Slate mining once dominated the economy in northwest Wales: slate from these hills supplied most of the roofs in Victorian Britain and was transported around the world. Its decline over the last century hit local communities hard and left quarried hillsides, great caverns and dark tunnels in its wake.
They’re all visible around the small town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. Surrounded on all sides by Snowdonia National Park, its quarry-scarred landscape means it didn’t qualify for park status. Yet the area has a hard beauty of its own, and once you head downwards you discover another world. You can explore the Llechwedd Slate Caverns just outside town via numerous tours, and adventurous can spend two hours exploring the eerily magnificent mines on a Caverns tour, using zip lines, rope bridges and footholds hammered into the walls, gazing into dark holes and across cathedral-sized caves. It’s a great feeling – you get to put your hands on history, and set your heart pounding.
If that sounds a bit much, operators Zip World also offer Bounce Below, a series of enormous interconnected trampolines and slides. Trampolining in a cave is a unique experience, and the atmospheric lighting and chiselled walls around you give the giggling fun of bouncing up and down a nice counterpoint.
Fly high and low on record-breaking zip lines
Outdoor zip lines offer up a different perspective. You can build up quite a lick heading down these, a physical thrill that’s matched by the awesome spectacle of North Wales swooshing by beneath you. Blaenau Ffestiniog’s three zip lines take you down from the hills above to the mine itself. At Bethesda, northwest of Blaenau, Zip World Velocity (zipworld.co.uk) boasts the longest line in Europe and the fastest (up to 100mph) in the world.
More records are smashed elsewhere. Go Below, outside the appealing town of Betws-y-Coed, has the world’s longest underground zip line and can take you to the deepest point in Britain that’s accessible to the public – almost 400m below ground.
Snowdon: a mountain for all comers
Betws-y-Coed is a great base for exploring Snowdon, at 1085m the highest point in England and Wales. It’s famous for its views (to Ireland on a – rare – clear day), legends (it’s said to be the tomb of a giant slain by King Arthur) and the fact that you can get a train to its summit. That accessibility is a big part of its appeal, and there are numerous ways to tackle the mountain, from the 120-year-old railway and the zig-zagging Miners’ Track to challenging climbing pitches and notorious Crib Goch (a knife-edge arête with a steep slope on one side and a sheer drop on the other).
Exploring Snowdonia National Park
Snowdon is the best known – and busiest – feature of Snowdonia National Park, which stretches over 823 sq miles of peaks, valleys, forests and coastline. But there are arguably even better walks to be had in other parts. The Glyders mountain range is a steep mass of broken rocks whose heather- and boulder-covered upper reaches feel like another planet. Tryfan, the most iconic of its peaks, offers invigorating scrambling routes and is topped with two rocks called Adam and Eve – the bold can leap between the two for good luck. Further south, Cader Idris is popular with walkers and climbers, while the park as a whole was made a Dark Sky Reserve in 2015 in tribute to its clear air.
Exploring Wales needn’t just be done in walking boots – the country has some of the world’s best mountain biking facilities. East of the national park, towards Wrexham, Coed Llandegla is a forest reserve with trails operated by Oneplanet (oneplanetadventure.com) that run the gamut from gentle, family-orientated routes to viciously steep ascents and hardcore jumps and drops. The impressive skills zone is a good place to practice, and the blue trail is great for beginners who want downhill sections that exhilarate without being petrifying.
Back in the national park, Coed y Brenin (beicsbrenin.co.uk), near Dolgellau, was the UK’s first dedicated mountain bike centre and now has eight trails including extensive singletrack.