sheer mountain presence), sits before you as one looks west from the start of the route. It is one of those climbs that, I’ll be really honest here, is an absolute pig. You can see all that you need to do, aka climb. The honesty of the view has a silver lining in that there are no hidden nasties – what you see is what you get. Before the climb starts, you’ll pass a split in the path at map point 2 (SH564524). You’ll be heading to the right, but this is a good time to check out the return path, in the valley to the south-south-west.
You can’t put it off any longer, that climb up Y Garn now smacks you in the face good and proper. During the many pauses to catch your breath or rest those ‘straight out of the box’ legs, turning towards and salivating over Snowdon is a good distraction. Marvel at how the subtitles of the view change as height is gained and other peaks are either gained or lost. I know I’ve been prattling on about it, but I kind of like the climb up to Y Garn, maybe it’s because of the pure pleasure that the effort unlocks.
Just before the summit, large amounts of rock blocks litter the ground as a stone wall is crossed and the final bit of ascent is taken on. The true summit is near the very edge of Y Garn, there’s a stone cairn at map point 3 (SH551526). The view from the edge of the top is worth it, if you’ve a stomach for stomach-churning drops. North from here is the peak of Mynydd Mawr and the crags of Craig y Bera and the smaller top of Foel Rudd. I’ve often seen choughs in this area (that coastal, cliff-loving member of the crow family). Take it all in, this is a great little set of hills. Near to Y Garn’s top is what looks like a giant, pre-historic cairn. It probably is one, but it’s also a stone shelter, and a great place for a second, well-earned breakfast.
Now, lovely reader, we’re going to take the gloves off, sink a chaser and put our best pants on, because it’s about to happen. Yes, we’ve got to the best part of the day already. OK, so there might be a few more best bits, but the ridge between Y Garn and the top of Mynydd Drws-y-coed is what you’ll remember the clearest from this day. It starts easy enough as you mooch over to the narrowing ridge, then it just gets a bit tasty, full of attitude, but never too much, just enough to keep you alert. At one point there’s a gap in the ridge, allowing a good photo opportunity, should you be in company (one person stands on either side of the gap – it’s a good shot both ways).
Next on the ridge, if you want it you can seek out a little in the way of scrambling. If you don’t, you can pretty much thread yourself around and through some of the fun stuff. You’ll soon see a stone pillar. Here’s another landmark, go stand at the base of it, you’ll feel like you’re part of the mountain. The ridge soon peters out onto the wonderfully tight summit of Mynydd Drws-y-coed at map point 4 (SH549518). For some reason, sat up on here, looking to the south-west, is my favourite part of the day. I guess it’s because you’ve just done something fun and there’s an ‘interesting’ descent ahead of you, not to mention the greater part of the day’s walking. Own the view, it’s yours for now.
It’s an epic sweep of ridgeline that leads from the summit of Mynydd Drws-y-coed in a south-south-west direction. It’s narrow and fun. To your right (north-west) is the first of a trio of Cwms, dramatically flanked on two sides by the rock walls of the mountains we are on. The peak of Trum y Ddysgl bucks and rears up in front of you, but it must be tamed, so don’t ‘miss’ this summit. There’s a shortcut, stay with the edge path to the top at map point 5 (SH544516). The view back to the two peaks you’ve just come from is amazing. You see the full height of the crags on the western side of Mynydd Drws-y-coed, tapering away to Y Garn.
Next there’s another cracking bit of the ridge. Once you’ve descended Trum y Ddysgl, the col between this and Mynydd Tal-y-mignedd constricts and contorts in a mouth-watering (that is to the adventurous walker) way. It’s not scrambly, more a giant turf snake. It soon broadens once the climb to the next peak is started, fanning out, a wall dropping like a rope from the summit. Follow this westwards to the top (map point 6, SH535513). Alas, here there is desecration in the form of an ugly, square cut obelisk that looks more like a chimney, commemorating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
The three ridges that lead off this mountain couldn’t be more evenly spaced. Have a look at a map. To the north-east you can see into Cwmyffynnon, to the south-east is Cwm Dyfor, and to the south-west the third of the cwms, much larger and more open.
