The British Isles have some great national parks—but for the best scenery with easiest access, I’d choose Snowdonia National Park in Wales.
The highest, most rugged peaks in the British Isles (outside Scotland) have the “scenery bit” covered. Before Edmund Hillary was a “Sir,” he and Tenzing Norgay trained on Mount Snowdon for their Everest expedition—which worked out pretty well 60 years ago last month. The climbers' 200-year old mountainside hotel, the Pen-Y-Gwrd, is still cool, and a popular pilgrimage lodge for mountaineers.
The UK is small by the standards of many big nations, so even visitors focusing on London could easily see Snowdonia on a three- or four-day ramble. And if you’re visiting northern England, especially Manchester, reaching Snowdonia is a snap. This is the UK, so main line mass transit via railroad is a viable option. And Wales is full of small scenic steam train lines, so even Thomas the Tank Engine can play a role.
From Sea To Shining Sky
I won’t waste much time defending this choice of Snowdonia as UK’s “best scenery with easiest access.” Admittedly, Scotland’s more northerly mountains are higher and likely more rugged. And Britain’s Peak District, Lake District and more southerly national parks are premier destinations when you're nearby.
But Snowdonia, like Wales itself, is a sleeper travel destination. The country combines monumental mountains and spectacular coast—and Snowdonia has both in its 2,132 square kilometers (823 square miles). Far below Snowdon, and all along the park border, amazing estuaries usher the mountain rivers out to sea, many designated as areas of special scientific interest or natural beauty. The Welsh name for the National Park is Eryri—The Highland.
These amazingly rugged peaks rise from the sea to dizzying crags—which makes Snowdon’s otherwise modest 1085 meters (3,560 feet) look pretty darn impressive. Hillary thought so—and to prove it, try any of the handful of trails that wind to the summit.
Or don’t. Take a ride to the peak in the newly upgraded passenger cars of the rack and pinion train, the Snowdon Mountain Railway. There’s fascinating interpretation on the way—including what’s claimed as history’s “first recorded rock climb,” which took place here in 1798.
In 2009, the summit structure on Snowdon was replaced with an artfully integrated, eco-friendly new visitor centre at the peak—Hafod Eryri. The views are great from this bomb-proof souvenir/snack shop, but climb the stone steps on the short, steep trail to the pinnacle just above, and Hillary will come to mind. The slate summit building, not at all easy to build in this climate, blends into Wales’ rugged capstone. (We’ll focus on Snowdon and Snowdonia's gateway attractions in upcoming articles.)
A National Destination
The wild, romantic scenery of Wales' first national park (designated in 1951) is the fitting realm of the rebellious Welsh people. Their rebellion against King Edward I led to the building of the “Ring of Steel” assortment of spectacular castles that circle this amazing national park and draw park visitors to gateway towns like Conwy and Caernarfon.
The park’s website says, “Snowdon used to be called Yr Wyddfa Fawr in Welsh (the Great Tomb or the Great Throne) or Carnedd y Cawr (the Cairn of the Giant). ... This is the ancient Kingdom of Gwynedd, the heart of Wales and the stronghold of ‘Cymraeg,’ the Welsh Language.” The English castles subdued Wales for awhile, but today’s equally independent Welsh have thoroughly restored their ancient language. The length and complexity of Welsh place names will amaze you but aren’t too hard to grasp as they flash by on street signs.
Slate And Change
Slate mines are still visible in the park, but the only slightly softened destruction of these massive mining operations is receiving a role as “post-apocalypse” tourism. The new attractions actually take you underground where everything "on offer" includes zip lines and boating through the mines—often just lighted by headlamp (or “cap lamp”). There’s also insight into Wales’ industrial past and even legend. One of these underground attractions in the town of Corris is themed as King Arthur’s Labyrinth and offers—quite literally—a visit to the “Dark Ages.” These are newly popular attractions.
There’s a wealth of great little scenic steam railroads to ride, also with historic links to the slate industry.
Rail lines were in use here since before steam, when slate-laden trains would descend by gravity to the quays (pronounced keys) or wharves for shipment out on ships, then pulled back up by horse. Both the railroads and mines open to tours all testify to the once pre-eminent status of slate. The National Slate Museum is in Llanberis close to the Snowdon Mountain Railway. It’s a fascinating look at the role of this rocky commodity in the development, and destruction, of the Welsh countryside.
The museum also has a steam engine, but make time to take the working steam train of the Llanberis Lake Railway from Llanberis to Penllyn and back for spectacular views of Snowdon. Add that to the summit ride on the Snowdon Mountain Railway and you have a full day of scenic Snowdonia rail adventure.
Today, revitalized recreation is the key. Mountain bikers in the United States lamenting the lack of mountain biking in their national parks will be welcome here. Wales has become the British Isles mountain biking hotspot of choice. Spectacular trail systems have been installed all around Snowdonia—including, of course, on the denuded surfaces of slate mines!
The Coed y Brenin park is a superb example of how the post-slate economy has been reinvigorated with mountain bike tourism.
The designer of this park and other cutting edge Welsh mountain biking trails, Dafyyd Davis, won Order of the British Empire accolades for turning little used public-lands into mountain biking destinations. He inspired listeners in the United States a few years ago as keynote speaker at the Professional Trail Builders Association conference, held in the North Carolina mountains.
Lest you think there’s only biking “near” the national park—bikers can also be seen riding up and down national park trails on Mount Snowdon itself.
Start At The Visitor “Centres”
The park’s five visitor centers are the place to start. They’re evolving from “exhibition-oriented” village interpretive facilities to more high-tech information providers.
There’s a main visitor center at the very popular tourist town of Betys y Coed (pronounced “Betis a Coid”)—irreverently mocked by some as “Betsy Co-ed” to reflect the mispronunciation often heard from struggling tourists.
Don’t Miss Ogwen
Another choice destination is the Ogwen Valley, a spectacular cleft in Snowdonia that sees 250,000 visitors a year. Despite that—don’t miss this lay-by. Next month, in July 2013, a new visitor center is opening. When I passed through in early 2013 it was nearing completion and promised a much improved visitor experience, with an understandable emphasis on the unique—and dramatic—geography of this high pass.
I met Ms. Mair Huws, the park’s Head of Warden and Access Service, or chief ranger, and she was excited about the massive improvement. The original visitor center was designed to be a garage with minimal public facilities in 1970, so visitors will love the new center. Get out of the car at Ogwen, especially if you’re an international visitor with jet lag, limited time, and a desire to quickly see the sights. Impressive trail upgrades are part of the project and the artful rockwork quickly lifts hikers up and into big picture alpine scenery where mountain tarns ripple in gusting winds, peaks tower overhead, and lakes far below lead to the distant and very visible coast. Is that Ireland way out there? Yes.
Wales went from British Isles backwater to romantic travel destination when the early-1800s Napoleonic Wars kept England’s budding tourist class and famous artists out of Europe. They all looked close-to-home and fell in love with Wales’ castles and abbeys and awesome mountain scenes.
It’s all still there, especially if you focus on Snowdonia National Park.