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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.

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

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