It's difficult to overestimate the impact that the mountains of North Wales have had on mountain biking in the UK. Long revered by much of the UK mountain biking population, Wales still exerts a powerful lure on both expert rider and novice alike. Even now, there is still something in Wales for every stripe of mountain biker. The very first trail center in the UK was in Wales, at Coed y Brenin just north of Dolgellau. It was built over 20 years ago, and it's led to a huge surge of other trail centers around the country — and indeed around the world. They offer tailor-made riding experiences, they've highly helped Wales' economy, and they're a lot of fun. And yet there's so much more that Wales can offer.
Here are a selection of trails which range from gentle green lane ambles through to mountain-top carries (with screaming descent rewards). Some of them are relatively easy to get to, and some of them require a little more focus and commitment. But for all their differences, their varying lengths and technical requirements, they all take place in some of the most stunning scenery the British Isles can provide, and they'll all leave their mark long after you've finished riding them.
Perhaps the most well-known route here is the trip up Snowdon. There is a voluntary ban on bikes between 9 am and 5 pm in the summer, but don't let that deter you; either head up very early or very late, or wait until it's out of season. Honestly, in the summer, Snowdon is so busy that you'll not want to ride it in the daytime at any rate — but if it's quieter it's really not an experience to be missed.
The other Snowdonia Tours, Pont Scethin and Cadair Idris, are also high-level routes, offering wonderful descents and tough climbs (honestly, if you can make it to within 320 feet (100 meters) of Cadair Idris' summit then you need to be on some sort of Olympic team) but that's not all there is here: as the Tours head east, the terrain eases somewhat, and although they're no less challenging, the rides here offer different riding experiences. And there are one or two spins for those easy days, too — the Cilcain to Clwydial Range Tour has some spectacular views for all its 1,000 feet (300 meters) or so of climbing, and The Three Villages Tour offers some excellent scenery and refreshment options!
Few other places south of Scotland can offer the truly remote sensation that riding some of the trails here bestow, the need for preparation and the true isolation that proper mountain riding can bring. But just a few miles down the road, Wales can offer idyllic tranquility and space. There truly is something here for everyone.
This one is a cracker. Most people head to Llangynog for the Revolution Bike Park just south of the town, but for those who are searching for less adrenaline-fuelled mountain biking, there's plenty to be found in the area too. This ride is long, and there's loads of climbing in it, but the rewards are great if you can stay the distance!
It starts, as all good things must, with a climb. A relatively easy track (which can get muddy in winter) with plenty of fords - waterproof socks might be a good idea - up past the cliffs of Craig Boeth and Craig Blaenrhiweirth, before crossing the road onto the track which leads down to Llandrillo along the Afon Ceidiog and its many steep-sided tributaries.
After that, it doubles back on itself somewhat, and heads over the moors towards Cadair Berwyn. A steep descent follows, joining a track which leads eventually leads to a road. The Tour doesn't stay on it for long, though; it seen joins a track and runs down to Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant.
Yet more climbing follows up the slopes of Glan-hafon; it's a good track though, and nothing too steep - before the final hurtle down the steep-sided valley back towards Llangynog.
This is a great little route, although the extensive moor work past Llandrillo perhaps suggests it might be better ridden when the weather's been dry. It's worth it, though. Testing climbs, excellent descents and all the views you could hope for.
If the weather's poor, it's possible to avoid the climb from Llandrillo to Cadair Berwen, and instead take the track at due east Llandrillo which runs SEE to Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog, then the road south to pick up the route.
Although this Tour starts in Llangynog, it'd be just as easy to start in Llandrillo; there are amenities and space to park in both.
This is a grand, low level spin around some gorgeous villages in between Old and the Clwydians. Gorgeous scenery, green lanes, quiet roads, forest tracks and a smattering of singletrack weaves you through a variety of picturesque villages.
The route starts with a track, and some quiet roads to Nercwys, the first of our villages. Built along the road, this is a pretty little spot. More quiet lanes head then towards Maeshafn, another pretty village with a good pub. The first truly off-road section follows shortly after with a quarry track just south of Burley Hill; another then ends up in our final village of Eryrys, yet another pretty spot, which lays claim to being one of the highest villages in Wales (at 355m).
And then it's simply some more quiet lanes, and a final couple of tracks back to the start - the last of these is through Coed Nercwys. The main track (the Tour uses this) is paved, but there are loads of permissive trails through the trees which are well worth an explore if you've still got the energy!
