Guide to the Brecon Beacons National Park, including history, landscape, places to stay and greatest walks.
Home to a mix of mountains and moorland, standing stones, castles, waterfalls and wildlife, the Brecon Beacons National Park extends for 42 miles from east to west, and is divided into three distinct areas: the Black Mountains in the east, the Brecon Beacons and Fforest Fawr in the centre, and the Black Mountain region (formerly called the Camarthen Fans) in the largely Welsh-speaking west.
As well as mountains to climb, there is a huge range of outdoor activities to try – mountain biking, horse riding, abseiling, paragliding, rafting and more. The region is also one of the UK’s four International Dark Skies Reserves and part of the National Park is a UNESCO Global Geopark, protecting and showcasing its geology, archaeology and history.
Covering an area 520 square miles, the Brecon Beacons National Park is four times the size of Malta.
There are around 1,250 farms within the park, the majority of which are pastoral (cows and sheep).
Of the 11 International Dark Sky Reserves in the world, the UK has 4 –Exmoor, Snowdonia the South Downs and the Brecon Beacons National Park. The rugged landscape of the Brecon Beacons National Park became a dark sky reserve in 2013. Its sandstone peaks and upland lakes offer a magical setting to discover galaxies.
When glancing over a map of the national park for the first time, many will retreat from the chart in bewilderment. Sandwiching the Brecon Beacons massif in the centre of the park are two mountain groups: to the east, the Black Mountains and to the west the Black Mountain.
The 95-mile Beacons Way winds through the heart of the park, contributing to just a fraction of the overall 1,232 miles of right of way trails in the area.
Located close to the border of England and Wales this little town has become known as the ‘Town of Books’. Hay-On-Wye is world famous for it’s second-hand bookstores, with there presently being around thirty. The town has a range of galleries, clothing, and craft shops with many original and unusual items for sale.
A bustling market town set in the heart the Usk Valley, Brecon‘s narrow streets with Georgian facades tell the story of its Norman past. Take a look at the, 12th century cathedral, South Wales Borderers Military Museum, and Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery, plus on the second Saturday of every month, Brecon hosts the largest farmer’s market in the area.
The picturesque market town of Crickhowell, lies in the Usk Valley, and has an array of shops and restaurants, as well as being a great starting point for an abundance of outdoor activities. The remains of a motte and bailey castle built by the Normans still exist, with another well-known feature of the town being the 16th century bridge that spans the River Usk.
The Llangorse community comprises several small villages, and is a haven for sports lovers. The lake has a variety of water sports including sailing, boating, canoeing and water-skiing, with the surrounding hills ideal for walking and horse riding. The village of Llangorse has stunning views of the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains, as well as two pubs, a shop and a post office.
Fourteen Locks Canal Centre, Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal
The Fourteen Locks Canal Centre is located on one of Britain’s most impressive staircase lock systems. Known as the Cefn Flight or ‘Fourteen locks’, the canal level was raised 50 metres in just 740 metres. An amazing feat of engineering, the locks are all interdependent and particularly narrow and deep. With thirteen locks being derelict their restoration is a long-term focus of the Monmouthshire, Brecon & Abergavenny Canals Trust. The Visitor Centre has interesting ‘interpretive displays’, showing how coal and iron were transported from the Welsh Valleys to the ports of Cardiff and Newport in the 19th century.
The Brecon Mountain Railway is a preserved steam railway running from Pant to Pontsticill station. Visitors can travel in an all weather observation coach behind a vintage steam locomotive into the Brecon National Park, along the full length of the Taf Fechan Reservoir to Dol-y-Gaer. At Pontsticill station guests can alight, and head to the café, which has views across the reservoir to the peaks of the Brecon Beacons. At Pant visit the workshop where the old stream locomotives are repaired.
Located on the western fringe of the Brecon Beacons, the castle dates back to at least the thirteenth century. The castle has an exciting history changing ownership many times, being besieged during the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr in around 1403, and having it’s interior destroyed following the War of the Roses. The farm is very visitor friendly with a tearoom, as well as the chance to get involved with feeding the lambs in spring.
The caves at Dan-yr-Ogof are an impressive example of natural cave formation. There are three caves to visit; Cathedral Cave, Bone Cave and the Show Cave. Dan-yr-Ogof has over ten miles of unique caves, full of beautiful cave formations, passages and chambers. In Bone Cave 42 human skeletons have been discovered believed to date back to the Bronze Age, suggesting that the cave has been a shelter to man through many periods in history. There are a number of interesting exhibits depicting mans involvement with caves.
