You can't go very far in Snowdonia without coming across one of the many steam heritage mountain railways. Although these now ferry visitors around the national park to view the stunning scenery, many of them owe their origins to the past industry of the area. They are mostly narrow gauge lines that were initially used to transport goods such as slate from the quarries in the mountains. Many have been preserved by railway enthusiasts and volunteers who help keep them going as tourist attractions.
The majority of the main stations have parking, shops, cafes, museums or opportunities to see the locomotives up close. Many offer family days out with special themed days for children and adults alike. You can also take bikes on board some of them and wheelchair access is usually available. These classic heritage railways now offer a sustainable way of transporting visitors about the Snowdonia countryside as they cover a large proportion of the National Park and means that visitors can view the stunning scenery without polluting it with their own car emissions. For the more adventurous you can take you bike along for the ride. Snowdonia is certainly the steam heritage train capital in Britain.
Snowdon Mountain Railway was built between December 1894 and February 1896 specifically to access the summit of Mount Snowdon and is arguably still the most popular. It leaves from Llanberis Station and takes passengers within 66 feet of the summit of Mount Snowdon (3,560ft (1085m)) - an excellent alternative for those who don't fancy the slog of hiking up Snowdon's mountain paths to the top. In summer it can get very busy so in peak season it might be as well to book or take an early train.
The railway runs between mid March to the first week of November inclusive, although at either end of the season the train may only go as far as the lower Clogwyn stop. There are other facilities at the station in Llanberis including a Film Theatre that shows a thirteen minute virtual journey by way of the "To The Summit of Snowdon" film, as well as a cafe, take-away, gift shops and toilets. At the summit of Mt Snowdon is the Summit Cafe and gift shop.
Just outside Llanberis you can take a short journey on the Llanberis Lake Railway for unrivalled views of the mountains of Snowdonia that are often not accessible by car. There is parking at Padarn, just off the A4086 Caernarfon - Capel Curig road. The railway runs from selected weeks in February and March and then most days throughout the holiday season. There are a range of fares including family savers. There is also a coach that has been adapted for wheelchair access, but you're best contacting them first as space is limited.
After Snowdon, the Ffestiniog Railway is probably the best known. It was built as a gravity and horse drawn line to transport slate from the quarries in the mountains around Blaenau Ffestiniog. Having fallen out of use with the decline of the slate works in this area the railway closed in 1946. However, the efforts of railway enthusiasts meant that it reopened in 1956 and has continued ever since as a successful tourist attraction.
The line runs from Blaenau Ffestiniog south to Porthmadoc passing through seven other stations en route and links the two main lines which access the National Park, (the Cambrian Coast Line and the route from Chester to Holyhead ). The website has some excellent information on its history and current route.
The halt at Tan y Bwlch has a nature walk through Coed Llyn Mair National Nature Reserve. Information about the flora and fauna of this area is helpfully detailed on information boards. This is a lovely steep sided ancient woodland with views out over the Vale of Ffestiniog. It is typical of many of the Welsh woodlands with a luxuriant cover of mosses and lichens carpeting the floor due to the wet climate of Wales. The nature trail leads down to the lake - Llyn Mair.
The Welsh Highland Railway will run twenty five miles from Porthmadoc to Caernarfon skirting around the western edge of Snowdonia National Park. At the moment half the line has been rebuilt from Caernarfon to Rhyd-Ddu and the rest through to Porthmadog is currently being completed. The line runs from the coast through mountains and past lakes then down through Beddgelert forest and a spectacular rocky gorge to the sea at Porthmadog. At the Porthmadog end you can have a closer look round the engines in the sheds at no extra charge.
The Talyllyn Railway was built in the 19th century to carry slate from the Bryn Eglwys quarries near Abergynolwyn. Opened in 1865, the line runs the seven and a quarter miles from Tywyn (on the Cardigan Bay coast) to Nant Gwernol, from where a series of horse-drawn tramways continued into the mountains. The slate traffic ceased in 1946 following a serious rock fall in the quarry. Since then enthusiasts have taken over the running of the line supported by donations and volunteers. It now offers an unhurried journey through the Fathew valley - average speed is still less than nine miles per hour!
This great little steam railway has stacks of things to do. There is a full programme of events including vintage rallies, "have-a-go" days, murder mystery and themed events. You can also organise birthday treats for adults and children. There's a Railway shop, a railway letter service and a tearoom at Abergynolwyn station which is licensed for Civil Marriages.
There is also the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum at the Tywyn Wharf terminus of the Talyllyn Railway. This has an important collection of artifacts relating to Narrow Gauge Railways in Britain throughout a period spanning some 200 years. Exhibits include complete locomotives, signaling equipment and tickets representing 80 steam heritage railways in Britain.
The Fairbourne & Barmouth steam railway is a fantastic little narrow gauge railway with gorgeous views over the Mawddach Estuary and on a clear day Cadair Idris. The Barmouth Bridge that stretch across the sandy expanse of the estuary is also a striking feature. The Fairbourne & Barmouth steam railway is now privately owned having gone through many ups and downs since it opened in 1895. It runs from Fairbourne village to Penrhyn Point to the Barmouth Ferry where you can cross the estuary to Barmouth.
At the station in Fairbourne there is also a gift shop, the chance to see the engines up close and the Rowen Nature Centre. This was set-up with the intention of having a centre where visitors could see the local wildlife. There are aquariums which in the summer which have crustaceans and fish from Barmouth Harbour. This year a G-scale narrow gauge railway has also been installed in the centre. Fish, lobster, terrapins, lizards, owls, ferrets and chipmunks will still be on display. There are themed days throughout the holiday season and you can book a driver's course.
Bala Lake Railway (Rheilffordd Llyn Tegid) is another of the Snowdonia narrow gauge railways. The Bala and Dolgellau railway, from which this originates, was built by the Bala & Dolgelley Railway Company. It opened in 1868. This heritage steam railway runs for nine miles around the eastern shore of Lake Bala - Wales' largest natural lake. You can sit back and enjoy the views of the lake and Arenig Fawr and Aran Benllyn mountains. The trip takes around one hour.
The main station is at Llanuwchllyn, just off the A494 at the Southern end of the lake, where there is parking, refreshments and a gift shop. You can also see the engine being prepared for the journey and have a look at the other engines in the loco shed. Other stations on the line are at Pentrepiod, Llangower, Bryn Hynad and Bala.