Y Bannau Brycheiniog, or the Brecon Beacons as it is known in English, is a magnificent national park in the heart of South Wales. Dominated by wild upland moors, it is home to towering waterfalls, gravel streams, rolling pasture and patches of secluded temperate rainforest. Along the perimeter of the park are the bustling towns of Hay-on-Wye and Brecon to the north, Llandeilo to the west, Merthyr Tydfil in the south and Abergavenny to the east. It was the last of Wales' three national parks to be recognised, but just like Eryri (Snowdonia) and the Pembrokeshire Coast, it contains some of the most spectacular scenery in Britain.
Legend has it that the mountains of Wales are the remains of long dead dragons, turned to stone. However, my favourite story, which typifies the uniquely Welsh sense of humour and its proud nationalism, is that the mountains came about as the Welsh took so much land off the English, they had to pile it up behind them.
The origins of the hills in the Brecon Beacons are, of course much less fanciful. Comprising mostly old red sandstone and limestone, an ancient seabed was pushed upward by plate tectonics. The rounded peaks were carved during the last ice age with landslips forming the ridges and troughs which add to the unique character of this national park.
Once you get your head around the somewhat confusing names of the mountain ranges within the park, its geography starts to make a lot more sense. There are four ranges altogether: the Bannau Brycheiniog or Brecon Beacons in the central region, the Black Mountains in the East, the similarly named Black Mountain in the far west and then finally, the south-central range of Fforest Fawr.
Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons)
The Brecon Beacons are a distinctive range of interlinking ridges and peaks that includes the rewarding 886m summit of Pen y Fan, the highest mountain in the region. In Welsh they're called Y Bannau Brycheiniog, meaning 'the peaks of Brychan', a fifth-century Welsh ruler. The English name comes from the neighbouring town of Brecon, with beacons a generic term for an elevated lookout point where signal fires were once set as a warning. Those looking for an achievable but sometimes taxing single day challenge should tackle the four summits of Pen y Fan, Corn Du, Cribyn and Fan y Big. This satisfying circular hike, known as the Horseshoe, heads over these iconic peaks and will take you about 5-7 hours depending on your fitness level. On a clear day, from its windy ridges you can see over the Bristol Channel as far south as Exmoor or north to the Cambrian mountains.
In the east are the Black Mountains, which can be seen from higher points in Bristol and the Mendips. A prominent feature of the hills is the Hatterall Ridge, which straddles the boundary of the park along the Offa’s Dyke trail. A good day’s hike takes you through this glacier carved valley, up from Llanthony Priory, along the ridge before heading down to the book town of Hay-on-Wye. There is camping and accommodation at either end of the trail but it is best to book in advance.
In the central and south of the park, northwest of Merthyr Tydfil, there is Fforest Fawr, an upland area comprising eight peaks. These ranging from the towering 734m Fan Fawr to the more diminutive 562m of Cefn Cul. An area of caves, waterfalls and dense pockets of forest, it is one of the most explored and best loved of the region.
The Black Mountain
In the west of the park is the Black Mountain Range, sometimes referred to as the rather Tolkien-esque ‘Black Mountain’ (Mynydd Du in Welsh). The tallest mountain in the range is Fan Brycheiniog, a 802.5m tall escarpment which also contains a subsidiary peak of Fan Foel. The two are often tackled together, taking in the crystal-clear glacial lake of Llyn y Fan Fawr.
The Beacons Way is an often taxing, yet satisfying 159km/98.8-mile hike across glorious Welsh countryside, right through the heart of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Running from Abergavenny in the east to Llangadog in the west, the route is remote at times, boasting a total ascent of 6,719m/22,044ft (a little more than Denali or Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in the US). With this in mind, novice walkers are advised to complete the path over a series of 8 separate linear day hikes. Those with a bit more experience and stamina can enjoy it in one go, tackling the route in a little over a week.
From Chepstow to Prestatyn, the Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail runs for 177 miles, straddling the border between Wales and England. Skimming the eastern side of the park, it is the perfect way to experience a slow introduction to the Brecon Beacons as you climb the Black Mountains or Hatterall Ridge. The walk caters for all abilities. You could stay in B&Bs and have your bags transported from one accommodation to the next, or you could go backpacking along the route, carry everything you need and sleeping under the stars.
From white knuckle sunken paths and steep descents to abandoned tramways and gentle waterside rides, the Brecon Beacons have long been a magnet for mountain bikers of every level.
A great place to start is the mecca for all things mountain bike: Bike Park Wales close to Merthyr Tydfil. There is no need to turn up with anything other than the clothes you wish to ride in, as you can hire all the equipment you need. They have three types of bike to hire; trail bikes, downhill bikes and E-bikes. You can even rent out full-face helmets and knee and elbow pads. There is even a service to take you up the near 500m climb to the top of the mountain, so there is no need to wear those calves out before starting your descent. The trails cater for all levels of experience, from first time novice to long term adrenaline junkie.
For those who prefer gentle family routes, check out the Crychan Forest Association woodland routes. They have a number of short (2.5 to 7.5 mile/ 4km to 13 km) routes, perfect for parents of younger children or mixed family groups of differing ages.
