Join us now as we take on the highest peak in Southern Britain, the magnificent Pen Y Fan. The high point, literally, of the stunning Brecon Beacons National Park.
At 886 metres above sea level Pen Y Fan is a serious peak but get this, from the trailhead to the peak it’s only 440m of climb to the top. So by the time you’ve parked the car, you’ve already made it halfway!
Prepare your legs for some aching though as Pen Y Fan gets steep. But it’s worth it. Prepare your eyes for the magnificent views of the South Wales countryside below.
Or should I make that routes? There are a whole heap of different Pen Y Fan walking routes you can take depending on your fitness levels and the amount of time you have available to frolic about on the mountains. Check out the options on AllTrails.
The “easiest route” up the Pen Y Fan is known by cheeky locals as “The Motorway” as it’s often so busy. This takes you straight up from the Pont ar Daf car park and back.
Leaving from the Storey Arms Car Park, the Military Route is a steeper ascent, it takes hikers up to the saddle known as the Bwlch Duwyn and then the peak of Corn Du before topping out on the Pen Y Fan summit.
The “hardest” of the regular routes is the Pen y Fan Horseshoe Ridge Walk which is a 10 miler that takes in not just the peak of Pen Y Fan, but also Corn Du, Cribyn and Fan Y Big. You are going to need all day and a bit of preparation for this one.
This is a combination of the Military Route and the Motorway Route, you go up one and down the other. It’s also the route we took so it’s the one I will be talking about in detail below.
The most challenging Pen Y Fan route of the lot. This gem starts at the secluded Cwm Gwdi Car Park which you have to pay for and takes you up to the Pen Y Fan summit in around 3 hours.
Don’t worry, whichever route you take you will be rewarded with stunning views and sore enough legs to make you feel like you’ve achieved something.
How to get here really depends on where you’re coming from. The Brecon Beacons National Park feels remote but it’s actually quite well hooked up in terms of transport links.
I was in Shrewsbury and my friends were in Bristol. I caught the train to Hereford (about 40 miles away from Pen Y Fan) and my friends drove up and collected me there. And onward we drove through Wales listening to tunes and chatting nonsense.
If I was a Billy No Mates or had mates who didn’t have a car, I could’ve rented a car or caught the train a bit closer to the station at Abergavenny. Or I could’ve caught a bus from Hereford direct to Pen Y Fan.
Check out the getting here section of the official Brecon Beacons site for a good rundown of the options. Most buses will drop you at the Storey Arms.
There’s a range of car parks, one at the Storey Arms and another at Pont ar Daf are great for the main routes up the hill, while the Cwm Gwdi Car Park is best if you are going to hike the Cefn Cwm Llwch Ridge route.
The Brecon Beacons are no joke. At 886 metres Pen y Fan is the highest point in southern Britain, followed by Corn Du at 873m and Cribyn at 795m.
Add to the steep terrain, the temperamental British weather and you have some of the most dangerous mountains in Wales.
So whilst it’s a fun day out and there may very well be an ice cream van at the car park, it can still be tough, try not to rock up in flip-flops and a tank top.
Wear walking boots or very sturdy shoes, and bring a coat and warm hat even if it’s splitting stones hot at ground level, it might be blowing a gale at the peak.
I think most people can. We saw families with kids. We even saw one dad carrying a pram. The baby wasn’t in it when we walked past but he was definitely carrying it. I’m not sure why. I wouldn’t recommend this myself but I’m also not a dad.
He didn’t look like he was having fun. But my point is I’m pretty sure he still made it to the top.
It’s steep but it’s manageable, the trail is easily marked out. So just keep plodding. The nice thing about it being busy is you will always have the encouragement and smiles of other hikers.
Go team spirit!
I was in Shrewsbury, my long-lost friends in Bristol. We wanted to go for a proper hike together and Pen Y Fan in the Brecon Beacons was nicely located between us both.
Getting there required a bit of logistical work. I hopped on a train to Hereford and my friends collected me there. We had a lovely big long hug and then together we drove through the South Wales valleys.
Arriving around midday on a fine blue-skied Saturday in April, we grabbed a parking spot at the side of the road as it was already chockablock busy in both the main Pont ar Daf Car Park and the Storey Arms Car Park.
It looks like they’re improving Pont ar Daf Car Park at the moment so I think there should be space for everyone in the future.
There was a good collection of food trucks dotted around by the entrance so don’t worry if you forgot to pack your NikNaks and Scotch Eggs. You’ll be able to fuel up here.
Now, full disclosure I didn’t try any food truck delicacies as we had an exciting post-hike date with some pub grub planned.
But there were some good queues at the burger vans and I personally spotted at least two people biting down on melted cheese meat delights without immediately flopping over dead. So I think it must be ok.
