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The Watkin Path – A Complete Guide

Climb Snowdon - Watkin Path Guide

The Watkin Path is renowned as the most challenging of the six main routes up Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon). But does it live up to its fearsome reputation? And is it as beautiful as people say it is?

Our extensive guide to the Watkin Path covers all the essentials, from the route’s fascinating history to who it is best suited to and what you can expect. By the end of it, you will be more than ready to head up this glorious hiking trail and take on the iconic Watkin Path.

Trail Overview

Trail Length Approximately 13 km (8 miles) round trip
Elevation Gain Around 1015 metres
Difficulty Challenging
Duration 6 to 8 hours

History of Watkin Path

The Watkin Path has arguably the most interesting history of any Yr Wyddfa trail. It is named after the Victorian politician and railway pioneer, Sir Edward Watkin. Born in Lancashire, Edward Watkin was heavily involved in Manchester politics for much of his life and had a keen interest in public parks and nature, campaigning for more green spaces for the working poor in Manchester and Salford.

However, he was best known for his visionary railway projects and involvement with at least nine different British railway companies. Though he presided over the rapid expansion of railway networks in both the UK and other parts of the world, he is often remembered as the man who first came up with the idea of the Channel Tunnel and tried to link Manchester to Paris by train. Digging actually began, before fears that the French could use the tunnel to invade the UK resulted in Parliament blocking the project because it was perceived as a threat to national security.

At the end of his long and distinguished career, Edward Watkin retired to his summer home in Cwm Llan, on the lower slopes and foothills of Yr Wyddfa. While a path from Cwm Llan to the slate quarry already existed, Edward Watkin set about developing a path to connect the quarry and the summit.

The project was fully realised in 1892 when Prime Minister William Gladstone officially opened the route. He did so in front of a spectacular crowd of more than 2,000 people, forcing him to address them from atop a large rock beside the path. This rock is now known as Gladstone Rock and remains in place to this day. Watkin Path became the first officially designated footpath in Britain, heralding a new era for countryside public access rights.

Why the Watkin Path?

The Watkin Path is regularly touted as the most challenging path up Yr Wyddfa. And we tend to agree. It boasts the most ascent of any of the six main Yr Wyddfa paths and the upper slopes feature some exposed sections that would challenge anyone uncomfortable with heights or scrambling.

That said, Watkin Path is also often experienced Yr Wyddfa climbers’ favourite route. It is less busy than many other paths, offers exquisite views of the mountain and surrounding landscape, is perfect for photographers and moves through several landscapes and environments.

This means the Watkin Path is definitely one for more confident, skilled and experienced walkers. If it is your first time climbing Yr Wyddfa, you may want to start with a less intense path. If you have experience walking in more challenging mountain environments, nothing on Watkin Path will push you out of your comfort zone. However, it still pays to prepare well for your climb and ensure you have a good idea of what the route entails.

What makes the Watkin Path unique?

Compared with other routes up Yr Wyddfa, Watkin Path features more exposed sections with steep drop-offs, tricky terrain and paths that are not as clearly marked or established. It requires greater fitness, confidence in your ability and a head for heights.

However, the Watkin Path also stands out for the plethora of beautiful trail features you encounter. The waterfalls and pools are possibly the most famous attractions and are wonderfully picturesque in the right conditions. Hit the mountain in good weather, and you may be able to enjoy a mid-walk swim. The remnants of the South Yr Wyddfa Slate Quarry are also fascinating and the Bwlch y Saethau (Pass of the Arrows) has a long history that encompasses both miners and ancient Arthurian legends.

When to climb the Watkin Path

We recommend climbing the Watkin Path in the shoulder seasons, as these are the periods when you are least likely to encounter extreme conditions. If you prefer to climb Yr Wyddfa in summer, you may find the path a little busier. Protect yourself against the sun and ensure you have ample water.

Do not attempt the Watkin Path in the winter unless you have extensive experience mountaineering in these conditions. It will necessitate specialist winter climbing equipment and an understanding of how the cold weather affects the terrain and the conditions underfoot.

For a comprehensive overview of the best time to climb Yr Wyddfa, check out our in-depth guide.

Trail description

The following trail description is designed to give you a better idea of what awaits on the trail and help you navigate the route. As such, we include notable topological and environmental features and refer to them for navigation. However, walkers tackling the Watkin Path should be comfortable navigating by map and compass in tricky conditions, as mist and clouds can obscure everything but your immediate surroundings.

It is also important to note that the Watkin Path is not as well marked as other routes, making it harder to traverse if you are not confident in your navigation skills. We always recommend walkers carry a map and compass with them. But this is particularly important for first-time Watkin walkers.

