Backpacking the Rhinogs – a south to north traverse

by backpackingbongos

It has often been said that the Rhinogs give the toughest walking outside of the Highlands.  After spending three days of the May bank holiday backpacking across them I have to say that I agree!

It is many years since I did a traverse of the Rhinogs range.  Even then I ‘cheated’ somewhat by omitting the badlands of the middle section from Clip to the Roman steps by dropping into Cwm Bychan.  I have been wanting to get back ever since and traverse the whole lot, a mere twenty miles or so.  Two days are not quite enough time to get to Snowdonia and back and walk that twenty odd miles.  These are not ordinary miles, they are Rhinog miles!  Rhinog miles include waist deep heather, ankle snapping boulders hidden in deep heather, ankle snapping holes hidden in deep heather and then there are those ‘canyons’ to contend with.  It would also not be much fun stumbling around in those rugged hills when the mist is down.  Thankfully a bank holiday coincided with almost perfect weather, a couple of friends were free and a plan was hatched.

Day 1 – 6.8 miles with 950 metres ascent

To make the most of the Rhinog ‘ridge’ we decided to park up in the village of Trawsfynydd and catch the bus down to Llanelltyd.  Because Trawsfynydd is just off of a main road the buses are pretty frequent (although it is a little anoying to arrive just as one is departing).  It’s during the bus journey that you realise that Llanelltyd is over 200 metres lower than Trawsfynydd and the days walking will be starting at sea level.  We followed the sign indicating the ‘New precipice walk’ and started the ascent in earnest, hot work in the cloudy and humid conditions.  The path finally levels out for a bit as it reaches the shore of Llyn Tan-y-graig which was like a dark mirror hidden in the trees.  It was here that I managed to pick up my first tick of the year, found crawling across the back of my hand.  Nice.

After more steep climbing through the trees the path finally emerges and provides stunning views.  For the next mile or so is one of the best paths I have ever walked with regards to its effort to view ratio.  A totally flat grassy path contours the hillside with the Mawddach Estury almost 1000 feet below to the left.  A sublime walk and one which I wished could go on forever.

As we rounded the shoulder of the hill we could see ahead the southern most part of the Rhinogs with Diffwys drifting in and out of the cloud.

The next mile or so down into Cwm-mynach took absolutely ages and the route finding was extremely complex and with a lack of waymarking especially when it was really needed.  However whenever we turned around there was Cadair Idris giving a good solid mountain background view.

The road along the valley bottom gave way to forestry track as it started it climb.  There was a path marked on the map which climbs through the cliffs towards Diffwys, which we initially failed to follow in the right direction.  We managed to find where it started but a fallen tree was blocking it true direction, we blindly went off into the woods in completely the wrong direction whilst convincing ourselves we were on a path.  After crashing through the undergrowth we were finally on track along a perfectly engineered path through gradually thinning forest until the wilds of the Rhinogs began to show itself.

The way the path was built indicated it must have been constructed for the use of miners and as it wound its way up the hillside only a few feet at a time would be revealed through the deep heather.  Behind us the isolated mountain of Y-Garn got smaller as we gained height.

As we were getting towards the top the weather closed in, the cloud dropped and it started to rain.  It was a grey swirling world that greeted us when we reached ‘the great wall of Rhinog’.  A damp trudge down to Llyn Dulyn to camp for the night.  Unfortunately Graham was a bit more eagle eyed than I was and bagged the best looking pitch right next to the lake, mine was a good 50 metres away and a bit more rugged.  However he must have lost Karma points as when the wind picked up their tent was punished whilst mine had been pitched in a nice sheltered spot.  There was no socialising that evening with dinner being cooked in individual tents whilst the rain drummed on flysheets.

Day 2 – 6.4 miles with 990 metres ascent

It was a slow start in the morning as Graham and Rae had been kept awake most of the night with tent touching nose.  At least the wind dried everything off as the morning started to brighten, and I had the opportunity to soak up the views without getting soaked.  Llyn Dulyn occupies a high bowl in the hills and it great to be able to start the day at nearly 550 metres.

