Snowdonia National Park (Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri)
Wales' best-known slice of nature became the country's first national park in 1951. Every year more than 400,000 people walk, climb or take the train to the 1085m summit of Snowdon. Yet the park offers much more – its 823 sq miles embrace stunning coastline, forests, valleys, rivers, bird-filled estuaries and Wales' biggest natural lake.
Like Wales' other national parks, this one is lived in, with sizeable towns at Bala, Dolgellau, Harlech and Betws-y-Coed, and a population touching 26,000. Two-thirds of Snowdonia is privately owned, with more than three-quarters used for raising sheep and cattle.
The park is the only home to two endangered species, an alpine plant called the Snowdon lily and the rainbow-coloured Snowdon beetle. The gwyniad is a species of whitefish found only in Llyn Tegid (Bala Lake), which incidentally also has probably the UK's only colony of glutinous snails.
The Welsh for Snowdonia is Eryri (eh-ruh-ree) – 'highlands'.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Snowdonia National Park (Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri).
Edward I finished this intimidating yet aesthetically pleasing castle in 1289, the southernmost of his 'iron ring' of fortresses designed to keep the Welsh firmly beneath his boot. The grey-sandstone castle's massive twin-towered gatehouse and outer walls are still intact and give the illusion of impregnability even now. Entry is through a well-equipped visitor centre, with interactive displays, kids' activities and films detailing the castle's history.
The Mawddach Estuary is a striking sight, flanked by woodlands, wetlands and the mountains of southern Snowdonia. There are two Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) nature reserves in the valley, both easily reached on foot or by bike from Dolgellau or Barmouth via the Mawddach Trail. Arthog Bog is 8 miles west of Dolgellau on the access road to Morfa Mawddach station, off the A493, while Coed Garth Gell is 2 miles west, on the A496.
The 28-sq-mile Gwydyr Forest, planted since the 1920s with oak, beech and larch, encircles Betws-y-Coed and is scattered with the remnants of lead and zinc mine workings. Named for a more ancient forest in the same location, it's ideal for a day's walking, though it gets very muddy in wet weather. Walks Around Betws-y-Coed (£5), available from the National Park Information Centre, details several circular forest walks.
Even if you're not enraptured by industrial museums, ignore the dull-sounding name and check this one out. At Dinorwig Quarry much of the slate was carved out of the open mountainside – leaving behind a jagged, sculptural cliff face that's fascinating if not exactly beautiful. The museum, occupying the Victorian workshops beside the lake (Llyn Padarn), features video clips, a huge working water wheel, workers' cottages (progressively furnished in period decor from 1861 to 1969, when the quarries closed) and demonstrations.
Blaenau's main attraction takes you into the bowels of a Victorian slate mine. You descend the UK's steepest mining cable railway into the 1846 network of tunnels and caverns, while 'enhanced-reality technology' brings to life the harsh working conditions of the 19th-century miners – be prepared to duck and scramble around dark tunnels. There's also a tour of the quarry in a military truck (£20 per person). The first tour each day is half price; check the website for times and prebooking.
Recently opened in the Edwardian-era police station (hence 'Cell B'), this multifunction centre hosts everything from yoga to live bands to screenings in a 40-seat cinema. It's also the town's most appealing dining and drinking space, with a cafe and cocktail bar making clever use of original fittings. The final feather in Cellb's cap is hostel accommodation in three small dorms (created from the old magistrate's office and interview room; £22 per night), with a kitchen and stylish lounge.
You're unlikely to miss Barmouth's foremost landmark: in fact, you'll probably arrive on it, by train, on foot or on two wheels. Curving scenically into town, spanning 700m of the Mawddach Estuary mouth, it was built in 1867 for the new railway and is one of the longest wooden viaducts in Britain. Originally incorporating a drawbridge, it now has a swing bridge to allow tall shipping into the estuary.
This mine dates from Roman times, although extraction was stepped up in the 19th century. Abandoned in 1903, it has since been converted into a museum, with a half-hour self-guided underground tour containing dioramas that evoke the life of Victorian miners. You can also try your hand at metal detecting (£2.50) or panning for gold (£2). It's located a mile northeast of Beddgelert, along the A498.
More than just Dinorwig Power Station's public interface, Electric Mountain is a tourist hub incorporating a gallery, cafe and souvenir shop. It also has interactive exhibits on hydropower and is the starting point for a fascinating guided tour into the power station's guts, 750m under Elidir mountain. The centre is by the lakeside on the A4086, near the southern end of High St.