Highways to heaven: the best roads in Wales
We’ve got some of the most scenic drives in Britain, which makes the journey just as much fun as arriving at your destination. So here’s a selection of mountain twisties and stately cruisers, with stunning scenery around every bend and over every crest. Just take your time and enjoy the views.
The A470 - south
If you’re going to do just one road in Wales, it really ought to be the A470, the main artery which runs all the way from Cardiff to Conwy, 186 miles, coast to coast. Start in the Welsh capital, then head up through the South Wales Coalfield to the Brecon Beacons. From the roadside you could yomp to the top of Pen y Fan, the highest point in southern Britain, in little more than an hour. From here the road skirts Brecon and on through rolling farmland and a succession of pretty market towns before arriving at the exact mid point of Wales, Llanidloes.
On the way: Cardiff is a great weekend destination, with its castles, museums and terrific shopping. Go to the Brecon Beacons visitor centre at Libanus for National Park info, and if you can coincide your trip with the Royal Welsh Show at Builth Wells, all the better.
The A470 - north
We’re going to cheat a little here, and cut the corner from Llanidloes to Machynlleth. The little mountain road past the Llyn Clywedog reservoir is gorgeous, with a famous local viewpoint that overlooks Mach itself. Cadair Idris looms to the left as you head to Dolgellau, then it’s up and over the mountains of Snowdonia through Blaenau Ffestiniog, down through Betws y Coed and Llanrwst, and along the Conwy valley to our final destination, Conwy itself.
On the way: Machynlleth is a favourite market town, and the nearby Centre for Alternative Technology well worth a stop. Blaenau Ffestiniog is your place for mountain biking, zip-wiring and underground trampolining, while Betws y Coed is the mountaineers’ main hub. Admire the 17th century bridge at Llanrwst before heading for Conwy Castle.
A4069 Black Mountain Pass
Also known as ‘the Top Gear road’, after Jeremy Clarkson was filmed driving it, this swooping mountain pass is a favourite with car magazine test drivers, bikers and motorists – and, consequently, the local bobbies. From a driving perspective it’s best tackled from north to south – especially the hairpin known locally as Tro Gwcw, or ‘cuckoo turn’ - but the stonking views of the Tywi Valley are best appreciated going the other way. Either way, slow down, enjoy the scenery, and savour one of Britain’s best roads.
On the way: Spectacular Carreg Cennen castle lies a few miles west, and Dinefwr Castle and the boutiques of Llandeilo a few miles beyond that. To the east, the Black Mountain’s highest peaks, the
Carmarthen Fans, drop dramatically into the legendary depths of Llyn y Fan Fach.
The Abergwesyn Pass
This lonesome stretch of rough single track runs from Llanwrtyd Wells to Tregaron through an almost brutally wild landscape of moors, escarpment, pine forest and scurrying streams. In the middle, there’s a hairily steep series of hairpins called the Devil’s Staircase. It’s not built for speed, which means its 20 odd miles can seem much further, especially when, as on our last visit on motorcycles, we didn’t pass a single soul for the entire trip (unless sheep have souls, which is a theological debate for another time and place).
On the way: Soar y Mynydd, the most remote chapel in Wales, is well worth a short diversion. Further south, past Llyn Brianne reservoir, is the utterly lovely RSPB Gwenffrwd-Dinas reserve. And if you fancy cycling the Pass, take your bike up on the train: the Heart of Wales line stops handily at Llanwrtyd Wells.
Aberystwyth to Rhayader
The Cambrian Mountains form the spine of Wales, and the prettiest route across them is to head out of Aberystwyth on the A4120 to Devil’s Bridge, follow the B4574 to Cwmystwyth, then pick up the tremendous mountain road that soars through the mountains, past the northernmost of the Elan Valley reservoirs, before eventually dropping down into Rhayader.
On the way: Aberystwyth is a classy resort and university town with plenty for visitors to do – including a steam train journey up to Devil’s Bridge (actually three bridges, built on top of each other in a dizzying gorge). The Elan Valley reservoirs were conceived by the Victorians to supply water to the industrial English Midlands, and the 70sq mi estate is now a tranquil paradise for walkers and wildlife.
The A5 from Llangollen to Snowdonia
The main road in from the Midlands is a popular holiday route to Snowdonia, but there’s a little treat for motorists prepared to take a 20 mile diversion up the B4501 and back down the A543 to rejoin the A5. This pristine stretch of tarmac is known as the ‘EVO triangle,’ after the supercar magazine EVO, who use it as a test route. North Wales Police know all about it, too, and are usually around to put a stop to any idiocy. We also love the stretch of A5 past Llyn Ogwen, hemmed in by the towering peaks of Tryfan and the Glyderau to your left, and the Carneddau to your right, as low-flying military jets thread through the mountain passes.
On the way: Llangollen is the white water capital of Wales, and don’t miss the spectacular Pontcysyllte aqueduct. Betws y Coed is the Wales’s most outdoorsy town, while Tryfan offers a short, sharp and exhilarating introduction to mountaineering. Near Bethesda, Zip World Velocity is the longest zip wire in the northern hemisphere, and the fastest in the world.
A lap of Snowdon
This route takes you right round the ginormous bulk of Snowdonia’s central massif. You can do it either way, but the best views of Snowdon itself come when you do it anti clockwise. From Caernarfon take the A4085, which quickly rises up into the foothills. As it crests the hill just past Rhyd-Ddu, look left up Snowdon’s gentler western flanks and you can see the summit café. Turn left at Beddgelert along the A498, then look left again for more glimpses of the summit, this time jagged and triangular, set amongst an awesome horseshoe of cliffs. Turn left at Pen y Gwryd and up through the famous Llanberis Pass. Its highest point, Pen-y-Pass, marks the start of the most popular walking routes. From here it’s downhill to Llanberis and onward to Caernarfon.
On the way: The Welsh Highland Railway from Porthmadog, up through the Aberglaslyn Pass and over Snowdonia’s western flanks, is unquestionably one of the world’ great train journeys (it also passes through Beddgelert, Snowdonia’s prettiest village). If you’re walking Snowdon, the quickest routes are from Pen-y-Pass – or take the train from Llanberis, where you’ll also find the excellent National Slate Museum. Back at Caernarfon, do visit the mighty castle.