There is a small carpark at the head of Coed Nercwys; it's a good place to start and finish if only for the run through the forest back to the start. Other possible places to start and finish are, of course, the three villages that the Tour goes through - they each have the advantage of a decent pub!
There are no trains unfortunately; the nearest one is probably Buckley or Hope - the best bet for this Tour by far is driving.
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This is a great little ride which is in no way technical, has (for the most part) only shallow gradients but affords riders an excellent view from the top of the Clywydian Range all the way over to Snowdonia.
It's mostly on smooth and open tracks, including the initial climb up from Cilcain - there are a couple of slightly steeper bits there and there but nothing troubling. Once off the road and onto the track, the route climbs up the north side of the valley before topping out at the border of the Moel Falau Country Park. From here the views are fantastic; on a good day Snowdonia is perfectly visible in the distance.
But that's not the best thing about the climb. There's a lovely singletrack descent as a reward which drops down to the reservoir at the bottom of the valley, and carries on down the ancient track from Moel Dywyll back to Cilcain.
Just before the Tour brings you back to your starting point, though the route veers off south to Bryn y Castell. From here, there's a stiff-ish (but not long) road climb which leads to the trail at the bottom of Ffrith Mountain. This is a fun, open descent which takes the Tour back to the Moel Dywyll track, where it leads back to Cilcain.
If you've got little ones in tow, or you simply don't fancy the climb to Bryn y Castell and up to the base of Ffrith Mountain, it's extremely easy to just lop off that loop and head back to Cilcain to make for a very enjoyable short Tour.
Cilcain itself has the typical amenities you'd expect in a village of this size; there's a pub, a shop and a post office. There are few options for parking; the village itself is probably your best bet.
If you're not feeling up to a hyper-technical gnar-fest, but you still want to get a few Welsh mountain bike miles in your legs, then this is the Tour for you. It's quite long, but not particularly technically challenging, taking in as it does the tracks and trails around Clocaenog Forest and Llyn Brenig.
There are a few climbs here and there, for sure, but they're all wide and relatively gentle - although some of them go on for a bit! And as you'd expect, the descents are also pretty straightforward, which gives you a little scope to enjoy your surroundings.
Once you've enjoyed the tracks and trails of Clocaenog forest, the Tour takes a spin around the reservoir Llyn Brenig, which is beautifully situated before striking out a little to explore Mynydd Hiraethog before heading back to the lake (and perhaps its very fine tea room). The Tour finishes back at Clocaenog forest before winding its way back to the start.
As it's a figure of eight, the Tour has plenty of options for cutting it short; a loop of the lake alone is a pleasant diversion, as is a simple route around the forest - and the Visitor's Centre does do excellent cakes.
The tour starts in Cyffylliog; there are a few shops and a pub, although there's only on-street parking. It'd be just as simple to park at the visitor's centre at Llyn Brenig, or at the car-park to the north of the lake.
The trails above Barmouth are often overlooked in favour of much more glamorous affairs in deepest, darkest Snowdonia, with Cadair Idris just to the south and the mighty Snowdon to the north. But, of course (this being Wales) there are gems here, too.
The Tour starts at sea level, and therefore there's a substantial haul up into the hills. Thankfully, it's road, and therefore as easy-going as it can be until it turns into a track at Sylfaen.
Climbing up still, eventually the route tops out at Blwch y Rhiwgyr - the old Drovers Road, and the first descent of the day. By turns smooth and rocky, this is a great fun reward for all that climbing, and it passes all sort of cairns, stone circles, burial chambers and other ancient archaeology, if you can drag your eyes away from all that scenery.
The route then climbs up past (and then round) Moelfre, via the old Harlech Coach Road before swinging back around to the eponymous Point Scethin - an extremely old bridge.
From here, it's likely a carry for a spot - or at least a push up the flanks of Llawlech before another superb descent back to Banc y Fran and back to retrace your steps towards Barmouth.
Just before it gets there, though, the route heads off back up the hills towards Gellfawr, and then plunges back down to Llanaber before a spin along the road to the finish.
If needed, this last loop can of course be omitted to shorten the Tour, as can the anticlockwise loop around Moelfre - you're still left with a ride with two cracking descents (and cracking climbs, if that's your thing)!
Barmouth is the start of this Tour - there's plenty of parking (although most of it is pay-and-display), and loads of places to eat, drink and be merry, as well as many of the usual UK seasonal beach accoutrements (deck chairs, donkeys etc).
