Finding the Magic Faraway Mountain: The Definitive Guide to a Perfect Family Vacation

Having climbed Wales’s Mount Snowdon with her children, a mother gives tips.  
At the summit of Mount Snowdonia, Wales.
Photo by Shreya-Sen Handley.
At the summit of Mount Snowdonia, Wales. Photo by Shreya-Sen Handley.

“Shall we climb Mount Everest, Mommy?” asked our son after having studied about it in school. He was particularly impressed by the tales of Himalayan hazards and heroism he’d heard, and wanted his own high-octane, high-altitude adventure. Being only nine though, he realised he would need his parents and his equally intrepid seven-year-old sister along, hence the question to me, quite out of the blue, one wintry English morning.

It sounded a good idea though, not the distant Himalayas perhaps for our Blighty-based family, but a British mountain holiday instead of our usual (albeit thoroughly enjoyable) seaside sojourns. So we plumped for a jaunt to Mount Snowdon in the summer, the tallest mountain in Wales and third highest in the U.K. at 3,560 feet. Besides that, the name itself conjured up visions of snow-covered summits, majestic slopes, and dizzying passes, that the kids couldn’t sit still from the excitement of our approaching holiday (Top Family Trip Tip #1: Natter non-stop about impending adventures because children enjoy savouring the idea as much as the experience itself)!

But even better was that, dramatic though it sounded, beautiful as it undoubtedly would be, Mount Snowdon was going to be a walk in the park, I figured, compared to a Himalayan climb. And that’s just the type of tepid adventure we parents wanted, now that keeping the kiddiewinkles safe at all times was our priority (though going easy on our old bones was tempting too). Therefore, the slopes couldn’t be too steep, the weather too inclement, or the fall uncushioned by springy green meadow, if a small tumble were to be taken while winding our placid way up. So, the weather forecast, the gradient of the slopes and the availability of shelter and washrooms at the top were checked and found satisfactory.


Snowdonian views. Photo by ChrisHepburn/iStock.

Then the summer was upon us, and with it the need to pack wisely. Children on holiday, as you soon discover, have the boundless appetites of Gremlins at midnight, and have to be fed and watered at regular intervals. And so our rucksacks, unlike most sensible climbers (those not transporting tots to the top), were stuffed full of biscuits, brie, ginger beer and yes, several copies of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five to consult should the going get tough. Who, after all, would know how to solve the little snarls on an English adventure better than Timmy and George, our daughter asked, quite rightly (Top Tip #2: Consult the kids when you pack your bags, only they know what enchanted and improbable objects they will need on holiday). And so we set off, on our idyllic dawdle up the mountains, our prance up picturesque slopes that would put The Sound of Music’s Maria’s Alpine pirouettes to shame. It would be a cakewalk, not a climb, and certainly no uphill task. Or, that’s what I thought. Oh, how wrong I turned out to be (though it did in fact culminate with cake)!

The unpredictable weather of the British Isles colluded in turning our holiday on its head and leading us far, far off the planned promontory. The Beeb had promised us sunshine, our hiking boots had had little workouts at the Welsh castles—grand Caernarfon and hill-top Harlech—we’d combed on our way, and our binoculars were poised and at the ready for magnificent rises and meadows strewn with lamb (Top Tip #3: When child is bored or upset, point out bouncing baby animal and all will be well). It had been pouring all night however, as it does often in beautifully lush yet undeniably wet Wales. But this round of rainfall had been extraordinarily torrential. In the morning, the clouds hung heavy over flooded ground, promising more rain and forcing us to change from our planned route to the mountains to less-travelled roads. But our aged jalopy, it transpired, was not quite equal to the task, slipping and sliding up slick mountain roads, before we decided to abandon it altogether. That proved to be providential, as unexpected turns often are on family holidays, because we left it by the most glorious lake, stopping a while to take it in as the sun miraculously peeped out. Before us was a twinkling expanse of turquoise water, with a darker undertow hinting at mysteries beneath, and deep green mountains looming behind. Lake Cwellyn seemed a scene from a Celtic dream of King Arthur and the Lady of the Lake.

Train ride in Snowdonia

When strong winds make the trek difficult, hopping on a vintage train is a good way to reach the summit in Snowdonia, Wales. The ride promises vistas of green valleys and grazing sheep.
Photo by Joe Dunckley/iStock.

But Snowdon summoned and we dared not tarry. There, however, another obstacle waited. We were informed on arrival that the wind speed had soared to 50 kmph that morning, making an ascent to the summit inadvisable, especially with children in tow. Deeply disappointed, we stood, buffeted by the very winds that would prevent our climb, wondering what to do. Despite our every effort to make it happen, would we have to abandon our long-anticipated mountain adventure after all?

“I hear a chugger, Mommy,” our little girl said just then, pointing to the heritage train station nestling at Snowdon’s base (Top Tip #4: Let your kids’ sharper sight and hearing find the silver lining to every washed-out trip; they’ll be cock-a-hoop about it). Gathering our rucksacks, children and hastily bought tickets, we were about to board the historic locomotive when we were stopped yet again. The gale-force gusts assailing the mountains might make it impossible, the conductor warned, for even a sturdy little train like theirs to reach the summit; could we withstand that disappointment? Did we want to take that chance?

