If there’s one thing I’ve learned about traveling in the UK it’s that you can’t let the weather deter you from getting out and seeing what you want to see, or you just might never see anything. (That goes for most of the places we’ve visited in Europe, too, excluding the Mediterranean. Lucky ducks.) After three years of traveling in this region of the world, I’ve learned to accept that warm, sunny days are usually the exception, and cold, often rainy ones are the rule. And so, while I will likely never embrace this sort of weather misbehavior with open arms, the past three years have taught me how to shake the dreariness off, put my boots on, and go out anyway. Because living life in the rain is always better than not living it at all.
Case in point: When we arrived in North Wales for last year’s late May bank holiday, the sun was out, and with it warmer temperatures. As we walked on a footpath through farms with newborn lambs frolicking through bright green pastures, birds singing in the trees, and the late afternoon’s sun rays warming our backs, I was absolutely, without a doubt positive we had not just walked through any old gate to a well-worn, public footpath, but the gates to heaven itself. The children’s storybook edition. It was one of those rare days where the atmosphere and my own personal desires truly were in sync, and I assure you, it did not go unappreciated.
However, when we woke up the next morning, the previous day’s sun was little more than a memory. It might have been raining, but we couldn’t tell through the fog. It was like the sky had become too tired and fallen overnight to settle in between the cottages and over the empty streets for a good, long rest. Had this been my first trip into the UK, I’d probably have settled back into bed, thinking I’d just wait it out, but this wasn’t my first rodeo, and I knew better than to believe I could win against a British fog in a battle of endurance. And so we went out anyway, bracing ourselves against the cold temperatures the fog had brought with it.
When it comes to mountains, hills, and hiking trails, you’re spoiled for choice in North Wales. Snowdonia National Park has a seemingly endless supply of possibilities for all levels of hikers and walkers, which made choosing how to spend the one day we had for hiking a very difficult decision. We had narrowed it down to a handful of trails appropriate for families and then on the day, given the conditions we’d be hiking in, we chose to go with the hike that looked like it offered the greatest reward for the littlest effort – Cwm Idwal.
Cwm (not a typo – I know, the lack of vowels freaks me out, too) means valley in Welsh. Sandwiched between the Glyderau and Carneddau mountain ranges, Cwm Idwal is an impressive valley in northern Snowdonia with the crystal clear waters of Llyn Idwal at its base and dramatic views of the surrounding area from the top. At only three miles from bottom to top and back again, and over mostly gentle terrain, we figured hiking Cwm Idwal would be relatively easy, fog or not, and we were mostly right.
The beginning of the trail, as we made our way to Llyn Idwal from the carpark near Llyn Ogwen, was mostly over stone steps forming a path that stays almost perfectly even, making the lake accessible to practically anyone who would like to see it. As we walked this path, the side of the cliffs forming the valley rose before us, but how high they actually went was impossible to tell thanks to the fog that, just as I expected, was still stubbornly hanging around.
When we reached the northern end of Llyn Idwal, I had to stand back a moment just to take it all in. From this vantage point, the cwm is its most impressive, I believe. With the lake stretching out before us and the fog-covered cliffs framing it on all three sides, it made for quite the moody scene. And then there was the water itself. Not only could I clearly see down to the base of the lake in front of me, but I could see rock formations under the water clear on the other side of the lake, too. I’m pretty sure we could have launched a penny across the water and still been able to find it later without too much difficulty. I’ve never seen anything like it before.
After taking a few pictures of the lake (and wondering for only the 1,000th time why I haven’t yet bought a wide-angle lens), we turned to the cliffs in front of us for the actual hiking part of our hike. From here, reaching our destination became only marginally more difficult, and the pay-off was easily worth it.
We took the route to the top of Cwm Idwal that begins on the eastern side of the lake. The path was fairly precise, and with only one minor deviation that had us crossing through a stream and soaking ourselves pretty thoroughly in the process, we made it nearly to the top of Cwm Idwal with ease. Once we reached the bottom of the Devil’s Kitchen, we decided not to continue climbing any higher. We were hiking in the clouds at this point and visibility of the surrounding area wasn’t going to be any clearer from up top than it was where we already were. (The Devil’s Kitchen is so named due to its physical resemblance to a chimney and the way it can look like smoke is coming out when clouds form above it just right, like the devil is cooking – clever!)
Despite the fog blocking our view of pretty much everything outside the valley, I was still blown away by the sight before us. The scenery reminded me so much of Scotland, where we’d been just a few weeks before, and it felt really good to be back outside again. (Fresh air and open, uncrowded spaces are something of a novelty to us now – ha!) I’m not sure if it was weather keeping people away or simply the time of year, but after we left Llyn Idwal, we were pretty much the only people on the path (except for a few climbers on the Idwal Slabs – so scary!). We sat up here alone, underneath the cover of some rocks, for a good while just enjoying the view, until the misty rain we’d been dealing with all day began to turn into a really heavy one.
Apparently, even though living in the UK has taught us never to let the weather get us down, we still have yet to learn the second most important rule about living in the UK – never leave home without your umbrella! The parts of us that weren’t drenched from our little stream mishap earlier certainly were by the time we made it back to the base of Cwm Idwal again.
We took a different route down that took us to the western side of the lake this time, and I’m not sure if we strayed off this path or what, but we had a lot more difficulty getting down than we did going up. The path was far less defined and there was a lot of scrambling over rocks – not an easy task when your jeans are sticking to your legs like they’ve been super-glued on! When we reached the bottom of the valley, the fog was even lower to the ground than it had been when we were in the same spot earlier. We could hardly see across the lake anymore, so we felt really lucky we’d started the hike when we did.
The only casualties of the day were a few wet clothes and two cameras that needed a serious drying out afterwards – a small price to pay for getting to see such a stunning piece of the Welsh landscape. If you’re interested in the specific route we followed at Cwm Idwal, you can find that here. There are also extensions to this walk that take in some other pretty stunning landscapes in the area, so if you’ve got more than a couple hours to hike, that might be something worth doing. For this particular route of Cwm Idwal, allow at least 2.5 hours from start to finish. Note: There is a paid parking lot at the beginning of the route, but if you drive a little further past that one, you’ll find a place where you can park along the road for no charge, making this outing completely free!
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