The views from the highest peak in the Brecon Beacons National Park are so impressive, you’ll want to return again and again. Grab your boots, maps and compass, and sample some of the best routes to the top.
BY EMMA GREGG
Whether you just have time for a moderate walk or you’re ready for a proper, heart-thumping challenge, Pen y Fan is a must. It’s a true hikers’ crossroads – paths have crossed here since the Bronze Age and beyond.
The gentle one: the walk from the Storey Arms or Pont ar Daf
The regulars call it The Motorway – but they love it all the same. The four mile circular walk from the Storey Arms Outdoor Centre or the nearby Port ar Daf car park is a classic. Starting at around 440m, the climb to Pen y Fan’s 886m peak is surprisingly manageable. But there’s nothing modest about the wild, open, moorland. It takes my breath away as I stride along.
When the weather’s good, even small children can tackle this route. “We walk it several times a year”, says father-of-three Michael Rhys from Cardiff, who’s visiting with his family. “I’ve been coming here since I was a boy. My youngest has done the whole thing twice already, and she’s only six. You could say it’s a mountain walk for softies, but if it gets kids hooked on being outdoors, that’s a very good thing.”
Carved by ice and weathered by time, the grassy slopes surrounding Pen y Fan are the Brecon Beacons’ signature landscapes. I’m visiting in summer, when the hillsides are lush. On a crisp winter day, they have a wilder, more rugged appeal.
“I like to come up here bright and early, the morning after it’s been snowing”, says local climber John Barron. “The silence is incredible. Making the first footprints in the snow and watching the sun rise over the wintry landscape is my way to switch off, recharge and reconnect.”
The epic one: the Beacons Circuit
The name Pen y Fan roughly translates as Top Spot. That’s top as in highest, but there’s no doubt it’s inspiring in other ways. At the summit, walkers perch on the cairn to grab a selfie. The bragging rights are not to be sniffed at – this is, after all, the highest point in southern Britain, with Mid Wales swirling around it like a carpet of green.
But if you’re feeling fit, why limit yourself to a single summit? Pen y Fan is just one of several walkable peaks and ridges in the Central Beacons. By following an exhilarating 11 mile circuit from Storey Arms, you can also take in Corn Du (873m) and Cribyn (795m). Together, they form a huddle around the head of the River Taf Fechan, which flows down to the Neuadd and Pontsticill reservoirs. Corn Du, which is very similar in shape and height, is Pen-y-Fan’s twin; in the past they formed a single double-peaked summit.
“I wouldn’t dream of missing out on Corn Du when I’m climbing Pen y Fan,” says Darren James, a veteran walker who’s pausing for a swig of coffee on Corn Du’s crowning plateau. “Both summits were used as burial places in the Bronze Age, so there’s something mystical about them.”
The quiet one: the Cwm Llwch walk from Cwm Gwdi
This challenging 7.5 mile climb starts north of Pen y Fan at Cwm Gwdi car park (310m) and follows an ancient track up to Cefn Cwm Llwch ridge and Pen y Fan (886m), with stunning views east over the River Nant Sere, the wild swimmers’ favourite, and west over Llyn Cwm Llwch, a near-perfect circle of shining blue water.
It’s said that if you stand on Pen y Fan and look northwest, you can see all the way to Snowdonia. Binoculars and a very clear day would probably help. But if, like me, you’re up there on a day that’s part sunny and part showery, you’re in for a different kind of treat – a perfect rainbow, nature’s cheerful bunting, hanging over the hills.
The tough one: the horseshoe ridge walk
My final route is a blinder. It’s a demanding nine mile circuit leading from the Taf Fechan Forest, where conifers guard the hillside in regimented ranks, up to Corn Du (873m), Pen y Fan (886m) and Cribyn (795m). From here, it’s on to Fan y Big (719m), the one with the diving board rock, returning via the eastern Neuadd Valley.
The weather is notoriously changeable in these parts so I pack for every eventuality – sunblock and waterproofs, water and energy bars, map and mobile, compass and whistle. Mentally, I change gear. This won’t be a stroll – it’ll be a minor expedition.
Right from the start, the scenery is stunning, with stirring views up the valley to Pen y Fan. The steep yomp up to Craig Fan Ddu has me gasping, but it’s worth it just to admire the sweep of these mighty glacial valleys while red kites cruise overhead.
I share the ridge with keen walker Marianne Bailey, from Abergavenny, and her energetic labrador. “It’s a hefty route, and it’s our favourite”, she says. “The skies are so big, they seem close enough to touch. It’s a tremendous feeling.”
MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE
Nature and community
The Brecon Beacons National Park (breconbeacons.org) is managed by a non-profit-making organisation dedicated to protecting the natural environment and supporting its thriving rural communities. Entrance to the park is free, although the park authority welcomes donations and the support of volunteers.
Thanks to a concerted community effort to save energy and minimise light pollution, the entire Brecon Beacons National Park is an International Dark Sky Reserve – the fifth destination in the world (and the first in Wales) to be accredited.
A shortened version of this article was published by Visit Wales in 2014.
© Emma Gregg • all rights reserved