A hefty chunk of Wales is properly remote wilderness, so it’s easy to give the crowds a miss in this country of lonely moors and mountains, cliff-rimmed coastlines and tucked-away valleys. Mostly you’ll share the trails with nothing more than the odd unruly sheep.
These are the best hikes in Wales.
Best hike for epic mountain views
Six miles (9.6km) round trip, challenging, 5 hours
Snowdon has the height edge, but for equally phenomenal views and far fewer crowds, opt instead for the challenging ramble up to 2930ft (893m) Cadair Idris. Bang in the heart of Snowdonia National Park, this hulking, sheer-flanked, gold-green crag looks like a figment of Tolkien’s imagination. It’s a mountain of myth too, named after a 7th-century giant called Idris. Sleep on its slopes and legend has it you will awaken either mad or a poet. There are several ways to climb it, but the tough six-mile Minffordd Path (allow five hours return) is arguably the most dramatic, with the added bonus of a stopoff for wild swimming at Llyn Cau, a glacial cirque lake rimmed by ragged 1312ft-high mountain walls.
Llyn y Fan Fach
Best hike for fans of Welsh folklore
Four-mile loop (6.5km), moderate, 2.5 hours
It might feel like the road to nowhere as you swing along the narrow, steeply hedgerowed single-track lane. But eventually you will emerge to bleating sheep and a delightfully remote parking lot in Llanddeusant, the trailhead for this spectacular four-mile trail to Llyn y Fan Fach. Out on its lonesome in the Black Mountain range in the Brecon Beacons National Park’s western reaches, Llyn y Fan Fach has a primeval, almost brutal, beauty to it. Glacier-eroded peaks rear above this steel-blue lake, the backdrop for the Lady of the Lake legend, which appears in the medieval Welsh folk epic, The Mabinogion. Follow the river upstream to the lake, ridge and upland moors beyond.
The Golden Road
Best hike for discovering Wales’ ancient history
Seven miles (11km), moderate, 4 hours one way
Sheep and wild ponies are more commonly glimpsed than fellow walkers in Pembrokeshire’s deliciously wild and remote Preseli Hills, where scudding clouds cast shadows across the bare moors and crags. Topping out at 1759ft (536m) with the summit of Foel Cwmcerwyn, these hills hide a sensational prehistoric landscape, liberally sprinkled with hill forts, standing stones and burial chambers. Lore has it that the bluestones of Stonehenge hail from here. The seven-mile, west–east Golden Road, part of a 5000-year-old trade route between Wessex and Ireland, runs along the spine of the hills, taking in cairns and the stone circle of Bedd Arthur in its stride.
Best hike for beach lovers
Three miles (4.8km), easy, 45 minutes
A spirit-lifting expanse of sky, sand and pounding surf awaits at Ynyslas in Ceredigion, where rippling dunes form an integral part of the Dyfi Unesco Biosphere Reserve. This nature reserve draws wetland birds like ringed plovers and shelducks, as well as dolphins, porpoises and otters. Boardwalks thread through the dunes, which are brushed with breeze-bent marram grass and, in summer, freckled with wildflowers like marsh and bee orchids and sea pink. It’s a tranquil place to wander down to the wide, long, shell-strewn beach, with the dark peaks of Snowdonia looming in the distance. Or walk a three-mile (one way) stretch of the Ceredigion Coast Path to Borth, where very low tide reveals the petrified tree stumps of a prehistoric forest.
Best hike for sea views and dolphin spotting
Three miles (4.8km), moderate, 2 hours
Pembrokeshire is rightly celebrated for its castaway beaches, high cliff tops and magnificent 186-mile coast path, which marked its 50th anniversary in 2020. But if you have neither the time nor the stamina for the full coastal shebang, try one of the most memorable short hikes loops around the headland of Dinas Island. Dodge the high season and you’ll have the three-mile circular trail largely to yourself. Fringed by jagged, gorse-clad cliffs, the coast is imprinted with smugglers’ coves bearing the full brunt of the Irish Sea. Most are only accessible by boat, so content yourself with the views from Dinas Head (where dolphins and seals can sometimes be spotted) and Needle Point (occasional puffin sightings). In the hamlet of Cwm-yr-Eglwys, you’ll find the ruins of medieval St. Brynach’s Church. End your walk with sunset and a pint at The Old Sailors.
