The Secret South of Snowdonia

This time last year, our trip to Assynt had just been postponed for five months due to the pandemic, and I was having a bit of a ‘holiday sulk’. To cheer myself up I rather spontaneously booked a trip to Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri, a.k.a. Snowdonia, without really looking too much into where I’d booked – just somewhere in the south of the National Park. At first I’d been looking at cottages near Blaenau Ffestiniog, as I’d heard it was a great base for walking, but the prices were pretty astronomical for even basic accommodation. Instead I took a punt on a cottage in Abergynolwyn, near Tywyn, and decided to just hope for the best in terms of scenery. Turns out it was a pretty good decision…

Cwm Ratgoed

On our first full day, Sam picked a walk around Cwm Ratgoed which wasn’t too far from the cottage, as we were both pretty knackered from the journey down. For those who, like me, don’t know what a cwm is, the Google definition is “a steep-sided hollow at the head of a valley or on a mountainside”.

This was a lovely gentle walk of just over eight miles, which was in our Cicerone low level walks book for the south of Snowdonia. I have to say this book was fab and was crammed full of stunning walks (not an ad and they aren’t paying me to write this unfortunately, I just really rate Cicerone guidebooks). There is a similar route online on the Outdoor Active website.

The walk starts from the small village of Corris where there is free parking at the railway museum (public toilets across the road from the car park). The paths are generally good, although uneven in places, with only a few short stretches where the path fades and becomes indistinct. There are a few steep-ish ascents but generally you’re at the top before you realise how out of breath you are!

There are a few interesting features along the way: you pass through a mix of fields and woodlands, with ruins and spoil heaps from a time when quarrying was a major local industry, scattered along the valley.

Dog friendly rating – 3/5. There are sheep through most of this walk so please keep your dog on a lead – even in the woodland sections the odd sheep kept popping it’s head out from behind a tree! We also had to cross one field of cows with calves (which did cause me to have a bit of a meltdown when I realised we had to walk between a building and a cow and calf lying down on the edge of the footpath), but luckily the farmer saw us and came down to keep an eye on the cows while we walked past – which we were extremely grateful for! There was one gate that was difficult to cross, as it has partially collapsed and can’t be opened. We just pushed down on the top a bit which created a gap big enough to fit the dogs under (it was harder to get ourselves across to the other side!). The big pluses for this walk are that there are sections along the river where dogs can have a drink, and that there are no stiles. This walk is also perfect for reactive dogs as apart from the farmer we didn’t see a single other person on this walk.

Cadair Idris

Before arriving in Wales, the one walk I’d set my heart on doing was Cadair Idris. Cadair Idris literally means ‘Idris’s Chair’ – Idris could be either a mythological giant or a 7th century prince of Meirionnydd who defeated the Irish in a battle on the mountain. Either way, it is one of the most popular mountains in Wales, although we didn’t actually see that many people! Perhaps this is because we set off early (the car park was 10 minutes from our cottage) and we were back at the car by 2pm.

We chose to follow the 6 mile circular route in the Cicerone mountain walking in Snowdonia guide which ascends via the Minffordd path and descends via the path from Mynydd Moel – information on the different paths up the mountain is available on Mud and Routes.

The Cicerone guide describes the steps at the start of the Minffordd path as ‘brutally steep’ – I didn’t actually think they were that bad, but there are a lot of them! I stopped counting at about 550. Once you get to the top of the steps, the path becomes gentler for a while, before steepening again until you reach the top of Penygadair. From here it’s not too bad but just watch out for the edges – I wouldn’t like to do this walk if it’s windy!

I’ve heard that the Minffordd path has the best views and I can easily believe it – the view down onto Llyn Cau definitely makes you stop and look twice. Once you reach the summit the view becomes panoramic, with views over the surrounding mountains and across to the coast.

Cadair Idris trig point, with the sea in the distance

The descent was pretty horrible if I’m being honest – there were definitely times (all of the time) that I wished we’d gone down the way we came up! It is very steep and pretty much all scree – we saw two other groups of walkers during the hour it took us (me) to scramble down the path. I would also definitely avoid this path if it’s wet when you do this walk. However, if you do this walk without a dog trying to drag you down faster than you can find somewhere to put your feet, you might enjoy this section more!

We parked at the Dôl Idris National Park car park which is currently card payment only – it cost us £6 to park all day (which really isn’t that bad when you consider walking is a free activity). There are plenty of spaces, the car park was only just nearing full when we left at 2pm on a sunny Saturday. There is a tea room near the car park if you’re wanting to refuel before or after your walk.

