(The Gear Loop) - Reaching the 1,085-metre summit of Snowdon is on many people’s bucket list. As the highest mountain in Wales and Britain’s loftiest peak south of the Scottish Highlands, it’s the Piccadilly Circus of the UK mountain scene.
The summit sees around half a million pairs of boots every year. To put that into context, that’s five times the number that climb Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest peak. Add in the 140,000 that chug up to the summit on the Snowdon Mountain Railway and you soon realise why there are often queues at the top during peak (see what we did there?) season.
However, make no mistake about it, Snowdon is a majestic mountain. Yes, there’s a café at the top and, yes, the summit can be a little crowded and, yes, there are relatively easy ways up, but the sheer size and grandeur of the Snowdon massif means you can still have an adventure to rival the very best in Britain. The variety found on its many exciting ridges, legendary subsidiary peaks, sparkling llyns (lakes) and atmospheric cwms (the glacially carved head of a valley) means that Snowdon has something for everyone.
To think of Snowdon as one peak, a single objective, a place to visit once and tick off, is completely missing the point. Snowdon is a complex beast, its main summit merely the central point of an immense system of ridges and trails. Seen from above, its shape almost resembles a starfish, with five principal limbs and dozens of little offshoots. In practical terms, this all means that, unlike with Ben Nevis and Scafell Pike, there are at least a dozen routes that hikers can take to reach the top.
Whether you’re just finding your feet as a hillwalker or you’re a confident scrambler looking to push your grade, there’s something for you here. So whether you value the camaraderie of experiencing the mountain with the masses or you’re seeking solitude, Snowdon has a route for you.
- Already tackled Snowdon? Why not try our guide to Ben Nevis instead?
The best time to go
The best time to hike to the summit of Snowdon is between March and November, when the daylight window is larger, and you are less likely to encounter snow or icy conditions. When winter conditions descend on the mountain, it is a serious place indeed and not to be underestimated. Only those with mountaineering skills and equipment should attempt the summit when it is under a blanket of snow.
There are various ways you can avoid the crowds on Snowdon, the most obvious is the choice of when you choose to set out for the summit. Summer is peak season, with public holidays and weekends naturally being the busiest times. If you want a quieter Snowdon, ascend on a weekday if possible, or get up extra early to beat the afternoon traffic.
What route to take
Let’s deal with the most popular ways up first, the Llanberis Path, the Pyg Track and the Miners’ Track.
The Llanberis Path owes its popularity to its accessibility and its gentle gradients. It starts from the village of Llanberis and its many amenities, broadly following the route taken by the Snowdon Mountain Railway. It’s one of the longer routes to the summit and affords superb views of the cliffs of Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, one of the finest climbing crags in Snowdonia.
The Pyg Track and the Miners’ Track both venture into the atmospheric heart of the Snowdon massif, a great natural amphitheater comprising towering mountain walls that shelter two large llyns (or lakes, if not fluent in the Welsh language). These routes also cheat the mountain a little bit by starting at Pen y Pass, which is already 359 metres above sea level and closer to the action than other starting points.
The Pyg is a little bit rougher and more adventurous than the Miners’, which is almost flat for the first half before it climbs to meet the Pyg during the final ascent. The two can be combined to make for an epic outing.
To have a better chance of getting the trails to yourself, the Snowdon Ranger Path, the Rhyd Ddu Path, the South Ridge and the Watkin Path are all excellent and quieter alternatives.
The Snowdon Ranger Path starts in the west, from the shores of Llyn Cwellyn and is the gentlest method to the summit, but for the Llanberis Path. You ascend the ridge-line above Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, with lovely views of Cwm Clogwyn and its trio of little pools.
The Rhyd-Ddu Path entails a similar level of challenge, starting to the south of the Ranger and ascending Snowdon’s southwestern Llechog ridge above Cwm Caregog. The highlight is saved until the end, when the Path meets Snowdon’s South Ridge at Bwlch Main and ventures towards the summit on a spectacular, narrow ridge-line. The full South Ridge route is a more arduous undertaking but ideal if you are seeking serenity. There are numerous starting points that can bring you to Bwlch Cwm Llan, where the ridge begins in earnest. From here, it’s a glorious ridge walk, with only a hint of scrambling.
