When visiting the UK from the United States, I had not initially considered visiting a national park. But on my recent trip to Brecon Beacons National Park in the Wales countryside, I became enchanted with this mountainous landscape dotted with wildlife and ancient ruins. The number of stunning sites and thrilling activities are staggering.
In Wales, there are three national parks, Pembrokeshire Coast, Snowdonia, and Brecon Beacons National Parks, all established in the 1950s with the goal of protecting the natural and cultural heritage that lie within the park’s borders. They were also created to designate a place of recreation for locals and visitors.
Unlike in the United States, National Parks in the UK have whole towns within their borders. As a visitor, this makes it easy to enjoy the local culture, cuisine, and hospitality with dynamic, wild spaces at your doorstep.
Brecon Beacons National Park is approximately 520 square miles. Within its limits is a glacial lake, prehistoric burial chambers, subterranean caves, ancient villages, and one of the oldest churches in Britain, dating back to the 6th century. The Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains ranges and the rest of the countryside are grazing grounds for Welsh ponies and sheep.
Within the park you’ll also find dozens of castles, some beautifully restored, others, magnificent in their ruin. 12th century Carreg Cennen Castle sits precariously close to the edge of a cliff, providing a panoramic view of all the plains and rolling, green hills as far as the eye can see.
There are extensive caves to explore, waterfalls to swim under, historic trails to follow into deep forests. Llangorse Lake, the largest lake in Wales, is teeming with bird life, its banks perfect for a lazy picnic.
You can simply explore the countryside by car, driving along narrow and sometimes dirt roads that lead to enchanting places. On my tour, we looped around the eastern half of the park from Abergavenny to Brecon, to Hay-on-Wye and back. The ride made me want to go running into the hills—soaking in every inch of the park’s beauty.
You can also choose to go hiking, pony-riding or biking, following the many paths that crisscross the park. One of note is the waymarked, 95-mile Beacons Way. The path crosses the park east and west, stopping at popular landmarks, like the Carreg Cennen Castle and winding through towns where hikers can rest for the night.
If you prefer to explore by boat, the 35-mile Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal winds through the park, passing breathtaking landscape and small towns. Rent a boat or canoe and make the trip as long or short as you fancy. If you like to fish, be sure to get a permit.
There are two more rather exceptional activities within the park grounds that happen in the dark: caving and stargazing.
There are extensive networks of subterranean caves that run underneath the park. These are absolutely best explored with a local guide company—of which there are many. The National Showcaves Centre for Wales at Dan-yr-Ogof also offers tours into caves that were in inhabited 3,000 years ago.
Finally, the park has some of the darkest skies in the UK and is one of only five places in the world accredited by the Dark Sky Association as a Dark Sky Reserve. Brecon Beacons National Park is where to get spectacular views of the Milky Way, constellations, and even meteor showers. Stargazing events are held year round.
Viewfinder Tip: When visiting Brecon Beacon National Park be sure to carve out multiple days to explore its many extraordinary attractions.
Where to stay
In perfect compliment to the outdoor activities, the small towns within the park are wonderful places to stay. One of the most well known and modern towns is Abergavenny. Its annual food festival has made it a popular draw. See my video trying on hats and fascinators inside Abergavenny’s famed couture milliner, Alison Tod. And consider staying at the comfy Angel Hotel, right in the middle of town.
Hay-on-Wye was my favorite for it’s charming, winding streets and extraordinary concentration of bookstores. Another town, Llandeilo was a prehistoric capital of Wales and is still surrounded by castles that speak to its past. And it is quite picturesque, with pastel houses. Be sure to stop in at its many antique shops and try local Welsh ale at Evan Evans Brewery.
For those looking to set out onto the park’s trails, Merthyr Tydfil is a town rich with history and has several heritage trails to help you bring history to life. And finally, Brecon is full of artisan shops and has the largest farmer’s market in the area. Here you can board a river cruise for a two-and-a-half-hour trip up the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal.
What do you look for in an outdoor adventure?
Looking to plan your own trip to Wales? Check out our 365 Days of #OMGB for your go-to travel guide of Great Britain.