After many years away I returned to my native North Wales and found that it’s just as wild and wonderful as I remembered.
Lowly glowing and all silky smooth, the late summer sun dazzled and danced moodily through the rising morning mist, just above the remote and forested Welsh ridgeline. This was a mere 400 meters away from a place that I had called home for a huge chunk of my life. Only an hour earlier and it had been hammering down with the kind of rain that famously makes Wales so lushly green and vibrant. The last summer colors were in full flow, the purples, greens, and browns heading in towards autumn.
I’d been away for far too long, and things hadn’t changed that much. Just a couple, or maybe three passing visits in the last dozen years, that’s all the time I’d spent here. This is a place that I genuinely refer to as one of the most spectacular places in the world, and a place that comes with the epic adventures to match its looks. Yet now it seemed even wilder, brighter, and even more vivid than ever before. I guess absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder.
True, I may be a little starry-eyed when it comes to waxing lyrical over North Wales; although it’s spot on to do so. I’ve met many travelers from all around the world who have visited the region, and almost all of them back up my sentiments to the hilt. Often they too had not believed how magical the place was before seeing it for themselves.
Wales is a small country that makes up part of the United Kingdom, and it’s a fiercely proud and independent place with its own distinct language and culture. To the south you have the famous green valleys and coastal urbanization. In the middle, its remote rolling farmland, moors, and forests. The north is an imposing region of jagged mountains and lakes, all trimmed with a wild and alluring coastline. The undoubted jewel in the crown of Wales is the Snowdonia National Park, which takes up a hefty slice of the north. This is truly one of the most visually impactful places in the British Isles.
Maps and statistics may mislead you when considering a visit to the region. It’s not exactly huge, and its peaks are not anywhere near as high those of the Alps. If you could imagine miniaturizing and condensing the Alps and then cramming them into a small space by cutting out the gaps and flat spots in between, adding in a sprinkling of historical and cultural treats, and lining it with a braid of dreamy coastline, then you pretty well have North Wales in a tiny nutshell.
The highest peak in Wales (and England) is Mount Snowdon. It may only be 1,085 meters tall, but it has all of the characteristics and climate zones of Alpine peaks three times its height. The hiking and rock climbing here is truly world class, with the famous but demanding Snowdon Horseshoe trek being rated as one of the finest ridge walks in Europe -and it’s attainable in a long day out for fit and competent hikers.
These very same mountains were also used as the training and preparation ground for the first conquest of Mount Everest, when the successful 1953 summit team of Sir Edmund Hillary and John Hunt based themselves here before their famous first ascent, which shows the respect held for Snowdonia amongst the climbing elite.
About 30 years ago a new sport also took hold in the mountains of North Wales: mountain biking. Bikers from all over the world now travel here to ride the trails, which are considered to be amongst the best there are. The region has also become home to many of the world’s best downhill mountain bikers in recent years, all drawn here by the challenging natural terrain.
The world’s first dedicated bike park was also born in Wales, and now they can be found all over the region. Throw in a whole exciting bunch of other activities such as kayaking, rafting, canyoning, kite boarding, and surfing, and you have a smorgasbord of adventure options. Plus, they are all found within a confined area, so you can see why Snowdonia is a paradise for thrill-seeking outdoor enthusiasts.
Being so accessible from the Midlands and North of England means that Snowdonia is a prime go-to weekend destination for thousands of people on any given weekend. Fortunately few visitors ever venture too far from the coffee shops and car parks dotted around the region, meaning that you can soon escape the crowds. Even so, this does mean that weekends here are often busy, and I would strongly advise making midweek visits if you can -the experience will be so much more rewarding.
The fame of Snowdonia is also something of a blessing for the rest of North Wales, as most visitors head straight to the national park and thus bypass the rest of the north.
There is so much more to North Wales than Snowdonia, and for me personally the “best of the rest” title clearly falls to the Berwyn Mountain region, which is slotted in between the English border and Snowdonia, in the northeastern corner of Wales. This area has long since been one of the least populated areas in all of Wales and England, which means that there are very few tourists and that traffic levels are low. Here you will find cascading waterfalls such as Pistyll Rhaeadr (Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant) and fairy tale-like lakes such as Lake Vyrnwy. Outside of sunny weekends, it’s possible to drive, cycle, or hike here for hours on end and hardly see more than a handful of other people. Remote, rugged, natural, and uncharted is how you’ll find this rough-cut diamond of a place.
You may miss out on the bold and brazen drama of Snowdonia at times, but in return you will have endless rolling mountain roads and trails to meander along, occasionally interrupted by traditional mountain villages and hill farms. This region is not so neatly wrapped and packaged for tourists –this is real Wales, wild Wales at its finest.
My absence had been a dozen years, and in all of that time I’ve still not managed to find anywhere to top the North of Wales when it comes to natural beauty and adventure. It’s strange, they say that the grass is always greener on the other side, yet in Wales the grass is always greener –in every possible way.
Whatever time of year you visit you will find something great here. But late summer, which is the most popular visiting time, is when Wales is at its most clement, making the hiking, biking, and all activities at their most accessible. It will also be the perfect time to visit the coastline with its numerous castles, and the best chance to sit outside and dine on a traditional Welsh roast lamb dinner or to picnic on bara brith (a famous fruit bread), tea, and Welsh cakes beside the lakes.