Dog friendly rating – 3/5. This is another walk where I would say dogs should be on a lead the whole time: a) there are sheep knocking about and b) there are lots of steep drops. The start of the Minffordd path offers a few opportunities for your dog to have a drink, but for the majority of this walk there is no water, so you will need to carry extra for your dog. We did this on a mild sunny day (11 degrees at sea level, 0 on the summit) and ours drank 2 litres of water between them – I was definitely glad I’d packed extra! There are 3 ladder stiles to navigate if you follow the same route we did, fortunately there were decent sized gaps under the fence near them all so we didn’t have to do any manoeuvring to get the dogs over. Coal did only just fit through these though and he is on the small side for a Labrador, so if you have a larger dog they might not fit through.

The Cwm Cywarch Horseshoe & Aran Fawddwy

We were lucky enough to get a second day of glorious sunshine and made the most of this by heading north to do the Cwm Cywarch horseshoe, including an ascent of Aran Fawddwy, which is the highest peak in Britain south of Yr Wyddfa/Snowdon. This route was an 8 mile circular from our Cicerone mountain walks book (similar route online on Walking Britain), or for those who don’t fancy as strenuous a walk there is a low level alternative in the Cicerone easy walks book. If Cicerone would like to sponsor me please get in touch!

This walk starts from the National Park car park by the farm at Blaencywarch. There is no ticket machine but there is an honesty box – please contribute as you are getting an otherwise free day out! The car park was extremely quiet but can fill up in summer from the looks of online reviews.

We took the author’s advice and did the horseshoe anti-clockwise to put the wettest section of the walk at the end – we therefore spent the first hour or so steadily climbing up a well surfaced path to gain height pretty quickly. This did deceive me into thinking that my days of steep ascent had been left behind at Cadair Idris, alas, it was not to be, with the path disappearing and the ground steepening once you pass the summit of Drysgol. The slog up to the head of Hengwm was the only point where I felt a bit miserable, but it’s worth it for the views waiting for you at the top.

You will pass a cairn commemorating an airforce man who died after being struck by lighting on the ridge while on duty before continuing on to climb up to the summit of Aran Fawddwy (905m),

The ground around the summit is littered with boulders so watch where you put your feet – you don’t want to fall and hurt yourself up here! Navigation from this point is largely following fence lines as the path becomes almost impossible to pick out in places – bear this in mind if the weather forecast says it’s going to be foggy when you plan to do this walk. Look out for aircraft on this walk – we saw a few planes practicing low level flying as we descended from the mountain.

After descending for a little while you will reach a vast expanse of bog. We were very, very glad we did this walk after a prolonged dry spell which had largely dried the ground out, although Coal did fall into one section of bog which immediately swallowed him up to his neck! There are boards down to help you cross the worst sections, but these are not all encompassing, and a few have rotted through completely.

An aircraft flying over the ridge.

Dog friendly rating – 3/5. This was another walk without lots of sheep, but with enough to mean we decided to keep the dogs on their leads for the whole walk. It was also another walk with no water stops for the dogs where they drank another two litres of water – it’s a good job I’ve got a big backpack! There are ladder stiles throughout this walk, we either managed to squeeze the dogs under the fence, or lifted them over the fence instead of the stile if the fence was considerably lower! This is another great walk for reactive dogs as we didn’t see a single other person or dog for the entirety of this walk. Your dog should be fit and healthy to take on this walk – it was pretty tough going for them in places.

Dolgoch Falls

I hadn’t realised quite how many waterfalls there were in Snowdonia until I read the visitor’s book in the cottage on our first night – everyone was raving about the waterfalls, and about Dolgoch Falls in particular. There was a circular walk of just over one mile in our Cicerone guidebook that we loosely followed, but really the trail is pretty easy for you to follow without a guide book – just keep going up and right until you reach the upper falls, and then keep going down and right until you get back to the lower falls.

We parked in the pay and display car park in Dolgoch (£2 for four hours, which is more than enough time to do the walk as well as stop for lunch). We stopped and had some hot drinks at the Dolgoch Cafe at the end of the walk, which also does a selection of freshly made sandwiches, cakes and hot meals like jacket potatoes – I would definitely recommend!

It isn’t just a case of following a path between two waterfalls – there’s so much more to see on this walk! It took us an hour and a half to walk a mile because there was so much we wanted to stop and have a look at.

The spray from the falls and the sheltered position of the gorge has created a mini rainforest – there are lots of different kinds of plants, including Sam’s favourite ferns, which are flourishing here. Higher up we had a lovely surprise when we rounded a corner into a clearing full of bluebells – my favourite! If you aren’t distracted by the plantlife, there are dozens of mini waterfalls alongside the path, which are just as pretty as the bigger falls, even if they aren’t quite as impressive.

