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Pen Y Fan, Wales: The Truth about Hiking to the Summit as a Novice

Hiking Pen Y Fan, the highest mountain in South Wales, was at the top of my list of things to do in the Brecon Beacons. With a short 3-night stay in the area before heading on to a week in Pembrokeshire, I wanted to experience something out of my comfort zone.

Pen Y Fan seemed like a fabulous option, and I eagerly combed through hiking websites to learn more about how hard it would be to climb Pen Y Fan.

Pen Y Fan Online Resources

Plenty of online information told me that Pen Y Fan was a mountain that was easy to navigate and suitable for all age groups, from children to golden oldies.

One website even stated it was a mountain walk for softies – I later learned, during my climb up the highest mountain in the Brecon Beacons, that this statement was far from the truth for me.

With the height of Pen Y Fan being 886 metres above sea level, it was only 200 metres shorter than Table Mountain in South Africa, and I had managed that ascent with minimal discomfort.

I surmised that this iconic Welsh mountain couldn’t be anywhere near as challenging as hiking to the top of Table Mountain, and so decided to attempt the ascent to the summit of Pen Y Fan.

I was to be proved wrong, and with every heavy footstep and beating heartbeat, I was reminded that this was not the easy climb that had been described by others. And so because of this, I have answered questions for my readers that I wish I had found before I did the climb. It is definitely better to know what is in store for you as a novice before starting!

Regardless of how hard I found it, I am really pleased I did the hike up Pen Y Fan. The rewards for doing it speak for themselves in the form of sensational views all the way to the top. Scroll through to the end and see the photographs I took on my journey.

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View of neighbouring mountain peak from Pen-Y-Fan

Frequently Asked Questions about Pen Y Fan

How high is Pen Y Fan?

886m above sea level, but at the start of the walking route, it is an ascent of 440m from the Pont ar Daf car park.

Do I have to be fit to climb Pen Y Fan?

This million-dollar question is a hard one to answer. I found it extremely tough, as did my husband, and so it would seem did plenty of others who were stopping on the route out of breath.

We expected it to be a challenge but not as intense as it turned out to be.

Our fitness level is ok. We walk a lot but aren’t hill/mountain climbers, which is very different from walking on the flat.

In comparison to how hard we found the climb, there were plenty of others who didn’t find it anywhere near as challenging. In particular, the small child who greeted me at the summit and the guy who was running up Pen Y Fan carrying a huge weighted rucksack.

I later discovered that the SAS used this as a training ground for the world’s oldest Special Forces test, so didn’t feel quite so feeble!

Should I attempt the climb?

I could never have realised as I looked up at this imposing mountain that the walk would push me to my limits and test my mettle. It is proof that you can achieve most things you set your mind to; however, you should never compare what others find easy to your own abilities.

If you don’t feel comfortable climbing Pen Y Fan, it is not a failure to stop; it could be the correct decision to make. No matter what the guidebooks say, this is a hard and demanding walk and not a stroll in the park as some hardened walkers portray it to be.

How can I find out if the weather is suitable for climbing Pen Y Fan?

Brecon Beacons Weather Forecast

How many routes are there to the top?

There are several routes to reach the summit.

The so-called “Easy” Pen Y Fan Walk (excuse me while I laugh out loud) is 4 miles long – 2 miles up and 2 miles back down (it seriously felt a lot longer than that!). Locals call this walking route “The Motorway” as it can get extremely busy. This walk starts at Pont ar Daf car park by the stream.

A similar 4-mile (7k) Pen Y Fan circular walk takes a different route back down, which includes the smaller mountain (I use the word “smaller’ very lightly) with a height of 873m called Corn Du. The start will be at the Pont ar Daf car park and will finish at the Storey Arms car park.

Other routes range from six to 11 miles, but I guess if you are reading this, then you are a novice and are still deciding whether or not this is for you.

How long will it take to reach the summit?

