AKA The Marin Trail and Betws-y-Coed

While its simplicity may be a turn-off to some thrill seekers, we find the newly extended Gwydir trail presses all the right buttons.

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Words and photos: Sim Mainey

The trails

Red: Marin Trail, 25km, 2.5hr

Getting there

The Marin Trail sits in the Gwydir Forest, just outside the town of Llanrwst. From the north, follow the A55 west to junction 19 before turning south on the A470. Once in Llanrwst cross the narrow bridge onto the B5106 and look out for signs to the forest at the first corner.

From the south, head for the A5 outside of Shrewsbury and follow it to Betws y Coed before picking up the A470 north to Llanrwst. The postcode for the car park is LL26 0PN.

Sleeping and eating

The Spar in the centre of Llanrwst offers a selection of hot pies, cakes and some rather fine sandwiches. A cafe, chippy, Bangladeshi restaurant and a number of pubs round out your culinary options.

Fixing your bike

1868 Racing in Llanrwst is the nearest place for spares and repairs, 1868racing.co.uk

What to ride

A true red trail, the Marin can be tackled on any bike and remain a challenge.

Our 160mm enduro bikes never felt too out of place but a 140mm, 29er trail bike would probably be the ideal tool for some of the super high-speed sections.

Recommended website: https://www.facebook.com/GwydirMTBtrails/

Stop! Instagram time. A rare view onto the surrounding mountains

Gwydyr Forest trail centre guide

I’d not seen a riding buddy of mine for a couple of months — life having a habit of getting in the way of things that are important. A sunny Saturday and nothing in the diary meant that we finally got to head out and make the most of the uncharacteristically dry trails. Puffing away up a long, drawn-out climb, conversation flitted this way and that, months of backlogged chat working its way out. Talk, as it usually does when riding bikes, turned to where we’d ridden recently. “I rode the Marin trail last Thursday,” says I. There’s a pause. “What did you think of it?’ asks my mate, ‘because I rode it a month back and, to be honest, I wasn’t that impressed.”

As we’re both of a similar ability, and our idea of what constitutes a good ride is similar, this surprised me, as I’d actually had a good day out and (spoiler alert) came away impressed. So which of us was right, if either?

Points of view are influenced and coloured by all kinds of things. Expectation, ability, mood, company, weather, tyres — any number of variables can affect how you rate your ride and what impression a trail leaves on you. You’d imagine there’d be something of a common consensus though. That things would average out. It seems not. A bit of internet forum lurking reveals a similar split on whether the Marin Trail renamed (now the Gwydir Mawr) is hot or not. But then again, the internet is binary. It’s in its nature to be one way or the other.

Laced through the Gwydir Forest, on the eastern edge of the Snowdonia National Park, the Marin Trail has remained for all of its 14-year life alone and, generally, untouched. It’s a single red route. There are no other trails (at least officially), no extra black or blue sections. Just this. A 25km, red-graded trail. Singular in purpose, no messing, no fuss. This year, however, the trail has seen a new two-kilometre addition thrown in to freshen things up. A bit of YouTube sleuthing had me scanning my diary for a free day to make a revisit and, with very little persuasion, I managed to convince fellow trail hounds Ben and Seb that it was high time they needed to join me in breaking our Marin Trail hiatus.

Begin the Marin

It’d been a long, long time since I’d ridden the Marin Trail, and if pushed, I couldn’t really recall any of it, apart from the final descent, which I remember being scary fast. Having ticked it off the list, the Marin has gone from must-do, to done and forgotten. Subsequent trips to North Wales have been to ride trails lesser known, or with more of a challenge — Snowdon itself, for example, with its promise of a huge payout in views (potentially) and thrills (definitely) in return for only a reasonable investment of graft. I guess I’m not alone in passing up the Marin Trail for other options, hence the refresh, to encourage people to come back again, and remember what it was that originally brought them here many years ago.

Although a mere minute’s drive from the town of Llanrwst, the car park feels isolated. There’s no cafe, bike shop or toilet block here, just the obligatory map board and Gore-Tex clad dog walkers. With the town so close, there’s no real need for facilities, but it does make setting off feel a little bit more of a mission. As if you’re heading out for a proper day in the hills.

Seeing a trail with a clouded memory is odd. Sections occasionally leap out at you as familiar, while others you’d swear you’d never ridden before. This leads to plenty of shouts of, “Is this the new bit?” Usually followed by, “Nah, don’t think so.” If we’ve ridden it before, but can’t remember it, is it that the same as riding a fresh trail? Something we ponder while munching on raspberry frangipane.

Autumn is in full swing, and the deciduous trees are cycling through the warmer colours in their wardrobe before completing their annual striptease. Unlike some trail centres, there’s a mix of woodland here that helps keep the trail feeling more natural than it really is. Red and yellow leaves pirouette from branches in front of us, while dark evergreens staunchly refuse to yield their coverings. The mix of colours, and the transitions from light to dark, and warm to cold, as we pass through different parts of the forest, provide welcome variety. It’s an experience to be savoured with the monotony of winter impending.

