I had intended to write a trip report following my short break in the Rhinogydd, giving you the full low down on my route, camping options, trip budget breakdown and location of local amenities. In short, all the things you might need to recreate a trip of your own to this little-visited area of North Wales. However, as I looked at the rough draft I thought to myself ‘this is not the spirit of these little mountains’. The truth, is that this tiny geographical area begs to be explored for yourself, as if you were discovering it for the first time. Because this is how I felt, and I would like this for you too, should you find yourself inspired to visit this part of the Snowdonia National Park.
Instead, I thought I would simply tell you about my trip as it happened and my impressions of the area. I’m not new to North Wales – I have been going for years since a child, and then after a teenage-length hiatus, as an adult – but like so many others I had never made it this far south, which is maybe only 25km from the Snowdon massif in crow-flight. I was curious to see this area that The Tourists reputedly don’t get to, the terrain of which has been dubbed ‘the Celtic badlands’ and ‘the roughest south of Knoydart’. Indeed, it didn’t take me long to discover for myself that the Rhinogydd are home to at least two boutique peaks (by my own definition): Rhinog Fawr and Rhinog Fach, which translated means Big and Little Threshold, respectively.
As it turns out threshold is a wonderfully appropriate word for this area: a place where you cross from the North Wales you thought you knew, to a hidden-away world where time is mysteriously lost in the beat of a dragonfly wing. I had come away to Wales by myself as a chance to relax, unwind after a long few months and take it easy in the kind of environment that makes me feel settled and rested, but I didn’t expect to find such a different type of atmosphere in the Rhinogs compared to elsewhere in Snowdonia. I only had two days and nights to make an initial exploration of the area, and the first of those was mired with rain and low cloud making time in the hills pointless and not in the spirit of my trip on this occasion (there are times for toughing out the weather but this wasn't one of them). But on day two the weather gloriously broke and I had my chance to pack up my tent and head deeper into the hills.
Though relatively low at a peak of 750m, the Rhinogydd enjoy a degree of vertical prominence owing to the surrounding area which rolls away to the sea in the west, and hinterland meadows and lower hills to the east. They are situated within the Harlech Dome, which is a geological anticlinal structure, which manifests itself at the surface as broken up hard sedimentary rocks mixed with gritstone crags and myriad intrusive and extrusive volcanics. The whole area is old (up to 500 million years old in fact) and has subsequently been levelled from former heights exceeding 7000m by millennia of erosion and more latterly glaciation. This means you can still see good examples of glacial deposits and moraines as well as boulder erratics strewn across the landscape. The area is also home to beautiful glacial valleys, and I will come back to one of those shortly. It didn’t take me long to realise that there was a truth to the assertion that the pathways in this area are underused, under developed in places and often hard to find. But for me, this held the appeal not least because I was in the mood for a bit of map reading! In fact, it took me a good ten minutes to find my route up Rhinog Fawr, which turned out to be in front of me all along but was so overgrown and narrow as to be virtually non-existent.
For anyone inexperienced in the hills considering walking here, I would encourage you to take a map and a more experienced friend, because whilst you’re never very far from civilisation, it's the kind of area where you might not see another person for days. Not ideal when you're lost in bad weather or in trouble after a fall. Though this isn’t likely, the ground is rough and large swathes of blocky slope are heather covered; notorious ankle breaker territory. In addition, at least one descent route down from Fawr requires a lengthy, scree slope negotiation starting in a steep gully with large loose boulders grading down to small unstable fragments. But assuming that you take a friend (and I’m almost always open to cake bribery) you will be rewarded by a beautiful landscape from sea-level to summit, and as you pass over the threshold into the mountain environment things start to get really special and worth slowing down for.
