This group stretches north-east from Dolgoch to Bala. Dominated by Cadair Idris and the Aran ridge, both reaching over 2900ft, there’s a wide variety of hill types to enjoy – but it is fair to say, some are better than others.

This survey starts with the range centred around Cadair Idris and then moves on to the Arans. The remaining groups are: to the west of Cadair Idris, the Tarrens; in between Cadair and the Arans, the Dovey Hills; and east of the Arans, the Hirnants.

Jump quickly past Cadair Idris to:
The Arans
Everything else

Cadair Idris

Cadair Idris from Mynydd Moel

Cadair Idris

Widely regarded as the principal massif of southern Snowdonia, Cadair Idris dominates the landscape south of the Mawddach estuary. It’s a complex mountain, with six separate Hewitt summits, two magnificent mountain lakes (Llyn y Gadair and Llyn Cau) cradled in deep cwms, and almost as many routes to the summit as Snowdon itself.

I’ve been on Cadair twice, once on my cross-Wales walk in 2004, and again in 2022 as I closed in on my target of climbing all the Welsh Hewitts.

Monday 25 October 2004: Eisteddfa to Dolgellau, 13 miles

I first climbed to the summit of the range, Penygadair (2930ft), in October 2005, on my cross-Wales walk with my walking companion Dave Travers. We took the Pony Track route from Llanfihangel-y-pennant and continued along the ridge to the neighbouring Hewitt of Mynydd Moel (2831ft) – a fine peak of shattered rock – then took the NE ridge which stumbles down towards Dolgellau. See my cross-Wales walk for more information.

Tuesday 21 June 2022: the Afon Gadair horseshoe, 12 miles

When I was formulating ways to tick off my last remaining Welsh Hewitts, this walk to pick up the four remaining neighbours of Cadair Idris seemed like common sense.

Yet I’ve not seen any reference to it in printed anthology or web resource. Well, here it is, for those who want to try – it’s a big day out, at nearly 12 miles and just over 4000ft, but there are no real difficulties, and as it follows the ridge-rim of Cadair’s eponymous Tywyn-bound river, it’s a natural circuit in topological terms. But I’m glad I had a good day for it – I’d originally had it down for the last day of my August 2021 foray into Wales, but the weather was dire, and it was well worth putting off.

I set off on the track to Haffoty Gwastadfryn sheepfolds as Dave and I had done in the walk above, but then diverged on a track that encircles the hillside above the folds. Striking off through rough and pathless ground just before a stream, I climbed more or less directly to the unmarked top of Craig-y-Llyn (2041ft), to be rewarded by marvellous views over the Mawddach estuary to Barmouth and the Rhinogs.

The Cadair skyline, from Cyfrwy to Craig Cwm Amarch

Barmouth across the Mawddach estuary

It’s from here that the horseshoe properly starts, with a simple mile or so to Craig-Las (2169ft). So far, not a hint of the shattered rock that dominates the higher parts of the massif, though there is some lower down, with an ancient cairn passed at Carnedd Lŵyd on the way to regaining the Pony Track; but there’s more rock, much more, on the way to Cyfrwy (2661ft).

So I didn’t need to be on the Pony Track for long, veering left just before the first cairn on its ascent to pick up a long line of cairns that guided me along the most efficient route through the rock to Cyfrwy’s neat summit, dramatically perched 800ft above the deep blue of Llyn y Gadair, the famous arête – a climber’s route to the summit – to the left, the ridge to Penygadair curving to my right.

It was almost a shame to leave. It’s not far to Penygadair, but the hill was busy now – I’d only seen a couple and a solo before – and there are one or two interesting patches of hillwalker’s rock to negotiate. I looked out particularly for the wind shelter, which in 2004 was a welcome relief but today was understandably vacant.

There is a direct way down, south-west, to my next path but I forgot to look for it so retraced my steps for a while before branching left towards my final hill, Craig Cwm Amarch (2595ft). I was following the Minfford path, possibly the most popular approach onto the hill, maybe because it’s the shortest, or maybe for the stunning view down to Llyn Cau. There was a solitary tent at its outflow; lucky wild camper, I thought.

From Cyfrwy, looking across to Penygadair

Llyn Cau from Craig Cwm Amarch

Craig Cwm Amarch is but a stepping stone on the Minfford path, but of course it was of no use to me in descent any further. I was looking forward to the long south-west drop over Mynydd Pencoed.

My ‘bible’ for the Welsh hills, Peter Hermon’s two Cicerone guidebooks, promised this as a top-rate, easy-striding route in descent. And so it was, until the ground steepened and the path became less clear. Approaching a small cwm, what there was of the path seemed to veer right, cutting a corner on the descent – but this proved to be no more than a short sheep-track, and I found myself freelancing down rougher ground until the path beside the intake wall came into view.

