From the Brecon Beacons to the Elan Valley

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If you’re looking for fantastic scenery and a great driving experience in Wales, the route from the Brecon Beacons to the Elan Valley has got the lot. High peaks, twisting mountain roads and views that go on for miles and miles.

This page tells the stories of our numerous visits to the area, including Bannau Brycheiniog (the Brecon Beacons National Park), as well as a spectacular drive along the ‘Top Gear road’ – the same road they test-drive cars on the TV show.

Read on to find out how our old motorhome coped with the terrain and discover the must see sites in one of the UK’s most beautiful locations…

craig-goch dam - Elan Valley road trip

Hay on Wye – a book lovers’ paradise

This road trip starts at the small town of Hay-on-Wye, just on the welsh border with Herefordshire. Two reasons: we love books (and this town really is the epicentre for book lovers with over 20 different book shops) and free overnight motorhome parking in the main town centre car park.

Yes, you read that correctly! There are designated spaces for motorhomes at the bottom of the main car park. And after 6pm it’s totally free.

If you love books as much as we do you’ll love Hay-on-Wye. It makes for an ideal starting location for exploring the whole of the Brecon Beacons. We happily spent a couple of days here and came away with over 30 books (mostly secondhand) which we piled up in the overcab sleeping area of our old VW Cree.

road trip from the Brecon Beacons to the Elan Valley
Screen shot of our route, starting at Hay-on-Wye. To see a proper Google Map of the whole area go here

Every May the town hosts the ‘Hay Festival’, attracting thousands of book-lovers from all over the UK.

RELATED CONTENT: See our reviews of some of the best van life and travel books

If you don’t fancy sleeping in the car park we recommend the award-winning Pencelli Castle campsite, just 30 minutes south of Hay on Wye. It might be a little expensive but the facilities are spotless and every camping pitch gives you plenty of privacy.

Table Mountain at Crickhowell

Further south along the A479 and you’ll reach the small town of Crickhowell. There’s a lovely atmosphere here – like much of the Beacons – with little shops and cafes. You can walk by the river or, just upland, along the canal path.

One day, whilst feeling more energetic we slogged our way up Table Mountain which provided us with magnificent views of the surrounding area. You’ll need the best part of 3 hours to get up and down – and longer if you want to sit back and simply admire the scenery.

Back in the town we found a cheap tourist guide book in a charity shop that introduced us to a place not too far away that looked amazing – and somewhere we’d never heard of; the Elan Valley.

But before heading north we wanted to take in some of the other amazing sites of the Beacons, and what better than South Wales’ highest peak, Pen Y Fan…

Magic on Pen Y Fan – the highest peak in South Wales

On our first visit to the Brecon Beacons National Park (back in 2018) are main aim – come rain or shine – was to climb Pen Y Fan, South Wales’ highest peak at 2907 feet high. You’ll need to head west, right into the heart of Bannau Brycheiniog to reach Pen Y Fan by road; its base is situated right beside the main A470.

Typically on our visit, the mountain was shrouded in thick cloud all the way up during the 90 minute climb. Once at the summit we had the customary photo taken by a fellow climber then sat down to eat our sandwiches.

The intention was to head straight back down (there was nothing to see here other than greyness) but then something quite magical happened…

The clouds parted east and west – like curtains opening at the theatre – revealing rolling green hills thousands of feet below. As the greyness melted away in the sunshine everyone’s spirits lifted. We all stood up and started taking pictures…

On the summit of Pen Y Fan in the low cloud
On the summit of Pen Y Fan in the clouds
Views from Pen Y Fan
The clouds parted like theatre curtains!

After twenty minutes the ‘curtains’ closed once more and the show was over – but the magic didn’t quite stop there…

On the descent we heard the haunting, plaintive tones of a small Welsh choir, not what you’d expect to hear halfway up a mountain. It’s a sound we’ll never forget.

In that moment we stood mesmerised by the voices drifting through the mist, sounding something like this…

Road Trip Tip: on more than one occasion in the past we stayed overnight in our motorhome at the Pen Y Fan car park at the base of the mountain. However, this is now managed by the National Trust who state on their website that overnight parking is no longer allowed.

RELATED CONTENT: See our page on wild camping: how to do it right and stay out of trouble

Brecon Beacons 4 waterfalls walk

A little more than an hour’s drive from Pen Y Fan (along the main roads, not the tiny back roads which might be unsuitable for motorhomes) and you’ll be in waterfall country.

Just off the A465 you’ll find the village of Ystradfellte and the magnificent Brecon Beacons 4 Waterfalls Walk.

You don’t need to do all four waterfalls but we decided to make an afternoon of it and trekked the whole 5 1/2 mile route, seeing all four falls.

The main route linking the waterfalls is pretty good but getting down to (and then back up from) each waterfall is hard going in some places with lots of steps to negotiate. Rest assured, it’s not too strenuous; we saw someone doing it on crutches.

The most impressive waterfall of the four is called Sgwd yr Eira where you have the chance to step behind the curtain of thundering water. We didn’t fancy falling in so were happy to watch from a distance.

Us Hobos with Sgwd yr Eira

Road Trip Tip: whilst you’re in the area and if you love waterfalls, check out the even more impressive Henrhyd Falls just a few miles away. This is the waterfall featured in the Batman move, The Dark Knight Rises.

