UKH

Mini Guide: The Carneddau

The Carneddau are Wales' answer to the Cairngorms - a high, harsh and beautiful plateau of peaks just built for ranging across. Whether you come here to scramble or climb, to wander or to camp, you'll likely experience nature at its rawest. Dan Aspel has the lowdown on this expanse of Welsh high ground...


Carnedd translates as heap or cairn. View the Carneddau from afar and you'll think the name very apt. Often cloud capped and at first glance far less jagged and exciting than the Glyderau rising from the opposite side of the Ogwen Valley, these seem broad and sedate mountains. However, glimpse them from atop a neighbouring peak or from upon their heights themselves and your opinion will swiftly change. This is a range of unique muscularity, whose high and weather-beaten ridges mask spiraling arms decorated with dark and vertiginous crags.

An Alpine Like Carnedd Llewellyn, 210 kb
An Alpine Like Carnedd Llewellyn
© Marky Mark, Feb 2010

The northernmost of the Welsh mountains, the Carneddau have a greater acreage of hugh ground than any other, and occupy a sprawling area that's larger than snowdon and the Glyderau combined.

In a range that stretches all the way from the sea at Conwy Bay south to Ogwen, there are plenty of thrilling features to explore, including: a full traverse of the main north-south ridge; the airy and epic Grade 1 scramble of the Llech Ddu spur (itself close to the airy and epic winter climbing crag the Black Ladders); the welcoming shelter of the Dulyn bothy; the towering Aber Falls; the grand and superbly situated summits of Carnedds Dafydd, Llewellyn and Gwenllian (themselves named for the last independent king of Wales, the 13th century Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, his brother and daughter); and many more. Come here seeking space, peace, windswept grandeur, the possibility of horizon-wide views and the certainty of ridge-walking to make the heart sing. You're unlikely to leave disappointed.

Carneddau ponies ., 204 kb
Carneddau ponies .
© johnhenderson, Feb 2018

Whalebacked and desolate, the Carneddau are a welcome antidote to the teeming hordes of Ogwen and Snowdon… with mountain architecture on a skyscraper scale. In the howl of a winter storm (they) must be the most committing summits in Wales

Dan Bailey, The Ridges of England, Wales and Ireland

There are days in the mountains, and then there are these days., 142 kb
There are days in the mountains, and then there are these days.
© Andy Merrick, Mar 2015

Extremes of wind and temperature on the Carneddau mean that few plants survive. Yet species like stiff sedge and dwarf willow are virtually confined to high ground, the latter being locally common in montane heath communities such as are found on and around Carnedd Dafydd. Among these high mountains the summit heath is at the southern extreme of its distribution in the UK and is a protected habitat.

Terry Marsh, Great Mountain Days in Snowdonia

The Carneddau in a nutshell

1 Climb Carnedds Dafydd and Llewelyn - Wales' highest peaks outside of the Snowdon range

2 Scramble the excellent Llech Ddu spur, far away from the weekend crowds

3 Experience brisk winds and fine views atop the Carneddau's broad, high mountain plateau

4 Stay in the Dulyn bothy, one of the few mountain shelters south of Scotland

5 Visit the Aber Falls - one of the finest cascades in the country

6 Winter climb on the Black Ladders in the remote Cwm Pen-Llafar or enjoy some classic mountain rock on Craig yr Ysfa

7 Visit Yr Elen, Llewellyn's uncharacteristically pointy satellite peak

8 Get up early or stay out late for that classic view south from Pen yr Ole Wen

9. Meet the famous 'wild' ponies

Ysgolion Duon/The Black Ladders, Carneddau, 216 kb
Ysgolion Duon/The Black Ladders, Carneddau
© Glyno, Feb 2016

Geography lacks the subtlety to describe the Carneddau ridges: their abrupt rise, and gradual fall, in sinuous fingers towards the sea. Ridges on a grand scale; ten mile undulating strips of grass and fine stones, ideally suited to the walker going fast and far. And none of the Glyders' intricate hollows here; instead these cwms are hours long and thick with nature. But these hills are glorious only for as long as the sun shines. At other times they can be the most mind-numbing, leg-throbbing, body-chilling, toe-stubbing mountains of soil and stone this side of the Scottish border.

Steve Ashton, Ridges of Snowdonia

photo
Aber Falls, Conwy
© Joss, Jan 2014

When walking on these heights one feels like a mouse exploring a coal cellar, but without the wee beastie's agility"

E G Rowland, Hillwalking in Snowdonia

The grandeur of Cwm Glas and Cwm Llafar below Carnedd Dafydd on what seems like the only day of summer!, 239 kb
The grandeur of Cwm Glas and Cwm Llafar below Carnedd Dafydd on what seems like the only day of summer!
© David Dear, Sep 2012

Winter transforms the Carneddau into a bleak and hostile wasteland. North winds blow unceasingly over the ridge crests during bad weather, so that a seemingly innocent walk becomes a struggle against time and tiredness. Fresh snow piles deep in intervening hollows, trebling approach times to the gaunt cliffs of Black Ladders and Craig yr Ysfa, now seamed with ice falls and snow gullies. A waiting game begins. Then, after the storm, when the winds have blown the ridges clear of powder, the Carneddau will offer uncomplicated winter traverses across miles of glistening uplands… nowhere is the ridge walker's exalted position more clearly sated."