Not quite the end-of-day delight then that I had hoped. But there weren’t any real difficulties, and all that remained was to walk through the Tyn-y-ddol farmyard rather than take the direct line of the footpath, all because I had a group of Outward Bound children behind me, and I didn’t want to be seen to be consulting my map. Felt daft when they got to the road first.

The Arans

The eponymous Aran hills, Aran Fawddwy and Aran Benllyn, form one of the best ridge walks in Wales, but they’re far from all this range has to offer. Essentially, there are two other groups, one centered around Glasgwm to the south-west, and the other rising above Bwlch Sirddyn to the east. There’s also a single outlier, Moel y Cerrig Duon, which rises east of Bwlch y Groes, and so is nearly one of the Hirnants.

Into the 1990s, the Arans were in the grip of a cabal of local landowners who did all they could to keep walkers off their hills. Anything that wasn’t a right-of-way they did their utmost to restrict, with threatening notices, padlocked gates and barbed wire. Many of the hills described below were essentially off limits. Things were improving by the time I walked the ridge, but only slowly. Thankfully, there’s no issue now, thanks to the passing of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000.

The Aran ridge

The two main summits – Aran Fawddwy (2969ft) and Aran Benllyn (2904ft) – form one of the longest and loftiest ridge-walks in all of Wales.

Dave Travers and I walked them on Sunday 29 August 1999 as part of a 12-mile linear walk from Dinas Mawddwy to Llanuwchllyn, probably the best way to complete the ridge though awkward if you need an easy return to the start (though not impossible by bus, changing in Dolgellau). We didn’t, we were walking part of the Dyfi Valley Way and used B&Bs at each end.

Two recollections. After a half-hour lunch stop in the mist on Aran Fawddwy, I led us confidently on what I thought was north, only to walk us round in a circle and return to the summit a quarter-hour later. Next time, I used a compass. And we just got down in time for a trip on the Bala Lake Railway. Alas no photographs remain but I’ve been able to reconstruct a gpx of the route. And one thing that occurred to me only much later: we didn’t visit the intermediate top of Erw y Ddafad-ddu, just a few yards over the fence. But that gave me an excuse to come back …

Monday 20 June 2022: Erw y Ddafad-ddu and Aran Fawddwy, eight miles

Black David’s Acre – the translation, apparently, of Erw etc – is quite unlike the two Arans either side of it, the culmination of a broad grassy ridge heading up from the east. So it seemed sensible to take this ridge to the summit, which meant setting off again from Blaen-pennant, as I had done a year before for the Bwlch Sirddyn hills.

It would have been possible to have walked along the Llaethnant all the way to Creiglyn Dyfi, but after the path to the bwlch turns north it’s untracked and quite possibly boggy, so retraced my earlier route over the summit of Foel Hafod-fynydd.

I’m so glad I did; the year before, I’d not been able to see the ridge, but in today’s beautiful conditions, I had one of the great mountain panoramas of my life.

The Aran ridge from Foel Hafod-fynydd

It was simple to continue down to Creiglyn Dyfi and no problem at all to walk up that broad grassy ridge. The top of Erw y Dafydd-ddu (2861ft) is just 100 yards or so from the ridge fence, but I opted to use the nearby ladder stile and turn south towards Aran Fawddwy from there. I was in a good mood, as you might imagine; what a shame then that the couple at the later summit, despite being in eye-line of my arrival and with my cheery hello, never made the slightest acknowledgment. Ah well. A bit more time on my own savouring all the hill-groups that I could count.

The summit of Erw y Ddafad-ddu, looking north to Aran Benllyn

The summit of Aran Fawddwy

The way back down started straightforwardly enough, down to the Aspain cairn and over Drysgol, but the path was getting sketchy now and I knew would run out on my descent back to the Llaethnant. This was a matter simply of take care down the initial steepness, plot the best course down to the stream, and then work out where to rejoin the track that would lead back to Blaen-pennant. On a day like today, it was simply a matter of taking the requisite care; in mist or rain, a far more serious, if not inadvisable undertaking.

Glasgwm and its neighbours

The approach to Aran Fawddwy from the south is through the wonderful Cwm Cwyarch, one of the grandest valleys in all Wales. If it were in the Lake District it would be a honeypot but here, somewhat off the beaten track and served only by a long and twisting single-track road, it’s relatively unknown.