Best hike for chasing waterfalls
5.5-mile loop (8.8km), moderate with challenging sections, 3.5 hours
The bald, fin-shaped peaks of the Brecon Beacons, with their glacier-carved valleys and upland moors, top out at 2907ft-high (886m) Pen-y-Fan, where the trails fill up when the sun’s out. Just one valley over and tucked away among woods is Waterfall Country. Pick a fine day and pack sturdy boots to hit the 5.5-mile Four Falls Walk, which dips deep into thick pine forest and a ferny gorge ripe for a fairy tale. Steps and footbridges lead to a series of falls, the most impressive of which is wispy Sgwd-yr-Eira (Waterfall of the Snow), which you can walk behind. Get here first thing to experience the falls at their quietest.
Best hike for 360-degree panoramas
2.7 miles (4.3km), moderate, 2 hours
The wild Llŷn Peninsula is where Cardigan Bay slings its northern hook into the Irish Sea. The rumpled massif of Snowdonia puckers up to the east, while Ireland is but a pebble’s throw west across the wave-tormented sea. For an overview, strike out on the two-hour, 2.7-mile circular trail to Mynydd Rhiw. Though modest in height, this 997ft-high (304m) lump of ancient rock has a pinch of everything that makes the peninsula special. Beginning at the Plas yn Rhiw parking lot, the path clambers up and over sheep fields, dry-stone walls and heather-brushed moors to the ridge-top trig point. From here, there are spirit-lifting views of Snowdonia, the great golden arc of Porth Neigwl (Hell's Mouth) and offshore Bardsey Island, where 20,000 saints are said to lie buried. Keep an eye out for Neolithic axe factories on the descent.
St. Davids Head
Best hike for dramatic coastlines
Four miles (6.4km), moderate, 1.25 hours
Topped off by a gigantic medieval cathedral, St. Davids is Britain’s smallest city (population 1800), the birthplace of Wales’ patron saint and a magnet for pilgrims. A four-mile circular walk sidesteps the crowds milling around this coastal honeypot and heads up and over stile and through the kissing gate to St. Davids Head. Starting at mile-long Whitesands Bay, the gorse-draped promontory is a remarkable place for a coastal romp, packing in dramatic sea cliffs, deliciously hidden coves like Porthmelgan, views across the sea to Ramsey Island, an Iron Age hill fort and a Neolithic burial chamber.
Twm Siôn Cati’s Cave, Cambrian Mountains
Best hike for families
2.5 miles (4km), easy, 1 hour
Barren, sparsely populated and often silent but for the piercing whistle of red kites wheeling overhead, the Cambrian Mountains are Mid-Wales at its wildest, starkest and off-the-radar best. In fact, they're perfect for a bandit seeking a hideaway, such as Twm Siôn Cati, a 16th-century outlaw of Robin Hood–like status. The 2.5-mile circular walk at RSPB Gwenffrwd-Dinas reserve takes you deep into ancient oak and alder woods, which are misted with bluebells in late spring, along a fast-flowing river and deep into a boulder-strewn valley. Steps twist steeply up to Twm Siôn Cati’s lair at roughly the halfway point. Scramble into the cave to see elaborately etched graffiti, some dating to Victorian times.
Ynys Llanddwyn, Anglesey
Best hike for romantics
3.5 miles (5.6km), easy, 2 hours
If ever you’re going to fall head-over-heels in love with the Welsh coast, it will surely be at Llanddwyn on Anglesey, with its wide-open skies, shifting sands and painterly light. The romantic ruins of St. Dwynwen’s Church have attracted pilgrims for centuries because of their association with St. Dwynwen, Wales’ patron saint of lovers (a Welsh St. Valentine of sorts). Beginning at the Newborough Forest parking lot, this 3.5-mile circular walk delves into shady Corsican pine woods where red squirrels scamper, emerging at one of the island’s loveliest dune-flanked beaches, and crossing over to Llanddwyn, a rocky spit of land that becomes an island when cut off at very high tide.
Tips for hiking in Wales
- Planning on tackling a few hikes in one trip? Plan your pit stops in advance. Wild camping is illegal in Wales unless you have the express permission of the landowner.
- Popular mountains, including Snowdonia and Pen y Fan, get extremely busy in the summer months (we’re talking lines to the summit). Aim to travel in off-season or choose alternative peaks.
- Wales is known for its rain, but it pays to be prepared for all conditions, as weather can be unpredictable and changeable. Pack sunscreen, a raincoat and plenty of layers.
- The mountains aren’t the only place to find steep, thigh-burning walks. The Wales Coast Path (the world’s first to follow a country’s entire coastline) is plenty hilly too. Completing the Pembrokeshire section alone is said to equate to summiting Mt. Everest, with 35,000ft of ascents and descents.
This article was originally published in July 2020.
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