One of the most satisfying ways to see Snowdonia’s lush and dramatic countryside is by rail. It’s more eco-friendly than using a car, and the novelty of riding a narrow gauge steam railway is a delight for young and old alike.
Steam locomotives were a common sight throughout Britain until the mid-20th century, when they were gradually replaced by engines powered by diesel and electricity. But diesel and electric engines, while faster than steam locomotives, don’t have quite the same charm and romance as a chuffing, chugging plume of steam zig-zagging across the open countryside, through mountain-hewn tunnels and over picturesque bridges.
The remaining steam locomotives in Britain are used almost exclusively for sightseeing these days. And nowhere is this truer, perhaps, than in the Snowdonia region of North Wales, where a trip on a narrow gauge steam railway is one of the nicest ways to enjoy the mountains, coast, lakes and lush countryside of Snowdonia, whatever the weather.
Snowdonia is home to a number of narrow gauge, miniature and model railways, and the following are ten of the best of these.
1. Fairbourne Steam Railway
Beginning its life at 2ft gauge in 1895, The Fairbourne Steam Railway was converted to 15-gauge in 1916 and played an important role the development of 15-gauge railways in the UK. The little station at Fairbourne, with its museum, gift shop and cafe, marks the start of a journey that follows the coast to the Mawddach Estuary and ends at Barmouth Ferry, where passengers can travel across the estuary by ferry to the pretty seaside resort of Barmouth.
2. Talyllyn Railway
The Talyllyn Railway is the world’s first preserved narrow-gauge steam railway, which takes passengers on an awe-inspiring journey through the beautiful Snowdonia countryside. Running from Tywyn to Abergynolwyn and Nant Gwernol, the line passes the breathtaking Dolgoch Falls and waits for passengers while they explore the forest at Nant Gwernol.
3. Bala Lake Railway
As its name suggests, the Bala Lake Railway takes passengers on a delightful 9-mile journey along the shores of Llyn Tegid, or Bala Lake, in the southern end of Snowdonia. On this 2ft narrow gauge railway you’ll have excellent views of the lake, the mountains and the woodlands of Bala, and at the line’s starting point – Llanuwchllyn Station – there’s a buffet, souvenir shop and picnic area.
4. Llanberis Lake Railway
The Llanberis Lake Railway is one of the best ways to see the countryside around the village of Llanberis, at the foot of Snowdon. On this trip you’ll pass the twin lakes of Llanberis, the 13th-century Dolbadarn Castle, and enjoy the beautiful countryside and woodlands of Padarn Country Park. On the return leg of the journey you can stop for a lakeside picnic.
5. Snowdon Mountain Railway
Another railway beginning at Llanberis, the Snowdon Mountain Railway takes you on an exciting climb to the summit of Snowdon and the Hafod Eryri visitor centre, where you’ll have time to enjoy refreshments. The scenery on this journey is hard to beat; mile after mile of rugged countryside, lakes, craggy peaks and one of the world’s most spectacular panoramas at your feet.
6. Welsh Highland Railway
The Welsh Highland Railway boasts the most powerful 2ft gauge steam locomotives in the world, which will take you on a magical 19-mile journey through Snowdonia National Park. With a choice of coaches including first class and semi-open, the Welsh Highland Railway runs through from Caernarfon to Beddgelert, passing many villages on the way.
7. Welsh Highland Heritage Railway
Not to be confused with the Welsh Highland Railway, the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway is based at Porthmadog, where after a short ride you’ll be taken to the engine sheds where you can climb into the cabs of the locomotives and see how everything works. There’s also a miniature version of the railway at the engine sheds, as well as a tea room and gift shop.
8. Ffestiniog Railway
The Ffestiniog Railway is the oldest in the world, founded by Act of Parliament in 1832. The Ffestiniog Railway takes you on a fascinating journey through the heart of Snowdonia, via Blaenau Ffestiniog, Tanygrisiau, Tan-y-Bwlch and Porthmadog, where you’ll have an opportunity to shop and take refreshments.
9. Conwy Valley Railway Museum
The Conwy Valley Railway Museum at Betws y Coed provides a short trip on its miniature railway through landscaped grounds, and there is also a 15-gauge electric tramcar – the only one in Wales. Children can enjoy the dodgems and other rides, and can even drive a little tram engine themselves. There’s also a model railway shop, so you can build your own great little railway in the comfort of your own home.
10. Gypsy Wood Park
This family attraction just outside Caernarfon is packed with fun things to do for all the family – including the largest miniature railway in Wales. Gypsy Wood‘s model railway features nine tracks passing alongside a replica of Snowdon, and includes some of the great little trains of Snowdonia that we’ve featured in this article.