The Rhinogs, as I discovered, are a bioreserve that form part of a broader European network set up to preserve important genetic variety in British wildlife. The area is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a National Nature Reserve and a Special Area of Conservation. This little area truly has more wildlife in it than I have seen on any mountain in years. Any route in this area, at this time of year will invariably take you through purple seas of foxglove, busily moving under the collective weight of their companion bees and as you move up slope you begin to see exotic-looking heath spotted orchid populating the damp, grassy terraces between rocks, along with common cotton grass and hare’s tail cottongrass.
I spent a long time in the boggy middle ground between sea and summit, enjoying the warm and heavy air thick with blue damselflies scooting around me, and feeling quite in the way. After that, came the ling and bell heather that populates the hillside turning them purple in the height of their bloom, and looking carefully it was possibly to notice heath bumblebees going about their work, distinguishable from the garden variety by their white bottoms and straw-coloured yellow parts! Add to this grasshoppers, thick blanketing of english stonecrop, the occasional lizard, sessile oak and mountain ash, and you have plenty to distract you from ever getting to the top. Picking may way through loose, scrappy boulders with so much natural noise around me was a pure delight. I couldn’t hear cars, planes or even other walkers and I realised with a touch of melancholy that this has been sadly missing from some of my mountain walks in recent times. Whilst it is easy to wait for a photo opportunity without a person in it almost anywhere in the UK (you've seen those photos too right!), it is increasingly difficult outside of the Scottish Highlands to find accessible areas that aren’t frequented with other people. Not that there is a problem with like minded outdoor folk of course, only that sometimes it is nice to breathe heavily and deeply in the company of only yourself.
The summit of Rhinog Fawr is a treat for all lovers of a landscape panorama. To the west and north-west on a good day you have unbroken views of the Llyn Peninsula and north Welsh coast, and to the north east the higher part of Snowdonia opens before you. To the south you can gaze over the southern extent of the Rhinogydd (including it's highest peak, Y Llethr) and on to the perennially popular Cadair Idris. From this vantage you can make out the top of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) and spend all the time in the world alone on the backbone of the Rhinogs as it lies quietly and unassumingly under your feet.
I descended Rhinog Fawr into a beautiful SW-NE orientated glacial valley (Bwlch Drws Ardudwy) that narrowly separates the twin peaks. The valley is passable on foot without going up either of the hills and indeed this would be an interesting walk from inland areas to the coast. However, I went from the top and it took me a hot and sweaty hour moving down the scree slope interrupted only to take photos of the opposite side of the valley, and to eat lunch as I watched the sun shine onto Llyn Hywel which nestles beneath the summit of Rhinog Fach. I knew I wouldn’t have time for the full traverse as I had to head home before Friday traffic, but I made a note to myself to return at the earliest possible chance to complete the pair together with a wild camp up at one of the emerald blue hidey-hole glacial relic tarns (of which there are many in this area that you might stumble upon).
Once I was in the valley I was struck by the other-worldly feel that came upon me as I crossed through prehistoric-type ferns in the semi-bog underfoot. Each frond thwacking my calves and leaving a scratchy-wool itch as it went. Above me? the energised screeching of real-life raptors, possibly Peregrines, nesting in an adjacent rock face. It was so bright I couldn’t get a good look, but they weren’t buzzards and seemed too large to be Merlins though these are known in the area apparently. If you know what I saw please do drop me a line. I’d love to know!
Leaving the valley north-eastwards I felt sad to leave. What I found in the Rhinogydd was an utterly enchanting place, somehow older and more magic than the better known peaks in Snowdonia. Time in the Rhinogydd is time with an old friend that somehow you’ve never met, time to think about the good in the world, and time to contemplate your own longevity in the face of a nature that feels like it is truly thriving despite the encroachment on all sides by human civilisation. The Rhinogs leave you with a song in your heart in the way that only a good little mountain can. It hums a tune that’s hard to define. In part grateful, in part humbled, in part rested to the core….in part none of those things and entirely something else more primitive and stirred. Despite straining to hear, I can only just hear that distant music now, but one thing's for certain I immediately want to go back to learn the words.