The ridge snakes down to the south-south-west then curves more westwards, before turning back to the original bearing and the ‘rocky if you want it’ climb up to the high point of the day and your last summit; Craig Cwm Silyn at 734m. But make the most of that climb if you can. Staying near the edge will reward you with hard edged views down and over into Craig Penmant and the small cwm below. Once at the top (map point 7, SH525502) a cairn marks the spot. Today’s route takes in the most dramatic parts of Nantlle Ridge and you’re about to leave it. But please return another day and explore this south-western section. If you thought the bit of the ridge that you’ve done today was quiet, wait until you explore the rest…
Now for a bit of an off-path yomp, my favourite. Head from the summit of Craig Cwm Silyn on a south-east bearing. You’ll see a spur forming below you, this will be your meal ticket into Cwm Pennant below. The lower you get on this broad spur the more pronounced the cwms on either side of you become, particularly Cwm Braich-y-ddinas to your south. After a couple of walls have been crossed, hook up with a path near the foot of the hill. This’ll wiggle you down to the road at the valley floor (map point 8, SH535486).
Strangely, if you trace your route back to the start point from here, it all lays on a north-east bearing, apart, obviously from a few twists and turns along the way. After being up high for so long, it feels slightly claustrophobic to be down so low, surrounded by such highs. The best way out of a depression is to climb yourself out. Following the road, take the bridleway at the end of it (map point 9, SH540492) that heads up to some old slate quarries in Cwm Trwsgl. I remember one year seeing the slopes between the quarry and the road from which you’ve just come from absolutely blanketed with bluebells. A sure sign there were once trees on this hillside, the bracken now performs the same summer shading of the bluebells that the trees once would have done. I like old quarries and there’s plenty to see and explore in this one.
The path heads up through a wall at map point 10 (SH552504) and eventually into the huge Beddgelert Forest, a plantation around 700 hectares in size. There’s a peculiar sight at one of the switchbacks, deep in the forest. There’s an old chasm, left from past quarrying presumably. If you’re inquisitive, look over the edge and stare down. Behold; an old fridge and cooker! So far from habitation these items take on a different meaning. Whenever I pass this way, I always make a point to check them out – the sight makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time.
The walk’s nearly over now, but the last stretch of open path is a joy. To the north-east is Llyn y Gader and behind that big mountains. To the north-west, Y Garn looms down on you and your tired legs. Welcome back to the beginning.
Great mountains are best seen from a distance. One of the best places to see the Snowdon massif from is the Y Garn end of the Nantlle Ridge. But as the Nantlle Ridge is one of the finest mountain days you can have in this part of the world you’ll soon forget all about that attention-hungry diva across the valley. I guarantee you’ll be looking out for the familiar outline of this ridge the next time you’re on Snowdon. Promise me you’ll come back and explore the rest of the Nantlle Ridge. Isn’t the future a wonderful thing?
WHERE DO I START?
A bend in the B4418 at grid ref SH566526 has parking for several cars. If there’s no space then use the main pay and display car park in Rhyd-Ddu, by the station.
WHAT’S THE TERRAIN LIKE?
Steep paths, narrow ridges, easy scrambling, rough, rocky edges, along with pathless mountainside, good forest tracks and a boggy section or two make this a walk to remember.
HOW HARD IS THE WALK?
You’ll need a head for narrow ridges, steep slopes and off-path walking for this mountain classic.
WHAT MAP SHOULD I USE?
■ OS Explorer OL17 (1:25k) ■ OS Landranger 115 (1:50k) ■ Harvey Superwalker XT25 Snowdonia North (1:25k)
WHERE CAN I STAY?
■ YHA Snowdon Ranger ■ Cwellyn Arms in Rhyd-Ddu ■ Snowdon Base Camp