The Watkin Path is a fantastic and historic route to Snowdon’s summit, but it is also probably the most strenuous. Railway entrepreneur Sir Edward Watkin created the path, extending former miners’ tracks up to the summit. When it was officially opened in 1892 by Prime Minister William Gladstone, it was the first designated footpath in Britain. It’s a long approach, into the atmospheric Cwm Tregalan, before the path climbs sharply to Bwlch Ciliau, where you are rewarded with awesome views of twin-peaked Y Lliwedd. However, it’s the final, steep and rough ascent to Snowdon’s summit that really gets the thighs burning; the most punishing section of any of the hiking routes mentioned here.
How difficult is Crib Goch?
Now for the elephant in the room: Crib Goch. The Red Ridge. Along with Helvellyn’s Striding Edge, Crib Goch is probably the most notorious mountain route in Britain. Seen from the Pen y Pass, it is a soaring pyramid that many mistake for Snowdon. However, behind that shapely peak is a razor-sharp arête, thrillingly narrow, horrendously steep to the south and even more horrifyingly steep to the north. The ridge ends in a series of impressive pinnacles before things calm down a little bit at Bwlch Coch. It’s a sensational thing to set foot on and the views towards Snowdon are mesmerising.
But here’s the thing: in terms of technical difficulty, Crib Goch is rated as a Grade I scramble, which is at the easier end of the scrambling spectrum. What makes Crib Goch so challenging is the sheer exposure and the potentially nasty consequences of a fall. Unlike other narrow ridges, like Striding Edge or Ben Nevis’ CMD Arête, there’s no bypass path, which makes it a very committed route. Once you’re on, you’re on.
If you are attempting the ridge, check the weather before you set out using a designated mountain weather forecast. It seems obvious, but you are looking for calm, dry conditions. It’s a popular route and much of the rock has become polished over time, which makes it slippery when wet. Crib Goch is exposed to the full brunt of the wind and a strong gust could have a very nasty result.
The ridge is most commonly traversed from east to west and there are two ways up: the north ridge and the east ridge, both Grade I scrambles. The north ridge is narrower, less travelled and arguably more spectacular than the east ridge. It is similar in character to the main ridge but is more of a climb, so you can lean forward and use your hands more.
The east ridge, which starts from the Pyg Track at Bwlch y Moch, is much broader to begin with and slightly less technical. It becomes narrower towards the top and you’ll feel as if you are truly climbing a mountain. Topping out, the sight of the sinuous main ridge snaking ahead with Snowdon beyond is one of the finest sights found among Britain’s mountains.
Once on the main ridge, just enjoy it. If you’ve chosen a good day, you should have no difficulty. Remember, crest is best! Don’t be tempted to veer too much from the top of the ridge, as you could end up on loose ground. On the narrowest sections, some people drop down slightly to the left, almost handrailing the crest on their right. When it comes to the pinnacles, the easiest line is usually obvious, follow the crampon scratches on the rock if you have to.
Other scrambles that can be incorporated into an adventure on Snowdon are the fantastic Grade I scramble up Y Gribbin, which starts from the eastern end of Glaslyn and ascends the obvious, slabby spur to the southwest; the thoroughly entertaining Grade I scramble to the summit of Y Lliwedd from Bwlch Ciliau; the easy Grade I scramble up the Cwm Glas Spur from the north, which guidebook author Garry Smith coined: ‘a sheep in a wolf’s clothing’; and the neighbouring Clogwyn y Person Arête, a tough Grade III scramble that many people use a rope for.
How to prepare
Your preparation will depend on your chosen route. To approach Crib Goch with confidence, it’s sensible to have other Grade I ridge scrambles under your belt. Sharp or Striding Edge in the Lake District are wonderful objectives and, although slightly easier, are good preparation.
To get into prime physical condition for Snowdon, get out there and go for some long hill walks or mountain hikes, ideally with a backpack. Snowdon is more accessible than Ben Nevis and Scafell Pike and is the least strenuous of the three when tackled by its easiest routes. It’s worth brushing up on your navigation while you are out hiking too, especially if you are heading for the quieter routes.
How to get there and where to stay
By train, Bangor station gets you close to Snowdonia. From there you can hop on a bus to Llanberis. The Snowdon Sherpa bus service runs around the foot of the massif and is an excellent way to access various start points. By car, the A55 coast road or the scenic A5 are the best approaches to the national park. Don’t expect to be able to park at Pen y Pass, as it is extremely busy, there are limited spaces and it’s ridiculously expensive anyway. Either park in Llanberis and use the Snowdon Sherpa bus, or park in one of the spaces on the A498 and hike up to the Pass.
