Hiking Wales: Fresh Tracks Through History

Beachside trek meets pub crawl meets castle tour on Europe's newest long trail, the 870-mile Wales Coast Path, officially opened in May 2011. We have the beta on its highlights.
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Beachside trek meets pub crawl meets castle tour on Europe's newest long trail, the 870-mile Wales Coast Path, officially opened in May 2011. We have the beta on its highlights.

Trailblazer’s Delight

Aberystwyth to Porthmadog

My first trek traced the shores of Cardigan Bay on 101 miles of freshly marked—or mostly marked—trail. From Aberystwyth, a college town on the central coast, to Porthmadog at the apex of the bay, the Wales Coast Path tracks across empty beaches, ascends ridges overlooking verdant pastures, plows inland along shallow estuaries, and delves into forested glades. Nights are in trailside inns or campgrounds. Tricky navigation, 17,000 feet of climbing, boot-sucking mud, spiky gorse thickets, and a slanted-to-the-sea tread make it the WCP’s most challenging section, but the rewards more than compensate. You will:

Walk Back in Time

The WCP is like a long trail through an open-air museum. The ruins of three-story, 700-year-old Aberystwyth Castle hunch a stone’s throw from the path as my wife, Sandy, and I shoulder our packs for our first day of hiking on a blustery morning last June. The fortress is one of many castles built by King Edward I during his campaign against the Welsh. Three days later, I approach a trio of sites the map cryptically labels “Standing Stones” on the hills above Llwyngwril. Dark lichen covers the multiton rock slabs, some up to six feet high. The 3,000-year-old monument is smaller than Stonehenge, but strikes me more powerfully, perhaps because here there are only cows, not crowds. At mile 78, the trail veers east to Harlech Castle, a massive, four-story fortification atop a 200-foot-high rock spur. In the 13th century, it took 1,000 craftsmen to build the castle. Little wonder it’s part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. High on a walkway where longbows once defended the keep, I tread stones worn smooth by centuries of footsteps.

Enjoy Private Shores

On day three, Sandy and I step onto a four-mile stretch of coast at Aberdovey. The waves all but swallow the beach at high tide. At first, boiling combers pin us against a bulwark of smooth, fist-size rocks. But as the water recedes (the tidal change here is 20 feet), the beach broadens with each step until we’re walking on a wide swath of golden sand marked only with seaweed and our own tracks. I chase a flock of jet-black cormorants that rises in squadrons each time I grow close. We see no one the rest of the way. Tip: Allow extra time for beachcombing. You might find a message in a bottle. We did.

Quick Trips

Best Day


Tal-y-bont to Harlech Castle

Head north from the streamside village of Tal-y-bont for a 12-mile hike along beaches and past sand dunes to Harlech, a 13th-century blufftop fortress. Catch the Arriva train back to Tal-y-bont for pizza at Tony’s (tonystalybont1.moonfruit.com). WCP maps 44 and 45

Best Weekend

Tywyn to Machynlleth

Start this 17-mile overnight at Talyllyn Station, a historic narrow-gauge steam railway stop. Head south across a beach to Aberdovey. Camp at Cefn Crib Caravan Park (cefncribholidays.co.uk) at mile 11. Enjoy climbs to sweeping estuary and mountain views. WCP maps 49-51


Trailblazer’s Delight (Cont.)

Aberystwyth to Porthmadog

See 50 Shades of Green

Yes, I’ve appreciated the color of Oregon’s thick Douglas fir forests and West Virginia’s deep valley glades, but Wales kicks the hue into another dimension. Credit the maritime climate, with moderate year-round temperatures (the annual mean along the coast is about 54°F) and consistent rain (at least 2 to 3 inches a month, even in summer). The combination makes the land as fertile as the Amazon, if a bit colder.

On day two, I climb to a spectacular ridgewalk above Aberdovey. Far off to the south, I spy the pale-honeydew salt marsh I crossed earlier; inland, a valley pulses a rainbow of greens—fields painted in emeralds and limes, hedgerows drenched in shades of olive and dark mint, and mossy oaks dotting the hills in splashes of forest and hunter. Even when I descend into Aberdovey, thick walls of ferns and blackberry vines press me on both sides in thick walls. At times even the tread disappears, and it’s as if I’m completely enveloped in living color.



Witness Trail Creation


Navigating a brand-new route makes me feel like a pioneer (as much as one can on an island that’s been inhabited for millennia). Exhibit A: Pwll Du, a 12-foot-wide canal I encounter in the Dyfi Reserve salt marsh on the first day. On the far side, I see a perfectly good bridge marked with the WCP medallion. Unfortunately, it’s over there, sitting entirely on dry land. After testing the channel’s depth with a tent pole, I have but one choice: hurl my pack across and swim. And when the WCP jogs around the Dovey Estuary, I promptly get lost in a flat, open marsh. The entire route is theoretically marked by 3.5-inch trail medallions fixed to pasture gates and posts, but they’re not always well-placed for negotiating Wales’s myriad dirt lanes, paths, and trackless pastures.