There's only one bridleway to the top of Cadair Idris, which of course means that there's only one legal way for bikes to get to the top of the mountain - and back down again. Don't let this deter you, though; this is not a Tour to be underestimated. Sure, there are points where you'll be carrying. There are also steep rocky sections, staggering views, scree slopes, wide open grassy things, the occasional boggy bit, a healthy dose of exposure as you traverse the Ridgeline to the highest point, and a belter of a descent back down again - made all the sweeter by the fact that you know every inch of it, having just climbed up the thing.
The Tour starts properly once it works it way out of the town onto elevated singletrack to the left of the river far below. Eventually, it descends back onto the road, and spins on up to Llanfihangel-y-pennant.
Heading north from here, the route takes the path up the eastern flank of Mynydd Pennant, before striking out higher. It covers terrain including wide doubletrack, grass, gravelled singletrack, and the occasional ford. You will likely be pushing at some point on the climb, especially round Hafotty Gwastadfryn. It's all rideable though, if you've got the energy, but each time you feel the achievement of something cleaned, you'll see something else in the distance which will likely require even more effort!
Eventually the route meets the Pony Path from Hafod-dywyll. Down the mountain towards Arthog, this is a footpath, but it's a bridlepath from this point to the summit of Cadair Idris. And it's a haul- the final mile or so is pretty rocky, to say the least. There's a little stone pitching towards the bottom, but it's a slate nightmare from here on up. It's pretty much unclimbable, but it's an excellent challenge on the way down, so it's all worth the carry.
The final hundred metres or so is a scramble; you'd be better off leaving your bike at the bottom before an exultant trig point visit. Now is the chance to enjoy the views, if you're lucky - or check out the inside of a cloud, if you're not (most people aren't).
But the reward for all that climbing is the descent afterwards, which is glorious. From 'pick-your-line' slithery slatey techy bits at the top, through flat-out grassy blasts (the occasional bog not withstanding) all the way back to that lovely windy precipitous singletrack just above the village, it's a glorious romp which will leave you feeling exhilarated and having earned that extra slice of cake.
There's only one real place to start, the small town of Abergynolwyn; there's parking at the community centre. You could park further up at Llanfihangel-y-pennant if you wanted (there are one or two carparks nearby) but you'd miss out on the fun bridleway back to Abergynolwyn.
This is a glorious Tour, and probably the one Big Mountain ride that everyone thinks of in Wales. It's worth reiterating at the very start that there is a Voluntary Cycling Agreement which bans mountain bikes from riding up Snowdon in the summer, from 1 May to the 30 September, between 10am and 5pm.
Essentially, if you want to ride Snowdon between these dates, you have three options - you can ride up exquisitely early (a 5:30am start if the weather's good should see you up and on the return leg, beneath Foel Goch, in good time), or you can ride after 5pm - which is only advisable if you're sure there's enough available light. Another popular way to do it is to ride up after 5pm, bivvy on the top (be advised the restaurant will be closed, so take food and drink with you) and head on down the mountain good and early the following morning.
From Llanberis, the Tour takes the path straight from the town up to the summit. It's pretty straightforward; there's even a railway which follows the course of the track. It's open, there's little in the way of excessive steepness or technicality, but it's rescued from tedium by the astonishing views.
Once at the top of Snowdon, the cafe is available for a range of hot drinks and snacks (when it's open, naturally), before the route plunges down the Ranger's Path. This is an exhilarating descent, whichever way you slice it; switchbacks, very steep technical sections (mercifully short if you don't fancy the challenge and walk them instead) and loads of fun - and, of course, glorious views.
Then, it's on to the trail under Foel Goch - not as high perhaps, not as exposed, but a lot of fun - and very, very pretty, before you arrive back at Llanberis.
Snowdon is an extremely popular mountain. As a result, the Voluntary Cycle Agreement mentioned earlier isn't a real hardship - the Llanberis path gets incredibly busy with walkers of all ages, and it's honestly no fun trying to winch up when you're essentially in a crowd. And the majesty at the top can be somewhat (utterly) curtailed when the jostling hordes end up spilling ice cream down your neck.
It's actually much more fun to wait until the crowds have died down at the beginning or the very end of the day, or ride it out of season. Although as you can imagine, exercise prudence: you don't want to be riding the summit or down Ranger's in high winds, heavy rain or snow.
Llanberis is the sensible choice for starting - it's what everyone else does, after all, and there are plenty of amenities. There is also a small car park close to the Ranger's Station on the A4085 road opposite Llyn Cwellyn, although to reach the Tour's route you'll need to climb some stiff switchbacks.