It was nearly 11.00am before packs were on and we were ascending Y Llether with views back towards our campsite.

We soon met again with the ‘great wall of Rhinog’ a great piece of engineering which marches across the hills for miles.  This was followed to the flat short cropped grassy summit which would be a great place to camp on a less windy day.

Following the wall north we were suddenly greeted with a view of the ruggedness to come.  For some reason the character of the landscape changes immediately from easy grassy slopes to a riot of rock, bog and heather.  A steep and loose path leads away from the wall and heads down to the jewel that is Llyn Hywel, probably my favourite mountain lake in Snowdonia.  The path contours above the lake to the right where giant slabs plunge down into its depths.  We sat for a while whilst Graham did a little easy angled bouldering.

The ascent of Rhinog Fach looks steep and daunting from the lake but it is much easier than it looks with a good path all the way.  It is a bit of a pull but the views behind more than make up for it.

From the summit the view north is blocked and dominated by the higher Rhinog Fawr.  What is not so apparent from here is the huge descent and reasecent in between these two very steep and rugged hills.  We found our way off Rhinog Fach by heading north and just before the minor summit descending to the west on a narrow path through the heather.  This joins up with a bigger path which we were able to follow to Llyn Cwmhosan without any difficulty.  All the while the next big Rhinog was taunting us!

During our descent we had been watching a couple struggling along a steep boulder and scree traverse through broken cliffs and heather high up on Rhinog Fach.  They took an absolute age to descend down to the lake where we sat having lunch and throughout their descent we often commented that we were glad we were not in their shoes.  It really did not look fun.  The weird thing is that when they passed us the guy puffed up his chest and started boasting of the amazing route down they had taken.  He then began asking us if we had seen their descent.  The conversation was a bit of a non starter as we did not act suitably impressed, so he strode purposefully off.

Throughout lunch we kept eyeing up the opposition trying to work out the best way up.  We could just about make out a very steep looking path almost opposite us, so decided to give it a go.  It turned out to be a good decision and although it was very steep it gave some entertaining easy scrambling and it was one of those paths which only reveal themselves a few metres at a time.  The views down were stupendous.

The path off of this hill was much more defined than the previous descent and we were often in awe of the geology that surrounded us.  One cliff was full of faces that resembled the figures on Easter Island and the cliff face had a strangle wave like appearance.

Somehow between Llyn Du and the Roman steps we lost the path and found ourselves crag bound with the security of the Roman Steps straight down below us.  Some hairy traversing along and between cliffs brought us to the summit of the Roman steps where we had a decision to make.  It was getting late, we were tired and we had run out of water.  It was decided that we would make towards the head of a stream a kilometre to the north.  Although tired and getting very thirsty, the terrain over that kilometre was some of the most spectacular and rugged I have walked across.  However my top Rhinog tip is to stick to the highest ground where there is a feint path which leads you along without much difficulty.

The map does not make it very obvious but the whole area is dissected by deep canyons which you have to descend in and out of.  However don’t lose that narrow path and all will be ok if you come this way!

The final canyon was the head of the river valley we planned to camp in.  We followed it down to where water was marked on the map, we could hear it under the rocks but there was no way to get to it.  We continued to descend with me in the lead when suddenly I disappeared down a combination of a steep slope and a hidden hole.  A six foot drop / slide and my leg was racked with agony, I yelled thinking that something was broken.  Thankfully it was not but I struggled to put any weight on it and I could not stand with my pack on.  Graham and Rae scouted on ahead for somewhere to pitch and water which was found about 50 metres ahead.  It really was a rubbish place to camp with hummocks and deep heather.  However I could barely walk and it was getting dark.  It had taken us nearly 10 hours to walk just over 6 miles.

Snuggled in my sleeping bag my leg was hurting and I was afraid to move it or it would start to cramp.  Soon after dark it started to rain, fat heavy drops beating down on my Akto.  The sound started to change making a wet sliding noise, I stuck my head out of my tent and it was snowing heavily and settling all around me.  It was May!