I haven’t seen this much heath since Heath Ledger tore it up in Batman.
The secret to life is compromise. The Horseshoe Ridge looked awesome on paper but as I just mentioned we wanted to go to the pub after and we didn’t really have enough hours in the day to achieve both.
So we opted for the Pen Y Fan circular as it sounded nice and round. And was long enough without overstaying its welcome.
This route is technically a combination of two routes, the so-called Motorway Route and the slightly harder Military route. Most people go up the Motorway and down the Military.
Now to be a bit different we opted to do the route in a clockwise direction, which is opposite to what Alltrails suggests and also opposite to what the majority of our fellow hikers were doing.
Doing it this way meant we had a much steeper climb to the peak but a much more gentle descent. Why we did this I have no idea. The bonus was it was much gentler on our knees on the way down.
“Be kind to your knees, You’ll miss them when they’re gone”. Wise words from Baz Luhrmann there. The class of ‘99 knows what I’m talking about.
A bonus is if you go clockwise you will feel a bit more like a mountain climber as there will be a few rocky bits you will have to scramble up. Don’t get me wrong I reckon it’s still manageable for all levels but it just feels a bit more adventurous.
Sorry about the shadows, I was so excited about the plaque I forgot my Composition 101.
Pen Y Fan (pronounced more like Pen Er Van than Penny Fan) apparently translates from Welsh as “the top spot” which seems appropriate. It is a top spot!
Knowing this also makes the name of the neighbouring peak Fan Y Big much less amusing.
It’s part of the Brecon Beacons National Park, 520-square miles of diverse mountain landscape, which of course has recently officially resorted to its original Welsh name Bannau Brycheiniog to the joy of many and the ire of some grumps.
Personally, I think “The Bannau”, sounds much cooler than the Brecon Beacons and as it’s in Wales it probably should have a Welsh name.
But hey, let’s not waste energy on discussing such divisive things when we’re here to hike. Let’s save that energy for climbing Pen Y fan.
Look at that blue! Look at that trail! Why would you be anywhere else on a day like this?
As I mentioned above we opted to do the Pen Y Fan circular route but in a clockwise direction to make it slightly more challenging.
So we set off from near the Storey Arms Outdoor Centre, and within minutes we were blessed with breathtaking wild moorland. It was wild but not exactly the wilderness as it was quite busy. But not busy in an annoying way, busy in a fun kinda way.
Pen Y Fan, like any mountain in Wales, is well known for bad weather, but whatever Gods were on duty today were smiling down on us as we had nothing but blue skies. Sure it was still chilly, jumper-wearing weather, it’s April in the UK but we couldn’t have asked for a better day.
Crossing the Rubicon, no turning back now.
After some time of a relatively gentle slope action lulls you into thinking life is easy you will ford the cool waters of the Blaen Taf Fawr, a kind of streamy thing. After this point, the Pen Y Fan walk really gets going, and things start to get noticeably steeper quickly.
This is maybe a good moment for a bite-sized Mars bar. If you happen to be packing such chocolatey delights.
I told you hiking Pen Y Fan was steep. Believe me now?
The route up from the Storey Arms to the top of Corn Du and then Pen Y fan is also known as the Military Route. Apparently, back in the day, it was used as a training ground for British soldiers preparing for action in mountainous parts of the world.
It’s easy to see why, it’s steep. It’s also hard to get lost. The path is marked out nicely the entire way. Just keep marching upward like a soldier and enjoy the views.
Keep plodding my friends, the first peak is in sight.
Shortly before reaching the final ascent to the peak of Corn Du you will come to the saddle known as Bwlch Duwyn (windy pass in Welsh, don’t ask me to pronounce this one please).
Take a moment to soak in the view. Soon you will be ascending to the right but take a look along the ridge to your left. That’s the route that would take you down to Llyn Cwm Llwch, a stunning-looking mountain lake that sits in the valley below Pen y Fan and Corn Du.
It wasn’t on our schedule for today (as we had no idea it existed until we saw it) but it looks like an ideal place for a bit of wild swimming. Especially if you’re a Wim Hof fan and like your water shrivellingly cold.
If you wanted you could also take a brief detour to the Tommy Jones Obelisk which commemorates the very sad story of little five-year-old Tommy Jones who went missing from the valley in the year 1900 and wasn’t found for 28 days.
He was only discovered after a local lady dreamt of his body lying high on the peak. To this day nobody knows how a five-year-old made it up to the top of a mountain.
Peak No. 1, the rockpile at the top of Corn Du.
The nice thing about the Pen Y Fan walk, or at least the route we did, is that you get two peaks for no extra cost. The first Corn Du is marked by a nice stone pile. Perfect for a nice sit before getting back on the trail to summit Pen Y Fan.