The path on this walk is well surfaced and easy to follow. It is wide and completely flat until you reach the lower falls, where it then becomes narrower and begins to climb to reach the second falls. There are a few short sections where the climb steepens, but these are easily manageable. Just look out for tree roots growing across the path in some of the higher up sections!

If you don’t want to eat at the cafe there is a lovely picnic area which is just past the upper falls – although there were a few midges flying around so we didn’t stop for too long! We were really surprised at how quiet this walk was with only a few other people around – but then again we did go mid-week, and I imagine it gets busier at weekends and during school holidays.

Dog friendly rating – 4/5. There are no sheep, stiles or sections of road walking on this walk, and there is plenty of water for your dog to splash around in. Ours both absolutely loved it here – I’ve just knocked a point off as I think it will get busy enough here at times for it to be quite stressful managing a dog if they don’t like lots of people being around. It’s also a fairly short walk – we did a second walk in the afternoon before heading back to the cottage for the evening.

Abergywnant Woods

I won’t lie, this isn’t a walk that you would pick for amazing views and crashing waterfalls. It is however a walk that you pick when it’s raining on all the nice views and crashing waterfalls.

We decided to head over to Abergywnant woods when it was threatening rain nearly everywhere else and we wanted to be able to let the dogs have a quick run around off the lead before retreating indoors for the rest of the day. I found this walk in my Countryside Dog Walks guide for Snowdonia – it’s a very easy 4 mile circular walk. The route is also available online on the Snowdonia National Park website.

The walk starts from the National Park car park in Penmaenpool, which is just off the main road by the George III inn. Parking here is free and there is a public toilet at the edge of the car park.

The route starts and ends with a stretch along the Mawddach Trail, which runs for 15 kilometres along the Mawddach estuary. I really wanted to walk the full length of the Mawddach Trail but sadly we just didn’t have time – there’s too much to see and do! It’s definitely one that I’ll be keeping in mind if we ever return to the area.

The path along the estuary is completely flat and level so the trail is popular with cyclists. The path remains generally well surfaced as you enter the woods, but the deeper you go the more uneven the path becomes. There are a few climbs up and down to reach a viewpoint with a picnic bench, before you drop back down onto the Mawddach trail. The big bonus was that as the path is surfaced throughout there were no muddy or boggy sections as you sometimes come across in woodlands!

Dog friendly rating – 5/5. Although you need to keep an eye out for cyclists I wouldn’t say this walk is busy by any means, and once we got into the woods, we didn’t see any people at all. Dogs can be off lead for the majority of this walk (although please don’t let them run onto the estuary where there are birds). There are no stiles at all, which is our favourite kind of stile! All of the other dog walkers we saw were very courteous and put their dogs on a lead when they saw that we’d put ours on which is always a relief.

Pistyll Cain

The walk to Pistyll Cain was another short walk we did when the weather forecast was looking a bit threatening. We followed the 3km circular walk from our low level Cicerone book, which took less than an hour, but if you want a longer walk there are plenty of alternative routes you could incorporate a visit to the waterfall into.

The route was extremely easy to navigate. Starting at the Coed-y-Brenin Tyddyn Gwladys car park (free), you simply walk down the path until you reach the waterfall, cross the bridge, walk back down the other side of the river, and cross the stepping stones opposite the car park. When we visited the stepping stones were completely submerged (as they are apparently prone to being) so we used the bridge a hundred metres or so further down.

This was another very quiet walk, although we did see a few groups of mountain bikers, which made sense as there are plenty of mountain biking trails around the forest. The path was almost completely flat, and well surfaced and level throughout (apart from if we’d ended up crossing via the stepping stones!).

Although the views weren’t quite on the same level as some of the other walks we’d done, this was still a lovely way to spend an afternoon, and after two days hauling ourselves up mountains we were quite happy to take it easy!

Dog friendly rating – 5/5. This is another walk with no stiles, livestock or road walking. Coed-y-Brenin is also included in my Countryside Dog Walks book, which is always a good indication of a walk being great for the dogs! I did choose to keep Merry on his lead as he is so obsessed with water I could imagine him launching himself into the river, which I think can be quite fast flowing in places. You can call me a paranoid dog mum but I am quite happy to conform to that description!

