Without much time for flexibility, I decided that the Easter Bank Holiday weekend was the ideal time to climb Pen y Fan for the first time in about seven years.
The night before I drove up to Wales, I read news reports that there were two miles of cars parked along the verges of the road leading up to the car park. A sunny bank holiday weekend? Of course everybody else thought it was a great idea too.
Still, my mind was made up. I didn’t fancy joining the motorway of people hiking the trail from the Pont ar Daf car park so I pulled out the OS Map (that I stole from my sister) and scoped out other places to park.
Pen y Fan and her peaky family
Pen y Fan is the highest mountain in South Wales at 886m and it doesn’t stand alone. The peaks of Corn Du, Cribyn and Fan y Big (I know, I know) are all in a line with Pen y Fan in between.
Because you don’t have to descend far in order to start the next ascent, it makes it very easy to summit up to four mountains in one day – depending on how your legs are feeling.
The mountains sit in a sort of horseshoe shape and there are more routes up than you can shake a stick at. The layout of this mini-range makes it an incredibly flexible hike – you can choose to make it as long or as short as you like and change your mind at plenty of stages, taking different forks to alter the length.
All in all, in good weather, they’re friendly mountains.
Choosing your route
The shortest route up Pen y Fan is from the Pont ar Daf car park just along from the Storey Arms Outdoor Education Centre on the A470. This is why those news reports were detailing two miles of cars parked along the grass verge from that car park.
It’s the most commonly outlined route, so lots of people assume it’s the only one.
If you want to get up to the summit quickly then sure, Pont ar Daf is your starting point. Unless of course it’s a weekend in summer or a bank holiday. Or probably lots of other times too. It. Gets. Busy.
The second most commonly detailed route is a tough one. You can park in the Cwm Gwdi car park north of Pen y Fan and just south of the town Brecon.
This route approaches Pen y Fan from the north and is a few miles longer than that from Pont ar Daf. I was considering heading here for the bank holiday as I thought the extra distance would put people off.
But there aren’t many options available if you arrive in Cwm Gwdi car park and find it full. I didn’t fancy having to turn around and drive all the way around the four summits in search of a parking space.
So I chose a southern route and crossed my fingers for space to park.
The Taf Fechen route
Approaching the southern valley of Pen y Fan from Merthyr Tydfil, a narrow road winds its way up to a series of small car parks all in the same area.
I chose this starting point simply because there were so many car parks – surely I’d find a spot!
And, incredibly given that the Pont ar Daf carpark was overflowing for miles, I did find a space at Taf Fechan. Plenty of them.
The car parks were quiet and I saw just four people as I put on my walking boots and headed north up to the reservoir. It was bliss and I was amazed. Amazed because while Pont ar Daf leads to a short route, the Taf Fechan route is not difficult and is much more beautiful.
Choosing your direction
It’s not enough to just start at Taf Fechan, once you reach the reservoir, you’ll need to choose your direction around the loop.
You can head left for a fairly immediate climb right up to the ridge or you can head off to the right with a very gentle ascent to the pass between Cribyn and Pen y Fan.
Gentle sounds great right? Hmmmm…not so much.
The reason for choosing the left option straight up a tough route to the ridge is this: it’s easy to get as much ascent out of the way as soon as possible.
The ridge to the left (the west) is already 670m when you reach the top and from there it’s a gradual scent to Corn Du and Pen y Fan. The hardest part is over within the first 30 minutes of your hike. Once you summit Pen y Fan, you’ve got a steep descent and then a nice gradual walk down back to the car park.
However, if you choose the gradual path to start, you’ll be walking at least half the route at a much lower level and then be faced with Pen y Fan’s extremely steep easterly path. In the heat, getting the ascent out of the way as close to the start of your walk will make for a much more enjoyable hike.
Starting at Taf Fechan, I saw few people until I reached the top of the ridge. Even then, it wasn’t very busy. In fact, it wasn’t busy at all until I reached Corn Du, where the Pont ar Daf route joins the Taf Fechan route.
If you get tired after reaching the summit of Pen y Fan, you can choose the path that leads gently back down to the reservoir and the car park. If you’ve still got a some energy, you can hike up Cribyn and even Fan y Big – both have paths down from the summits and sides.
Always think it through
The weather up in the Brecon Beacons can change extremely quickly so if you’re hiking on a day where the clouds are looking suspicious, it’s understandable that you might want to start at Pont ar Daf.
Because the route leads up to the same circle as Taf Fechan, you can still do a full loop from Pen Y Fan to the Taf Fechan reservoir and back.
But there are less options to choose from should you get tired or struck by unfriendly weather if you start the loop at the top of the Pont ar Daf route.
From Taf Fechan, you can hike as many of the peaks as you like but from Corn Du (the top of Pont ar Daf route), once you’re out in Taf Fechan there are no options to cut your route short, you have to turn back or continue all the way around.
Pen y Fan is a pretty friendly mountain with lots of excellent quality paths and well managed by the National Trust. But as lovely as it is on a sunny spring day, the mountain can be treacherous.
My first experience on Pen y Fan was at five years old. The visibility was only a few metres by the time we reached the summit, the wind was phenomenal and it was pouring with rain. It was impossible to see the path.
Never underestimate mountains, they attract bad weather and are deceptively dangerous. So if you’re ever in doubt about the conditions, seek proper advice and always err on the side of caution.
Similarly, a nice sunny day can prove overwhelmingly hot when you combine it with hundreds of metres of sweaty ascent. Always take plenty – and I mean plenty – of water as well as suncream and protection like a hat. Sunstroke is dangerous too!
I hiked from the Pont Cwmfedwen car park in Taf Fechan up to the Lower Neuadd Reservoir and then ascended to the west ridge. From there I walked to Corn Du and Pen Y Fan. Due to getting out of bed much later than I’d planned, it was too late to hike Cribyn so I took the lower path from the pass between Pen Y Fan and Cribyn back down to the car park.
Distance: 8.6 miles
Total Ascent: 645 metres
Time taken: About 4 hours including a lengthy food stop!