Steve Ashton, Ridges of Snowdonia

Don't forget...

In all this talk about the high summits, wild cwms and massive cliffs it's easy to overlook the more subtle charms on offer elsewhere. But the Carneddau's lower reaches boast some fantastic walking too.

Llyn Crafnant & Creigiau Gleision, 172 kb
Llyn Crafnant & Creigiau Gleision
© Pierino Algieri

Look to the rural Conwy Valley, for instance, or the network of trails threading the Gwydyr Forest in the undulating foothills above Betws-y-Coed. The little seaside hills above Conwy and the Sychnant Pass are lovely, while the secluded Crafnant valley is a largely overlooked gem (and all the better for it).


Must-do routes

Southern Carneddau circuit

This is probably the best way to experience the particular character and charms of the Carneddau for the first time.

Craig yr Ysfa and Carnedd Llewellyn, from Pen yr Helgi Du, 92 kb
Craig yr Ysfa and Carnedd Llewellyn, from Pen yr Helgi Du
© Simon Caldwell, Nov 2010

Starting in the Ogwen valley, you'll eschew the more obvious enticements of the spiky Glyderau to the south, and instead climb up the rocky eastern side of Pen yr Ole Wen. From here it's a feast of broad and remote high level walking to bag the range's two highest summits, Carnedd Dafydd and Llewelyn. Descend Llewelyn's scrambly southeast ridge, around the lip of the monumental crags of Craig yr Ysfa, and then if you've time and energy conclude by nipping up the connecting ridge to Pen yr Helgi Du to conclude a classic circuit.

See the UKH route card here

Llech Ddu / Crib Lem spur

A magnificently placed Grade 1 scramble, the Llech Ddu (trans: "black slate") spur lies at the far end of Cwm Pen-Llafar. This makes an hour-long, 4km approach from the town of Bethesda the most practical way to reach it. It's worth the trek, however. Although never overly technical it winds up and above a headwall of unrivalled grandeur, offers a tremendous sense of airiness, and eventually deposits the scrambler onto the summit of Carnedd Dafydd. Those with winter rock experience shouldn't find it more than a single axe adventure under snow and ice.

For a longer day out, continue over Llewelyn and out along the narrow ridge to Yr Elen to compete the classic circuit around the head of Cwm Llafar.

See the UKH Route Card here

On the "Christmas tree" slab of Crib Lem in slippy conditions., 115 kb
On the "Christmas tree" slab of Crib Lem in slippy conditions.
© dmorgan27, Nov 2017

Northern circuit from Aber Falls

Snowdonia's 'Big Country'.  Cwm Caseg and the Northern Carneddau. Bera Bach to Carnedd Dafydd from near Drosgl., 235 kb
Snowdonia's 'Big Country'. Cwm Caseg and the Northern Carneddau. Bera Bach to Carnedd Dafydd from near Drosgl.
© David Dear, Apr 2012

Turning south at the coastal village of Abergwyngregyn to visit the 37m tall Aber Falls is a checklist treat for many visitors to Snowdonia. A happy coincidence for walkers is that it also allows access to the northern side of the Carneddau's high peaks. Perhaps even less trod than the major summits on the range's southern side, climb upwards from here and you can tag peaks such as Drum, Foel Fras, Carnedd Gwenllian, Drosgl and a handful of others whose names will be unfamiliar to most. An excellent way to open up new views of the National Park's northern limits.

Eastern Carneddau and the Dulyn bothy

Bothy @ Dulyn, Carneddau., 170 kb
Bothy @ Dulyn, Carneddau.
© Kleo De Janiro, Aug 2015

The Mountain Bothies Association lists far fewer shelters south of the Scottish border than north of it, but luckily one of the most spacious and pleasant of the eight-or-so in Wales sits in the eastern folds of the Carneddau. Best accessed from the car park marked on OS maps at SH730663, hike round towards the Dulyn reservoir and you'll find the bothy sheltered within the cwm. After a warm night's sleep (take wood or coal with you for the stove) a walk up onto Carnedd Gwenllian and around the central peaks is eminently doable.

The full traverse

The moon rises as the last of the setting sun's light bathes the Carneddau in colour, 236 kb
The moon rises as the last of the setting sun's light bathes the Carneddau in colour
© David Dear, Dec 2010

The main ridge of the Carneddau is aligned roughly northeast to southwest, and provides a superb high level ridge walking traverse of a scale you probably won't find anywhere else in Wales. Start at the coast, or from the Conwy Valley, gain the main ridge at Drum and then just follow your nose south over all the major summits (Yr Elen is a worthwhile detour) to finish, quite some time later, at Ogwen. Return transport will need to be pre-arranged!

