Look at the map, and it might seem as if Snowdonia peters out a bit between the Moelwyns and the Arans. A thick plastering of Hewitt tops becomes a more sporadic affair. Nothing special then?

No, no, no, in a thousand ways.

To the west are the Rhinogs, their central spine the toughest walking country that I know, certainly south of the Scottish border. To the east are the Arenigs, a succession of distinct hills that are difficult to put into multiple rounds.

Between them, the two ranges have a sort of North-West Highlands feel to them – grand mountain days out, if you know what you’re doing and know where to look. And because too many people don’t, on either count, you just might have a day to yourself.

Skip past the Rhinogs to the Arenigs

rhinog fach

Rhinog Fach on the descent from Y Llethr

The Rhinogs

I started writing this page as I was reading the September 2021 issue of The Great Outdoors magazine. In it, writer James Forrest called the Rhinogydd (to give them their authentic Welsh spelling)

[the] kind of place that swallows naive hillwalkers, chews them up, and then unceremoniously spits them back out. Many a hiker has been left humbled by the Rhinogs.

Well, reader, that was me – though less of the ‘naive’ please James, my humbling was a few months after completing The Great Outdoors Challenge. The gory details appear on my Rhinog Fawr day, below.

Friday 2 August. Barmouth to Llyn Hywel, over the southern Rhinogs. Ten miles.

This was, I thought, the perfect time to be tackling the Rhinogs.

My Great Outdoors Challenge had gone far better than I had expected, and, even though it was now a dozen weeks or so in the past, surely I had enough fitness left in the tank to tackle what everybody had said were Snowdonia’s toughest hills.

And so the day before I got the rickety train to Barmouth, cheated with a taxi up the hill to Bunkorama camp site, and pitched my tent high above the Mawddach estuary. The next morning dawned well – “sunny intervals, light variable wind”, my notes say.

Indeed, as the day progressed, I wondered what all the fuss was about. The first two hills, Diffwys (2462ft) and the highest of the Rhinogydd Y Llethr (2475ft) were sporting enough without letting me think I was breaking new ground in terms of arduousness. Sure, the descent to my wild camp at Llyn Hywel was a bit rough, at 40 minutes for less than a mile and 700ft of descent, and a Sigg bottle bounced out somewhere amidst all the heather, but there I was, mid afternoon, a wild camp pitch of my dreams beneath Rhinog Fach (2333ft), and an evening ascent to look forward to.

wild camp

Wild camp beside Llyn Hywel

rhinog fach

The summit of Rhinog Fach

I was pleased to be there when I was, for on this perfect summer afternoon first one, then another and another, tent-carrier rolled up, all of them praising me for having the best spot, not that it was going to make me move. There was quite a little community when I set out for the summit of Rhinog Fach.

Its steep south ridge looked cracking, easily accessed from Llyn Hywel’s eastern shore. Indeed it was. It took me roughly the same time to ascend as I had to descend from Y Llethr earlier. I didn’t fancy a descent the same way, but a clear track took me northwards before swinging south-west back towards my tent. Cracking, absolutely cracking. Tomorrow could not come soon enough.

Saturday 3 August. Rhinog Fawr from Llyn Hywel, descent to Cwm Bychan. Five miles.

This was the plan. 

Drop down to Bwlch Drws-Ardudwy, a major cleft in the centre of the Rhinogydd. Ascend Rhinog Fawr (2362ft), less than a mile away.

Drop down to the Roman Steps, another major west-east route, before heading over the rough ridge that summitted Clip, Moel Ysgafarnogod and Foel Penolau to a wild camp at Llyn Eiddew-bach.

That would mean three Hewitts climbed (Clip is just below 2000ft), all for the sake of less than 3000ft of climbing in nine miles (both less than yesterday). After all, I had all day in perfect weather; a bit cloudier than yesterday, but mustn’t grumble.

And this is what happened.

The descent to the bwlch started off easily enough but became rougher in its lower stages. Still never mind. I looked at Rhinog Fawr and, knowing there was no easy tracked path from here, looked for weaknesses in the sandstone. There were a couple of inclined planes that sloped to the north-west, and I headed up to the closer.

rhinog fawr summit

The summit of Rhinog Fawr

The summit of Rhinog Fawr is two miles from Llyn Hywel. Three hours after striking camp, I summited.

