South Snowdonia covers the area from Maentwrog in the middle of Snowdonia National Park to Machynlleth which is just outside the National Park at its southern end. Bala and the Berwyn Mountains form the eastern boundary. The southern part of Snowdonia National Park contains the majority of the mountain ranges including the Rhinogs, Arans and Arenigs and the Berwyns. The Mawddach and Dyfi estuaries stretch into this part of the National Park providing unparalleled coastal scenery.
The south of Snowdonia National Park is a sparsely populated area with a range of mountain types from the barren, rugged Rhinogs to the rounded heather clad Arans and Berwyns. In the centre of this area is the huge Coed y Brenin Forest which is excellent for walking, horse riding but particularly mountain biking. Strange happenings have been recorded in this area from a gold rush in the Mawddach Estuary and Coed y Brenin to UFO landing in the Berwyn mountains!
The Rhinog mountain range runs north to south between the coast and the centre of Snowdonia National Park. These rugged gritstone rocks covered in heather are some of the oldest rocks in Wales and offer some of the toughest walking in Snowdonia. It is also one of the more mysterious places that is less explored than other parts of the Park. The Rhinog Mountains lay claim to being one of the most important areas for ancient monuments and is a landscape of outstanding historical importance.
Relics include remains of forts and fields, burial chambers, ritual monuments and tracks such as The Bronze Age Road, accessible from Harlech, which takes in Bryn Cader Faner stone circle; a Bronze Age circle of huge stone slabs standing upright. There were 30 standing stones until 1940 when soldiers vandalised some of them. There are still about half the stones standing and it one of the most impressive Bronze Age sites you're likely to see in Britain.
Rhinog Fawr and Rhinog Fach are the two most well known peaks in the range, although the highest is Y Llethr at 754 metres. The Rhinog mountain range is also a National Nature Reserve that can be eerily quiet with few animals being seen although you might catch a glimpse of the feral goats that are right at home in this rocky landscape. Small numbers of red grouse live in the heather moorland and ravens can be heard croaking overhead all year round. Merlins and hen harriers can be seen over the heather moorland. The ring ouzel can be seen here in summer along with meadow pipits and wheatears.
The Arenig Mountains lie west of Bala and with Arenig Fawr being the highest at 854 metres. These too are rocky escarpments covered with dry moorland heath interspersed with some of the largest areas of blanket bog in the country.
Cadair Idris, or Cader as it's affectionately called, is a stunning 2,930 foot high whaleback mountain of volcanic igneous rock that you can see wherever you are in this part of Snowdonia National Park. Tennyson claimed to have seen "nothing more awful than the great veil of rain drawn straight over Cader Idris" and on a bad day you'll know how he felt! Its five peaks lure hundreds of walkers and rock climbers; once at the top there are fantastic views that, on a good day, are said to stretch as far as Ireland. To feel the full majesty of Cadair Idris take the steep and winding road up from Machynlleth through Corris up towards Dolgellau. You get some truly awe inspiring views of Cadair looming over you.
The Ice Age sculpted the geography of Cadair Idris creating back-to-back, scalloped out cwms in which lakes have now formed. The ridges that divide the cwms are knife-edge aretes. The most famous of these cwms is Cwm Gadair, the Chair of Idris, which takes its name from the giant warrior poet of Welsh legend, although it is often confused with a seat-like rock formation on the summit ridge where myth says that anyone spending the night here will either become a poet or a madman.
Cadair Idris is also a National Nature Reserve due to the presence of rare arctic-alpine plants, including purple saxifrage, and some like mountain sorrel, parsley fern and moss campion are at their southernmost location in Britain. It is also a good place for birdwatching with summer visitors including the redstart who nest in the woodlands on the lower slopes. The mountain grassland provides habitat for meadow pipit, wheatear and skylark. Ravens and peregrine falcons nest on the high crags and you might even catch a glimpse of the ring ouzel in the steep rocky ravines.
The popularity of the mountain has caused some conservation issues for the more fragile habitats, such as the rare montane heath on the summit, with its mix of grasses, crowberry, lichen and woolly moss. Reserve staff manage these effects by controlling grazing and managing recreational activities.
The Aran and Berwyn mountain ranges lie in the south-east side of Snowdonia National Park. These are less rocky, rounded heather covered hills; the Arans highest peak is Aran Fawddwy at 2,969 feet (905 metres). The highest peak in the Berwyns is Cadair Berwyn at 2,723 feet (830 metres).
The Berwyn Mountains have several sites of interest including the highest waterfall in Wales and England at Psityll Rhaeadr and a stone circle at Rhos-y-Beddau which seem to be slowly being swallowed by the bog. The Berwyns also have their own X-File: a UFO landing in the Berwyn Mountain. Regarded as the Welsh Roswell this is the world famous and best known British UFO crash story to date. It began on 23 January 1974 when reports of erratic formations of flying lights were made.
Shortly after, over the mountains in Clwyd, a strange disc of tremendous size was seen and promptly crashed with a shudder that caused a tremor of 4.5 on the Richter Scale. It was apparently felt many miles away over the border in England. The emergency services attended the scene believing it to be a plane crash and that there would be casualties. Eyewitness accounts reported that bodies found were not human and later investigations turned up some strange green matter with strange properties. No-one knows what happened to the bodies or the wreckage and conspiracy theories point to a Government cover-up.
The official line seems to be that there was a meteor shower, an earthquake and strange lights in the sky. In the confusion of all these events no-one knew what it was until afterwards - a confirmed earthquake and possibly a meteor shower. No plane crash or bodies were found and it has all been explained away by accusing locals of getting two separate incidents mixed up.
Gold prospectors blasted the shale and mudstone sediment under Coed y Brenin Forest in 1860s gold rush. Today it's the mountain bikers that are blasting the forest. Coed y Brenin is slap bang in the middle of the southern part of Snowdonia National Park. This is a huge conifer plantation that has been adapted for recreation by installing all weather single-track and even dual slalom courses for mountain biking.
Coed y Brenin Forest is now internationally rated as one of the world's best mountain biking destinations with nearly 100 kilometres of all weather riding. The handcrafted tracks are suitable for all skill levels from complete novice to expert. Trails include 'Fun', 'Sport', 'Red Bull', 'MBR' and 'Karrimor' ranging from easy novice level 2 hour rides up to 38 kilometre 2-4 hour routes with serious climbing and descending.
This being humid, rainy Wales you will see some wildlife on your travels including a diverse array of mosses and ferns. Deer are often seen in the forest and there are unconfirmed sightings of red squirrel and pine marten. The Conservation Manager at the Coed y Mynydd office tel: 0845 604 0845 is always keen to hear about red squirrel or pine marten sightings. Local bat groups organise walks to introduce visitors the delights of the nocturnal world of these elusive creatures. Several birds of prey like buzzard, peregrine, red kite, merlin, goshawk and hen harrier are sometimes seen over the forest.