We most certainly did! So, up we chugged in our ancient yet well-oiled train, with winds whipping around us. Up towards the clouds clustered thickly at the top, where the higher we climbed the more breathtaking was the beauty we could see. The mountains morphed from luminous to a sombre, shadowy green. The crags and ridges stood out more proudly. Boulders studded every slope like giants’ teeth and the waterfalls roared louder in antipathy. There was even a grey cloud-crowned peak I could have sworn belonged in Mordor. Then with the wind screaming like a banshee all around us, everything went blank. We had got to the last stage of our ride and were in the clouds.

The train driver clanged his bell and announced that he would have to take a wind reading to see if we could go any further. An unnatural hush descended on the carriage, even as the Weather Gods continued bellowing outside. The children’s faces fell. Then their heads drooped. And I remembered what we’d brought in our bags—tons and tons of Enid Blyton! So I whipped out The Magic Faraway Tree (who knew they’d smuggled that in too) and started reading aloud. They read omnivorously and on their own but this was an emergency. I read about Moonface and Silky and their adventures in the clouds. I related the delight of the fictional children every time they entered a wonderful new world, while my own listened rapt (Top Tip #5: Aint a child who doesn’t love a story, so keep ‘em handy). The train driver, in the meantime, had finished his wind check and waved us an all-clear triumphantly. We were on our way to the summit after all! So what if we were so lost in billows of white we could barely see at all? We were chugging up that last incline and totally chuffed.

Shreya Sen-Handley’s son suggested a trip to the Himalayas, but the family was just as happy to soak in the views at Snowdonia. Photo by Stephen Handley.

Shreya Sen-Handley’s son suggested a trip to the Himalayas, but the family was just as happy to soak in the views at Snowdonia. Photo by Stephen Handley.

True to form on that trip, we could see nothing at the top either. Our dream of viewing wondrous, verdant Wales in all its glory from Snowdon’s summit, was dashed, as we’d suspected it would be. Dark, wet and gusty at its crest, we had no choice but to board our train again and head down to the dramatically forked Rhyd-Ddu Path near which we’d left our car.

In the end though, it was neither an anti-climax nor a disappointment. We did get to the top. And what a glorious ride it was, with magnificent vistas to be spied on either side as the train trundled on. But like every family film and fairy tale, the best had been saved for last. At journey’s end in teeny, tiny Rhyd-Ddu, we stopped for a snack in the only shop in town, Ty Mawr. And in that charmingly homely, higgledy-piggledy café, we found the kind of adventure we’d been looking for all day. With no peaks and no troughs, and not a smidgeon of scary, it came chocolate-laden, apple-topped or oozing honey. Large, flat, round and hot, they were just what we needed after our nippy exploits at the top. Here were crêpes to equal Daddy’s Shrove Tuesday pancakes and we talked about them long after our summit attempt had been forgotten (Top Tip #6: a tummy full of good food, we’ve found, is all the adventure kids need sometimes). That is, till we got back home and my son piped up again, “So when are we going to the Himalayas, Mommy?”

Setting Out For Snowdon

Trekking the Mount Snowdonia

The joy of making it to the top, even if it’s dark and grey, can trump the disappointment of being unable to see the summit in its verdant glory.
Photo by Roni-G/iStock.

Snowdonia, a range of mountains in North Wales in the U.K. is best visited in the summer. Average daytime temperatures are between 17°C and 19°C from June to August, making it ideal weather to scale its highest peak, Mount Snowdon. But inclement weather can disrupt your climb, therefore, it is always best to consult the Snowdon Summit weather forecast before making plans.

The best views are to be had scaling Snowdon by foot, by the Llanberis path or the Ranger track which are the gentlest routes to the top. The path up from Rhyd-Ddu is popular too. But in bad weather, or with young children, any of these could become a challenge. That’s when the train to the crest comes in handy.

The 121-year-old Snowdon Mountain Railway from Llanberis, provides a scenic ride to the top, with return tickets at £29/`2,375 for adults, and £70/`5,735 for a family (discounts can vary), on the Traditional Diesel Service. It gets full very quickly and tickets are best bought in advance. If winds go over 50 kmph though, the train will not attempt to scale the summit and you can decide to cancel and get a full refund, or go up part way and get a discount.

If you want to have a ride to the foot of the mountain, and then canter up, there is also the Snowdon Sherpa Bus service connecting Snowdon’s base with its surrounding villages.

There are trains from London Euston (and many other parts of the U.K.), as well as coaches from London, Chester and Manchester to the bigger, busier towns in Snowdonia like Llandudno, Bangor, Caernarfon, and Porthmadog. But flying into London, Manchester, Liverpool or Birmingham and hiring a car for a drive through the mountains and villages of Wales (and some motorways) could work just as well.

  • Shreya Sen-Handley is a columnist and illustrator for the British and Indian media. Her short stories have been published in three continents and her HarperCollins India book, 'Memoirs of My Body' is out now.

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