The gentle one: the walk from the Storey Arms or Pont ar Daf
The regulars call it The Motorway – but they love it all the same. The four mile circular walk from the Storey Arms Outdoor Centre or the nearby Pont ar Daf car park is a classic. Starting at around 440m, the climb to Pen y Fan’s 886m peak is very manageable. But there’s nothing modest about the wild, open, moorland. It takes my breath away as I stride along.
When the weather’s good, even small children can tackle this route. "We walk it several times a year," says father-of-three Michael Rhys from Cardiff, who’s visiting with his family. “I’ve been coming here since I was a boy. My youngest has done the whole thing twice already, and she’s only six. You could say it’s a mountain walk for softies, but if it gets kids hooked on being outdoors, that’s a very good thing.”
The epic one: the Beacons Circuit
The name Pen y Fan roughly translates as Top Spot. That’s top as in highest, but there’s no doubt it’s inspiring in other ways. At the summit, walkers perch on the cairn to grab a selfie. The bragging rights are not to be sniffed at – this is, after all, the highest point in southern Britain, with Mid Wales swirling around it like a carpet of green.
Pen y Fan is just one of several walkable peaks and ridges in the central Beacons. By following an exhilarating 11 mile circuit from the Storey Arms, you can also take in Corn Du (873m) and Cribyn (795m). "I wouldn’t dream of missing out on Corn Du when I’m climbing Pen y Fan," says Darren James, a veteran walker who’s pausing for a swig of coffee on Corn Du’s crowning plateau. "Both summits were used as burial places in the Bronze Age, so there’s something mystical about them."
The quiet one: the Cwm Llwch walk from Cwm Gwdi
This challenging 7.5 mile climb starts north of Pen y Fan at Cwm Gwdi car park (310m) and follows an ancient track up to Cefn Cwm Llwch ridge and Pen y Fan (886m), with stunning views east over the River Nant Sere and west over Llyn Cwm Llwch.
It’s said that if you stand on Pen y Fan and look northwest, you can see all the way to Snowdonia. Binoculars and a very clear day would probably help. But if, like me, you’re up there on a day that’s part sunny and part showery, you’re in for a different kind of treat – a perfect rainbow, nature’s cheerful bunting, hanging over the hills.
The tough one: the horseshoe ridge walk
My final route is a blinder. It’s a demanding nine mile circuit leading from the Taf Fechan Forest up to Corn Du (873m), Pen y Fan (886m), Cribyn (795m) and Fan y Big (719m), the one with the diving board rock, returning via the eastern Neuadd Valley.
Right from the start it’s impressive, with views up the valley to Pen y Fan. The steep yomp up to Craig Fan Ddu has me gasping, but it’s worth it just to admire the sweep of these mighty glacial valleys while red kites cruise overhead. I share the ridge with keen walker Marianne Bailey and her energetic labrador. "It’s a hefty route, and it’s our favourite", she says. "The skies are so big, they seem close enough to touch. It’s a tremendous feeling."
Always check the weather forecast and prepare your clothing and kit carefully. The Brecon Beacons can be dangerous in fog, winds and storms. On hot days you’ll need sunblock and plenty of water.