Canyoning, or Canyoneering as it’s known in America, is a high adrenaline sport sometimes described as white-water rafting but without a boat. The fast-flowing waters of the Brecon Beacons are perfect for the sport as participants dive into plunge pools, swim in icy cold rivers and leap down waterfalls.
Once a shallow tropical sea, a band of carboniferous limestone straddles the park from Carreg Cennen in the east through to Blorenge in the west. Over millions of years water forced its way through this 45-mile seam and like a giant piece of Swiss cheese, it is now riddled with caves and caverns. For those with a family, the Dan-yr-Ogof National Showcave Centre, with its underground waterfalls and limestone formations, is the best way to explore some of these extraordinary natural caverns.
For those wanting a bit more adventure, tour groups offer caving experiences and potholing for all abilities. Boasting the biggest cave entrance in South Wales Porth-yr-Ogof is a great place to start your caving experience.
With such natural resources on their doorstep, it is not surprising that the park is well catered by a swathe of adventure centres and private outdoor businesses. These lead a range of activities including indoor and outdoor climbing, fell walking, horse riding and wild food foraging.
Between May and September, often stretching into October and early November, the days are predominantly warm, dry and clear days. This is when the park really comes into its own. With longer days and shorter nights, summer is also the best time to take long distance hikes through the park and an ideal time to camp. Internationally recognised as a dark sky reserve, it is the perfect spot to see the annual Perseids meteor shower in the middle of August. On a clear night the Milky Way can be seen over the park.
During the colder months of winter, the hills can be empty of tourists and a real joy to walk. With the shorter days and colder nights, it can be best to limit winter visits to day hikes and stays in backpackers hostels.
How To Get There
If travelling to the UK by air, the Brecon Beacons National Park is best reached from the airports of Cardiff, Bristol to the south or Birmingham from the north. From here there are the options of rental cars, trains or connecting buses.
Two main roads feed off the M4 into the heart of the Brecon Beacons. The A470 connects Cardiff to Brecon and the A465 runs southwest from Swansea to Abergavenny in the northeast. Major road works are currently being carried out on the A465 which at peak times can have an effect on traffic. Try to avoid rush hour or use an app with live traffic updates when driving in the region.
Parking is often free or a nominal amount and some of the larger tourist sites have cafes or are serviced by coffee and snack vans.
Via train or bus
There are no major train lines running within the park itself but you will find a number of stations on its fringes. There is the Heart of Wales line to the west of the park, which runs from Swansea to Shrewsbury taking in Llandeilo and Llandovery. To the east you’ll find the Manchester to Newport Line which heads through Abergavenny and Pontypool. Then finally, there are trains to Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare from Cardiff Central.
With narrow, seldom used lanes and drovers’ roads, the Beacons make an easy destination for bikepackers. There are multi-day cross country adventures to after afternoon jaunts and day long rides. Some of the highlights are the Usk Valley, Hay on Wye and the Vale of Ewyas.
Flora & Fauna
Much of the park is upland moor carpeted in swathes of bracken, bilberry and heather. These habitats are a perfect home for upland songbirds like pipits and the rare ring ouzel. Up here, on the windy hillsides, wild horses, rabbits and brown hares help the ubiquitous sheep population maintain vast areas of grassland habitat. From late summer and into the autumn, rare mushrooms like the vivid coloured waxcap family thrive in these chemical free grasslands.
Elsewhere, in secluded valleys you’ll find intimate patches of rare temperate Atlantic rainforest. These fragile landscapes once cloaked much of South Wales and Southwest England when Britain was a dense wild wood from north to south. Amongst gnarled old oaks and magnificent beeches look for epiphytes, plants which grow on other plants, in the form of polypody ferns growing amongst the branches of veteran trees.
The waterways throughout the park are the ideal spot to find enigmatic otters. They tend to be most active at dawn, dusk and during the night so these are the best time to spot them. During the day their presence is given away by spotting their distinctive footprints along muddy banks or spotting the remains of fish and crayfish.
Throughout the park birds of prey circle overhead and although like most areas of Britain, red kites are the most successful, you might also spot the rarer hen harrier with its black wing tips and grey plumage.
Eat and Sleep
From luxury country hotels with four poster beds, spa hotels and cosy pubs to bed and breakfasts, bunkhouses and campsites, the Brecon Beacons has accommodation for every budget.
The Independent Hostel Guide is a good place to start looking for bunkhouses where you’ll find a bed for as little as £13 per person a night.
One of my favourite campsites in the park has to be Llanthony Court Camping, close to the ruins of Llanthony Priory. It has little in the way of facilities and as such is more of a glorified wild camp. However, you are in one of the darkest parts of the park and on a clear night it is the perfect place to spot the stars.
Pub dining is the way to go in the Brecon Beacons. My favourite has to be the Pen y Cae Inn on the Brecon Road, not far from the magnificent Henrhydd Falls. This gastro pub has won awards for its fine dining and the pub garden doubles up as a zoo for rescued animals including two cheeky parrots. For the best homemade beans on toast you’ll ever try (real beans and sour dough bread), head to Arabella’s on the High Street in Brecon. You won’t be disappointed!
Dave is a photographer, forager and explorer of historic sites and natural places. A father of two boys, he is a regular freelancer for BBC Wildlife, Countryfile, and Walk..