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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 (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.

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