Traversing Pen y Fan the way no one goes

Walk Length: 8km (round trip via Fan Frynych) 24km (round trip via Fan Frynych + out-and-back to Pen y Fan).

Ah, what could be more magical? Pen y Fan, highest point in the Brecon Beacons and in Southern Britain, on a cloudless late summer day when the yellows and greens of the stark moor stand out in glinting high definition and when you have a backpack full of food and drink and several hours’ hiking ahead?  The answer, of course, is that there are not that many hikes south of Snowdonia to rival it, in terms of impressive upland scenery, in Wales. BUT.  A big BUT. Do not believe the tourist brochures. The crowds do spoil this one. So much so that they render the typical routes to the top almost unpleasant on a day like the afore-mentioned, with paths becoming human motorways as everyone from London to Bristol to Cardiff seemingly gravitates right here for their mountain walk. Just here: not any of the other many beautiful summits in the national park. Just think if you could enjoy this lovely moorland without the hordes of other hikers, what a lovely escape it would make. Well: you can!

We should point out, now several posts into developing this site, that it’s not that we don’t like other people. Or other hikers. We love them: in moderation. But we simply fail to understand why it is, when there are so many amazing hikes of every type of terrain in Wales, that people constantly do the typical bucket list thing of going to Pen y Fan for their experience of walking in the Brecon Beacons (the same applies to Snowdon in Snowdonia of course). We imagine that there must be a few others out there who would love to try some other less frequented walking routes hereabouts, if only they knew about them. Especially if they still optionally take in the big attraction of Pen y Fan anyway!

For us, the Craig Cerrig Gleisiad a Fan Frynych National Nature Reserve ticked the boxes we wanted to tick this particular day: enjoying the best and most dramatic parts of the Brecon Beacons without the crowds (for the final ascent from the Storey Arms, however, there is unfortunately no avoiding them). The name of this place alone is actually enough of a mouthful to deter many (it certainly doesn’t trip of the tongue easily enough to be featuring in any fancy listicles any time soon), and the lack of ample parking or indeed any sign from the main roads would probably deter more. But the reserve’s location, either in or immediately adjacent to a thrilling part of the national park, was enough to whet our appetites.

What to do

Despite bagging Pen y Fan, the highest summit in Southern Britain, this is all about the hike: and a dramatic one it is. See below for more.

One of the most stunning groves of old trees you will ever see in the Brecon Beacons ©Luke Waterson

The route

From the becalmed little farm of Plas-y-Fan with its blissfully grazing alpaca herd you climb on the track that marks the straight-on continuation of the lane you approached on by car. The track rises initially with a small wood on the left. After about 1km it emerges onto open moorland and here you see a notice board welcoming you to the national nature reserve. Views from here are already pretty good. Just beyond the gate there is the first dividing of the ways. From hereon, Google Maps is inaccurate and you’ll need to rely closely on the OS map and possibly in poor conditions on a compass. Google Maps marks the track you are on as being a driveable road (it is not). With one track leading straight on and another cutting back at an angle to the left, you take the left hand option. Take note: this left hand option is also the track you’ll return on (point A).

Immediately on this track you see one of the prettiest groves of trees in the entire Brecon Beacons on your right: venerable, wind-buckled conifers on a bed of meadow grass (see picture above), and to cut off a corner to the track you need, you can head up through the grove to join your route (turn right, uphill here) which is now on a lesser green track twisting up around the hill.

Cwm-du Valley ©Luke Waterson

This track, soon diminishing to just a path, leaves this grove of trees to the north and continues almost due south about half a kilometre. This path seems to peter out altogether just at the point when ahead of you the dramatic Cwm-du valley (see picture above) drops away steeply. Do not descend into the valley, but at this point turn left (northeast) to follow the contours with the steep-sided valley and a stream and waterfall within it below to your right. Your route now follows sheep tracks and heads slightly northeast over moorland, if anything veering slightly away from where the ground starts to drop steeply into the Cwm-du valley. The path becomes more obvious as you aim for the nearest high point of Fan Frynych ahead at 629m above sea level. As you proceed on the route towards Fan Frynych the view across the Cwm-du valley to the ridge on the far side traversed by the Beacons Way is beautifully wild. Then, at Fan Frynych itself, you have the special views west over the valley which carries the A470 and up to Pen y Fan – beheld in all its beauty but with almost no other hikers.  Look out in this craggy moorland environment for flowers including the Welsh poppy (a bright yellow colour) and purple saxifrage, as well as the ringed ouzel. The altitude and the former glaciers that created these sudden, steep valleys carved out what is largely an artic-alpine ecosystem – seen at its southernmost point in the UK and in Europe until you reach the Alps. You know you are in an isolated spot when the only feature on the map is ‘Pile of Stones’!

