Section 1 - Porthmadog to Harlech
Around 11 miles (18km). Generally flat and easy grade walking through coastal salt marshes, estuary and farmland - What this grade means.
Click Here for information on overnight stops at Porthmadog before the start of your Wales Coast Path Adventure.
Today you walk straight out from the centre of Porthmadog, past its pretty harbour, below the circle of Snowdonia Mountains to your left and onto the impressive dyke and sea wall known as the ‘Cob’. At its entrance is a statue of William Maddocks, the engineer who, in 1810, devised and implemented his ambitious plan to hold back the sea, gazing over the snaking Glaslyn river and the salt marsh that his grand project created.
You can smell the salt as you walk. If there’s an incoming tide then the waters gurgle beneath your feet as they force their way through the rocks of the Cob, whilst the waves are held back beyond the wall. It’s an utterly peaceful scene as you walk above the marshes, passing an enticing entrance to the interior.
The marshes are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a glorious wild pastureland where herds of free-range cattle roam, with dykes and grasslands dotted with buddleia, gorse and willow bushes. Curlew and sandpipers wheel overhead and solitary heron fish the waters.
From the Cob you have fantastic views across to the Snowdonia peaks of Moel-Ddu, Cnicht and the Moelwyns. For those who want to spend time looking for the ospreys which circle here hunting mullet, at the far end of The Cob is the Traeth Bird Hide.
On leaving the Cob, you start to climb, crossing over a narrow-gauge railway line to enter the Portmeirion Estate. Walk among splendid oak trees through an ancient woodland, broken up by fine views across fields dotted with grazing sheep back to the Cob and out across the sands of the Lyn Peninsula beyond Porthmadog.
As you near the village, the path takes you through long-lost, ivy-clad tumbled walled gardens, beyond which are glimpses of the iconic and eccentric Portmeirion Village – the culmination of a 50-year project by architect Clough Williams Ellis and famous during the 1960’s as the surreal location for the cult TV series ‘The Prisoner’, which was filmed here. At one point you come across razor wire which is presumably a relic from ‘The Prisoner’, but fear not, it is easy now to access Portmeirion directly from the coast path if you time today to visit – and this certainly is the most unique of places.
CLICK HERE for information on Portmeirion as an option to visit (or stay) whilst walking on The Snowdonia Coast Path.
Beyond Portmeirion, the route continues above the estate with fine views across the estuary to Yyns Gifftan – the magical, wooded and uninhabited island given to Queen Anne, which beckons from the centre of the waters. Many hours from now you’ll look back at this spot from the maze of salt marsh opposite.
Enjoy views south here to the distant and elusive Rhinog Mountains, one of North Wales’ secrets. Back on the trail and it’s now pleasant and easy fields and woodlands as you pass by Plas Penrhyn, the house where philosopher Bertrand Russell died in 1970.
A short section of road takes you into the only significant settlement you will see today at Penrhyndeudraeth – formerly known as Cocklet due to its history as a base for cockle pickers, where there are options for refreshments before pushing on.
Descend to the sluggish and remote Afon Dwyryd Estuary, a rich winter-feeding ground for wildfowl, twisting its way to sea through marshlands below the mountains. There are no houses here at all, and you will use the new estuary bridge constructed in 2015 to cross, with magnificent views both up and down river. Before the bridge was built, walkers spent a day walking 10 miles inland to cross the nearest bridge at Maentwrog, a delightful route through forest and low mountains and still open for those with time – ask us if you want to know more about this option and factor in an extra day’s walking.
As you cross the estuary, pause at the scenic Gwaith Powdwr, site of a former explosive works which finally closed in 1995 and was donated to the North Wales Wildlife Trust (NWWT). The factory provided explosives for both world wars and for the mining industry based in the hills here - indeed it was the loss of coal mining which finally saw an end to the factory and loss of work for the 500 people employed here. The NWWT have created a 24-hectare nature reserve in the woods and heathland overlooking the estuary, a haven for green woodpeckers, grass snakes and horseshoe bats which occupy the disused factory buildings. Pied flycatchers and nightjars can be seen – rarer sights include peregrine falcons, otter, polecat and adders. It is possible to take a short circular walk through the nature reserve if you wish. On the river, a stunning spot allows you to look down into the clear waters where grey mullet mix with trout, and wading birds including shelduck, oystercatcher and redshank strut along the banks.
Having crossed the estuary to Llandecwyn, the path now enters the marshland proper and heads below a low line of cliffs and the Glastreath marshes embankment. Walk along the top of flood embankments and dykes built in the late 18th century for much of the afternoon, with superb views of little oxbow lakes with waders and wild fowl. The immense marsh of verdant grass looks as immaculate as a velvet carpet or manicured putting green, with saltwater bunkers stretching away before you, home to glasswort, thrift and even the rare dwarf spike rush.
On the near horizon, views over the channel back to Portmeirion get better and better, looking like an ornate off-beat Disneyland, with towers poking above the thick woodlands. The enticing bracken-covered island of Yyns Gifftan reappears, deceptively close. The island can be accessed from here across the marsh but it’s a risky crossing and you need a guide to get you over the tidal channels safely.
In the far distance, if the weather is good, you have a higher backdrop of the Snowdon ranges which now stay with you all day as you head south towards Harlech.
Eventually the path runs between low knolls of farmland rising from the reclaimed marshes, once dotted islands before the land was drained. A fine wooden bridge at Afon Glyn finally takes you from the Glastreath Embankments onto a new wide grassy dyke, reaching a stark old mill house at the village of Ynys. A hand-painted sign in red warns ‘No jet-skis by order of the Right Honourable Lord of Harlech’!
You finally climb through small stone-walled fields to reach the hardy walls of Llanfihangel-y-traethau church, aptly linked to ‘St Michael of the Sands’. This area was once a large island with the village on the foreshore and the church up on hill above the waters. It has a well-kept churchyard which is protected by thick ancient yew trees and there’s a standing stone here with a 12th century inscription to King Owain Gwynedd.
Just beyond the church, pass through a delightful hidden hollow before climbing to the summit of the dry island for the best views yet of Portmeirion, so close now at less than ½ mile that you can see its little folly lighthouse on the edge of the peninsula.
The path descends to the real foreshore at Morfa Heli, where you enjoy an airy grassy trail between bracken and gorse-covered hillocks – former islands – and then, as a last barrier to the real ocean, a wilder mix of little ravines and craggy summits. Soon you arrive on the very edge of Morfa Harlech – a truly wild and lonely place where the marshes seem to stretch to infinity and only the humps of the Lynn Peninsula Mountains remind you the sea is between you…somewhere.
Taken together, the dunes of Morfa Harlech and Morfa Dyffryn provide one of the longest and most important dune systems in Wales, with an almost continuous section of protected dune systems of huge ecological importance, yet at Morfa Harlech it is so remote that very few people know it is here.
The Wales Coast Path politely avoids the dunes and heads south towards Harlech, passing a couple of hardy stonewalled windswept farms, which sit below the last rocky islands. These are very much the last outposts in this extremity of the mainland. Now it’s the mighty walls of the castle at Harlech which start to entice you forwards across the last few green fields, arriving in the town via a pretty patch of scrub woodland on the edge of Coedwig Harlech Forest on the north side of the village.
CLICK HERE for information on your overnight in Harlech on The Snowdonia and Meirionnydd Coast Path.