One hour is the average time for the “Easy” (I say with a smirk), one-way route, but all depends on your pace. We ended up counting 100 steps and then stopping to catch our breath as we got nearer to the summit. It took us over 90 minutes each way.

When should I choose to visit?

You can climb it all year round, but you need to be prepared for when the weather gets bad. Always check the day’s forecast before your ascent; what might start as a sunny day could quickly turn into fog and rain as you get higher into the clouds.

What time of day should I visit?

We visited at the end of September and arrived in the late afternoon. As we ascended (slowly!), we were met with hoards of visitors on their way down. If those many climbers were still heading towards the summit at the same time as us, I think we would have given up.

Pen Y Fan gets over 350,000 visitors a year, so I guess it all depends on luck and the weather as to how many other climbers will be on the mountain with you.

Be aware of what time the sunsets during the year. We witnessed visitors starting their climb as we were on our way down (oh, the joy!), and on asking why so many people had suddenly appeared, we were told it was for the sunset.

This works well if you have intentionally planned it, but the last thing you want is to be on the mountain when it gets dark. Always have a torch with you – just in case of emergencies.

How many peaks are there in the Brecon Beacons?

There are four main peaks in the Brecon Beacons. Pen Y Fan (886m), Corn Du (873m), Cribyn (795m), and Fan Y Big (719m) yes, you read correctly, it isn’t a spelling mistake!

Is there a car park?

Yes, there are two car parks along the A470. One is at the Storey Arms Outdoor Centre but the best Pen Y Fan car park is at Pont ar Daf. 

Are there toilets nearby?

Yes in the Pont ar Daf car park but none while you are hiking the trail.

Is there anywhere to get refreshments for the climb?

Yes, a small burger van is in the car park at Pont ar Daf however, I would recommend you bring water, snacks etc., with you.

Can I wear trainers for the climb?

Yes. I had no choice but to wear mine as my walking boots had fallen apart the day before. The correct footwear is always advisable, and a good grip is essential as the gravel pathway to the summit may prove hazardous in bad weather. My new walking boots have now arrived, ready for my next adventure. I would also advise investing in a pair of walking poles – I saw several walkers using them and have since bought myself a pair!

What clothing should I wear for the climb?

Layers! I started at the bottom with a t-shirt, fleece, ski jacket and woollen hat. Midway up the mountain, I stripped back the coat and fleece (this was the point that I was struggling) but left my hat on as my ears were cold. At the top, all my clothes plus a pair of gloves went back on as it was very windy and cold.

Don’t forget the importance of breathable walking socks and waterproof walking boots.

Girl Guides motto – be prepared!!

What does Pen Y Fan mean?

A rough translation means “Top One” or “Top of the Summit.”

Why is there a stone pile at the summit?

The stone pile indicates a burial place from the Bronze Age. A National Trust plaque sits on top of the pile marking the summit of Pen Y Fan.

What can you see from the summit?

The most stunning views of the Bristol Channel, the Gower Peninsula, the Black Mountains, Exmoor, the Cambrian Mountains, Brecon, much of Mid-Wales and the South Wales valleys. It is truly breathtaking.

Where can I stay in the area?

Nant Ddu in Merthyr Tydfil is one of the closest country hotels to Pen Y Fan.

YHA Libanus and YHA Danywenallt are in the Brecon Beacons and a great base for all outdoor activities.

Collage of 4 images from hiking Pen-Y-Fan

A Photographic Journey to the Summit of

Pen Y Fan

View of Pen-Y-Fan from the roadside
Bridge Over Stream
cobbled pathway leading to the top of Pen-Y-Fan
Weathered sign at the foot of Pen-Y-Fan
View over trees and shrubs on the slopes of Pen-Y-Fan
More sheep grazing on the slopes of Pen-Y-Fan
Sheep grazing and running on the slopes of Pen-Y-Fan
Sheep grazing on the slopes of Pen-Y-Fan
Horse and sheep grazing on the slopes of Pen-Y-Fan
View of valley from Pen-Y-Fan
View of peak from Pen-Y-Fan
View of peak from Pen-Y-Fan
View from the summit of Pen-Y-Fan
View of valley from the summit of Pen-Y-Fan
View from the summit of Pen-Y-Fan
Angie reaching the summit of Pen-Y-Fan

 Conclusion

For me, this was a challenging walk/hike; however, the effort was worth it as the views are just breathtaking!

