By Craig Toone
North Wales has long been one of the bucket list destinations for driving enthusiasts. The land of Dragon's, leeks and sheep might not be the petrolheads paradise it once was, but that's only because attitudes have changed. The amazing roads twisting across the Denbigh moors or squeezing through the tight mountain passes of Snowdonia have barely changed since the first road testers sought them out.
What has changed is attitudes and perception - popularity inevitably led to the recklessness of the few. The local inhabitants rightly became less tolerant of speed and tough enforcement quickly followed, backed up by the rise of the safety camera van and the plague of the dash cam. To many, driving in North Wales has become a constant gauntlet of fear around every swooping bend. But pick your moments, leave the thrill seeking to the race track, always respect village speed limits and be mindful - you'll quickly discover you can still have a driving epiphany.
If you’re travelling down from Chester, Liverpool or Manchester it’s tempting to begin the journey at Ruthin, but it's well worth travelling another twenty minutes south towards the pretty Vale of Llangollen and the Horseshoe Pass (A542). It’s a short but cracking way to ease yourself into the drive, with a fast and flowing ascent - save for the signature double hairpin that gives the road its name. At the 1,400ft summit you’ll be rewarded with a picturesque view back down the valley, and there's the option to stop at the re-known Ponderosa Cafe or park up and climb the Llantysilio Mountain if so inclined.
On the descending side the pass switches tactics - undulations and tight turns come thick and fast. From there the link to Ruthin is scenic but tame save for the Nat-y-garth section (A525), which will tie you in knots through the brief forest. Leading out of town is one of our favourite roads in the area - the B5105 - which ticks all the classic B-road hallmarks and handily spits you out at the starting point of the infamous EVO Triangle. Due to the overindulgence of some, the triangle is now lined with average speed cameras - but enjoyment can still be had along the eastern leg where you’ll struggle to break the speed limit. There’s also some fantastic photography opportunities too.
Once you reach Pentrefolas you have a decision to make - head south towards Bala or proceed along the A5 to Betwy-s-coed. Our preferred direction is south, because whilst doubling back along the A5 and then B4105 might seem counter productive, it permits you to experience the absolute star road of the day in both directions - the B4391. Word of caution - watch your step along the A4212, it's fast and flowing and it's all too easy to get carried away, much to the delight of the local constabulary. Of course if you experienced the triangle in its heyday then feel free to head straight down to Bala after the B5105 and save yourself a good amount of pedal time.
At Ffestiniog look towards Garrag via the A496 and B4410. It's now time to head north, so pick up the A4085 which will usher you to Beddgelert. From here you can continue on towards Salem and loop around to Llanberis, but we prefer to travel directly towards Mt. Snowden via the A498, which offers some stunning viewpoints of Wales’ ceiling despite occasionally slipping down to single track in width. There is a great viewpoint along the way that overlooks Llyn Gwynant with Snowdon in the backdrop that's a great opportunity for a breather.
Cracking on, a left hand turn will take you onto the A4086 - aka the Llanberis Pass. Get there early enough and you’ll experience an exhilarating drive framed by sky-scraping peaks and giant slate boulders, but time it fractionally wrong and you’ll become frustrated as it's a difficult road to overtake on due to the frequency of turns and lack of clear straights. Fortunately our route gives you a second attempt - we spin around at Dolbadarn Castle and attack the pass again in arguably the more thrilling direction before carrying on along the A496 to Betwy-s-coed. Handily the village is well worth a look around - just ensure you have change for parking - and should your driving exploits have worked up an appetite you might just bump into us at the counter of the Hangin’ Pizzeria, or more likely catch us doing our best teapot impression by one of the Optimax pumps at the Shell garage.
Hydrocarbons and carbohydrates replenished, you’ll be itching to return to the B4391, which you can reach by crossing the bridge opposite Shell and indicating right onto the A470 towards Ffestiniog. I won’t say too much about this jewel of a road because it will more than likely appear as the centrepiece of a future feature, but I will let slip it's one of those rare occasions where everything aligns - a gummy surface, a mix of every type of turn, minimal traffic and most importantly - clear sight lines for the majority of the drive. Afterwards it's a short cruise back to Bala for an Ice Cream by the lake side before a hop, skip and a jump back to Llangollen via the A494 and a well-earned drink at the Sun Trevor or Britannia Inn.