Snowdon National Park lays the drama on thick – jagged slate peaks, rolling hills, dense forests and faerie-tale waterfalls. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into Westeros – and while there are no GoT direwolves in the Welsh highlands, one dog certainly earned his place in local mythology.
Gelert lived in the area in the 13th Century and he died so heroically there’s a memorial to him in the village of Beddgelert. A plaque reveals how his owner, Prince Llewelyn of North Wales, found Gelert covered in blood and thought the dog had attacked his baby son. The prince immediately slaughtered Gelert … only to then find his unharmed heir near the body of a massive wolf. Turns out, Gelert had killed the wolf to protect the baby, and the blood belonged to the fallen predator. Part of the inscription reads, “The prince, filled with remorse, is said never to have smiled again. He buried Gelert here.” Sad face.
If you do end up in the village of Beddgelert, you’ll find a few cute little ‘ye olde’ lunch spots along the Afon Glaslyn river. But what you really should be doing here is working up an appetite on Snowdon National Park’s many trails – and there’s something for every level of fitness here, from short little riverside trails to epic scrambling routes.
At just 1085m, Snowdon is no Ama Dablam, but even experienced climbers can find the scrambles challenging – in fact, Sir Edmund Hillary did his pre-Everest training here. If you’re keen to hoof it there are quite a few scrambling trails as well as six established tracks to the summit; my friends and I started off on a scrambling route, but the precarious heights soon psyched me out and we turned back at Y Cribyn. From there, we joined the established Miner’s Track, a 12.2km round trip to Snowdon’s summit. The path is rocky and steep in sections, but you can reach the peak in a couple of hours if you’re in reasonable shape (actually, I was surprised to see a number of hikers smoking on the trail, gasping like goldfish but hanging in there).
At the top there’s a point called Bwlch Glas where the Miner’s Track meets two of the other trails … as well as a railway line that goes straight to the top. Yep, it turns out anyone can reach the peak. The train leaves from the village of Llanberis and takes a slow-but-stunning one-hour journey to Snowdon’s apex, Yr Wyddfa – it’s a great option if you want the summit selfie without the sweat. Still, there’s nothing quite like that smug feeling you get when you’ve conquered Wales’ highest mountain on your own two feet, so do try the hike if you’re able.
Afterwards, grab a beer at the famous Pen-Y-Gwryd Hotel, where iconic mountaineers like Hillary, Sherpa Tensing and Sir Chris Bonnington have signed the ceiling and donated artefacts from their expeditions. And do try the bara brith – it’s a local spin on fruitcake that makes that post-Snowdon victory beer taste so much sweeter.
Sheep aside, there are not a lot of animals to see in Snowdon National Park, so if you need a Faunographic fix head to the Welsh Mountain Zoo at Colwyn Bay – an easy drive from Snowdonia. Though it’s not the world’s biggest zoo it has some great exhibits, including a mating pair of snow leopards and their cubs, lar gibbons, otters, sea lions, brown bears, chimps and plenty of reptiles and birds. The gardens there are also quite lush, so pack a picnic lunch (although the onsite café overlooks the Sumatran tiger’s enclosure, so it’s also worth grabbing a bite there).
* Snowdonia National Park is about a 6-hour drive from London or a 4-hour one from Cardiff. It’s also easily accessible by train. My mates and I rented a house in the super-cute town of Betws-y-Coed. It’s close to all the action with plenty of B&Bs and short-term rental houses available.