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.
Betws Y Coed
Note: Betws Y Coed is a gorgeous Celtic hamlet nestled at the convergence of the rivers Conwy and Avon, 7 miles south-east of the great Mount Snowdon. The stone-cut architecture combined with the sounds of vibrant rolling waterways running parallel to the Central Green creates a vibrant energy that is an absolute relief to arrive at, if a hiking getaway is your goal. The entire region is a hiking paradise, where you can choose carefully which direction you would like to go during your stay. Within Betws Y Coed are elevated forest trails, riverside paths, waterfall drops, and countryside hikes, all from the center of town. Caves from the Neolithic period, carved out of the mountainside, appear along the trails, and have an amazing presence as you pass by. Ancient stone linings circa 4000 B.C.E appear by the river Avon, with regal Oak Tree’s spreading roots straight into the stream, and classic Celtic Fairy Foxgloves proudly peering through the ancient stones. The river Avon is lined with amazing free-standing boulders and cut-stones very similar to New England’s forests in Vermont and New Hampshire, across the Atlantic. Climbing along the run of the river is an adventure well worth exploring. When the sun comes out in Wales, it is hard to imagine wanting to be anywhere else in the world. Classic Celtic moss covers so much of the stone work, both on the river, and on land, indicating that it is ancient forestry. This creates a green glowing ‘halo’ over everything, like something out of the movie Excalibur. The forests reflect shafts of light through the trees, with an infinity of watery reflections and small spectrum flashes beaming in any photos you might take. Ten miles to the north is the stunning Conwy Valley, containing the timeless Mean Y Bradd Dolmen. Seven miles to the north-west is the legendary Pen Y Pass, with trails that run all the way up to Mount Snowdon’s peak. The community at Betws Y Coed is bustling with hikers, climbers, Kayak enthusiasts, and campers, all enthusiastic to experience and share adventures. More generally, Wales is the legendary retreat of the band Led Zeppelin, and the inspiration for some of the best acoustic-blend rock-and-roll of all time. Revered author J.R.R Tolkien also stayed in Wales during the writing of The Lord of The Rings in the 1940’s, and was clearly influenced by it’s riveting beauty. The Lord of The Rings, through that beauty, has sold over 100 million copies world wide. If Wales is a place you wish to explore, think about staying in Betws Y Coed; 100 million readers can’t be wrong.:)
Location: Gwynedd, Snowdonia/Wales
Note: About 10 miles south east of Mount Snowdon , tucked behind rocky passes and elevated clear-water lakes, is the wonderfully serene and scenic ‘Pen-Y-Pass’. With wide trails wrapping around massive mossy basins and jagged rocky caverns, this cinematic trail will carry you all the way to the peak of Snowdon if you so choose, following a north westerly course. Along the way waterfalls cut the mountainsides and streams trickle in the distance. This is a classic Celtic scene, with a minimal amount of forestry, but a wonderful collage of every shade of green imaginable. Reeds drift in the wind, blended with moss and grass on huge knolls and hills that roll, and roll again, in every distant direction. In the heights above cut-boulders and grand shafts of granite slice dramatic angles into the peaks. In the valley below, for those who have the eyes to see, are ancient Celtic alters dug into the landscape; Circular stone Cairns with centerpieces that are so old they seem to be almost consumed by the earth, sitting eternally in wait to be rediscovered. Circular stone alters with centering fixtures of very similar style exist in the forest of Foxboro Massachusetts, although there, they are covered by an ocean of foliage, and equally hard to decipher (An example of the circular alter is shown below, white granite and quartz stones covered by the classic red/orange leaves of New England trails/Please click on photos to look closer). Another wonderful feature of Pen-Y-Pass are the old stone dwellings, most likely of the medieval period, that have been long since abandoned by herdsman and farmers for lack of resources in the valley. The hills of this landscape are huge, with entire sections quarried out and abandoned. Some portions of the quarrying look to have been carried out perhaps no more than five hundred years ago, with less growth upon it, while other massive stones are completely grown over with moss, as if it were done perhaps thousands of years ago. Perhaps Pen-Y-Pass’s most shining quality is the feeling there. The air, when the weather is agreeable, is comfortably cool and clear. Everything you see: mountain, lake, hill, valley, look to be cut from the sky by a diamond. There is an echo in the soft and subtle movements of rams, water, and distant trailblazers. The car-park for this trail is just off the A4086 highway. If you ever come through this valley, do yourself a fantastic favor and plan at least one day to walk the timeless Celtic trail at Pen-Y-Pass, it just shouldn’t be missed.