Its western side is dominated by the 1000ft cliffs of Craig Cwyarch, above which rise the two Hewitts of Glasgwm and Gwaun y Llwyni; a third, Pen y Brynfforchog, rises a couple or miles further west. Eastwards, it’s all tussocky grass rather than rock, one of them the Hewitt of Pen yr Allt Uchaf.

As Pen y Brynfforchog is a bit cut of from the others, I took it as a simple up-and-down from Bwlch Oerddrws, which gave a nice 1200ft start. The others though form an excellent day out from the head of Cwm Cwyarch.

Looking north from the summit of Pen y Brynfforchog

Wednesday 14 July 2021: Pen y Brynfforchog from Bwlch Oerddrws, 2½ miles

Most people park at the bwlch to head south onto the Dovey Hills (see below), but today I was looking north. It’s a steep start, on the eastern side of the fence, but after I while I trended right on some useful-looking sheep tracks. The going is nowhere especially difficult; take what you fancy, though in poor visibility I would probably have stuck to the fence. It makes sense though to take the fence from spot height 564; the only decision is whether to cross the fence by one of two ladder stiles. I didn’t, which put me on the wrong side of the 2247ft summit, though it was only a moment’s work to reach it from a fence junction.

Thursday 15 July 2021: Glasgwm and its neighbours from Cwm Cwyarch, nine miles

I was staying in an Air BnB at the farm of Blaencwyarch, probably the best spot to begin and end this wonderful round; there’s a car park nearby for day trippers. It’s an easy start, by the slowly-rising Drysgol path north-east out of the valley, before taking a right-hand turn beside the fence on ground that rises steeply to Pen yr Allt Uchaf (2030ft). It’s not masses of fun, just 30 minutes of hard grind, and the summit isn’t that exciting when you get there.

Still, things improve, with long views left down Cwm Hengwm to the left and the Aran ridge ahead of you all the way to the Aspain cairn at Drws Bach. The cairn, which commemorates a victim of summer lightning strike – sobering thought – is an important junction on one of the two main approaches to the Aran ridge. For me, however, it meant striking out on less frequented ground west then veering south, around the cliff edge of Craig Cwyarch, to gain the summit of Gwaun y Llwyni (2247ft). Now, this was a warm, nearly too warm, wall-to-wall summer sunshine day, with light winds; but how come a summit, any summit, manages to be the midgiest place of the day? This was meant to be lunch stop, but I did not linger.

The head of Cwm Cwyarch, with Craig Cwyarch to the left

Cwm Hengwm, with the Pen yr Allt Uchaf ridge to the left

Gwaun y Llwyni

The summit of Glasgwm

The section from here to Glasgwm (2556ft) is the most complex of the day. Two stream-heads have to be negotiated, and there’s some boggy ground between them, plus this round is not so well-travelled that paths have resolved themselves into one obvious track. In mist this would need a great deal of careful thought, and even today I had to keep careful note of my navigation. Once the fence heading SW to Glasgwm is encountered, of course, things are much easier.

And the summit of Glasgwm is a wonderful place to be. It has not one but two summit llyns, the tiny Llyn Bach and the bigger Llyn y Fign. This would be a great place for a summit wild camp, and a dip was sorely tempting – I had not seen a soul all day, other than a lone walker half a mile away earky on, remarkably for such great weather.

Skirting the larger llyn, it’s then easy to drop slowly southwards and pick up the miners’ track that slices through the crags – always good to have a straightforward way home in dramatic surroundings.

The Bwlch Sirddyn hills

Easily forgotten, these, a small group of three hills rising above Bwlch Sirddyn to the east of the main Aran ridge. They are probably fantastic for views of the ridge but the day I climbed them the mist and drizzle put paid to any such fancy ideas.

Plus, just fitting in to Snowdonia’s eastern boundary, there’s one other hill, Moel y Cerrig Duon, on the other side of the motor road that runs across Bwlch y Groes. No doubt one could walk to it from the other bunch but by all accounts it’s peat hags all the way. I did what seemed sensible and drove up to the bwlch after finishing the others. See The Hirnants below for a description.

Tuesday 17 August 2021: the Bwlch Sirddyn hills from Blaen-pennant, six miles

There’s room for a couple of small cars at the bottom of the Bwlch y Groes road, where a gate gives access to the farm of Blaen-pennant. Go a few paces and look right: the magnificent notched ridge of Tap Nyth-yr-eryr, the Eagle’s Nest, gloriously worthy as a home for the greatest raptors. What delight to scramble along this airy crest!

The Tap Nyth-yr-eryr ridge

Well maybe. This ridge is quite disconnected from the three hills of this round and trust me gazing up towards it was as exciting as the day was to get.