South Wales is a stunning part of the world, and the sense of achievement on reaching the summit far outweighs any struggles to get to it.

What do you think? Would you hike to the top?

Plinth at the summit of Pen-Y-Fan

Aalia

Thursday 15th of September 2022

I'm glad I found this article, I hiked Pen Y Ghent with a group and whilst it was an amazing experience it most definitely was not easy, not for me anyway. Was thinking of joining them to hike Pen Y Fan but it seems it wil be just as 'easy' so I think I'll give it a miss until I've built up my fitness.

WhereAngieWanders

Saturday 17th of September 2022

I am glad that you found my information useful. I am sure you will get to climb Pen-Y-Fan one day, and I am sure you will enjoy it more when you know your fitness level will be able to cope with it.

Stephen Sykes

Wednesday 17th of August 2022

We had planned this trip a couple of weeks ago. Myself daughter and granddaughter . It was a challenge me being 69 but we did it in three and a half hours including lunch at the top . It was funny though because we were looking for the summit plaque. Only to find out we were on the wrong one lol you can tell it was foggy , couldn’t see a thing but we did find the right one and got the obligatory photo. Just that we have to do it again when the weather is better so we can get some photos. Learning curve I suppose but I need to let my knees cool down before we again venture into the wilderness.

WhereAngieWanders

Wednesday 17th of August 2022

Hi Stephen, well done for getting up there in the fog. I bet that was quite scary in places. So lovely that you got to do the hike with your daughter and granddaughter making some great memories together. I think we were really lucky that the weather was good for us as it can turn on a sixpence and one minute it can be sunny and the next its blowing a gale! I hope you get to climb it again and get those epic photographs on a clear day.

Jade

Monday 8th of August 2022

I’ve just got back from this trip with my 5-year-old, and boy, do I wish that I read your blog first! We took the 10 mile round trip from the 2nd car park further down the road! Although our calves are killing us now, we loved every second, and we actually got so sunburnt!

My son did really well in the climb and enjoyed it just as much as we did. But you're right, it's not for the faint-hearted - I also found that coming down was harder than going up. Put a lot of strain on the knees!

WhereAngieWanders

Monday 8th of August 2022

Firstly congratulations on getting to the top of Pen-Y-Fan, and as you say, it is worth all the pain for the views from the top. It's amazing how resilient children can be at just getting on with it! When I hiked up the mountain, I saw several small children walking up and down it without a care in the world - Oh to be young again! I am glad you are enjoying my website, you will find lots of tips on it for other destinations in the UK and abroad.

Phil

Wednesday 16th of March 2022

Thank you for a great honest account of your hike this has made my mind up to have a go but take my time and enjoy it.I'm glad to hear it is a bit of a challenge so i can get the right equipment. Thanks Phil

WhereAngieWanders

Saturday 19th of March 2022

So glad you found my post helpful - I hope you enjoy the hike to the top of Pen-Y-Fan.

Alison

Tuesday 17th of November 2020

I would love to do this! What a gorgeous place, and your photos are fabulous. I'd be one of those annoying people who would probably call it fairly easy as I like climbing hills (do some every day) and much prefer it to coming down which I find too hard on the knees. This is exactly the kind of hike Don and I would search out when travelling. Good for you for doing it! It must have felt amazing at the top!

WhereAngieWanders

Wednesday 18th of November 2020

You put me to shame climbing hills every day! I think because I normally hike on the flat this became much more of a challenge but I did punch the air when I got to the top and saw those views! I'm thinking maybe Mount Snowdon next (my husband is thinking probably not!)