There’s an almost overwhelming choice of accommodation surrounding Snowdon. Llanberis is a good base, with gear shops and eateries (including the legendary Pete’s Eats) in which to pass the time on rainy days, while the picturesque village of Beddgelert is ideal for approaches from the south. There are four youth hostels spaced around the massif: Pen y Pass is perfect for the Miners’ Track, the Pyg Track and Crib Goch; Bryn Gwynant is placed at the trailhead for the Watkin Path and there’s no prizes for guessing which paths the Ranger and Llanberis hostels give you access to. There are also a number of well-managed campsites in the surrounding area.
Wild camping is technically not permitted in Snowdonia, though it is generally tolerated if you camp responsibly and follow the Wild Camping Code. Away from the main trails, Snowdon’s glacially sculpted cwms make for some wonderful pitches, often sheltered from the elements. Cwm Tregalan, off the Watkin Path is suitably atmospheric, while an expedition into Cwm Glas to sleep by Llyn Glas under the cliffs of Crib y Ddysgl and Crib Goch is a rewarding experience.
What to pack
Don’t fall into the trap of relying on the summit café for supplies, as it may be closed, or if you have a slip-up before you get there, you’re stuck with no food and drink when you need them the most. Treat the café as a bonus and head onto the trails with around a litre of water and plenty of food. Drinking water straight from a stream on the world’s busiest mountain is not recommended unless you enjoy nursing a stomach bug.
Snowdon is a high mountain and the temperature at the top will be several degrees lower than in Llanberis. Rain shouldn’t come as a surprise either, this is North Wales after all. A waterproof jacket and waterproof trousers should always be in your pack, as well as mid layers, a decent base layer, a hat and warm gloves. Oh, and don’t forget your sun cream in the warmer months.
While navigation technology is useful, particularly if you want to instantly pinpoint your exact location, it is not a substitute for a map and compass and the skills to use them. A combination of tech and traditional navigation tools is always the best way forward. Other key items include a head torch, a first aid kit and an emergency blanket.
Our pick of the best gear for summiting Snowdon
Montane Isotope Fleece Hoodie
Montane’s Isotope Fleece Hoodie is perfect either as a mid layer or as an outer on dry, mild days. It is snug fitting, yet gives you excellent freedom of movement and features a thin hood that fits under a helmet for more extreme adventures.
Berghaus Deluge 2.0 Waterproof Trousers
Don’t let a torrential downpour stop you summiting Snowdon. The Deluge trousers feature three-quarter length zippers so that you can easily slot them over your normal hiking trousers, while Berghaus’ own Hydroshell fabric keeps the rain out.
Decathlon NH150 Imper waterproof jacket
It might not be the most technical jacket on sale today but 2000mm rated waterproof coating is good enough to keep out the Welsh rain, while its smock design means fewer seam for water ingress and a neat kangaroo pocket on the front for stashing food, maps and other items. At this price, it's very hard to argue.
Scarpa Maverick Mid GTX
Lightweight, yet robust enough to tackle technical trails, Scarpa’s Maverick GTX is a great choice for 3 season adventures in Britain’s mountains. The GTX tag is key, because it means Gore-Tex lining keeps your feet dry, while the HDR outsole gives you high friction on rocky scramble.
Ordnance Survey Explorer OL17
The Snowdon massif is covered by the OS Explorer OL17 map, which also includes much of northern Snowdonia, including the spectacular Glyderau and the Carneddau ranges. Yep, you can download the digital maps rather the very good app, but we always recommend taking paper back-up just in case.
Tips from the professionals
Simon Verspeak is a professional mountaineering instructor who lives on the edge of Snowdonia National Park. He has climbed Snowdon countless times and knows the mountain like the back of his hand. Here he gives his tips for the traverse of Crib Goch. Find out more about Simon and his company Orange Mountaineering on the link.
"Make sure the weather is good. Crib Goch is a serious undertaking and much better attempted when you have low winds, it's dry and you can see. Research the route and make sure you know where to go. Surprisingly for a ridge, the route finding is complex in certain sections and straying off the main line will often find you on looser rock.
"Build up to it. Crib Goch is on the serious end of Grade 1 and is very exposed. Do some of the other classic Snowdonia scrambles first like Y Gribin on Glyder Fawr, the North Ridge of Tryfan and Bristly Ridge on Glyder Fach. If this still all feels too much, consider hiring a local guide, but do some research and make sure they are qualified, know the route and guide on a small ratio".