Start point – Nant Gwynant

Most people begin the Watkin Path from the Pont Bethania Car Park. If you need a cup of coffee before you start (or when you return), the excellent Caffi Gwynant is just across the road in the converted chapel. From the car park, follow the main road left, over the bridge and then cross the road. Find the Llwybr Watkin Path pillar and stone steps leading into the woods and follow these upwards. You are now on the Watkin Path proper.

Initial ascent through the woodlands

The first segment of the path winds through ancient woodlands, where native oak stretches across the landscape, all the way down to Porthmadog. Depending on the time of year, you may have the pleasure of walking between bluebells and wood sorrel. It’s little surprise that the Watkin Path is considered to have the prettiest start to any of Yr Wyddfa’s routes.

You will continue following a good path up to a noticeably bowl-shaped feature on the mountainside. Here, you should see a rock formation known as the Castell rock. Looking up and left, you may notice a large cleft in the steep slope. This is Clogwyn Brith, a gap cut into the rock to facilitate the construction of a tramway for wagons transporting slate down from the quarry to Pont Bethania, Porthmadog and then out to sea.

Passing waterfalls and pools

As the path gains elevation, you should cross the old tramway and eventually reach a mountain gate marking your entry into open access land. You should see a spectacular series of waterfalls on your right. If you fancy a swim or want a closer look, a narrow path leads down from the gate. If not, continue on your current path until you reach the lip of the waterfall.

After passing the old crushing mill, the path forks. Keep to the right, as the left leads over Bwlch Cwm Llan to Aran. Shortly after this fork, you will come across the ruins of Plas Cwm Llan. This was the home of the South Snowdon Slate Quarry manager. During World War II, soldiers used this building as a target for shooting practice and the bullet holes are still evident today. A little further down the track is Gladstone Rock and the ceremonial plaque commemorating the opening of the path.

Reaching Bwlch Ciliau – The Saddle

After Gladstone Rock comes the old South Snowdon Slate Quarry, home to the miners who worked the rock here. It also marks the spot where the Watkin Path starts getting steep again, so prepare yourself for a more ferocious gradient and take a break whenever necessary. There is nothing wrong with stopping to admire the spectacular view.

The ridgeline above you is Bwlch Ciliau – a prominent saddle and a significant point in the journey. It is usually the first time you can see the ‘other side’ of Yr Wyddfa, with the gorgeous Glaslyn and Llyn Llydaw below. On reaching the ridge, turn left. The path to the right takes you down into the final stages of the Snowdon Horseshoe traverse.

Bwlch y Saethau and approaching the summit

Following the path between craggy rocks will bring you to Bwlch y Saethau (Pass of Arrows), a grassy area that makes for a great break spot before you tackle the last leg of your ascent. Legend has it that this is where King Arthur fought his own treacherous son, Mordred. King Arthur was wounded by arrow fire from Mordred’s army and, drawing his final breaths, carried down to Llyn Llydaw, where he was laid to rest in a secret cave.

Leaving Bwlch y Saethau, you will see another Watkin Path pillar. It marks the steepest and most challenging section of the walk. The rock can be very loose underfoot here, so take care and make sure you keep as left as you can, tracking a diagonal path across the slope up to Yr Wyddfa’s south ridge.

Rewarded with panoramic summit views

As you reach the ridge, you join the Rhyd Ddu Path and are just moments away from the breathtaking panoramic views that, in clear conditions, can encompass the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man and the mountains of Ireland’s eastern coast. You know you are nearing the summit when you suddenly see the windows of the summit building. Keep on climbing, there are only the summit steps left to scale! Though you may have to queue for the summit on a busy day, it is more than worth the wait. Take the time to enjoy your achievement and soak up the views.

Descending the Watkin Path

On your way down, remember to descend from the Watkin Path pillar you encountered as you joined the Rhyd Ddu Path. It is approximately 200 metres down from the summit. If you do not want to descend this initial steep action, you can also follow Bwlch Main and the South Ridge to Bwlch Cwm Llan. From there, you rejoin the lower sections of the Watkin Path and make your way back to the Pont Bethania Car Park.

Travel, safety and equipment considerations

We have written extensively about how visitors can ensure their Eryri adventure is as safe and environmentally friendly as possible. Rather than reiterate that information, we’ll point you in the direction of those articles.

Climb Snowdon and the Watkin Path

At Climb Snowdon, there is little doubt in our minds that Watkin Path is one of the best ways to experience Yr Wyddfa. Granted, it is a serious challenge for many walkers. But the effort is more than repaid by the sheer beauty of the natural environment, the quieter trails and the amount of history on show during the climb.

If you are tackling your first ascent of Watkin Path, this guide contains all the basics. However, if you want additional support from the Climb Snowdon team or would prefer to join us on a guided walk, just reach out via our contact page or call 01286 870870.