There had been no easy walking anywhere on the ascent, save for the last quarter-mile or so on the summit plateau, where a bagger’s path came in from elsewhere (so there are easier ways …). As James Forrest had put it, “every 100m feeling like a mile, every minute lasting an hour … an eternity of boulder hopping and heather bashing”. It was, without doubt, the hardest summit climb I can ever recall.

Now I’m not the world’s greatest hillwalker, and aged 68 then certainly not the youngest, but in the last decade I had the Carn Mor Dearg arête under my belt, fully enjoyed the Nantlle ridge, skipped across the Southern Upland Way and completed the Cape Wrath Trail. But this was something else. And I still had to get down.

roman steps

The Roman Steps

There is a well-worn descent to the Roman Steps. So well-worn that bits were crumbling. Another mile, another hour.

Still, it’s only 2 o’clock, and an inviting path headed off to Llyn Morwnion. There, it stopped. I looked across to the Ysgafarnogod ridge, barely two miles away.

I knew what I was meant to do; head north-eastish for a mile, turn north-west in a cleft of sorts that ran past Llyn Pryfed, and then things would get easier, or at least less difficult.

But I had used enough energy already, and I could see no release from the damned tangled heather. It’s not often I turn back – can’t remember the last time – but today was such a day. The Rhinoggyd had spat me out.

I knew there was once a campsite in Cwm Bychan. I didn’t know if it was still there. I plodded down the Roman Steps in hope, and was mighty pleased to turn a corner and see a smattering of tents and caravans.

The end.

Tuesday 12 October 2021: Foel Penolau and Moel Ysgyfarnogod from Cefn Clawdd, 4½ miles.

The Retreat from the Rhinogs described above meant that I still had the range’s two northernmost Hewitts to climb.

In fact, it would be my third attempt at Ysgyfarnogod, for I’d planned to add it on to my days around Blaenau Ffestiniog a few years before, but the weather turned so I went for a ride on the railway instead. Back then, Penolau wasn’t a Hewitt, so if I had completed that trip I would have had to come back for it this time anyway.

Which route? Well it certainly wasn’t going to involve Rhinog Fawr or anything close to it, of that I was certain.

There is an easy approach to these hills from the east, which made sense as I was staying in Bala. South of Trawsfynydd a lane skirts the edge of the eponynmous llyn; take a left fork soon after and you rise towards the hills. Park at an abandoned quarry, walk a quarter-mile to the farmstead of Cefn Clawdd, and then take a track that winds another long mile until you’re at the very foot of the hills.

Foel Penolau (rightmost hill) and Moel Ysgyfarnogod (adjacent) above Cefn Clawdd

The task now is to identify a breach in the intake wall, a substantial construction that should not be climbed. I knew of a gate at 661344 and made for it, then turned left by the wall (passing a breach at 661346) until I could find an easy(ish) way to the summit of Foel Penolau (2014ft). Despite its relatively lowly height, the summit is well-protected by rock, and a bit of hands-on work is needed, but not much.

moel ysgyfarnogod

The summit of Moel Ysgyfarnogod

But to take a more-or-less direct line south-west to Moel Ysgyfarnogod (2044ft) is another matter. Perhaps, the easiest way is to reverse the ascent, but I kept as close to the south-west line as I could. This involved some quite intricate stuff around the massive boulders followed by a downclimb over a bunch of jumbled rock. Exactly where I came out, I found a path which led me clearly and directly to Ysgyfarnogod’s summit, so I must have been doing something right.

Retracing my steps a little, a right fork headed encouragingly downhill, and indeed led directly to the breach at 661346. The path must, I thought, continue the other side of the wall? Well, apparently not, but the ground wasn’t that tricky and I soon found the track back to my car.

Thursday 19 August 2021: Y Garn from Cwm yr Wnin, four miles.

There’s one more Rhinog to be described, an outlier to the south-east that doesn’t really fit in to a round, Y Garn (2064ft).

The last day of my August 2021 trip was due to be a big circuit of Cadair Idris, picking up four of its subsidiary tops. Not only did the cloud persist, but the wind had picked up and the morning was to be wet too. I really didn’t fancy the round in those conditions.

So I slipped in this simple up-and-down in the afternoon instead. It’s fairly straightforward stuff, picking up a farm track from the head of the valley and then climbing onto the hill’s southern ridge, Foel Ddu.

