Aber Falls and the Northern Carneddau
I’ll admit to feeling a little nervous about heading across the border. Even a casual glance at the headlines in 2020 would have you convinced the entire population of the British Isles could be found jostling for position on the summit of Snowdon / Yr Wyddfa. I certainly don’t want to add to the pressures and become part of the problem. But equally, I’ve learnt that the press is rather fond of sweeping generalisations and so decided to take the tried-and-tested sensible approach instead.
There’s an excitement in planning trips to areas you don’t know. Guidebooks are studied with more rigour. Maps are pored over, allowing your mind to make connections between neighbouring ranges. Mountains with names I have no idea how to pronounce stir my sense of intrigue and I devour information like a student swotting for an exam. With no expectations nor first-hand knowledge of where best to start, I work diligently, scribbling in my notebook with child-like enthusiasm. This is a key part of exploring the mountains.
Ever the cautious chap, I choose what promised to be a quieter part of the Snowdonia National Park. “If in doubt, head north” is a mindset that seldom lets me down. With seven of the 15 Welsh 3,000s located in the Carneddau, there’s plenty to keep you busy. And with big views of the Irish Sea, huge waterfalls and wild moorland to enjoy, it sounds like the perfect place for me to start my love affair with Snowdonia.
It’s a cold morning but the sun is shining brightly in the sky. I step out of the car and take my first breath of Snowdonia air. The noise of the nearby A55 is in complete contrast to the stillness of Abergwyngregyn. I smile as I recognise the familiar: mountains and streams and trees. Me and Snowdonia are going to get along just fine.
This walk starts gently, giving me chance to inhale some flapjack and a banana and shake off the dregs of slumber. The waymarked trail to Aber Falls feels more like an American National Park, luring the unwary into a false sense that this is going to be a walk in the park. It’s not quite the rugged wilderness you’d expect from the highest mountains in England and Wales.
Don’t be fooled. Once past the falls, you’ll be back in familiar surroundings, so enjoy the gentle excursion while it lasts. The falls are undeniably impressive but fight the temptation to linger; there is still a big mountain day ahead of you.
Leaving the star attraction behind, I soon meet the understudy. The smaller falls are just as impressive, yet most will have already returned to the car to warm up by this point. Here is the first of many rewards for daring to go just that little bit further.
More serious terrain
Crossing the stile marks the end of the relative security of the reserve and the start of more serious terrain. Almost immediately, any trace of a path disappears and I am left to negotiate my way through the complex terrain. There are streams to hop over, bogs to sidestep and steep sections to overcome. I stick close to the ravine housing Afon Gam on my left, while trying to gain height in the most economical way. It’s harder work than the map would suggest. But perhaps that’s just because I have relaxed too much on my approach to the Falls. The real work has begun and I’m back in familiar territory.
As the climb eases, I find myself on a large plateau. Moel Wnion (which auto-correct is determined to change to ‘Onion’) to the north and a number of navigationally-useful rocky knolls in the form of Gyrn and Gyrn Wigau further away. The huge mass of Drosgl dominates to the south east and I can just about see my objective at the peak of its grassy slopes.
A herd of Carneddau ponies grazes nearby. Larger animals on the fells can help to keep gorse and bracken under control and they are a joy to watch. They are carefully managed as semi-feral ponies and, like the Herdwick in Cumbria, are famed for their hardiness in the mountains.
Instead of the direct approach, I opt for a more gentle ascent by skirting around the western slopes of Drosgl on a vague track before heading across country to reach the summit. An inquisitive wheatear takes an interest, hopping along the ground nearby before its bravery wanes and it flies off a few more metres ahead. This game of cat and mouse provides some light entertainment as I watch its cheeky antics and manage to snap a photo when it holds still for more than just a few seconds.
It’s blustery up here, and the day feels a lot chillier than it is. Tiptoeing my way over the rocky summit, apparently the site of a Bronze Age burial ground, I enjoy a sweeping panorama to the north across the Menai Strait to Anglessey and the invitingly blue waters of the Irish Sea. If you’d have dropped me off here blindfolded and asked me to say where in the world we were, the correct answer would be way down the list of guesses. The south of France or Tenerife maybe, but not North Wales.
As I cross the saddle towards Bera Bach, I can’t help but gawp at the views to the south east. Giants of the Northern Carneddau – Foel Grach, Carnedd Llywelyn, Carnedd Dafydd and Yr Elen stand majestically and in complete contrast to the rolling slopes beneath my feet. Craning my neck to the right, I see the Glyderau, culminating in the scarred Penrhyn Quarry near Bethesda. Snowdonia might be smaller than the Lake District but it packs in an all-star cast.