The Conwy Valley
Elevation: 1,500 feet
Note: Hiking experiences in the ancient Celtic high country of Wales are, simply put, breathtaking. Snowdonia National Park deservedly hosts a substantial amount of visitors in the north-west portion of Wales, centered around the majestic Mount Snowdon, which is the highest peak in the British Isles south of the Scottish Highlands at 3,560 feet. The history of Wales is interwoven with the preservation of Celtic peoples to its core, known as the last bastion of land that Celtic chieftains would not concede to the invading hoards of Gauls, Visigoths, and Vikings after the Roman withdrawal, circa 410 C.E. The Arthur Legend was born here. This is the very land that King Arthur and his knights defended to preserve the Celtic peoples. This landscape is the original backdrop for the Knights of The Round Table, for Sir Percival’s search for the Holy Grail, King Arthur’s battling of giants at the foot of Mount Snowdon, and Sir Gawain’s search for the mystical Green Knight, among hundreds of other wonderful tales. The countryside has a time honored mythical history that seems to have always inspired adventurers that reach boldly into the next valley for wonderful and magical zones. With that in mind, just 45 minutes north of the popularized Snowdonia tourist scene, sits a more conspicuous, but no less beautiful, opportunity for a truly rustic Celtic hiking experience in the serene Conwy Valley. At the top of this valley, above the small medieval town of Rowen, sits one of the most beautiful Dolmen’s in the world, the Maen Y Bardd Dolmen, and the hike to see it is epic. The Legend associated with this particular Dolmen is that of an ancient giant that would toss spears from one end of the Valley to the next, asserting his claim over the landscape, warding off any trespassers. In order to get to the Dolmen a hiker must follow a Roman road that runs beside the spot where it sits today, indicating that this megalith has existed from time immemorial. The Roman incursion of Wales took place around 40 C.E, and they were not known for the tender preservation of the opposing culture, yet they obviously let this Dolmen stand as they passed by. I can only think that they themselves saw that the Dolmen was sacred. The Roman’s were certainly aware of megaliths throughout the known world, and they were perhaps the most aware having conquered so much of it. There are Megaliths in Israel, Greece, Spain, France, England, Scotland, and Wales, and the Romans would have considered them. It’s makes sense that they would have known that the Dolmen had stood for perhaps as long as 3000 to 4000 years prior, and they simply did not dare to destroy something so rare, especially if it had no strategic purpose. In terms of ‘era’s’, this is a hike that will take you from the Modern, to Medieval, from Medieval to the Roman, and from the Roman to the Celtic, all in one day. To begin get an early start, and park in Rowen. Head towards the Gwersyll Cefn Cae Campsite road, and pass by it on your right. Continue to follow this road out of town and follow the first farmers-road slightly left towards Parciau Farm. Pass by the last farms on the edge of town to where the road narrows into a country lane, slowly elevating through classic moss blanketed Celtic forest. Push for roughly 1 mile through the trees to get above the tree line, where the path changes dramatically. Your trail will become lined with stoic stone-walls and Hawthorn hedges. Knolls and free-standing boulders emerge in every direction. Flocks of sheep scatter and glance from a distance. Fairy Foxglove flowers emerge all around with their striking and small lavender towers. The valley begins to emerge in a beautiful way. Continue for about a mile on this path and you will finally come to an elevated intersection with a panoramic view of the valley. Take the path to the right here, further upward, which is lined with another solid stone wall on your right. You will see, straight ahead and slightly above you, about 1.5 miles away, another road lining the valley above. This is the old Roman road. When you reach this ancient rocky causeway take a right, then follow it for about 1/4 of a mile. On the left of the causeway you will first see a beautiful 8 foot high, 3.5 feet wide granite Standing Stone, roughly 40 yards away. After stopping to appreciate this magnificent stone, continue in the same direction further along the Roman road, and look left again. The Dolmen sits about 50 yards away and can be seen from the road facing the valley below. It is a sight to behold. This is a classic “Portal Tomb” of the same era as the legendary Poulnabrone Dolmen in The Burren Ireland , across the Celtic Sea. Although it may look somewhat small against the broad valley, a closer look reveals a capstone weighing at least 5 tons. This capstone is directly aligned to a beautiful peak roughly ten miles away across the valley. This is a trait that most Dolmens display: the facing of the most beautiful vantage in the area. This would indicate that whoever built this Dolmen, even in deep antiquity, had a wonderful sense of Beauty, not to mention the engineering skill to build a megalith at a significant, and somewhat secluded, elevation. After finding the Dolmen hikers have several options on the return. You could continue along the Roman road for about 3 miles and veer to the right, back to Rowan, or go back the way you entered. If you return the way you came, just off the trail, there will emerge other standing stones, much more discreet, but no less significant, mixed into the hedges and knolls. This second Standing Stone stood along the long farmers road connected to the Roman road, 30 yards off to the left. Standing about 7 feet high and three feet wide; It looked to weight at least 5 tons. It has a significant curved incision on its right side, and the remaining piece from that incision was set as a fixture behind it, just to the left. This style can be found at a Standing Stone far across the Atlantic ocean at Lynn Woods in Massachusetts, where cut pieces from the main Standing Stone remain as fixtures in the immediate vicinity (Shown here in the red/orange leaves on the left). Another incredible option for your descent are the stone labyrinth pathways that wind down the valley like something out of a dream. If you choose to explore these options make sure you hike responsibly and mark a fixed point in the landscape in order not to get lost, or even better, bring a compass. The valley is massive; Hiking this high above Rowen there is a good chance that you will be the only individual(s) for possibly five or six miles in every direction. This particular pathway came out near the farmers road that ran down to the forest, just before the farms of Rowen, but be mindful that others exist, and in the valley there are unknown exit points. With all this considered, enjoy the exhilaration of what is obviously a sacred landscape that we know, due to the megaliths it contains, has been appreciated for an incedible span of time that literally reaches back beyond recorded history. This place truly reminded me of a valley in the game Skyrim I love so much. Seeking it out was an achievement born of the inspiration taken from that game, sitting in my room in the dead of winter four months earlier, dreaming of Celtic valleys in Summer. I have to pay it tribute here. If you can dream of these places, you can find them. Seek and find.