After three years in the making, Cycling UK and Natural Resources Wales launched Traws Eryri this summer, a new 200-kilometer bikepacking route that crosses Eryri National Park in North Wales. Among the first to ride it, Katherine Moore gives her verdict on the Welsh rough stuff.
Picture Snowdonia National Park, or Eryri as it’s known in Welsh, and many will immediately think of a hike up Yr Wyddfa, or Snowdon; Wales’s tallest peak. For others, perhaps the park will call to mind the outdoor mecca that is Betws y Coed, or the slate mines that have characterised the landscape. Seasoned mountain bikers may give a knowing nod to Coed y Brenin, Britain’s first dedicated trail center, or even the Atherton’s territory in the Dyfi Forest. But I can guarantee you, very few will tell you of the many remote tracks that criss-cross the mountain range, a far cry from the well-trodden tourist trail.
North Wales’s popular national park boasts no less than nine mountain ranges across its 2,132 square kilometer area, as well as 119km of coastline. The area attracts some four million visitors per year—many of which head directly to the Snowdon Massif— and it is also home to 26,000 people, 58% of which speak Welsh.
Traversing Eryri from south to north, the recently publicized Traws Eryri route wiggles through the national park to take in some of the most spectacular tracks and roads that North Wales has to offer, hidden from plain sight and accessible to only the hardiest of riders. The terrain may not be impossibly technical, but with over 4,000m (~13,125ft) of climbing (the equivalent elevation gain of summiting Yr Wyddfa four times over), it is anything but flat.
Natural history and Welsh culture are wonderfully intertwined along this 200km (125mi) trail, from the route’s name—pronounced Trous (like trousers) Eh-ruh-ree (bonus points for rolling your ‘r’s)— which means “trans-Snowdonia”, to the many historic sites you’ll visit along the way. Taking in lengthy sections of Sarn Helen, an ancient Roman road that spans the country, you’re quite literally riding back in time on the rough, rocky trail.
This is a bikepacking route with clear intention. Anyone can make their own bikepacking route by linking up right of ways and local highlights—I should know, I did just that with the East Devon Trail—but Cycling UK takes things a step further with Traws Eyri. In tandem with Natural Resources Wales, the organization has been able to secure landowner permissions for a number of sections that would otherwise be off-limits by bike; short stretches of footpaths that take you off the busy main roads or linking forest tracks that allow you to stay hidden deep in the woods. There’s more still to come, with further off-road links to be made (fingers crossed) that will ultimately be dependent on landowner buy-in. It’s a trail designed to continue evolving for the better.
Riding Traws Eyri
Tudor whipped his camera out of its waterproof case and shoved it into my face; he loves it when it gets gritty. Water was pouring off my helmet peak like a leaky gutter, glasses speckled with droplets from the sideways rain. It was too warm to put on a rain jacket, knowing I’d simply sweat out from the inside, but now that the rain was falling heavier it felt a bit silly to only be riding in a thin top and gilet. The weather is always better on the coast, the friendly bunkhouse owner in Betws y Coed had told us, though we certainly didn’t want to rush our way out of the big mountains to get there.
The rolling mist over the slate mountaintops and babbling streams of rainwater under tires only added to the atmosphere of the place. Capel Curig was as close as we’d get to Yr Wydffa, or Snowdon, and I was glad of it. There was no sense in queuing up with the hordes to see the crowded, overtrodden mountain summit when we could be here riding the rocky Slate Trail past the imposing Glyderau mountains with only sheep for company. I’d feared the rain on our trip, but now I realized that it could actually really enhance our experience, not just detract from it.
The valley trail from Capel Curig to Llyn Ogwen had really been peak Snowdonia in many senses; close to the core of the mountain range — which most people make a beeline for — and characterized by slate, rain, sheep and the imposing rock faces that the national park has become known for, yet that was only one highlight of the Traws Eryri.
The first highlight had to be Fford Ddu, an ancient post-medieval trackway that leads from the hilltops towards Dolgellau. After a long paved climb from Abergnolwyn, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d actually mistakenly chosen a road route, but continue the climb and you’ll soon realize that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Dodging large puddles across the twisting mountain track, we rounded a corner past the forest to reveal the most spectacular panorama of the Mawddach Estuary and West Wales coastline, with rocky outcrops of the lower peaks further inland as we descended. Loose, rocky tracks often gave way to ruts and boulders, and the modern steel gates linking dry stone walls gave us permission to regularly pause and soak in the views.
Billed as a route best tackled on mountain bikes, the three of us—Sam, Tudor and I—endlessly discussed which flavor of bikepacking rig would be optimum. Day one had been manageable on a gravel bike with chunky tires and mtb-esque gearing, but our minds were quickly changed as we took in a stretch of Sarn Helen on day two, an old track with a much-debated history, thought to be a Roman road or possibly older.