I pick out some routes for future visits. I like the look of the eastern ridge of Yr Elen. And a descent above the cliffs on Carnedd Dafydd. What started as a list of meaningless names begins to make some sense as I slot pieces of the jigsaw into place. Snowdonia is starting to get under my skin.
My objective now is the recently promoted Carnedd Gwenllian. Formerly known as Carnedd Uchaf, it is now a proud member of the Welsh 3,000s club, after its height was confirmed as making the grade after a resurvey. Many traditionalists will scoff at its inclusion, as it means a few hundred metres’ diversion at the tail end of the 24 hour challenge, as well as interfering with the record books. But you can’t ignore the tape measure and here I am atop my first Welsh 3,000.
There’s a clumsy pile of rocks at the summit, which make for an enjoyable scramble to the high point. And while the views are enjoyable at best, I can’t help but think the juicier stuff is cloaked by the huge mass of Foel Grach and Carnedd Llwelyn. This frustration fuels my enthusiasm for a return trip and it takes all my willpower to turn my back on this tantalising view and head north-east instead.
The high point
The ‘Abergwyngregyn Horseshoe’ now reveals itself as I turn the corner and head towards Foel-fras, the highest point of my journey today and the final summit in a traditional crossing of the Welsh 3,000s. My legs feel sore, after foolishly allowing a blister to develop on last week’s camping trip in the Lake District. Despite regular stops to patch it up, I am contortioning my foot with every step to relieve the pressure and this is causing problems for my ankle. With no major difficulties flagged for the remainder of the day, I grit my teeth and soldier on. Lesson learnt – feel a hotspot, patch it up!
Foel-fras has a reassuring trig point and I sit for a while, gazing out to the Irish Sea. To say I am higher than the summit of Skiddaw, the fourth highest Wainwright, it doesn’t feel like a big mountain up here. The ground slopes to the subsidiary summit of Llwytmor and I can see there is steep ground to be found above Llyn Anafon but otherwise, being out on its own, this Welsh giant feels rather gentle.
I continue along the high ridge, dropping to a broad saddle, all the while enjoying the coastal vista and the rolling terrain towards the Vale of Conwy. It’s a lovely lofty position and reminds me of striding out across the likes of the Fairfield and Kentmere Horseshoes.
Quiet and secluded valley
The summit of Drum lies on the opposite side of the wall, so be sure not to miss it. From here, the logical route continues to follow the shape of the horseshoe which curves north-west, eventually taking you back to the minor road leading to the falls. But to make things more exciting, I opt for a direct and steep descent west to the shores of Llyn Anafon.
I am, once more, without a path to guide me and I lose height quickly. The quiet and secluded valley offers a pleasant but lengthy return to civilisation. The cascading waters of the Afon Anafon accompanying me on my journey along the obvious access track to the reservoir. I spot ring ouzel, the mountain blackbird, erupting from their nests in the heather as I pass by. Carneddau ponies and sheep graze across the quiet slopes.
As the track turns into tarmac, bluebells, lesser celandine and common mouse-ear line the verges. And then, the ultimate reward as I near the car, delicate wood sorrel in a patch of woodland. I’m still learning when it comes to wildflower identification so correct me if I’m wrong with any of these!
Looking back at the map, I reflect on what has been a big hill day. 20km+ and over 1,000m of ascent before lunch is not to be sniffed at. But today was about more than clocking up the miles. This was my introduction to Snowdonia and some of what it has to offer. I’ve seen glorious coastlines and majestic mountain ranges. There is wildlife here and solitude. And a new set of mountains ready to make friends with.
The Lake District will always hold a special place in my heart. But as I cross back over the border and look longingly in the rear view mirror, I know I’ll be itching to return to Snowdonia very, very soon.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Free car park left of A55 turn off for Abergwyngregyn. Alternatively, drive sensitively through the village along narrow roads to the (paid) car park for Aber Falls.
Distance: 20.7 km
Navigation: You’ll need to be confident navigating away from paths across featureless moorland and high ground.
Terrain: Lots of rough, pathless sections, rocky summits and steep grassy descents. Some boggy sections. A route you’ll need to commit to with no easy escapes.
Facilities: There are toilets near the free car park just outside Abergwyngregyn. There is also a cafe (Caffi Hen Felin) in the village. I didn’t visit but it has good reviews on Trip Advisor!
*These routes and descriptions are only ever intended to be a personal record of my adventures, which may inspire your own. Hillwalking involves a degree of risk, so please make sure you are properly equipped and prepared if you choose to follow them.