Yr Wyddfa is one hell of a mountain. Or you probably know it better as Snowdon. Standing at 1,085 metres, offering tantalising views of every country in the British Isles, and flanked with a landscape laced with Celtic and Arthurian legends. You know Snowdon and I know it. That’s the problem… everybody knows it.
As the highest peak in the UK south of Scotland it has always, quite literally, stood head and shoulders above the rest, attracting both mountaineers and novice hikers. However, a storm has been brewing (and not the type that can be easily weathered with a decent Gore-Tex waterproof and an emergency packet of Jelly Babies).
According to conservation charity The Snowdonia Society, visitor numbers (pardon the pun) reached their peak in August 2021. The thousands of walkers who have flocked to the so-called Roof of Wales over the years have brought with them litter, heavy footfall, congestion-causing traffic and seemingly endless queues to the summit.
Alas, fear not – there are plenty of other adventures on home soil worthy of your walking boots. Here are the UK’s best climbs without the crowds:
Best UK hikes
Craig Cwm Silyn, Snowdonia, North Wales
Literally a stone’s throw from Snowdon (depending on how good an overhand you have) is the rippling mass of contours and green corduroy cracks that make up the Nantlle Ridge. From the very first pull up Y Garn you can already spy the line of hikers waiting to touch Snowdon’s summit trigpoint across the valley.
But you have something just as exciting ahead, with a fraction of the people. The sprawling saw-toothed peaks of scrambly Mynydd Drws-y-Coed, Obelisk-topped Mynydd Tal-y-mignedd, and splintered Craig Cwm Silyn await your boots and in some cases your hands, so you won’t be watching the queues for long.
Where to stay Just a 20-minute drive from Rhyd-Ddu (where you can park the car) is the country house hotel of Plas Dinas, a nine-bedroom offering with a lounge where you can share your adventures over a glass of wine, post climb. See our pick of the best hotels in Snowdonia National Park.
Red Pike, Lake District, England
When it comes to lakeland peaks – or rather Pikes (from the Old Norse ‘Pik’ meaning high point) – Scafell Pike grabs the headlines and the attention of most visitors, all eager to stand atop England’s highest. But despite its impressive stature (978 metres), it is surrounded by so many other fells and tucked away from any of the major lakes that give the Lake District its name, that getting to the top of its stone strewn summit can sometimes leave you feeling a little flat.
However, just a bit further to the north-west is the Ennerdale Valley, home to the ‘Wild Ennerdale’ rewilding project that began way before the term was en vogue. Here, salmon and Arctic charr can be found in the river Liza (no longer controlled but free to run its own natural course), Galloway cattle have replaced a sheep monoculture, and spruce plantations have been thinned out to allow room for a more diverse woodland. Overlooking it all is Red Pike, a distinctly rouge coloured mound reflected perfectly in Crummock Water and Buttermere that sit below it. And all without the hordes which beset its nearby neighbour.
Where to stay Nearby Ennerdale Bridge is home to the community-run Fox and Hounds Inn, which offers comfy rooms to rest weary feet and a bar serving unpretentious comfort food and post-walk real ales. See our pick of the best hotels in the Lake District.
Bannau Sir Gaer, Carmarthenshire, South Wales
When it comes to Wales’ south, there’s a whole cluster of areas within the Brecon Beacons, replete with peaks, yet the majority of visitors will make a beeline for Pen-y-Fan so that they can lay claim to being the highest person south of Birmingham.
Far more exciting however, is not to be the highest but, rather, the only person on a summit. This is usually the case on the shapely ridge of Bannau Sir Gaer, which stretches along the edges of the Black Mountain range (not to be confused with the almost identically named Black Mountains to the east). Scoured by glaciers (though local lore will tell you its lines and scratches came from a cart made by the mysterious Lady of the Lake who lives in the waters beneath its slopes) it’s a dramatic climb to the top. Once there, buzzards, kestrels and kites can be spied riding the thermals, while beneath your feet is a Bronze Age burial cairn.
Where to stay: Meaning ‘the wild moor’ in Welsh, The Waun Wyllt is the perfect overnight pairing with such a rugged and remote mountain, having just five bedrooms and a traditional ‘cwtch’ cubbyhole in the bar from where to toast a successful crowd-free summit. See our pick of the best hotels in Carmarthenshire.
Schiehallion, Perthshire, Scotland
Home to the highest mountain in the whole of Britain – Ben Nevis – which draws crowds of walkers every single year, it’s a tough sell to persuade people that there is a worthy alternative hill to climb in Scotland – yet Schiehallion may just be it. Standing at a 1,083 metres (as oppose to The Ben’s 1,345m) it may not have the metres but it does have the magnitude in terms of importance. For it was this conical shaped mass that was used in a ground-breaking scientific experiment to measure the earth’s mass in 1774. While doing so, the mathematician Charles Hutton invented contour lines, now used on all maps to denote height and steepness. Climb its flanks today and you can still make out the remains of the old observatory on the north side where he and his colleague Nevil Maskelyne lived for months while undertaking their research.
Where to stay: Luckily for those who like their creature comforts, the observatory on the mountain is no longer an option for an overnight – it burned down when the two celebrated their success with whisky and an open fire! However, the nearest town, Pitlochry, is home to Saorsa 1875, a 19th century family home that is also claiming a ground-breaking first – as the UK’s first vegan hotel. See our pick of the best hotels in Perthshire.
Colt Hill, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland
Often overlooked by visitors to Scotland, intent on heading to the well-documented majesty of the Highlands, are the delightfully rounded Southern Uplands. While they lack the drama of the sheer-sided masses found further north, they more than make up for it with the absence of throngs of people looking to get a summit selfie.
And Colt Hill has a little extra too. On its top is an art installation by Andy Goldsworthy – a Striding Arch – made from locally sourced red sandstone to represent the ballast used in the ships that transported Scottish immigrants to far-flung lands such as North America and New Zealand (where he has installed further arches too). For those not content with one hill, another two arches can be found on other peaks in the vicinity, offering an alternative and artistic three-peak challenge.
Where to stay: If planning on bringing a four-legged friend with you, the Trigony House Hotel and Garden Spa was voted ‘Best Dog Friendly Hotel’ in the UK for its dog showers, dog welcome pack (including walk maps and treats) and dog sitter service in case you fancy a stroll alone. Not to worry though, even two-legged human guests get equally as warm a welcome. See our guide to the best hotels in the Southern Uplands.