Walls help guide you all the way. There are three ladder stiles. Climb them all.

On the way up I found a sheep whose horns had become entangled in an iron gate. It may have been there for days; it made little struggle as I freed it, but immediately went into shock. How sad. I met the farmer on my way down so perhaps there was a vestige of life he could save.

y garn

The summit of Y Garn


The Arenigs

There’s nowhere in Snowdonia quite like the Arenigs. Each hill, pretty much, is its own little distinct entity; multi-Hewitt rounds of three, four or more, just don’t work here. Twice I’ve combined two hills, but that’s it.

And so I rather like the Arenigs. Because they are so distinct, you never quite know what you’re going to get – a whale-backed ridge like Dduallt, a moorland lump like Carnedd y Filiast or indeed a classic piece of hill-sculpture like Arenig Fawr itself.

Eight peaks in all: here they are.

Sunday 16 October 2005: Llanfachreth to Arenig bothy, over Rhobell Fawr and Arenig Fawr, 15 miles

This was stage 14 of my cross-Wales walk and is described in more detail there. With nearly 4,500 feet of ascent, I look back in wonder at what I have been able to achieve. The route ended in my first-ever bothy night – how sweet!

Monday 16 October 2005: Arenig bothy to Penmachno, over Arenig Fach, 14 miles

This was stage 15 of my cross-Wales walk and is described in more detail there. It’s not such a monster as the day before in terms of height gain but involved the crossing of the Migneint, the huge area of bog to the north of Arenig Fach.

Arenig Fach

Arenig Fach

Tuesday 12 October 2021: Dduallt from Cwm yr Allt-Llwyd, 5½ miles

Dduallt (2172ft) is a well-liked hill by all accounts, a neighbour to Rhobell Fawr and often climbed together with it, though the forestry in between must take the edge off somewhat. I’d already climbed Rhobell Fawr, see above, so for me it was just a half-day hill.

The hill presents a long north-south ridge, so the choice really is between one or other of these. I’d spent the morning in the northern Rhinogs, see even further above, so the shorter drive, on a very intricate set of minor roads, made the most sense.

It’s a nice start, following the upper reaches of the Afon Mawddach till about half-way, then fording it, not too much of a problem today but as ever maybe less straightforward in spate.

There’s no great navigational difficulty as a fence rises up the north ridge. Rather than walk to it immediately however, from over the ford it’s easy to take the continuing track until it peters out in a few hundred metres, and then veer over to join it.

A bit further along, I saw quad bike tracks veering away over easier ground for a while, so used them, but when they ran out I had to freelance back to the fence; in descent I just stuck to the fence all the way.

It’s a nice summit with a chair-shaped cairn. I sat for a while trying to work out where my route from Rhobell Fawr to Arenig Fawr had gone all those years ago. Had I really done all that?


Panorama of the Rhinogs on the descent from Dduallt

Thursday 14 October 2021: Moel Llyfnant and Gallt y Daren from Bwlch Pen-y-feidiog, six miles

One abiding memory of I have, of the latter stages of my big cross-Wales day from Llanfachreth to Arenig bothy, was the view of Moel Llyfnant (2464ft) as I passed beneath its southern slopes. It’s a tremendous mountain shape from this angle, the south ridge crying out for a climb. I vowed I would have to come back, so today was eagerly anticipated.

The hill really has to be combined with Gallt y Daren (2031ft), which was not such an enticing prospect; guarding this lesser summit was boggy ground all around. Still, needs must etc.

I parked at the top of the multi-gated mountain road that leads from Llanuwchllyn to Bronaber, where forestry tracks emerge and give hard standing. This meant I had a long downhill mile back on the road, and realised that it would have been better to break this near the bottom, where another forestry track emerges and gives equally good space.

But I had walked down this road before, on that epic stage. At the footpath marker about half-a-mile from my start, I looked over the unpromising ground that I had taken from after leaving the forest further south. Crossing the Afon Lliw, I took a short cut on a quad bike track that hadn’t been there all those years ago, and then found that the path had been diverted away from the farm at Hendre Blaen-Lliw.

I don’t have much of a problem about farmers diverting paths away from their homes, as long as they don’t dump you round rubbish ground and put in decent signage. This farmer scored well on both counts, indeed maintained the path very well for a good way beyond.

