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Winter adventures: hiking peak to peak in Snowdonia National Park

The well-known home of Wales’ highest peak, Snowdonia National Park is the largest continuous area of high land in Wales or England where walkers can tackle over 80 peaks of 2,000ft or more.

Published 15 May 2022, 06:03 BST
A trail through Snowdonia National Park.

A trail through Snowdonia National Park.

Photograph by Getty

Just 135ft separate the height of Snowdon from that of Carnedd Dafydd — a summit a couple of green, green valleys away — but the difference is far greater than that. One peak has a cafe and gift shop, a tourist railway and seasonal queues that could rival the Tube in rush hour. The other has no crowds, a boulder-dotted plateau and views to melt the heart. “Take it all in,” laughs guide Mark Handford of Snowdonia Adventures, as our group of five, freshly arrived at the top of Carnedd Dafydd, stares breathlessly out towards Anglesey and the Irish Sea.

There’s no getting away from the fact that Snowdonia National Park has a dominant focal point. Snowdon (or, to use its proper name, Yr Wydffa) is hugely accessible and, in its own way, iconic. But to reduce a spread of 823sq miles to a single ascent is to overlook one of the UK’s most beautiful swathes of land. It’s home to more than 80 peaks of 2,000ft or more and it’s a region that’s accessible year-round. I’ve clambered through various corners of the park over the years, but never the Carneddau range, and never in winter. That’s where Mark comes in.

Read more: How to stay safe while hiking the UK's hills and mountains

“So, it’s pronounced Car-neth-eye,” he says, when we meet early in the morning on the banks of silvery Llyn Ogwen. The dawn air is clear and fresh; the range looms above us to the north, under blue skies. “It has the largest continuous area of high land in Wales or England. We’re going to be heading up, visiting three different summits, doing a bit of scrambling and sharing a few winter tips. We’ll be gone for six hours or so. You can leave the navigation to me. Just enjoy yourselves.”

And with that, we’re off, trekking up beside the mountain stream of Afon Lloer as the sun spreads down the lower flanks of the hills. The idea of these guided days -— which are offered in all seasons and in different parts of Snowdonia — is to provide a pressure-free experience where any hazards, awkward route choices or snap decisions about the weather are dealt with by the guide in charge. Mark has decades of local mountain experience under his hiking boots; he knows his stuff.

A hiker in the Ogwen Valley, home to the challenging peak of Tryfan.

Photograph by Nick Warner

Walking at a measured pace, chatting as we climb, we revel in the steady exertion of a bright January morning in the hills. After half an hour, and having passed not a single soul, Mark tells us to stop for a rest. We turn around to see thick banks of white cloud in the Vale of Llangollen below, hemmed in by green slopes. It’s a dramatic sight. “Temperature inversion,” he explains. “The warmer air up here has trapped the cooler air below.”

The relative mildness of the day, we’re told, is partly down to the traditionally fickle nature of the Snowdonia winter, which can arrive one day, bringing several feet of snow with it, then depart the next, only to return with a fresh load a week later. Mark brings up a photo from a few days earlier that looks more like Val d’Isère. We do pass snow-filled crevices as we ascend further, but their manageable size has allowed us to leave crampons and ice axes (which can be hired if needed) in the car park.

It means our loads are lighter for the important stuff. Mark leads us scrambling up a north-facing gully to reach the rounded peak of Pen yr Ole Wen, before taking us on a long ridge walk to the burial cairn on Carnedd Fach and, ultimately, the summit of the 3,425ft Carnedd Dafydd. We’re given tips throughout, on conserving energy, choosing footholds and staying safe.

The hours slip by easily when you’re hill-walking, particularly when you’re powered by packed sandwiches and Thermos coffee. From above the mountain lake of Ffynnon Lloer, we begin our way back downhill to complete a six-mile loop. Wild Carneddau ponies appear, chomping on tough vegetation. Beyond them, the peaks of central Snowdonia are outspread in spectacular style: the pyramidal bulk of Tryfan, the jagged tops of Glyder Fawr and Glyder Fach, the distant triangle of Snowdon. The landscapes here feel thrillingly all-enfolding when you’re in the thick of them — something you don’t need a summit cafe to appreciate.

 Llyn Padarn, Llanberis, Snowdonia National Park.

Photograph by Jeremy Flint Photography

How to do it

Snowdonia Adventures offers guided day hikes for £90 per person. Nearby YHA Snowdon Pen-y-Pass has private rooms from £29 a night. Outdoor Hire rents walking and climbing gear. snowdonia.gov.wales     

Published in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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