Part of the beauty of holidaying in North Wales is that getting here and driving around is part of the adventure. Snaking forest drives, wild single-track wanders and jaw-dropping mountain passes are all in the mix if you enjoy a drive and are not afraid to explore.
Sometimes it’s all too easy to be so fixated on where you’re going that it’s easy to miss the wonders along the way. This blog will help you appreciate that journey just a little more. Here are our three favourite mountain passes – with a few more suggestions thrown in at the end.
Llanberis Pass/Pen y Pass
The star of many a car advert (with a well-known marque driven by Sir Bradley Wiggins currently gracing TV screens), Llanberis Pass is a must-visit. Yes it’s popular, with the occasional coach making the bendy, walled-in road feel narrower than it is, but it’s popular with good reason.
It’s a rugged landscape from the moment you leave Llanberis, then passing through the hamlet of Nant Peris a boulder-strewn, lunar-like landscape surrounds you. Cliffs and buttresses tower above you on both sides, many speckled with the bright colours of kitted-out rock climbers. There are a few lay-bys to pull into but parking is generally very limited. Just drive carefully and enjoy the most weather-blasted landscape Snowdonia has to offer.
Look out for: the scarily steep north face of Crib Goch, best viewed to your left when driving up from Llanberis to Pen-y-Pass. Yes, people walk along the top of that!
Top tip: in our opinion, driving from Pen-y-Pass down to Llanberis gives you the better views. Go early or late for a quieter run and the chance to pull over. And don’t wait for clear weather – there’s something special about driving this route with the cloud down over the precipitous peaks.
One of Sir Anthony Hopkins’ favourite places, so who are we to disagree? Nant Ffrancon is the natural passage between the Glyderau and Carneddau massifs. Telford tried to tame it with the A5, but in reality he only succeeded in giving us ring-side seats to the shark’s fin of rock called Tryfan, and Cwm Idwal’s alpine arena. Specifically, Nant Ffrancon is the valley from Ogwen Cottage (where most people park to begin their adventures) west to the slate town of Bethesda.
Look out for: the waterfalls at Ogwen Cottage. Easy to miss amid the melee of walkers but worth a wander just for the views down the valley.
Top tip: best driven from Bethesda towards Ogwen Cottage in the direction of Betws-y-Coed. There’s a lay-by halfway along Nant Ffrancon on the southbound (Bethesda direction) side. It looks like a pavement but this is a great place to stop and admire the views. If you don’t mind narrow roads, there is a minor road that follows the opposite side of the valley to the A5 (pictured), but coming from Bethesda the right turn is easily missed. It brings you out at Ogwen Cottage.
Sychnant Pass near Conwy
Between Conwy Mountain (that’s the rocky hill that practically forces the A55 into the sea near Conwy) and Tal y Fan is a hidden mountain pass. Taking its name from a nearby hamlet, Sychnant Pass takes a bit of finding but once you’re on it, it comes as a fabulous surprise. From the town’s one-way streets inside the walls, turn left at the Albion Pub and stay on this road. If you’re in a wide vehicle you might want to find Sychnant Pass Road from outside the town walls instead!
What starts as an unremarkable road becomes interesting as it climbs higher and reaches the open land of Conwy Mountain. Turn a corner and suddenly, wow! Where did that come from? The hillsides fall away steeply and the road clings to the slopes as it drops down to Capelulo, giving stunning views of the North Wales coast and Anglesey beyond. Follow the road as far as Penmaenmawr and then either rejoin the A55 or spend some time on the sandy beach.
Look out for: Pensychnant Nature Reserve, a 120-acre site forming part of a Victorian Estates (note, closed Mondays and Tuesdays).
Top tip: best driven from Conwy towards Capelulo to make the most of those sea views. There is parking at the top but it is limited and can be popular with those in the know! Don’t try this if the A55 is blocked as many drivers (sadly) use it as a short cut.
Also point your wheels to…
The Crimea Pass (or Bwlch y Gorddinan) on the A470 between Betws-y-Coed and Blaenau Ffestiniog. This is a quick road but why drive fast when there’s so much scenery to enjoy? Check out the tiny railway station at Roman Bridge and the castle at Dolwyddelan.
The drive from Capel Curig to Beddgelert doesn’t include a mountain pass as such, but we’ll argue the case that this is one of the most beautiful mountain drives in Britain. Drive from Capel Curig along Dyffryn Mymbyr (A4086) for iconic views of Snowdon’s peaks (can you name them all?). Stop at the lay-by past the Llanberis turn-off at Pen-y-Gwryd for more views down to the lake in Nant Gwynant. Then carry on, downhill, through Nant Gwynant and more wonderful scenery before arriving at Beddgelert.