Welcome to the second article in my little series on my favourite UK white water rivers to paddle! My last article was about my favourite English rivers and this article is going to focus on my favourite white water rivers in Wales. Enjoy!
1. The Tawe
The Tawe is a river which not only makes it onto the list of my favourite rivers to paddle in Wales, but also the list of my favourite rivers to paddle EVER. The Tawe has everything that I love about kayaking and more. There are multiple sections of this south Wales classic but I usually get on at the Craig y Nos Country Park and paddle down to below the gorge. The Country Park has parking, toilets and a lovely little cafe for purchasing some hot food and drinks to warm up after paddling – perfect for a cold winters day.
The start of this section is gentle grade 3 and I always find it to be quite a nice warm up. As you go down the river, there are more grade 3 rapids which become 3+/4 in higher water. I wouldn’t recommend paddling the Tawe below 0.7meter as it is quite scrapey but above this it is really good fun. There are heaps of little play waves and interesting rapids with the most notable being the slides and the famous horseshoe waterfall. Personally I think the Tawe is best with more water and my favourite level is when it is above 1 meter. This is when it is the most awesome!
At these levels, the river gets big, bouncy and certainly increases in difficulty but also stays fun and not too scary. Once the river gets to about 1.5 however, I am not getting on! I know others who will run the Tawe higher that this but the monstrous holes that form on the slides (and elsewhere) at this point are a little too scary for me. There are many excellent paddlers who have walked away from the Tawe when it gets too high for this reason.
Once this section of the Tawe gets too high for paddling, it is worth considering going up the valley to the Tawe moors which are also good fun! I always think of paddling the Tawe moors as quite a wild experience. You are much more exposed up on the moors and there is also a walk from the road up the river before you can get on. On a wet and windy day this can require some effort! My kayak once got caught by a gust of wind and before I knew it, I was flat on my back with my kayak on top of me! Luckily I landed in a nice soft and soggy bog so no damage done!
It doesn’t look like much from the side, but the Tawe moors are steeper than you realise and consequently you go quite fast. Keeping upright is the main goal of this section and if you do that, it will stay fun! There is also a larger drop at the end before the get out. The best advice I ever got on the Tawe moors was right at the end before the final drop. A local paddler who’d joined us for a lap suggested to me that I ‘lean a bit more forwards for this next drop’ which I proceeded to do and was very glad of it! I felt like I was flying! My friends who followed down after me and who didn’t do this had a less pleasant experience!
2. The Mawddach
The Mawddach is one of the most beloved rivers in North Wales and is a firm favourite in the UK paddling community. I have had some of my best ever river days on the upper and lower Mawddach and would always gladly paddle this river!
My first experience of the Mawddach was the lower section, with the get on at public toilet car park. It was an extremely wet week in Wales and we had chosen this section because every other river we’d looked at that day had looked terrifying! In flood, the lower Mawddach is glorious. The UK does not have a huge number of rivers in which you can experience huge bouncy wave trains but the lower Mawddach is one of them. A reliable good fun run on days where the rain just keeps coming. A reliable roll is worth having if you do get on in higher levels.
The upper section gives way to some of the best boating in the UK. What I love about the Mawddach is it a really fun ‘river ‘day out’ as well as being excellent grade 4 boating. There are many fun rapids all along the river with 3 much harder rapids that are worth scouting. The nice thing about these rapids however is that they are reasonably easy to portage. I say reasonably – carrying you kayak up and down a muddy bank will always leave you feeling slightly sweaty and overheating by the end!
It is worth running the river with someone who knows it well as the rapids are fairly continuous and it can be hard to tell when the bigger drops are coming up and when to get out and scout. There is also one drop that you must portage – Rhaeadr Mawddach. A monstrously impressive waterfall, it is quite a sight! Luckily it is easy to portage although some (professional) paddlers have actually run this waterfall when the conditions have been right!
It is usually at the moment of getting back on below Rhaeadr that I realise how much I love kayaking. Sitting below a waterfall like that, it reminds you how lucky you are to do a sport which lets you experience nature in this way. The upper Mawddach is just that – a day out in incredible nature with the added bonus of excellent white water kayaking!
3. The Glaslyn
The Glaslyn and in particular the Aberglaslyn Gorge is some of the best white water the UK has to offer. Yet it is as short as it is fun! A 500m stretch of non stop grade 4 fun. This section of the Glaslyn can be easily scouted from the road which is good because the difficulty of this section varies massively depending on how high it is. I am not ashamed to say I have run away from this section many a time when it has been too high!
A boulder garden haven, this is the classic read and run river. Although I would advise considering your line of Breaker (the largest and most notable of the drops) before you get on. The great thing about this section is when you are done, you just walk back up to the top and go again! You can lap it as many times as your legs can carry you back up!
4. The Conwy
I have yet to meet a paddler who doesn’t love the Conwy! It is a river that has something for everyone. The most famous section of the Conwy is the Fairy Glen which is a short but committing grade 5 section run by the UK’s finest. I have never paddled the Fairy Glen but I have swum down it in very low levels whilst on an advanced white water safety and rescue course. It was stunningly beautiful and I can see why people have fallen so very much in love with it.
One of the most regularly run sections of the Conwy is the section from the A5 layby down. This is an excellent stretch of river to run but I am most likely to run it when it is extremely high as it offers a good grade 3 warm up for the day with one or two more challenging rapids. I can never quite remember the lines on these rapids but keeping your boat pointing forwards always seems to work!
These section ends with a nice footpath back up to the road. However, it is possible to keep going to another fun but more challenging section. On this section, there are two grade 5 rapids that require inspection. Both rapids can be portaged if needs be and I have always portaged the first of these rapids as it just looks messy. I can also tell you that the second of these rapids, the Gobbler, is a lot more fun when you stay upright! Below these rapids are some more fun grade 3-4 rapids. Do be aware however that Conwy Falls is not far below the get out so unless you want to run Conwy Falls unexpectedly, I would suggest be vigilant for the get out signs!
5. The Dee
You can’t call yourself a UK paddler if you haven’t paddled on the Welsh Dee, or as it’s called in Welsh – the Dyfrdwy! The Dee is a river that flows all year round thanks to the fact it has water released into it. There are many sections of the Dee worth paddling but the best white water section in my opinion is Horseshoe Falls to Town Falls. This section is commercially rafted and popular with many paddlers. This is a grade 2-3 section at lower levels but can certainly get more challenging with more water!
It is worth noting that Horseshoe Falls can get quite dangerous at higher levels and the river should be accessed below here. There is a fun purposely built ramp slightly lower down which I would recommend!
The two other rapids of significance on this section of the Dee are Serpents Tail and Town Falls. Serpents Tail is good fun for working on your technical skills and is a rapid that can be both easily inspected and lapped. Town Falls marks the end of this section and brings with it an opportunity for spectators to cheer you on from the bridge. There are also so many fun eddy lines to practice tailees, waves to surf and general spots to play. I have easily spent 4 or 5 hours on one lap of the Dee in the Summer because I was having so much fun playing!
Below town falls is a car park which makes it an ideal get out. If you wish to save yourself a shuttle however, there is a canal that you can paddle back up to the top on. In 2022 I completed a 24 hour charity kayaking challenge on this section and so have done many loops of the river and canal in my time!
So there you have it – 5 of my favourite Welsh white water rivers. Further details about all UK rivers can be found via the online UK rivers guidebook. Everyone will have their own top 5 and I would love to hear yours so please do leave a comment below with your Welsh favourites!
Keep an eye out for my final article about my Scottish favourites!