For the last walk of this summer’s walking holiday, I wanted to try the last of the “Welsh Three Peaks” (Yr Wyddfa, Pen y Fan and Cadair Idris — although NOT within the 24h of the three-peaks challenge). I’d heard good things about Cader Idris.
But some days, you just shouldn’t walk up hills.
I’m kicking myself a bit because after 30 years of hill-walking, I should know by now when a day is a no go, and in all honesty, I kind of did know. But balanced against this was the knowledge that this might be our last day in Snowdonia for months. So we were tired, but also fit, right? And it was foggy, but the forecast said clearing over the afternoon, right? And the boys were flagging, but they wanted to go up, right?
My instincts said no, my heart, head and children said yes, so up we went, and as so often happens when people are tired, it all went wrong. The kids ached. The fog didn’t lift. I packed the wrong map (but had a back-up copy of the right map). Worse, we left the biscuits in the car. I accidentally turned off Strava before the summit. The summit sits next to a scary, half-visible drop-off so I couldn’t let them explore. All in all, it didn’t go to plan.
Of course, it was still epic… We put 10km of beautiful Welsh rock under our feet and have memories of the swirls of cloud that swept past us on both ascent and descent, and the croaking of the raven that followed us to the stile. And I might have forgotten the biscuits, but I remembered the sandwiches that their grandmother had made for them, and they pronounced her “legend” throughout the walk.
It was still a Welsh mountain walk.
We chose the Pony Path from Ty Nant (great little car park with an overflow car park and toilets – post code LL40 1TN) because it’s apparently the easiest and we hadn’t been here before.
In summary, from the car park, you turn right over a little brook and then left up the signposted Pony path, then follow the path all the way to Penygadair (the summit), 3 miles (5 km) away. All the details are listed in the guides below.
I’m tired as I’m writing this, but trying to think of what’s helpful to know…
OK, the ascent’s steady; there are no significant scrambles or flat bits. The path alternates between grass, granite, slate lumps and grit. It’s harder than the flat path at the start of Yr Wyddfa’s Miners’ Track, but easier than the Miners’ zigzag. In between.
After the initial southwards woodland / brook section, with cute little bridges, the path heads SSW to the halfway point where it turns SE towards the summit.
Most of the SE section is a loose, rocky path over a gentle incline allowing rest and picnics at the side of the path. Striking views show the convergence of North and South Wales — the jagged rocks of the north and the green flanks of the south blending around peaty pot holes full of rust-brown water. The path becomes less well-defined and the way is marked by a series of cairns — for this reason, the building of cairns is prohibited up here.
At about 4km, the path meets the ridge around Llyn y Gadair to the north, where the drop-off’s steep and deep, then follows the contour in a gentle SE/NE curve up to the top, finishing with a mild scramble over the rocks to Penygadair. Here the views are of course panoramic.
In our case, panoramic and grey.
Beside the summit (which is marked by a plain stone plinth), there’s a little shelter made of granite walls and corrugated iron roof, which is creepy and dark but still a comfortable wind-break.
The way down is as simple and lovely as the way up but it’s worth checking the compass because the rocky, shingly path isn’t always obvious in the rocky, shingly surrounds, especially in fog.
Good guides for Cader Idris:
Neither of these says go up in the fog with tired children.
So, should we have gone up?
I don’t know whether we should really have gone up today; it was a bit borderline. Being the only adult in the party, I sometimes have to make decisions to meet conflicting needs. Two kids were tired but willing and healthy, while the other was full of energy and keen to go up.
We must err on the side of safety, but children also need to push their limits occasionally, and how do you find these without trying? It’s usually clear, but not always.
Parts of the walk were AMAZING. Initially we chased the lower clouds — as we rose, so did they, for a while, and the sun did try to shine through. But then instead of burning off (as per Met office prediction), the mist lowered again and we were engulfed in grey (cue tight navigation). Because of the wind, a couple of times, there was a lull in the cloud and a valley would light up in the distance, meaning we’d be peering into the murk and then there would be a sudden, emerald spotlight for a moment, showing incredible views in tunnel vision, before it was swallowed up again. Ravens called. Rooks fought on the slopes. People emerged out of the fog like lost boats. It was magical.
‘I love this,’ said Eldest.
Me too, kid.
But as we approached the summit, one child started flagging in an unusual way and this is when I learned that he’d had very little sleep the night before thanks to Netflix and an iPhone under his duvet… (grrr, screens). He now had a headache and felt ill. Then his brother said he’d not slept either because he’d been too warm, and this one now wanted to curl up and nap. The borderline decision on whether to walk today or not suddenly swung clearly in favour of NOT, except by then we were already up there.
Sitting at the very top of a mountain in thick fog with two exhausted children gave me a moment’s reflection, and I was glad we’d chosen a short, simple route.
Still this tiredness, although not optimal, wasn’t all bad. We were never lost and never in danger: the weather was murky but warm, and the distance and elevation were both easily within the kids’ normal capability. They descended on aching legs, peering through eyes that wanted to sleep, hearing that they couldn’t sit and rest for an hour in the wind but that they must drink water, and being bitten by flying ants. It tested them, but didn’t hurt them.
We stomped down in a fairly graceless, close-knit huddle, bickering as I badgered them constantly to keep close to me and to watch where they were putting their feet. They managed to hold it together, and learned more than they knew before about their physical and mental limits (and the value of an early night). Meanwhile, because I love them and want them to enjoy the mountains, I learned that I can carry a woe-begotten 65 lb child and a 20 lb rucksack down a mountain slope without my middle-aged knees exploding. Yey, knees.
(It actually feels primal and lovely to carry your kid over a mountain — sort of Neanderthal and satisfying, plus also cuddly.)
For better or worse, you get to know yourself on mountains, and my kids got a taste of this today. It’s good to know both your body, and how you react to discomfort and fear. There will be other times in their lives when they have to manage situations that aren’t ideal. Walking up mountains can lay you wide open, mentally and emotionally, and it can be interesting to see what’s inside.
On the approach to the car park, they all said it had been worth it.
On balance, I’m glad we went.
Would I recommend this for children?
Definitely, in good weather. Cader Idris is beautiful and the Pony Track is pretty straightforward as both ascent and descent, with lots of grassy areas for picnics and rests. If your kids are fit and haven’t spent the night secretly watching Netflix, they’ll quite likely find it pretty easy. The views across the valleys are stunning. The ravens are magical. The air is clean. The cairns are helpful. The summit is fun.
It’s a fab walk for children.
Thank you, Eryri. Until next time.