Great Rides: Cycling in Snowdonia

Pen Y Pass climb
Skirting the base of the Snowdon Horseshoe, this road ride has an amazing array of views from the seaside to stunning dramatic peaks. Patrick Trainor calls his route one of the best climbs in North Wales if not the UK.

Snowdon, Yr Wyddfa to the locals, is the highest peak in England in Wales at 1085m. You can ride your (mountain) bike to the summit at certain times of the year but we’re taking the road route around the base of the mountain which can be ridden on any kind of bike. If you want to get to the summit of Snowdon without riding or walking you’re in luck, there is a train to the top from the village of Llanberis which is where we start the ride.

Llanberis is a former mining village in an area that once employed thousands in the huge quarries that dominate the landscape. The mines have long since closed and nowadays tourism is the main industry as many flock to the mountain range and use the busy Llanberis Path to the summit. This means there is plenty of choice for cafes and restaurants for pre / during / post ride refreshments but thankfully for us not too much traffic outside of the usual holiday periods.

Starting in Llanberis we head away from the mountains to the coastal town of Caernarfon. This road is flat, bar one slight rise which when crested gives you an excellent view out to the coast and the sea beyond. This stretch of road is a good warm up for the climbing that will come later so enjoy.

Entering Caernarfon it’s worth taking a detour into the town centre to see one of Wales’s most famous castles. Caernarfon Castle was built by the English King; Edward 1 in the thirteenth century as a royal palace and in 1969 was the setting for the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales.   

Leaving the castle we’re heading inland towards Beddgelert and the mountains. The road rises up as soon as you leave Caernarfon and goes up steadily for the next three miles to the village of Waunfawr. Once in the village the road settles down again and remains flat for the next few miles. Riding along the quiet small roads, take time to look around and enjoy the scenery and see if you can spot the narrow gauge Welsh Highland Railway as it winds through the area. You’ll also pass the Snowdon Ranger and Rhyd Ddu walking paths to the summit so there are always people about.

From here it’s a fast road with a nice drop into the town of Beddgelert and no better place to stop for food on the ride. This is a beautiful little village which although small has a surprising amount of tea rooms, cafes and pubs to refuel mid ride. I can heartily recommend Glaslyn Ices and the Glandwr Cafe next door. Don’t eat too much though as the next few miles are all up hill!  

The road gently rises out of the valley floor to Plas Gwynant where you have a short respite. It’s worth noting that you’re at an altitude of 60m above sea level here so you’re climbing from pretty much zero despite being in the mountains. As an aside, this is where the Watkin Path to the summit starts and is the steepest route to the summit as you are starting from such a low altitude. Going on to Nant Gwynant, you will see the road rising up into the distance before you as you skirt the lake at the bottom.

After the lake the fun really starts as the road narrows and rises steadily for the next four miles. The twists and turns, sheep on the road and beautiful scenery all help to take your mind of the climb and when you exit the trees after a couple of miles the view across to the Snowdon Horseshoe is impressive to say the least The top part of this road is quite exposed and you can really feel the benefits or drawbacks of the wind here.

Turning left at the head of the pass at the Pen-y-Gwryd hotel, the final mile of climbing up to Pen-y-Pass rewards you with the view of the day looking back down the Gwynant Valley and makes you realise just how far you have ascended from the valley floor. Pen-y-Pass is the highest point of the Llanberis Pass at 360m where we top out. Two of the most popular walking paths to the summit (the Pyg Track and Miners Track) also start here so there are decent toilet facilities and a cafe here in the youth hostel if you need a break.

The descent from here is very fast and sweeping for the next few miles but good fun; watch out for the chicane like bridge near the bottom of this section though! Sweeping through Nant Peris at the bottom of the valley, the view opens out and you see the lake and quarry scarred landscape of Llanberis again.

The best thing about finishing in Llanberis is a trip to the legendary climbing cafe Pete’s Eats. A giant mug of tea and a massive portion of home made food is the best way to finish any day riding round Snowdonia.

Llanberis Pass descent

Snowdonia loop fact file

Distance: 35 miles (56km)

Route: A mostly flat ride apart from one long gradual but enjoyable climb followed by a very fast descent and a flat last section to finish.    

Conditions: I did this on a bright spring day with just a gilet over a short sleeve jersey and arm and knee warmers. This meant visibility was excellent and the mountains looked stunning. The roads were bone dry and generally in good condition. It was mid week in term time so there was hardly any traffic either.

Accommodation: There is a huge choice of places to stay in Snowdonia. From budget campsites and bunkhouses to B&B and hotels; there’s something to suit all budgets and tastes in the area.

Equipment used: I used a Rondelli Carbon bike with carbon fork and Campagnolo Centaur groupset with a standard 39x53 chainset paired with a 27 max tooth rear cassette which was fine for the long climb. Despite having relatively thin tyres on the Fulcrum Racing wheelset the general good condition of the roads meant comfort wasn’t an issue.

Maps/guides: OS map OL17 shows the roads or check the GPX file of the route.

I’m glad I had… A gilet. If there’s one piece of cycling clothing I never travel without it’s the humble gilet. It was ok at the start for short sleeve with arm and knee warmers but going in to the mountains it helped having the core protected and I never once felt under dressed.

Next time I would…Extend the ride down to Capel Curig and pick up the A5 towards Bangor. At Idwal Cottage take the side road down the valley which joins back up with the A5 then down near the A55 roundabout head left for Llanberis again. The A5 is a busier road than the roads leading up to it but the views of the mountains are breathtaking and well worth it!