I bloody love the South Wales valleys. I realise I might be a bit biased as I grew up there, but seriously, it’s so overlooked! Yes, years ago it was smoggy, polluted and plundered for its black gold. Fast forward a few decades, the mines have gone which hasn’t been easy for the local communities, but the natural landscape’s scars are healing. So whether it’s walking, running, climbing, star gazing or wildlife spotting, it’s a great place to spend time. Below are three places I personally love to visit:
Llanwynno forest, Rhondda Cynon Taf
This large area of undulating forest is where I go trail running the most. I love it. It’s a 15 minute drive from Pontypridd and still feels like one of South Wales’s best kept secrets. There’s something magical about this place, and I’d love to see more people using it.
There’s loads to explore. It’s home to miles of forest tracks and trails, and stuffed full with great views, ancient monuments, a 12th century church, a lake, a waterfall, one of the best outdoor centres in Wales, and an awesome pub (the Brynffynon Inn). It’s also home to one of Dark Sky Wales’ stargazing sites.
Dare Valley Country Park, Rhondda Cynon Taf
It’s hard to believe this was once a prominent colliery site of the South Wales valleys. Close to where I grew up as a kid, it’s now home to an outdoor nursery which promotes the value of children learning in the outdoors, wild meadows, lakes, a café/camping site/hotel, fantastic wildlife, and lots of trails and viewpoints which I love exploring. The scars of the park’s former life as a mine are all round, but I think it’s fair to say it looks a lot nicer today:
Dare Valley’s nearby upland areas
To get to the nearby upland areas, it’s about a mile climb from the main car park. Whether it’s because I’m crap at running hills, or because the slopes are really steep, I’ve never been able to run from the car park to the top without stopping to catch my breath – mega knackering! Here I am just metres below the top:
Once I’ve hauled my ass to the top, I take in the breathtaking views. Those mines may have scarred the landscape, but weirdly, I think it’s all the richer for it.
From here, I like to head over to the Rhondda valley. The area is pretty much all open access so there’s miles of forest roads and tracks to explore – on foot or on two wheels. In the photo below, you can just make out a valley in the background called Cwmsaebren. This, and Cwmparc shown in the 2nd photo below, might look like the result of ancient meteor strikes, but (factoid!) they’re the most southerly glacial valleys in the UK which were carved out during the last ice-age (about 30,000 years ago).
I’m mesmerised by these dramatic landscapes. I try to imagine what those massive glaciers would’ve looked like back in the day. Big and white probably. Anyway, at least today I can head there and gawp at what they did to places like Cwmparc below:
As my good friend Craig (@sa_adventuresuk) lives nearby, this area is also where we experiment with photography, videos and his drone. Underneath that beard, he is smiling. Honest.
The Black Mountains, Powys/Monmouthshire
I realise this is stretching the boundaries of the South Wales valleys a little bit, but moving a bit further east, this awesome mountain range forms the eastern end of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Although the area isn’t as well known as some of the mountains in the more central area (Pen y Fan, Cribyn etc), I love it here and think the views are just as impressive.
To explore the area, there’s a few different spots you can head to such as Talgarth, Llanbedr, Crickhowell, Hay on Wye and Llangors. My wife and I headed there the other day, and parked in the village of Llanbedr before hiking up to the ridgeline along public rights of way. It’s a bit of a hike uphill and seriously gets the blood moving. Phew!
At the top, assuming my wife and I haven’t suffered cardiac arrest, we take a moment to admire stupendous views like this one:
With such an awesome backdrop, it’s nigh on impossible resisting the urge to get the phone out and take photos, like the one below:
So those are some of my favourite places to spend time outdoors in the South Wales valleys. Where are yours?