Abergynolwyn

As I mentioned at the start of the blog, the cottage was unbelievably well situated in the south of the National Park. What I didn’t mention was that there were loads of footpaths and walks we could access from our front door without even needing to get in the car – and they were ‘proper’ walks too! There were three walks from Abergynolwyn in our guide books: we chose to do the 5 mile circular walk from our low level Cicerone guide, which took us up to the old slate quarry above the village, but if we’d had more time we could also have walked to Castell-y-Bere from the cottage. I’ve had a look online but can’t find an alternative so if you want to do this walk you may have to invest in the guidebook or puzzle the route out yourself using a map!

If you choose not to stay in the village, or are coming from your home, there is a car park in the village where parking is free (according to both Google and the guide book).

I really, really enjoyed this walk, and would recommend it even if you’re not staying in the village. It is interesting and varied, passing through woodland, visiting the old quarry and traversing a section of the hillside before dropping back down into the village through a Woodland Trust managed woodland.

The path is generally level and well surfaced (getting narrower and twister from the quarry onwards), view great views for minimal effort. There are a few climbs and descents but nothing that would fall into the ‘strenuous’ category. I couldn’t believe (again) that we didn’t see more people on this walk – just two local dog walkers.

The quarry was fascinating, and I was surprised by how close you could get to the remains of the site (steep drops were fenced off from the path). There were a few information panels dotted about too, which I wasn’t expecting at all with the walk being so quiet, as well as some wind up audio speakers, which you can listen to to hear more about the day to day lives of those who worked in the quarry. It’s not usually my thing but I found it really intriguing!

My favourite part of the walk was coming back through the woods at the end. Apparently the river here is home to otters (sadly we didn’t see any, even though I kept my eyes on the river the whole time, consequently tripping over my feet/tree roots/the dog a lot). There are dozens of pools with crystal clear water in between waterfalls – even I thought they looked tempting and I am not one to jump in a swimming pool if it’s less than thirty degrees!

Dog friendly rating – 4/5. There are a few sections where dogs can be off the lead on this walk, although they should be back on the lead when you cross the open hillside as there are sheep about, and I’d be worried about having them off a lead near the quarry incase they went off the path and over a drop. The trees provide shade for when it’s warmer, and the river is perfect for water loving dogs who like to paddle. There is only one stile on this walk, which has a gate next to it that you can use, and there is only a short section along the road as you leave the village/return to your starting point.

Harlech Castle

Harlech castle is one of the many famous Welsh castles built by Edward I (or rather for him, I can’t imagine he did much brick laying himself) in the 13th century. The whole castle was completed in just seven years – I’m pretty sure that’s faster than most new builds these days!

The castle has a spectacular setting perched on the coast, with views of the ocean, surrounding countryside and the peaks of Snowdonia. Despite this the castle remains easily accessible in the middle of Harlech – it is quite a weird feeling driving around a corner and coming face to face with an enormous castle!

Getting to the castle is easy enough if you don’t miss the turn for the car park (like we did). Instead of following the sat nav, just programme it to Harlech, and then aim for the castle as soon as you enter the town. Parking is in a pay and display car park by the castle entrance and is £1 an hour for up to 3 hours – which is more than enough time to have a look around (we spent 40 minutes exploring the castle).

If you want to spend longer in Harlech there is also a beautiful sandy beach and ample opportunities for a longer walk (there is a 5.5 mile circular walk in the Cicerone low level guide that I wish we’d had time to do).

These days the castle is managed by Cadw, the Welsh government’s historic environment service, and entry is free for Cadw members or other equivalent organisations such as English Heritage (the full list is on the Cadw website). For non members entry is paid but this is really quite cheap – adult full price tickets are £2.10 per person.

There is a cafe and well stocked gift shop on site, as well as toilets. Due to Covid-19 there is a one way system in place where if you pass one area, you need to do a loop around to re-enter the one way system at the start.

Dog friendly rating – 4/5. Dogs are welcome on the ground floor levels of the castle and there are bins around the site where you can dispose of any poos (always a big tick for us, as who likes carrying a poo bag around for half a day!). Our dogs were made really welcome by the staff and volunteers (even though Coal barked at them) which was lovely.

I’m not sure how busy the site is at weekends and during school holidays (we visited mid-week) but the castle was really quiet when we visited – there was just one other couple walking around. Admission is limited due to the pandemic so pre-booking is essential – if you don’t have an advance ticket, you won’t be able to enter the site.

Barmouth Panorama Walk

The plan after visiting Harlech castle in the morning was to head over to Barmouth and do the famous Panorama walk. There are a few different variations of this walk, all of different lengths, and we ended up doing the shortest one as I’d picked up the wrong coat and was absolutely freezing. The different routes are available on Google, originally we had planned to follow this route from the Snowdonia National Park website, but ended up just following points 1-3 as a linear walk.