Big Pit museum is a former coalmine, and now provides an exploration of the history of coal mining in Wales. The museum offers a multi-media tour of a modern coalmine in the mining galleries, with exhibitions such as the Pithead Baths bringing the history of the mines vividly to life. Big Pit is best known for it’s Underground Tour which allows visitors to go 300 feet underground with a real miner, and experience what life was like for the men who worked on the coalface.
Wildlife and Nature
European Otter (Lutra lutra)
The popular but elusive otter can be found around most of the waterways of the National Park. The best time to see them is around dawn or dusk. Remember to be very quiet and still as they are shy creatures! Signs of otter’s presence are paw prints with a ‘chunky’ shape and five toes, large fish remains, and faeces, which are often blue -black and contain fish remains.
Llangasty bird hide is an ideal spot for watching wildlife, situated on the south shore of Llangorse lake near wildflower meadows, and reed beds. A large number and variety of birds live in and visit the area, including wildfowl and waders. The meadows also contain a wealth of plant life, such as orchids.
Coed-y-Cerrig National Nature Reserve, Black Mountains
Located in a peaceful valley close to the Black Mountains, this mixed woodland is host to a variety of wildlife. At the valley bottom plants which like wet conditions such as alder trees grow. The drier woodland has large oaks, ash, beech and hazel, under which dormice have been found. A boardwalk winds it’s way through the woodland for easy access.
Red kites are beautiful and graceful birds and the opportunity to see them shouldn’t be missed. Located in the remote western area of the park at Llanddeusant, the feeding station attracts over fifty red kites and buzzards a day. The birds are fed once a day, with a hide allowing visitors to get close to them.
This beautiful nature reserve has 8.5 hectares of woodland, sloping down to the River Ennig. At the Eastern end of the reserve is an impressive waterfall that falls into a dark pool known as the ‘witches pool’. Look out for the unusual looking toothwort plant at the base of trees near the river.
Guided Walks organised by the National Park authority
If you fancy meeting other walkers the National Park authority runs a variety of guided walks. Expert guides, who help visitors understand more about the Brecon Beacons National Park, lead the walks. A variety of lengths and grades of walks are provided, so there should be something for everyone.
With spectacular scenery and easily accessible equestrian routes the Brecon Beacons is a great location for a spot of horse riding. There are a number of riding centres catering for a range of abilities. Ellesmere Riding Centre and Tregoyd Mountain Riders both offer half day and full day riding, as well as riding holidays.
Llangorse Lake In Sw-Wales, Brecon Beacons National park. (Photo By: MyLoupe/UIG Via Getty Images)
Several cycling routes weave their way through the Brecon Beacons National Park, making this a great way to explore. Some cycle businesses offer package holidays, with planned routes and accommodation.
The Brecon Beacons is home to some of the best cave systems in Europe, but bear in mind that a qualified instructor should accompany inexperienced cavers. There are many outdoor centres and specialists within the park offering caving courses. Hawk Adventures offers whole or half-day caving courses with qualified instructors.
Places to stay
For a riverside retreat Mill House in the hamlet of Pontfaen, Powys offers the perfect place to escape from the stresses of everyday life in comfortable surroundings. From the cottage sit and watch wildlife from the small balcony (if you’re lucky you might spot herons or salmon) or head off for a walk in the surrounding countryside. In cooler evenings light the logburner and play board games round the fire. A perfect base for exploring all the Brecon Beacons has to offer.
Warm and welcoming all year round, the cottage provides an ideal base from which to explore and truly appreciate this untouched area of mid Wales – a walkers and naturalists paradise. Credit: Quality Cottages
Quality Cottages (www.qualitycottages.co.uk 01348 837 871) offers stays at Mill House from £259 for three nights or £399 for seven nights, based on four sharing. Two dogs welcome free of charge.
The summit of Sugar Loaf mountain, Mynydd Pen y Fal, in the Black Mountains, Brecon Beacons national park, Wales at sunrise.
In its relatively modest 596m, the summit of Sugar Loaf in the Brecon Beacons National Park encompasses much that is magical about mountains, hills and woodland – explore this wonderful Welsh peak with a five-mile circular walk. The route: 5.2 miles | moderate.
Pen y Fan is one of the most popular peaks in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Most visitors hike to the mountain top from the Storey Arms – but for a quieter and more rewarding route, take the path up from Taf Fechan Forest past Neuadd Reservoir. The route: 10 miles | challenging.