Five more times before Aberdovey my GPS track looks like it was made by a kitten chasing its tail. The prize for the most misplaced trail sign? I find it after wandering through a confusing campground in heavy rain. I finally stumble across it: The medallion is glued flat to the top of a post, facing the sky. Fortunately, you can never get really lost on a town-to-town trail that follows the coast. And if you use my GPS track (get it at backpacker.com/wcp), you’ll know which way to go while the trail crews work out the kinks. (Don’t worry, we edited out the kitten sections.)



Look Up to See Wildlife


It’s not all sheep and rabbits. Turn your gaze skyward, and you can spot 100 or more avian species in a few days—peregrines, goshawks, kestrels, redstarts, guillemots, and the king of British raptors, the endangered red kite. In the early 20th century, these majestic birds of prey were down to only 10 nesting pairs, but thanks to sanctuaries, feeding stations, and support from landowners, the number of red kites is above 600 today. I get lucky enough to spot four of the majestic birds, with their dazzling six-foot wingspans and chestnut plumage. Near Pennal on day two, I hold my camera above me and freeze-frame one soaring in full span, the V-cut tail in stark relief against a rare blue sky.

Cliffs & Coves

St. Dogmaels to Dale

Just as the Pacific Crest Trail incorporates the iconic John Muir Trail, the WCP includes a Welsh classic: the 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path. I start a 96-mile stretch of it at the PCP’s northern terminus in St. Dogmaels, in southwestern Wales. After my previous 100-mile journey on some of the WCP’s brand-new trail, setting out on the well-established route feels like digging into comfort food. Which isn’t to say the Pembrokeshire terrain lacks spice: Expect constant sea views, ragged cliff bands, sheltered coves, sea caves, and coastal arches, as well as sightings of dolphins, seals, and puffins. During this second week of hiking, I never feel lost, yet I’m still constantly surprised by the precipitous terrain and hidden towns.



Watch Your Step


I didn’t expect a shoreline path in Wales to test my fear of heights. But countless times on day one, I find myself acutely aware that the trail is smack against the edge of a 400-foot cliff. In the 15 miles from St. Dogmaels to Newport, the route hugs the top of a series of slate precipices most of the way. That makes the ocean views superb, of course, but don’t let them distract you. Often, a narrow swath of ferns, Queen Anne’s lace, or sweet-smelling honeysuckle is the only thing between my boots and a 200- to 500-foot drop to crashing surf. Above-average rainfall this summer has turned the trail muddy and slick, and the hiking alternates between fun-thrilling and scary-thrilling, like an amusement-park ride (but with much better scenery).

Carry Less, Live Large

Want to hike 870 miles with a light pack and without ever pitching a tent? The WCP offers the ultimate in ultralight, ultralong luxury. The trail weaves through and near small towns, which is part of its charm—experience Welsh wilderness and culture—and also allows you to carry as little as a daypack with layers, lunch, and a few snacks. Just stay in the hostels, guesthouses, or B&Bs that proliferate in trailside villages (see right). And leave behind your dehydrated stroganoff. Throughout my hike, I feast on meals like Welsh Steak and Ale Pie. Downside: After learning the joys of downing a long-neck bottle of Black Dragon hard cider after a 17-mile day, I may never go back to camp stove-brewed cocoa. Want to save money rather than weight? Wilderness camping is taboo, but tent-friendly caravan parks are located at frequent intervals. With running water and hot showers, and often located walking distance from pubs and restaurants, these campgrounds allow you to save money while splitting the difference between creature comforts and traditional backpacking.

Find Secret Coves

Over seven days, I meander from cliff tops down into dozens of narrow-mouth inlets. Almost every descent holds a new treasure—pocket-size beaches, sea caves, seals, and dolphins. And when there are sailboats, I know I’ve come upon that Welsh jewel, the seaside hamlet. I’m always surprised at how much village can be packed into a tight Pembrokeshire cove. Porthgain, Little Haven, and Dale all feature Welsh row houses painted in a pastel palette. My favorite is Solva, an enclave of about 1,000 tucked in a ravine at the mouth of its namesake river. Within steps from our B&B, I have my choice of four different pubs.

Sea Smarts

Pack tide tables. Several sections (like The Gann and Sandy Haven in Pembrokeshire) can only be safely crossed at low tide. High tides can also submerge low-lying trail, such as at Aberffraw on Anglesey.

Plan It

Get There


Fly to Manchester, England. All trail towns are accessible via rail and bus: traveline-cymru.org.uk.

Season Spring through fall. Summer is best; pack for rain and cold anytime.