Cashing in on the hole in the wall

Doing is seeing

Seeing a trail isn’t just about stopping and looking at it. Some of my favourite, and most insightful, views of trails have been at speed following people much, much faster than me. Seeing how they interpret the trail, how they react and use each rock, bump, roller and drop in a Judo style — using the trail against itself, to turn momentum-robbing obstacle into speed boosters. Seeing it through their eyes, and following in their tyre tracks, enables another level of appreciation. That there are many ways to look at even the most simple of trails is one of the wonders of mountain biking. While helmet cameras offer a rider’s eye view of a trail, the experience doesn’t really translate. Fast seems slow. Steep looks tame. The second-hand experience rarely lives up to the real deal. The view counts for a lot, but it’s not everything.

The term overbiked is one I hate. The last time I rode here was aboard a bike with 120mm of travel and 26-inch wheels (remember them!) and it felt like the perfect tool for the job. Today, on my 160mm Giant Reign, I still feel like I’m on the right bike, I’m just going faster. Rather than skimming the trail, I’m pushing into it, charging at corners, launching blind crests and looking for the next opportunity to pump for speed. For a relatively old trail, the Marin is a lot of fun on a modern long-travel bike. It’s that original (Mount?) vision that’s seen the trail here remain relevant and enjoyable. All credit to the trail builders.

What is perhaps less appealing, and the reason that my buddy wasn’t that enthralled by the Marin trail, is the fire-road climbs. There’s a few of them, and they can be a bit of a mind-melter, especially to those who have grown up riding the latest ilk of trail centres, that give you singletrack up as well as down. Chin up, head down and grind away.

It won’t be long before autumn reveals all

Ironically, despite all this pondering on points of view, my one criticism of the Marin Trail is the lack of views. These are promised, glimpsed and grasped momentarily, but there’s only one true ‘hallelujah’ moment where the trees fall away and the vista is fully embraced. It’s a shame considering the quality of its surroundings, and the proximity of some jaw-dropping scenery. The Marin Trail, then, is single-minded. If it’s a relaxing ride, with views and stopping points you’re after, then Snowdonia has plenty of other options, but if you seek a non-stop ride in which your wheels keep turning, this is the trail for you.

When we do eventually find the new section, it’s pretty obvious. Obviously. For a start, it’s got a new sign. The trail also looks fresher, and feels decidedly new-school compared to what comes before. If you fail to enjoy this section, you should give up mountain biking and consider taking up watercolour painting. Whatever your ability, the well-judged drops and jumps, and bowled-out berms, will allow you to let go of the brakes and charge. The side of the trail blurs, and water streams from my eyes as I drop through a gap in the wall and down into a turn that shoots me back up the hill. Who needs views when you’ve got a trail like this?

Canada high: towering ferns add a splash of North America

Thrilling finale

The late afternoon sun pushes warm light through a filter of yellow leaves, enhancing our moods further, and even the climb back up, with its multiple switchbacks, seems fun — a challenge rather than a chore. The golden foliage falls back to be replaced by looming pines and moss-covered monolithic rocks. The well-crafted turns, surrounded by large green ferns and toppled trees, all add up to something more Canuck than Cymru in feel. Pushing back up the trail isn’t mandatory, but it is inevitable.

Back in ‘The Day’ — whenever that was — the forest was littered with home-grown downhill trails. Previous visits with those in the know have usually concluded with some off-piste action, but my memory, like some of the trails themselves, has faded, to the point where I’m not really sure where they are. Some time and a bit of bushwhacking, or a bit of local knowledge would reveal more, but the sun is setting and it’s time to call it a day, and do it with style, on the final descent. Which, even after all these years, is still a stunner. No, it doesn’t require much more than hanging onto your bike like a monkey on a greyhound, but the skill, if you can call it that, comes from not touching the brakes and revelling in what your bike can do if you let it off the leash. The trailside blur, and tears, return as I follow Seb down the trail. The jumps give even the most air-averse a bit of a boost. Hang on. Don’t brake. You’re plugged into the trail, you’re doing what it wants you to do, you are going to have fun — it’s built into the trail.

We’re dumped rather rudely and unceremoniously back into the car park — head spinning and pumped for more. Slightly bemused that it’s all over. It feels like there needs to be a pump track, or another mellower section, just to gently return you to reality with a little more grace before throwing your bike back in the car and going home — a comedown from the hard buzz.

Perception, and the way we see things is ever-changing. The Marin Trail, now in its early teens, could be viewed as old, past it, and a relic of a bygone era. But the advancement of bikes, and the new trail additions, are keeping it up to date. Sure, there are parts that aren’t quite in keeping with modern tastes, but for a trail that stands alone, it stands the test of time, and is well worth another visit, regardless of when you last rode it.