The gravel climb out of Coed y Brenin had been manageable enough, but soon deteriorated into a boulder-strewn, rock slab doubletrack as we skirted around Craig Y Penmaen. Tudor cemented my belief that he actually is a mountain goat trapped in human form as he navigated his way up the steep, technical rock track without so much as a dab on drop bars. Meanwhile I took five attempts, much line-checking and encouragement to ride the techy section on my downcountry mtb to keep my 100% rideable score sheet clean.
After the effort and finally clearing it, we rounded the corner to an even steeper, trickier section. “Fuck it,” I thought, and finally embraced the hike-a-bike.
While the area isn’t blessed with a huge number of bridleways (off-road tracks accessible to walkers, horseback riders and cyclists), the route is almost totally routed onto surfaced tracks. This makes it a much more weatherproof proposition, and certainly more appealing for spring and autumn crossings than routes with more grassy, boggy trails. Hike-a-bike was pretty minimal too, with a short section through the fields near Trawsfynydd and a riverside scramble between rocks and roots to cross Afon Llugwy at Coben’s Falls Bridge.
While we eventually decided that, indeed, a mountain bike is best for the route (and perhaps Sam’s rigid Sonder Frontier 29er providing the best compromise over the full course) the Traws Eryri is far from 125 miles of singletrack. It’d be better described as a highly mixed-terrain route, still taking in some long (and delicious) sections of tarmac, though a mountain bike is a worthy choice for the unforgiving inclines and tackling the rougher stuff over multiple days. I swear, every climb starts with a lane at 20%.
The route is so varied riders can expect to: pass through classic Welsh pastureland with sheep and cattle; climb through temperate rainforest beside gushing rivers bordered by luscious ferns and mosses in native woodland; descend through a landscape past the Rhinog Mountains that could be easily mistaken for Scotland with a marshy loch, tall pines, purple heather and towering hillsides; and speed through the empty, tussocky moorland high above the Penmachno Valley. However the final boss of the route is a surprising conclusion to this incredibly diverse collection of riding.
On the route profile, it looked like tired legs were in for a real sting in the tail crossing over Conwy Mountain, but the reality—thankfully—was anything but. When I fall in love with a landscape this deep, my wonder seems to immediately banish tiredness from aching muscles. It’s probably why I suck at turbo training; for me it’s all about the places the bike takes you to, athletic achievement is always secondary.
Sloping lanes gave way to short technical climbs, back to lanes and onto grassy doubletrack again. The North Wales coastline stole what breath was left and more gates (old, forged iron this time) gave us the pause we needed to get it back. An old red Massey Fergurson 135 rumbled up the track ahead of us, seemingly matching our crawling speed on the testing incline. A few gates later and we’d popped out onto an open moorland, ponies with foals at foot enjoying their vast territory, with views out over the sea to the offshore wind farm beyond the Great Orme.
From the fast, open doubletrack descent along the Wales Coast Path to start to the rocky, twisting singletrack that ensued in Pensychnant Nature Reserve was nothing less than sublime. Five shades of purple surrounded us in the blooming heather with yellow gorse setting it off to a tee, the bright sunshine and blue seas lighting up a world of color contrasted to the morning’s dreich conditions along the Slate Trail.
The day before we’d taken shelter during a rain shower to eat our lunch in the cottage at Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant, the birthplace of Bishop William Morgan who historically first translated the Bible into Welsh. While eating our rather unappetizing grated cheese wraps, I’d been reading the information board about drovers’ roads. These are old tracks that would be used by people herding large numbers of cattle and sheep across the country to market, day and night, for months on end.
On approaching a farmstead along these routes, if there were tall Scots pines outside, it was a sign for the drovers that they would be able securely overnight their herds there, and find lodging and a meal for themselves, too. On our descent along the wide, rocky Wales Coast Path track over Conwy Mountain, we passed through an old gate to just that; an old remote farmstead next to an ancient track with towering Scots pines right outside. I beamed at the idea that we were quite literally following in the footsteps of these hardy folks, though in a hugely different context.
While some of the route highlights reach into some of the most remote corners of Eryri, the warm welcome you can come to expect when visiting the area doesn’t require you to venture so far. Welsh hospitality, in my experience, is some of the finest, whether that’s simply someone striking up a friendly conversation about where you’re headed on the train, or your evening’s host making sure you’re well fed and watered. As a go-to place for adventurous folks, you’re never short of accommodation options in these parts, and while camping is often part and parcel of the bikepacking experience, we took no shame in capitalizing on the great bunkhouse network around here for our second and third overnight stays.
Finally, what I really enjoy about the Traws Eryri is that it seems to wonderfully make room for play. As you pass through a major trail center at Coed y Brenin, as well as three other forests that host mountain biking trails in Mach, Penmachno and Gwydir, there really is nothing stopping you from ditching the bags and taking in some singletrack laps. Staying a night at a bunkhouse? Why not get overly competitive over a game of Trivial Pursuit to exercise the mind after a big day of pushing on the pedals? Get chatting with your fellow guests; no doubt they’ve got some good stories to tell, too.