Measuring in at a relatively modest 8,016 square miles, what the country of Wales may lack in size it more than makes up for with its incredible landscapes. In fact, it lives forever in adventure lore; this stretch of the United Kingdom just west of London served as the training ground for Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as they primed for the first successful summit of Mount Everest. They spent the winter of prior to their spring 1953 summit on Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales and today the centerpiece of Snowdonia National Park. But you don’t need to conquer the ice-covered topography similar to Everest itself when visiting Wales’ national parks.
Snowdonia and its sister parks Brecon Beacons and Pembrokeshire Coast boast legions of outdoor exploration, with everything from hiking and biking to paddling and the region’s famed mountaineering and rock climbing. You’ll also get a hearty dose of the endearing Welsh accent, the vowels-be-damned spelling, and the country’s undeniable good nature and welcoming villages. Here’s a primer to get you oriented.
Hillary and Norgay made Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel near Llanberis their home base while training throughout the winter for Everest, and it still stands today as a refuge from—and launch pad into—all of the many wild adventures that await in Snowdonia. It sits at the foot of Snowdon, one of the park’s chief attractions. But the peak ranks as only one of the park’s treasures, which also includes small villages, the country’s largest natural lake, and countless miles of walking, mountain biking, and climbing routes within its 823 square miles. Hiking reigns supreme, everything from summiting Snowdon to leisurely half-day wanders. But you can also ride on historic railways through the Welsh highlands or visit the historic castle and abbey ruins.
Named after the mountain range that stretches across six peaks in southern Wales, Brecon Beacons delivers all the expected Welsh outdoor attractions: heather-clad mountains ideal for walking, mountain biking, and exploration on horseback—as well as caves, forests, and a historic canal. Hit the Beacons Way and you can walk for as many as 100 miles, with overnight stops in quaint Welsh villages. Or…just do a portion of the total route; the string of towns make it easy to get as rugged or as refined as you like. Then there’s fishing in the Usk, canyoneering through waterfall country, canoeing the River Wye, or hanging out at the Dark Sky Reserve, which takes advantage of some of the United Kingdom’s darkest sky to offer unencumbered star-gazing of the Milky Way.
This coastal park takes the quintessential mountain Welsh landscape and adds rugged cliffs, sandy beaches, crashing surf, and wooded estuaries to the adventure equation—along with an army of both aquatic and land wildlife. Explore the coastline to take in the park’s natural arches, sea stacks, and sea caves, then venture inland into the moorlands and the woodland valleys of Gwaun and Nevern. The town of Newport makes for a great weekend escape, while wildlife lovers flock to St Davios.
But wherever you land, be sure to add coastering to your itinerary.
But wherever you land, be sure to add coastering to your itinerary. The sport originated from a handful of Pembrokeshire surfers while scrambling along the cliffs of the national park back in the 1980s. It’s since evolved to a bona fide adventure unto itself, involving walking, rock-scrambling, cave exploration, and cliff jumping into the wild waters—all led by an experienced and accredited guide, to make it safe and family-friendly. Wetsuits help fend off the cold—and add buoyancy to help you navigate the water.