Wales-bound hikers invariably make a beeline for Snowdon, Britain’s highest mountain outside of Scotland. But with annual visitor numbers cresting the 600,000 mark, and the Snowdonia Society raising concerns last year about the negative effects on the peak and its paths, it could be high time to turn elsewhere for a weekend of walking.
In fact, few places in Europe have better credentials for escaping the crowds than Wales. It is predominantly rural, with one of Europe’s lowest population densities – sheep outnumber people four to one here. And this is the only country on the planet to have a trail traversing its entire coastline: a stunning 1400km renowned for its sandy strands and stupendous cliff top scenery.
Inland, you could wander two days without crossing a single road in the unpeopled mynydd: mountainous uplands sparkling with waterfalls and rimmed by forests. History layers Wales too: this is the world’s most densely castellated nation, and the ancient strongholds and Neolithic monuments dotting the hills show how people have been drawn to the pathways of Wales since time immemorial.
So without further ado, here are five of the best alternative hikes in Wales.
1. The other mountain hike: Cadair Idris, Gwynedd
At the opposite end of Snowdonia National Park to Snowdon, mystery-steeped Cadair Idris might be the next-most popular mountain traverse in Wales, but the walk appears comparatively deserted. Idris himself was a giant, poet, philosopher and one-time ruler of Meironydd, the historic term for the surrounding hilly region. The ridge’s name means ‘Chair of Idris’ and has numerous associated legends. Purportedly, those who spend the night up here wake up either as a poet – or mad.
The view from the top encompasses the Mawddach valley falling away to the coast at Barmouth and, more magically yet, the glacial crater lake of Llyn Cau that the ridge enfolds. The summit, Pen y Gadair, is just under 900 metres but feels higher. Out-and-back routes are all around the 10km mark.
Insider tip: A little-taken route leads from Cadair Idris down to Llyn Cau, arguably Wales’ most beautiful mountain lake.
Cadair Idris © ieuan/Shutterstock
2. The coastal hike: Aberporth to New Quay via Llangranog, Ceredigion
People usually pick out the Pembrokeshire Coast Path as the standout section of the coastal path that wraps around the south, west and north of Wales, but the stretch through Ceredigion gives it a run for its money.
The Aberporth-Llangrannog-New Quay leg is heritage coast, recognised for its outstanding natural beauty and history. Linking three small, quaint coastal settlements, the 15km walk combines expansive sandy beaches, mesmeric rock formations and the island fort of Ynys Lochtyn.
Insider tip: One of Britain’s best coastal pubs, the Pentre Arms Hotel, provides beachside refreshment at Llangrannog.
Llangrannog © Rodney Hutchinson/Shutterstock
3. The river hike: Tintern Abbey and the Devil’s Pulpit
Wales is better known for its rugged scenery, but the gentle woodland-and-river-scape hugging the border with England has captivated visitors for the better part of a millennium.
Tintern Abbey, an impressively preserved twelfth-century Cistercian monastery, is nestled alongside the River Wye, which forms much of the boundary between Wales and England. The walk above the abbey to the Devil’s Pulpit inspired William Wordsworth to verse, and a lookout in the forest overlooking Tintern commands breathtaking views over the river valley.
You can extend the walk by incorporating a section of the long-distance Offa’s Dyke Path.
Insider tip: Brockweir, the next village along the Wye, offers wayfarers a beautiful twelfth-century pub, the Brockweir Inn.
Tintern Abbey © matthi/Shutterstock
4. The forest hike: Hafod Estate, Ceredigion
Many hikes are picturesque, but the Hafod Estate in the hills above Aberyswyth was actually designed to be so. In the eighteenth century, when picturesque – an architectural and artistic style striving to tread the line between the beautiful and sublime – was all the rage, estate owner Thomas Johnes laid out grounds in the remote forests here in accordance with its principles. He did a decent job, constructing two precipitous woodsy trails splashed through by crashing mountain streams and waterfalls. Today there are five walks on the estate ranging between 2km and 6km.
Insider tip: North along the B4574 is another beauty spot popular since the eighteenth century, the river gorge at Devil’s Bridge.
Hafod Estate © ieuan/Shutterstock
5. The castle hike: Carreg Cennen, Carmarthenshire
Trundling through this verdant part of Carmarthenshire, it seems as if every hilltop has a castle, but Carreg Cennen is the most dramatically situated: the fortress rears out of a crag on one of the western flanks of the Brecon Beacons. The owners have created three trails in the surrounding woods and hills, one of which continues up onto the wilder moors above. Two other towers, Dinefwr Castle and Paxton’s Tower, stand sentinel on nearby hills.
Insider tip: Carreg Cennen secretes a cave deep below its foundations (included in the castle entrance fee), which you can explore. Bring your own light.
Carreg Cennen © Billy Stock/Shutterstock
Luke Waterson’s new novel Song Castle, following a disparate group of bards travelling through medieval Wales, is out this April.
Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Top image: Sunrise over Cregennen Lakes with Cadair Idris in the background © Matt Gibson/Shutterstock.