Barmouth is everything a seaside town should be. Turquoise waters, grand buildings, a bustling atmosphere, not to mention plenty of fish and chip shops! It was a bit busy for us to stop with Coal but I imagine it would be a great place for a day out.

The walk starts from the small national park car park (free) 1 mile outside of Barmouth. The path is pretty narrow and uneven in places, but the climb up to the view point isn’t too bad, and the view is stunning for how little effort is required. There is a bench overlooking the panorama which is a great place to stop for a snack.

Despite the fact that this was the shortest walk we did (it took half an hour total to walk up to the viewpoint, sit on the bench for a bit and then back to the car), we probably saw more people than the rest of the week combined. This is understandable, as the view over the Mawddach estuary is pretty epic, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you like your walks remote and people-free.

Dog friendly rating – 2/5. This short walk certainly didn’t tire our dogs out! As the walk is in sheep country you will need to keep your dogs on a lead for the duration of this walk. This, coupled with how busy it was, is what has led to a score of 2/5 – purely because I think it’s less dog friendly than other walks which I have scored as a 3. On the plus side there aren’t any stiles on this walk so there is no need for awkward lifting!

Rhaeadr Ddu

The final walk we managed to squeeze in to our trip was a 2 mile circular walk to see the waterfall Rhaeadr Ddu, or Black Falls. This pretty little water fall isn’t quite as impressive as Dolgoch Falls or Pistyll Cain but it is still an eye catching feature for a walk.

The waterfall is situated in Coed Ganllwyd, a leafy oak woodland, and the walk is a very gentle round which takes you past the waterfall at the start of the walk before looping through the woods back to the car. While there are some ups and downs on this walk, it isn’t particularly steep, and should be easily manageable to anyone with a basic level of fitness.

Parking is free in the small National Trust car park in Ganllwyd, where there are also toilets. We used the sat nav and postcode on the website to get to the start of this walk, which took us down about 5 miles of very twisty one way roads, before depositing us in a lay-by in the middle of Coed-y-Brenin. The actual car park is just off the main road (A470) so you are better off just following this road from Dolgellau until you reach the village of Ganllwyd.

The route was really easy to follow using the directions on the National Trust website, with helpful way markers frequently added to trees and stumps to help keep you on the right track. We managed to not have an argument over which way was the right way on this walk which is a rarity!

Dog friendly rating – 4/5. This was another wonderful walk where we saw absolutely no other people (I realise I’m sounding increasingly like a hermit, but when you’ve got a reactive dog, it’s just one less thing to worry about). There were opportunities for the dogs to have a drink from little streams running alongside or under the path, and no stiles which needed to be clambered over with the dogs.

Once you cross the road away from the car park this walk is entirely off road through the woods. Please respect signs asking for dogs to be on a lead – there can be cattle in the woods for conservation grazing purposes (luckily we didn’t see any so no need for me to have a meltdown!).

Where we stayed

We stayed in Arthur’s Cottage, a dog friendly property in the small village of Abergynolwyn. The village is fantastically situated in a beautiful mountain valley – it always felt a bit surreal when the sat nav was telling us we were five minutes from our destination as we drove past Tal y Llyn!

The cottage itself is beautifully done up and the owners have done a lot of work to finish it to such a high standard. There is everything you need for basic cooking in the kitchen, as well as lots of information about the local area. The cottage sleeps four with one double bedroom (ensuite) and a twin bedroom downstairs. A log burner is always the cherry on top for us and it was lovely having it on for our final evening in the cottage when the temperature suddenly dropped! If you’re lucky enough to have some sunshine, there is also a BBQ in the back garden.

Dog friendly rating – 3/5. While we loved the cottage, it probably isn’t as dog friendly as other cottages we have stayed in. The rooms downstairs, particularly the kitchen, aren’t the largest and it was a bit cramped with two dogs (probably would have been less noticeable with one dog). The main problem we had was that the kitchen door was a push/pull open – which Merry worked out on the second night and proceeded to escape every half an hour until we wedged the ironing board under the door! The back garden was great for the dogs though and had outdoor seating where we could relax and enjoy the lovely weather we had. While the garden was ‘enclosed’, there is a gap where the fence joins the wall dividing the garden from next door’s, which Merry clocked pretty quickly. We just needed to keep an eye on him to make sure he didn’t escape when we let them out!

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog today – and if you’ve reached this point, well done, I think it’s the longest one I’ve ever written! If you don’t want to miss out on future blogs make sure you subscribe below:

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