Where to Stay Save money by camping at near-trail caravan parks (first-come, first-serve; about $15-$20/night). Hostels and B&Bs let you go lighter and offer a respite if bad weather sets in ($70/night and up, reserve three months in advance for July and August). Expect to pay cash at most places. Favorite stops: Hamilton Lodge in Fishguard; Cae Du (.3 mile off the trail near Rhoslefain); Pwll Deri (on trail just south of Strumble Head Lighthouse). Note: Youth Hostel Association lodges have a 3-for-4 WCP deal—stay three nights and get the fourth night free. Find contact info for all lodging here and below at backpacker.com/wcp.

The Trips

Aberystwyth to Porthmadog

Day 1: From the boardwalk in the town of Aberystwyth, hike 17 miles to Morben Isaf Touring Park near Dovey Junction (a one-mile detour). Day 2: 16 miles to Aberdovey (Awel y mor B&B). Day 3: 16 miles to Cae Du Camping Park (.3 mile off the trail). Day 4: 13 miles to Coast Caravan and Camping or a guesthouse in Barmouth. Day 5: 11 miles to Shell Island Camping Park. Day 6: 15 miles to Barcdy Camping Park near Llandecwyn. Day 7: 13 miles to Porthmadog.



St. Dogmaels to Dale


Day 1: From the PCP starting monument in north St. Dogmaels, hike 15 miles to Tycanol Farm Camping near Newport. Day 2: 13 miles to Fishguard (Hamilton Lodge). Day 3: 19 miles to Trefin (Old School Hostel, a 1-mile detour). Day 4: 11 miles to Whitesands Bay (St. Davids YHA). Day 5: 12 miles to Ninewells Caravan Park near Solva. Day 6: 12 miles to Little Haven (Atlantic View B&B). Day 7: 14 miles to Westdale Bay (cross peninsula neck to Dale for lodging).



Maps and Guides

WCP maps 41-54 for Aberystwyth to Porthmadog; maps 62-73 for St. Dogmaels to Dale (free; walescoastpath.gov.uk). One (Isle of Anglesey) of six official WCP Guidebooks is available (northerneyebooks.com); Pembrokeshire Coast Path—Trail Guide by Brian John ($20; aurumpress.co.uk). Get GPS tracks for both sections at backpacker.com/wcp.



Best Pubs
Aberystwyth’s Scholars Pub (trip 1, day 1); Trefin’s Ship Inn (trip 2, day 3); Porthgain’s The Sloop Inn (trip 2, day 4)

Infowalescoastpath.gov.uk

5 More Long Trails

Go the distance on these epic treks.



Te Araroa, New Zealand

Hike New Zealand end to end—all 1,882 miles of it—on this ultimate track from the North Island’s Cape Reinga to the South Island’s Foveaux Strait. Officially opened in December 2011, the Te Araroa Trail sets off from the cliff-lined beaches of the Tasman Sea, scales 4,800-foot peaks in the burly Tararua Range, skirts volcanoes and fluorescent lakes in Tongariro National Park, and traces the forests and summits of the Southern Alps on its way to end-of-the-world views across the southern Pacific. teararoa.org.nz

Upper Great Himalayan Trail, Nepal

If you want long (1,056 miles), high (20,000-plus feet), and epic (glaciers, waterfalls, Mt. Everest), you can’t beat this new long-distance trail. Alternate between cozy teahouses and remote campsites as you climb to views of giants like Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, and Annapurna, traverse high-altitude deserts, and trek where snow leopards and red pandas roam. thegreathimalayatrail.org

E8, Ireland to Bulgaria

Europe’s longest trail passes through nine countries as it winds 2,290 miles from Ireland’s Atlantic Coast to Bulgaria’s border with Turkey. En route it links well-known tracks like Ireland’s Kerry Way and the UK’s Trans Pennine Way with local trails (a few gaps in the route remain in Ukraine and Bulgaria). Highlights: clifftop castles in Germany’s Rhine Valley, Austria’s wine country, Poland’s Beskid mountains. era-ewv-ferp.com

Continental Divide Trail, United States

The Appalachian Trail is great—if you like lots of company. The Pacific Crest Trail lags 450 miles behind. The crown for the toughest, most remote trek into the raw heart of America’s wilderness goes to the 3,100-mile CDT. cdtsociety.org

Bruce Trail, Canada

Canada’s oldest, longest footpath, the 550-mile Bruce Trail, traces Ontario’s Niagara Escarpment, a looming sedimentary ridge, from the wine country near Niagara Falls to the remote white cliffs of Georgian Bay. Bunk in trailside lodges, with occasional camp nights. By day, you’ll spot waterfalls cascading near Lake Iroquois and Lake Ontario, top the bluffs of the Blue Mountains, and track beneath dolostone cliffs in Beaver Valley. brucetrail.org