If you’ve taken the same route as us up the Storey Arms Route/Military Route, you will notice the trail gets noticeably busier now as you will start picking up the masses taking on the Motorway Route now.
Look at that path in the distance, you can see why it’s called the Motorway Route now right?
From Corn Du you just have a gentle descent and slight uphill to get to the top of Pen Y Fan. It’s quite a view up there. And it’s a nice feeling knowing the hard part is done now.
The top of Pen Y Fan is kinda a big flat area, it’s not one of those craggy Everest jobs.
The view is quite astonishing. It’s not just the surrounding peaks, strain your eyes on a good day you will be able to see the shimmering of the Bristol Channel, the Gower Peninsula and the Sugar Loaf Mountain.
The only real points of interest (apart from the mind-blowing views) are a pile of stones and a National Trust Plaque.
And let me tell you that plaque is hot stuff, it’s like bumping into Beiber outside a club, everyone and their nan wants a photo with it.
We thought of getting in there but there was a queue of 20-30 people long waiting for their moment to meet the famous plaque. So we quickly discounted it. Why bother when we could take one of Hiker Hero’s world-famous mini-world pics instead.
There we are now, look how chuffed we look with ourselves.
Pen y Fan is a very popular hike in The Bannau, itself a very popular National Park, so if you come on a nice day like we did there is a chance you won’t be alone. There is a chance it will be very busy indeed.
I could see how some more experienced hikers/grumpy folk might get frustrated by the crowds but to be honest that’s part of the fun. Everybody is in good form, and lots of smiles and nods are exchanged. It’s a bit festively.
Everyone is so chuffed with themselves to be out achieving something that the feeling is infectious. The good kind of infectious, not the bad kind we’ve had for the last few years.
Good old-fashioned history apparently.
The piles of stones at the peak of both Corn Du and Pen Y Fan aren’t just your average rock piles; in days gone by both were a Bronze Age Burial Chamber. As recently as 1991 spearheads and bronze-age brooches were being found.
We had a look around for some artefacts. I had Tony Robinson and the Time Team team on speed dial but all I saw was a Nik Nak packet flapping in the breeze that some dufus had dropped. Which I quickly realised was me so I picked it up before it blew away and suffocated a rare Welsh mountain snail or something.
Leave no trace people!
I got in trouble on this site once after calling runners “sweaty weirdos” who hadn’t learnt to slow down and enjoy life, an obvious joke that apparently wasn’t obvious enough.
So I’m gonna make it again. Just as we were leaving the peak feeling great about ourselves a bunch of sweaty weirdo runners emerged from nowhere and jumped off the side of the mountain.
Or at least it looked like they jumped off the side, they were, in fact, fell runners who are half-person/half-mountain goat creatures that populate the Welsh mountains. Running up and down steep things with startling speed and skill.
It looked terrifying and very very fun. It made me think that one day soon before my knees get too old, I might try to become a sweaty weirdo and do a bit of trail running.
Not today though. I was hiking with my mates.
Blue skies and snow piles. Pen Y Fan weather.
From the top of Pen Y Fan we had to get back down to the car park and thanks to taking the loop in reverse we had a much more gentle descent than ascent.
The sky was nearly cloudless but there were still pockets of snow all around, this tells you something about the changeable Pen Y Fan weather.
On the way down, we wandered past one such patch of snow. My friend Squelchy Luke, giddy like a school kid high on climbing mountain energy, tried to launch a wad at my head. He missed and looked like an absolute pleb.
I know this isn’t important to your hike but I told him I was putting it in for my millions of loyal Hiker Hero fans to read, so there it is.
I know that pun makes no sense if you pay attention to pronouncing it the right way, but it does if you just read it so I’m leaving it in as I’m proud of it and I can’t think of another pun.
I’m definitely a fan of Pen Y Fan. It is a great hike, a great day out. The views are stunning and the walk is challenging enough that you will feel it the morning after but not so brutal that you should be worried about it.
I reckon anyone with a decent level of fitness should be able to make up to the top.
Now if you are looking for an adventure this isn’t it. Pen Y Fan is rightfully popular. My advice is to do as I did. Assemble some friends or family and treat it as a day out centered around some solid exercise.
Until next time friends, be nice to each other, call your Gran, rub a dog, buy a stranger an ice cream, spread some joy and don’t let the bastards (whoever they may be) get you down.
This reflects the estimated time the majority of users will take on this trail. If you are slower, add time to the top-end figure. If you are fast, then you may complete this route faster than this time range.
This reflects the Hike Hero difficulty rating for each route. We aim to keep ratings consistent across regions.