The ancients of prehistory knew their worth. Along the spine of the Carneddau they buried their greats within huge stone chambers: the carns or cairns of the Carneddau were a symbol of power to be obeyed, a deity to be worshipped.

Bill Birkett

Maps

OS Landranger (1:50,000) 115

OS Explorer (1:25,000) OL17

Harvey British Mountain Maps (1:40,000) Snowdonia North

Guidebooks

Great Mountain Days in Snowdonia by Terry Marsh (Cicerone)

Ridges of Snowdonia by Steve Ashton (Cicerone)

Scrambles in Snowdonia by Steve Ashton, Rachel Crolla & Carl McKeating (Cicerone)

Hillwalking in Wales Vol 1 by Peter Hermon (Cicerone)

North Wales Scrambles by Garry Smith (Northern Edge Books)

Weather forecasts

Snowdonia forecast from MWIS

Mountain Weather forecast Snowdonia from the Met Office

Carnedd Dafydd-specific forecast from YR.NO

winter sun on  Dafydd , 163 kb
winter sun on Dafydd
© johnhenderson, Feb 2016

Best bases

The Carneddau are bordered and ringed by major roads on all sides, with settlements to be found in every direction. You can consequently base yourself on whichever side of the range that you wish to approach from. The most popular choice would be to stay to the south in the Ogwen Valley, made possible by the presence of both a YHA hostel and a pair of pleasingly bare-bones campsite/bunkhouses. Equally, to access the Llech Ddu spur you could stay in Bethesda to the west, or to approach from the north use a campsite on the north coast near Penmaenmawr. If comfort and amenities are what you're after then it's also feasible to stay a little further away in Capel Curig or Betws y Coed too.

Walkers enjoying the superb conditions on Sunday making their way from Pen yr Ole Wen to Carnedd Dafydd, 236 kb
Walkers enjoying the superb conditions on Sunday making their way from Pen yr Ole Wen to Carnedd Dafydd
© David Dear, Nov 2010

Accommodation

YHA Idwal Cottage is the Association's second oldest hostel, having opened in April 1931. It's a real gem of a place (the long-term staff are great) and offers camping, dorm beds, private rooms and a private hut for groups. It's directly opposite Pen yr Ole Wen, too, so in terms of locations for the south of the range it's hard to beat.

YHA Rowen - Overlooking the Conwy Valley on the slopes of Tal y Fan, this small rustic hostel has walking access to the northern reaches of the range form its doorstep.

Plas Curig in Capel Curig bills itself as "the only 5-star independent hostel in Wales" and is suitably plush with superb cooking facilities, pristine bathrooms and spacious dorms. A real treat for the weary walker.

Pen yr Helgi Du, 215 kb
Pen yr Helgi Du
© dgp, Dec 2017

Gwern Gof Uchaf campsite and bunkhouse is a cheap, basic, friendly and appealing site not far from the base of Tryfan. Ideal for climbers and outdoor people, with quick access to Pen yr Ole Wen and Pen Yr Helgi Du.

Gwern Gof Isaf campsite and bunkhouse is just a few hundred metres further down the road from the similarly-named Uchaf above. It's identical in (extremely cheap) price but subtly different in character, being slightly larger, a fraction better set up in terms of facilities and also catering to motorhomes too.

Bethesda offers a small handful of self-catering cottages and a B&B (and more) in the form of the comprehensive Joys of Life Country Park.

One of the great mountains views of Wales, Tryfan and the Glyderau from Pen yr Ole Wen, 241 kb
One of the great mountains views of Wales, Tryfan and the Glyderau from Pen yr Ole Wen
© David Dear, Sep 2012

Transport

As with so many mountain areas, life without a car is difficult when accessing the Carneddau - but for those with access to one free car parks (marked on OS maps) dot the length of the A5 in the Ogwen Valley, from which access to the south side of the Carneddau is swift and straightfoward. Coaches and trains stop in Bangor - which is roughly 17km to the north. From there local bus services run towards Bethesda and beyond. You can find full details via the Gwynedd Council website.

Pubs and food

Capel Curig offers a small but high quality selection of pubs and cafes. Daytime eats can be found at Pinnacle Cafe - with the attached Pinnacle Stores being a handy stop essential camping supplies and Pinnacle Pursuits supplying outdoor gear.

The excellent Moel Siabod Cafe offers a hearty range of home-made foods and a friendly welcome.

For the evening, there are two good pubs, both of which offer accommodation too: the highly appealing Tyn y Coed and the pricier, posher Bryn Tyrch.

Bethesda: There's a good spread of options in nearby Bethesda, with at least five pubs (The George, The Douglas Arms, The Bull, The Kings Head and the Llangollen Vaults) and the highly-rated Fitzpatrick Cafe to choose from, as well as a small Tesco in the High Street.

Walk in to Cwm Lloer, 147 kb
Walk in to Cwm Lloer
© T Oaks, Jan 2010



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