Let’s press on. A right-of-way runs west into Cwm Llaethnant and later north across Bwlch Sirddyn into Cwm Croes. In the bad old days when access was a problem in the Arans, it was one of the few routes that walkers could use; I remembered that Dave Travers and I took it in 1999, when walking back from Llanuwchllyn the day after the Aran ridge.

The path/track rises up into a hanging valley and then turns north by a couple of zig-zags. Across the Ceunant y Briddell – ‘ceunant’ means ravine or canyon, which seems a bit excessive here – rises Foel Hafod-fynydd, which was to be the last of this group today; I noted the fence running down from its summit, which I would be taking later. Projecting its line to my track, I turned off left up the steep slope to Llechwedd Du (2014ft).

That section to the summit was pathless, but I was pleased to see a reasonably clear path running north and cleverly avoiding the worst of the peat. I lost it a bit after the dip but there’s a fence to help you all the way to the top of Esgeiriau Gwynion (2201ft). With the deep cwm of Cwm Du to the west, I guessed this would be a great spot to view Aran Benllyn, if not the whole main ridge.

Alas no such joys for me today. I turned down the south-west slope to the high point of Bwlch Sirddyn, wondered what it was like back in the twentieth century, and continued up the other side. The cloud broke a little and I could see that the third hill, Foel Hafod-fynydd (2260ft), had a proper ridge of its own; easily the best walking of the day. Indeed this could be an attractive route onto the main Aran ridge, after dropping down nearly as far as Creiglyn Dyfi, source of the river. I had to take this on trust today of course.

The route back is quite steep down into the ‘ravine’ – maybe not a bad word after all – but I was soon back on the track to Blaen-pennant, and one last wistful glance to where the eagles live.

The summit of Foel Hafod-fynydd

Looking back to Foel Hafod-fynydd from Cwm Llaethnant

Other hills of southern Snowdonia

The remaining hills in this part of the world resolve themselves into three groups: the Tarrens, the Dovey Hills, and the Hirnants. Cadair Idris is, roughly, in between the first two groups, and the Arans between the last two.

The Tarrens

The two southernmost hills of the group. Tarren y Gesail (2188ft) is the higher, and better. Dave Travers and I climbed it on a 12-mile walk from Pennal to Corris on Friday 27 August 1999, as a diversion from the Dyfi Valley Way, which crosses its lower slopes. Though a straightforward hill rising out of forestry, there’s a good aspect from the east where the summit rises above a finely-sculpted cwm. My Landranger map showed far more forestry than there actually was; I wrote a letter to the OS complaining, and it seemed to have an effect on new versions.

On the way down, we had time to visit the wonderful Centre for Alternative Technology. We arrived on foot so it was free!

Dave and I were back five years later, as part of my cross-Wales walk, to cross Tarrenhendre (2080ft). It is little more than a featureless lump, and very much one for completists only.

The Dovey Hills

Slightly awkward, this group; the three Hewitt summits are just three miles apart, so a nice linear route would do just fine. There is one too, it’s part of the Cambrian Way from Mallwyd to the summit of the A487, and if you’re up to this uber-tough 300-mile trail, enjoy it. There’s no easy way of getting back from end to start so good luck with that.

Most mortals have the benefit of a 1200ft start at Bwlch Oerddrws, but the downside is there’s an awful lot of double-backing on an inverted T shape, and to cap it all the ‘centre’ of the T is the god-awful Cribin Fawr. Maybe it’s nice if you can see stuff, but I had a day when the mist was down and my knee was hurting. Joys.

Wednesday 18 August 2021: the Dovey Hills from Bwlch Oerddrws, eight miles

There’s a wonderful start. A beautifully-made path takes a careful line round a host of crags to an old quarry nearly 2000ft up. In dreich weather I’d not expected to see a soul today but about halfway to the quarry I met, descending, a grand-dad (probably) and his eightish-year-old grandson. Both seemed to be having a grand time. (I think I was parked next to mum, who was sitting this one out.) “We’ve been to a canyon,” said little one. “Quarry,” corrected the elder. Well, when you get there, canyon is pretty damn close; a great fissure in the rock, dug out by hand, that leads to an abyss in the earth. Don’t get too close to the edge.

What a great highlight. Cribin Fawr (2162ft) is alas bathos, a forlorn wooden post in the midst of a slightly-bulging mound of rough grass. Never mind, move on, keep following the fence (there’s a lot of fence-following today but I’m not knocking it as I couldn’t often see where I was going), trending SE to Waun-oer (2200ft). It’s a steep climb out of the bwlch between the hills, with bits of slippery slate to be careful of. The summit is at least a trig point, a bit more classy than the one before. Just be mindful of the slippery slate in descent; I used my fifth point of contact, just in case.