Day 3 – 8.1 miles with 510 metres ascent

It dawned bright and sunny and the snow soon melted, however it took a while for the sun to actually reach us as we were surrounded on all sides by steep slopes.  Somehow my pitch had been a lot more comfy that it at first looked, heather makes a nice soft bed once it has been flattened.  Once again we had to pitch a good 50 metres apart.

On the way back up the canyon we passed the only sign of the wild goats that live in these hills.

Once picked up again we made sure that we did not lose the narrow path as it went up, down and around small summits and bogs to Craig Wion.

A detour to the rocky top of Clip gave us the best view of the whole weekend, down to Cwm Bychan and the sea beyond.  We could see the route we had taken across the wild canyon lands and beyond.

The path continues to head reassuringly on northwards to the last peaks of the Rhinogs which rise above the 2000ft contour.  The further north you go the grassier and easier the terrain becomes.

The trig point on the summit of Moel Ysgyfarnogod gives fine views north to the main Snowdonia peaks.  We sat for a while trying to name as many as possible, Snowdon itself being a good reference point.

The cliffs leading up to the summit of Foel Penolau are much bigger than the map indicates.  In the picture below you can make out Rae on the bottom right and Graham ascending.  They give some nice easy scrambling.

The original plan had been to continue along the ridge to Moel Gyrafolen but time was ticking away and we had a long drive home.  We descended to the south and picked up a track which led to a minor road down to the dam of Llyn Trawsfynydd.  The vast size of the reservoir coupled with a strong wind made it feel like you were next to the sea, there were even oystercatchers along its shore.  We then crossed the extraordinary bridge across an arm of the reservoir and took a lane back into civilisation.  As we turned and looked back one last time at the rugged Rhinogs a farmer mending his dry stone wall told us a story about the hills we had crossed.  It involved breasts.

17 Responses to “Backpacking the Rhinogs – a south to north traverse”

  1. Great route, that description of boulders and heather with huge holes is so true, that area reminds me of southern off the path Cairngorms.

  2. Not a place for solo walking then! Must find someone to go with.

  3. The photo of the Wild Goat is so Metal \m/

  4. Wow! I’m going – now! Looks fantastic; I have to say again that your pictures are excellent. How did the damaged leg situation pan out?

  5. I recognise those scenes well!. A fantastic landscape to savour at length, not that you can really rush the northern part even if you wanted to.
    We had our eyes on a N-S traverse but in Autumn when the heather is in bloom. Pity you didn’t see the goats.

  6. Jamie, the whole area will be remembered for its heather, boulders and holes. Rugged but well worth exploring.

    Robin, not too bad for a solo trip as long as you don’t break a leg! Go though it is stunning.

    Hendrick, it was too smelly to wear as a costume!

    Pete, go now! Cheers for comments on the pics. The leg was painful for the first couple of hours but loosened up. Still gives me a bit of gip now if I stretch it too much.

    Geoff, you definately can’t move too fast across the landscape. I would imagine the heather gives a great display.

  7. The miles are slow there. Stunning miles to do. Looking at your route I see some good lines to use for a return trip. Mean hills and broke my trekking poles on them.

  8. Forgot to say Llyn Du is full of fascinating Black Newts!

  9. An excellent report that makes me, like your other respondents, want to return to the Rhinogs asap. You may see me perched atop Y Llethr later this year…

  10. AH the Rhinogs± Long time since I’ve been there, but you’re right. They are superb!

  11. Whenever I’ve been here I’ve only ever come across people near the forestry – I’d feel like someone had popped my balloon if I had to share them with anyone. Last time I was up here I took a wee vid of the goats – quite why I felt a need to do this is beyond me – to prove to myself I’d seen them?

    I notice than whenever I’ve hurt myself I am tired and hungry. Falling in a hole is my nightmare as I walk on my tod.Recently I have been chewing over what to do about falling into holes in snow – as you come off the tops the snow gets softer as you get towards the snowline: streams are invisible until you find them by crashing through

    • Its a great deserted range of hills Steve. We met a few people but only a handful which was not too bad considering it was a bank holiday. It was at the end of the day that I hurt myself, it was getting dark and I was tired. I always fear falling down a hidden mine shaft!


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