Why hiking Wales is one of our best trips for 2020

Jump into coastal adventures, then hit the trails at the speed of sheep.

Photograph by CARL JONES
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In Wales’ Snowdonia National Park, summer dusk bathes a slope above Lake Idwal, in the Ogwen Valley.
Photograph by CARL JONES
This story appears in the January 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The simple words painted on a billboard-size wall overlooking a parking lot in Swansea, Wales, read: “More poetry is needed.”

A plea to locals? More likely an exhortation to the rest of the world—because poetry isn’t something I find Wales lacks. A short drive beyond any Welsh city leads to landscapes of imagination: hillsides embroidered with bluebells, lonely castle ruins on windswept crags, rocky coastlines noisy with seal song, valleys that are an encyclopedia of green. (Take a road trip through the Irish countryside’s wild beauty.)

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The industrial port city of Swansea is the gateway to the Gower Peninsula, the first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) designated by the British government, in 1956. The recognition singles out for conservation exceptional landscapes of “distinctive character.” Wales now has five AONBs, in addition to three national parks.

Three new touring routes, collectively called the Wales Way, showcase the best of this ancient land—and they appear on National Geographic Travel’s annual Best Trips 2020 list, which heralds them as essential experiences for travelers. At 185 miles, the Cambrian Way is the longest of the three, snaking north to south along the backbone of Wales. Sandwiched between peaks and sea, the Coastal Way is a sweeping 180-mile journey around Cardigan Bay on the country’s west coast. The castle-rich North Wales Way follows a centuries-old trading route 75 miles from northeastern Queensferry to the cliffs at Holyhead on the Isle of Anglesey.

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The hiking trail around Carmarthen Fans, in Brecon Beacons National Park, takes in windy escarpments and glacial lakes.

Each route is a gateway to wider outdoor adventure. On the western Pembrokeshire coast, surfers ride the swells at Freshwater West, site of the Welsh national surfing championships. Climbers can follow in the footsteps of Sir Edmund Hillary, who trained on 3,560-foot Mount Snowdon before his 1953 Everest ascent. Elsewhere in Snowdonia National Park, the River Tryweryn is the top destination for white-water kayaking and rafting in Britain. This is poetry to get the blood pumping.

In the 1980s the Welsh pioneered a new adrenaline rush called coasteering. This increasingly popular adventure sport may include rock climbing, cliff jumping, cave exploring, swimming—experiencing with all senses the impact zone where water meets land.

The speed is slower on Wales’s hundreds of miles of walking trails, including the 870-mile Wales Coast Path, which follows the country’s entire shoreline, from Chepstow in the south to Queensferry in the north. Once I spent a sunny afternoon unexpectedly walking a very short section of the path from Port Eynon Bay to Oxwich Bay, in the Gower Peninsula, where I’ve been visiting relatives since I was 14 years old. I’d thought only to stroll out to one end of the bay and back, but the desire to see what was beyond the headland kept me walking. At Oxwich Bay, I found families out enjoying the unseasonably warm weather on broad golden sands. The bay flows out to the Bristol Channel, which has one of the highest tidal ranges in the world. In Wales it always pays to see what wonders lie around the bend. (Visit a wild and beautiful Scottish island owned by its residents.)

Or what surprises. At Devil’s Bridge, in the northern Cambrian Mountains, a steep trail leads down a wooded gorge to Devil’s Bridge Falls. I arrived one spring at dusk and had the trail nearly to myself. I heard the rumble of the falls before I saw them. They plunge 298 feet in several cascades, the water sometimes gathering in potholes, where the bedrock has eroded. The trail wound down closer to the base of the falls, and each view seemed different, as if I were looking at a multitude of waterfalls, rather than the same one from various vantages.

Its prismatic beauty attested to why this has been a tourist attraction since Victorian times. Nature’s green generosity was on display, brightened by bursts of pink and purple rhododendrons. The lushness reminded me of Hawaii. “Can such force / Of waters issue from a British source …” wondered William Wordsworth in his poem “To the Torrent at the Devil’s Bridge, North Wales, 1824.” As I made my way back up out of the valley, I couldn’t help but smile. If this is devil’s territory, then let all hell break loose. (From the magazine: What Will Become of Scotland's Moors?)

Beyond lyrical landscapes, there’s the torrent of actual poetry Wales has produced. Its poetic tradition reaches back to the late fourth century and forward to the annual National Eisteddfod, a full-blown festival of poetry and music that is Wales’s biggest gathering.

Some of the earliest written sources of the Arthurian tale, dating from the ninth century, have connections to Wales or were written in Welsh. Travelers search for connections to the legendary ruler and his knights at towns such as Caerleon, a supposed site of Camelot, and Carmarthen, said by some to be Merlin’s hometown.

Dylan Thomas, perhaps Wales’s most famous poet, was born in Swansea and still influences artists and writers today. That parking lot billboard? It’s a work by artist Jeremy Deller, who was commissioned as part of the city festivities around Thomas’s 100th birthday in 2014. Deller was right: Even in Wales, you can never have enough of words and wonder.

Amy Alipio is senior editor at National Geographic Travel.