At Fan Frynych, you’re about halfway around the shorter circuit. It’s still 8km from here to reach Pen y Fan and 16km to return to this point.

Pen y Fan from a tarn near Fan Frynych ©Luke Waterson

To continue on the shorter circuit, after the summit of Fan Frynych and its triangulation point you will see a series of little, deep blue tarns framing Pen y Fan in the distance, and the path picks its way around these, now as a much firmer track again. You will see a large expanse of woodland, Coed Ty-mawr, to the northeast, and the track does not descend to it but keeps along a boundary fence with a cleared area dropping down to the treeline. Now on a stony distinct track you descend along this boundary to a dividing of the ways at Twyn Dylluan-ddu, where a smaller track crosses that you have been walking along. Turn left to follow this track down off the moor to a wooded area with fields around, and a crossroads of paths in front of the small wood. Here, you turn left to follow the distinct forestry track which stays with open moor ascending steeply to the left (south) and a large plantation to the right (north). Boisterous cows grazing on this stretch can be a hazard! After 2km on this track you will recognise that you have returned to (Point A) mentioned above. Return by turning right past the information boards and through the gate down on the track to the start point.

Pen y Fan diversion

From Fan Frynych, the adventure-seekers will have already spotted the excitement: not the distant Pen y Fan on the valley’s other side, but the sheer cirque immediately to the southeast: a precipitous curving cliff which you can navigate along its upper edge. Heading along the obvious path towards this feature, you soon join the Beacons Way and follow this southeast on the main path available, gradually descending to join the A470 through Craig y Fro (where a couple of waterfalls tumble across the path) and the Storey Arms. You then cross the main road to follow the obvious Y Gyrn route up to the left hand side of the forest plantation and on to Pen y Fan. It is a striking 16km out-and-back from Fan Frynych, but you will be the envy of all the other drivers confined to the main road and craning their necks to try and glimpse the views that have been your constant companion for several hours. Another smaller path follows the top of the cirque completely to descend on the same main road several kilometres below the Storey Arms by a picnic site and lay-by under 1km south of Brecon Beacons Youth Hostel (at which you can break the hike into a two-day affair). The hostel is below the road (turn left along the road from the picnic site, you can follow a track along the road’s edge rather than the road itself). You can connect back up with another route to Pen y Fan, the Taff Trail, by turning right at the picnic site along the road and then immediately left on the first footpath you see.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the parking place for this route up Pen y Fan, it’s a 38 mile trip north to the gob-smackingly wild Red Kite Estate

At a glance

How to get there: 8 miles southwest of Brecon. Take the A470 5 miles southwest past Libanus then turn right on the A4215. Continue as the road rises towards Defynnog and Sennybridge and where the main road bends quite sharply to the right turn left on the road signposted to Heol Senni. You pass two left-hand turns on this road, one immediately and another after about a mile. But the first crossroads you reach, before some thick woods on the right, you turn left on a dead-end lane that soon reaches another left-hand track to a farm (Plas-y-Fan). Do not continue right to the farm but park just beyond the other house on the right, where the lane becomes a track.

Parking: This is just track-side parking, and there is room for a couple of cars, but not big vehicles.

Refreshments: Bring your own picnic (stock up at one of Brecon’s supermarkets, the garage shop in Sennybridge) or try Defynnog’s delightful Tanner’s Arms Inn (for meals) or the close-by International Welsh Rarebit Centre (for meals or takeaway treats)

Best time to visit: Late summer or early autumn to see the moor in its full glory. To minimise bumping into others, avoid weekends and bank holidays.