According to the OS, there’s a little path which lets you avoid a return to Cribin Fawr, if you don’t mind climbing over a fence. Well, I climbed the fence, but to no sign of path. The ground isn’t fun, but it’s not too bad, so I continued, onto the main ridge as used by the Cambrian Way. It’s rather up and down, three times getting down to around 1800ft, and I can imagine it would be sensational on better days, especially the central dip above the sheer drop of Craig Portas.

The trig point on Waun-oer

The ridge west from Craig Portas, in the day’s best visibility

The last rise is the slowest, to Maesglase (2226ft). The best thing about the twin-topped summit plateau of Maesglase is that the higher top is the nearer, western one, so there’s a bit less squelchy ground to cross. Beside the summit cairn I did though find I little heathery dip in which to eat my summit sandwich.

Nothing more for it but to wend my way back. It’s still a cracking quarry.

The Hirnants

This group of hills just fits in to Snowdonia’s south-eastern corner. I made a start on them in 2021, when I made the simple ascent of Moel y Cerrig Duon, and a couple of months later came back for Foel Cwm Sian Llwyd. The remaining four fitted into my trip of June 2022.

Tuesday 14 August 2021. Moel y Cerrig Duon from Bwlch y Groes, two miles

I climbed this straight after the Bwlch Sirddyn hills, above. From Blaen-pennant, it’s only a mile-and-a-half up the road to Bwlch y Groes, but there’s a 1000ft height difference. This makes it a rite of passage for serious cyclists, though I’m sure they enjoy the descent the other side. The bwlch has a large car park, no doubt giving welcome breathing space to the cyclists, but for me it was the start of the easy 25-minutes-each-way jaunt to Moel y Cerrig Duon (2051ft).

There’s a clear if mostly wall-bound path all the way and not too much claggy stuff, so I quite enjoyed this, especially as the Moel itself is quite a pronounced little bump and it has a proper cairn.

Moel y Cerrig Duon

Monday 11 October 2021. Foel Cwm-Sian Llwyd from the B4391, two miles.

How hard can it be. The road is at 1500ft; the hill, around 600ft higher at 2126ft, less than a mile away.

However, there is heather. Not just a bit, but all over the place. A track helps as far as the Afon Caletwr, then you’re on your own. Not Rhinog-standard heather thankfully, but still a gruelling stumble with no easy bits until the very top. But what’s thirty minutes in the grand scheme of things? And it’s a great view of the main Berwyn ridge.

I made it down safe too, finding a slightly better line in descent, and relieved not to have suffered the same fate as one local resident, whose skull adorned the trig point. (A trig point! Fancy getting all that concrete up there!)

foel cwm-sian llwyd

Foel Cwm-Sian Llwyd, with the Berwyns behind

Monday 20 June 2022: Foel y Geifr and Foel Goch, four miles. Wednesday 22 June 2022: Pen y Boncyn Trefeilw and Foel Cedig, six miles.

Both these pairs of hills can be climbed with a 1650ft start at Bwlch Cwm Hirnant, high point of the road from Bala to Llyn Vyrnwy. I fitted in the first in the late afternoon following my climb of Erw y Ddafad-ddu (above), and the second on my way home.

(A more proper hill walk of all four in one go would start at the bottom of the pass, find the best way up onto Foel Goch, then take the remaining three hills via the bwlch. Return to the start by the good track / path running north from Pen y Cerrig Duon.)

The summit of Foel y Geifr

The shorter walk is the harder: lots of heather, not always a track. There’s a bit of a marshy depression soon after the start but there is a clear enough track most of the way up Foel y Geifr (2054ft), though if it goes all the way to the top I lost it on the final approach. Then it’s just a matter of following the fence over the intermediate top of Trum y Gwrgedd to Foel Goch (2011ft). On the way down, I cut a corner from the Geify / Gwrgedd col back to the path I’d used on descent, meaning a heather-bash that might not have been worth the effort.

Back at the bwlch a couple of days later, and what was, a few years ago, six miles of heather purgatory, was now the simplest of all hill-walks thanks to a Land Rover track. I’m not always in favour of such things, but I’ll make an exception in this case.

Both hill-tops are a little off the track, but only by 100 metres or so. The top of Pen y Boncyn Trefeilw (2119ft) is split by a barbed wire fence, but that of Foel Cedig (2189ft) is really rather nice, a compact little thing, with a smashing view to almost every hill of Snowdonia. One to relish, and I wished I’d bought my binoculars, to resolve the ‘Lliwedd or Tryfan’ question, as fifty years of hillwalking in Wales flew through my mind.

The view north from Foel Cedig