Snowdonia National Park
Location: Llanberis/Mount Snowdon/Wales
Note: Before diving into the recreational richness of the trails in the heart of Wales, some things should be understood about the beauty of the culture in this realm. The Welsh people practice a renowned tradition of storytelling and singing that dates back to its mythical beginnings, to the very roots of the Celtic tradition. The regional landscape is pure inspiration. The earliest stories of this ancient region survive in what is known as the ‘Mabinogion’, a collection of epics and poems that is essentially a glimpse into the Celtic universe that existed in Pagan-era folk tales. The most popular stories include the quests of ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, considered to be the oldest of the ‘Arthurian’ related stories. Additional tales of King Arthur battling giants at the peak of Mount Snowdon, as well as hundreds of interwoven variations on the myths exist in the annuls of Welsh storytelling. In the pubs and halls of the country-folk here, these stories, and many others, are often sung, rather than simply spoken. These hallowed stories come right out of antiquity, and carry the Celtic-to-Christian Legend of King Arthur into Medieval times. The Welsh people, after defending the Celtic tradition in their heartland for generations, would eventually find themselves at odds with their closest relatives, the English. What a surprise. The Medieval Welsh peoples adamantly resisted the English incursion, which appeared most forcefully under King Edward the 1st, during the 13th Century. What are known as the Edwardian Era Garrison Castles were constructed to occupy Wales with an authoritative military presence. These castles are imposing works of scale and engineering for their time, and remain standing to this day, dotting the Welsh boarder. And yet Wales survived the incursion and remained its own proud nation. Modern Wales became a rustic industrial place, with a hard working mining community which delved for valuable resources of coal and various stones, very much like West Virginians of coal mining country in North America. These are wonderful and hard working people that have remained connected to their landscape and traditions, which brings us to the brilliance of the Welsh countryside and trails.
If the Celtic world were to declare a ‘Holy Land’, Snowdonia National Park would certainly be it. The crown jewel of this region, which is better known simply as Snowdonia, is the majestic Mount Snowdon, the highest peak south of the Scottish Highlands at 3,560 feet. Alternate peaks such as Ben Nevis, Crib Goch, and Tryfan, make up what is known as the Snowdon Range. The village of Betws Y Coed, which is about 12 miles to the east of Mount Snowdon, is a popular jumping-off point for hikers at the convergence of two rocky river ways, with several scenic trails to choose from. On the south-eastern edge of the Ben Nevis and Snowdon lowlands, about 10 miles from Mount Snowdon’s peak, is the scenic long-trail known as Pen Y Pass (image below), which begins from a designated car park off the A4086 road, and has a fantastic roadside view of rivers cutting the valley and massive cliffs before arriving at the trail head. The Pen Y Pass trail itself winds beautifully through several high passes and waterfalls running all the way up to Snowdon’s Peak. (Betws Y Coed and Pen Y Pass are both posted on Stonestrider.com if you want to take a closer look). About 4 miles north of Snowden’s peak is the most popular and direct trail for making the climb, which begins out of the gorgeous Medieval town of Llanberis.
Llanberis: Nestled in the surreal heights of Llanberis, between Caernarfon Pass and Snowdonia, is Dolbadarn Castle, a 13th century circular fortification overlooking the valley, and Lyn Peris lake. The history associated with this particular castle is more ‘Game of Thrones’, than ‘Game of Thrones’. History records the acts of a regional prince who locked his older brother in this tower for over thirty years in order to keep him from inheriting his rightful title and power over the region. The younger brother was successful in his suppression of his older brother’s rightful claim over the land, and he never escaped the Castle grounds. I guess if you’re going to be imprisoned somewhere for 30 years, this would be the best spot. It’s breathtaking, especially in the July sunlight. Incredible. The preserved woods to the immediate west of the Doldabarn have fantastic trails running into some absolutely beautiful glades. In glens like these it is clear the that trees are not at odds with each other in any way. At the edge of these woods are old-growth trees with classically haunting curvatures and limbs. It was impossible for me not to stand and look back at Dolbadarn Castle from the edge of this small forest, imagining knights and archers coming and going, guarding the imprisoned prince at the orders of his diabolical brother so long ago. I would like to make a personal note at this point. At times, when I find myself in a place like this, with several eras converging in one surreal landscape, a real feeling of wonder can take over. At these times I enjoy stomping on the roots of the old-growth trees with my boots as a type of celebration, sort of like pinching myself to make sure I’m actually there. At the highest point in these woods is a standing stone, and several free sitting boulders that are reminiscent of several megaliths in Lynn Woods Reserve in Massachusetts. What could be a better starting point for the approach to the peak of Snowdon? From llanberis you can take a main trail that follows the route of a small passenger train that carries people who do not wish to walk the four miles to the peak. Along this simple trail are waterfalls and grand views of westerly peaks of the Llanberis mountainsides. Alternate trails emerge into forests glades to the east, with the direct southerly route to the peak inclining continually before you. Around the 2 mile mark up this trail the views become epic. After 3 miles, the rocky element of the higher elevation trail emerges, and the wind becomes a constant. Be prepared on this hike with under-armor to keep you warm, boots with a steel tip if possible, and a windbreaker, the weather in Wales can change quickly. There are several vistas and places to rest along the way. The wide-open feel of the valley below is inspiring. Celtic landscapes often have less trees than other parts of the world, and the effect is breathtaking. You simply feel that you can see everything. On the particular day of my excursion I was not fortunate enough to get a clear view from the peak. Just like Mount Sinai was said to be enveloped with a smoky firmament, Mount Snowdon at its peak was no less dramatic, being covered completely in a massive halo of cloud and mist. The trail heights are filled with striking cambrian rock ledges of black and green, against a grey universe of cloud cover. The actual peak of Snowdon feels like the crosswind-capitol of the entire Celtic world, knocking you off balance and pushing you down if you;re not careful. I highly recommend a strategic crawl on the top ledge if you wish to finally touch the emblem reading 3560 feet at the peak. Make your way down the uppermost ledge in the same way, or a strong gust could easily send you off the mountain, entirely. These are the types of moments that hikers live for, getting to places where the elements make you realize just how precious your life really is.
The trails at Mount Snowdon evoke our dreamiest visions of knights on quests, giants strolling the landscape, and King Arthur climbing climbing to the peak, perhaps to see the entirety of the Kingdom he so endeared. At the peak there is a small historic center with records of the myths about the mountain and various events that took place here. There is a whimsical image encased in the “myth” section of the center which I photographed, of a giant that is said to have once dominated this landscape, until King Arthur himself challenged him, and brought him down. This is very much like David and Goliath in the Bible, and most likely during the same era. I can’t help but feel that there is something more to these stories than just myth, as I continue to explore and find engineered megaliths in the deep forests of the world. Of course, for this moment, Mount Snowdon itself is the event here. The Celtic landscape is a vision of green, continually rolling into the ocean, and dominating every hill and mountain. Ireland is to the West, England to the South, and Scotland beyond, to the north. This is the literal heart of the Celtic world, in every possibly way. If you find your way there, the sacred part will find you. Best of luck as you go.