The question for me was where to leave the path – which, I remembered, became sketchy as it made its way beneath Arenig Fawr – and gain the south ridge. Once more quad bike tracks prompted my departure but they soon ran out and perhaps I should have waited a while. Still, there was nothing too difficult, and I was soon at the foot of the ridge.

moel llyfnant

Moel Llyfnant from above Hendre Blaen-Lliw …

moel llyfnant

… and from the ladder stile at 793348

This was by some margin the windiest day of my October break and as my route became more exposed its force began to make itself felt. A north-westerly, it was hardly pushing at my back either. Sometimes when you’re 70 you’re wondering, on a steep, exposed hillside quite a long way from anybody else, whether you’ve really chosen the right hobby. But there’s a certain satisfaction – indeed pride – as you feel your body cope, and mind too – no panicking – as the feet of ascent pass by and, slowly after a couple of crux steeper bits, the slope eases.

There’s a big slab of rock at the summit of Moel Llyfnant and it gave me welcome shelter for a snack. I wasn’t sure what was in store. From the map, possibly unwalked bog. But things started off OK, with a path beside a couple of fences, and though there was certainly bog ahead I could see firmer ground beside a stream leading to a forest corner; a bit of a dog-leg but common sense to take it, as the forest edge wasn’t too badly drained.

I stayed beside the forest for nearly half-a-mile, to a ladder stile, and worked out my way to the summit of Gallt y Daren. It has one crag on its eastern flank, Craig y Ffolt, and clearly the trick was to keep it to the north. There’s guidance from neither fence nor track here, so it’s a case of making the best beeline around what seems to be the firmest ground. The wind is still blowing too, and is back to full force when I finally reach the summit.

The final mile-and-a-half back to the car is fence-guided so little difficulty in that regard, and once the decent grass of the top of the ridge to the subsidiary top of Foel Boeth has been left behind it, becomes a bit of a trudge in all honesty. Still, I’m glad I treated this as a single round, rather than a couple of out-and-backs, which had been my first intention.

gallt y daren

Gallt y Daren from Foel Boeth

carnedd y filiast

The cairn on Carnedd y Filiast

Wednesday 13 October 2021: Carnedd y Filiast from Llyn Celyn, eight miles

There really isn’t much to say about this ascent, as there’s a track all the way. Say thank you to the farmer who created it, for once you’re out of the forestry it would otherwise be heather-bashing all the way. There’s a stream crossing at Nant y Coed.

As you near the very top of the hill, the track curves round to approach the actual summit (2195ft) from the north, but for hill-walkers it’s a simple matter to walk a direct heather-free line to the top. An unusual feature of the summit is a slate embedded in the cairn, presumably a boundary marker.

I had parked up at the Cae Fadog car park, 865408, but where the track emerges out onto the road (861410) there is plenty of room for a car as long as you park as far away from the gate as possible, in case access is needed.

Wednesday 13 October 2021: Foel Goch from Llwyniolyn, 4½ miles

This is the easternmost of the Arenigs, very much on its own north-east of Bala. Strictly it’s not in Snowdonia but about three miles outside its boundary.

I didn’t want this to be a straight up-and-down but fancied using the vaguely-defined south ridge of the hill. I’d parked up at the Llwyniolyn turn on a lane that left the main road at Cefn-ddwysarn, and then headed up towards the farm at Pentre-tai-yn-y-cwm; the farm itself is now bypassed by a path diversion.

The problem was crossing the little stream to my left after the bypass. A web report I had read implied that you could drop down to it, cross, scramble up and over a fence quite early on, but this didn’t seem at all practical, so I waited until after a bridge crossed the stream and it was easy to reach open ground.

That however left me with boggy ground to cross. Nothing impenetrable, but a tad embarassing as I could see the farmer on his quad bike high up on the ridge gathering sheep. He must have been having a right chuckle to himself, I thought.

He had gone by the time I got to the ridge. At least the boggy bits had gone now and it was straightforward to reach the summit (2005ft) and its trig point.

foel goch

The summit of Foel Goch, with Llyn Tegid in the background

From here, there was a clear path heading east, down to the bwlch between Foel Goch and its neighbour Orddu. From the bwlch the path then curves southish, becomes occasionally a little indistinct, but eventually picks up the west bank of Nant Cwm-da. Not long after, you’ve regained the outward route.