The crashed Wellington bomber on the Brecon Beacons

In the southern part of the Beacons, just off the A465, we stayed at the campsite adjacent to the National Show Caves near Abercraf. Voted to be in the top 25 campsites in the UK, we loved our pitch which had hedges on three sides – giving us privacy – and a lovely view out front toward the mountains. Ideal.

On a noticeboard on the campsite we found out that there were WWII plane wrecks dotted about the area. With a sudden urge to explore we soon wound our way up the grassy slopes, following a well-trodden path. After a good hour’s stomp we hadn’t located any planes. And when the rain started again we decided to call it a day and return to base.

Little did we know that we’d got to within 100 yards of a crashed Wellington bomber that remained hidden from view in the mist!

So next day, having done a bit more research and with extra determination to find the stricken plane, we made a second attempt and retraced our steps.

And this is what we found…

crashed WWII Wellington bomber in the Brecon Beacons, Wales
WWII Wellington bomber that crashed in 1944
close up of crashed Wellington bomber, Brecon Beacons
Close up of the stricken Wellington
photo of 6 Canadian airmen killed in Wellington bomber in 1944, Brecon Beacons, Wales
photo of the 6 airmen killed in the Wellington

We spent a very poignant hour sitting with the wreck where 6 Canadian airmen lost their young lives in a plane that wasn’t fit for purpose. Apart from a gentle cross-wind, all we could hear were the weird calls of a raven which hopped amidst the twisted metal like a lost spirit.

The Top Gear road in the Brecon Beacons

The story of the dead airmen stayed with us for a few days. To help lay the ghosts to rest we did something Hobo Gav had been keen to do for some time; drive our old motorhome along the ‘Top Gear’ road where they test drive many of the cars for the TV show.

The A4069 – correctly known as the Black Mountain Pass – is on the western side of the Brecon Beacons. Starting at Brynamman, the road twists and turns, rising to 1600 feet above sea level.

We were down to second gear round the hairpin bends but overall our VW Cree managed it without an issue. The main distraction for the driver are the views. We simply had to pull over a few times and take it all in.

It was such a pleasurable 20 mile drive that we turned around and did it the other way. You’ll probably want to as well.

And to make a day of it, you can always stop off at the old disused Lime Kiln Quarries where you can sit back and lose yourself in the views.

Our motorhome parked beside the A4069 Top Gear road on the western side of the Brecon Beacons

From the Brecon Beacons to the Elan Valley

So, back to that little guidebook we found in a charity shop in Crickhowell…

As if mountains, waterfalls, and crashed WWII bombers weren’t enough on this road trip, a short drive north would lead us into yet more spectacular scenery…

The Elan Valley had captured the heart of romantic poet, Percy Shelley, some 200 years ago (1). Now it was about to capture ours.

So out came the map and we were soon on our way to Rhayader in Mid Wales, somewhere we’d never been to before.

And this part of the road trip would take in yet another great route, voted one of Britain’s favourite roads…

The A470 – one of Britain’s favourite roads

A470 heads north, following the river Wye as it meanders its way from the Brecon Beacons National Park up into the county of Powys in Mid Wales.

It was once voted ‘Britain’s favourite road’ in a survey of drivers. (2)

The road is in great condition with many sections having been resurfaced over the last few years. You can get a real move on but there are some twists and turns to look out for and it’s best to take your time anyway as the scenery is beautiful in places.

From the Beacons you’ll reach Rhayader within 90 minutes in a motorhome. Then it’s a left turn onto the B4518 that will lead you right into the Elan Valley.

Nothing prepared us for what was to come…

The Elan Valley – the Lake District in miniature

The little guidebook we’d found said nothing about narrow roads right on the edge of deep, dark-water reservoirs!

Flimsy wire fences were our only protection at certain sections of the route!

Luckily there were a few passing places to pull over – and sometimes the roads were wide enough for two cars to pass – but these roads were not designed for motorhomes!

road trip - The Elan Valley - Wales
The road into the Elan Valley

On our first visit (in August 2020) we saw maybe only two or three other motorhomers who were brave (or stupid) enough to drive these roads.

And a little further on, we found out why…

Motorhome vs car: which is best for road trips?

We’d already found out during a road trip through the Peak District that our old motorhome wasn’t too keen on going up hills with anything more than a 20% incline. And now, in the Elan Valley, we were faced with the same dilemma.

Having successfully negotiated the roads around several of the spectacular reservoirs and dams we now sat staring at a hill ahead of us that was probably beyond the van’s capabilities.

We discussed our options: do we take a chance and go for it or simply turn around and head back the way we came?

This is where you need to know the limitations of your van. The weather hadn’t been favourable; the road was wet and even though there was no signpost indicating the percentage of the incline it looked damn steep to us! We sat there watching cars snaking their way up and around the hairpin bends in second gear.

Not surprisingly, we chickened out and followed our route back. Not such a bad thing, as it gave us another chance to view the stunning scenery, but we vowed to return soon so that we could complete the route – this time in our car.

Dambusters in the Elan Valley

So, less than two months later we returned to explore the area fully and complete the drive in a more nimble vehicle, our trusty little Skoda Fabia estate.

It led to an interesting discussion about which is best for road trips: motorhomes or cars. Assessing the pros and cons of each, for us the motorhome wins every time – until you come to a hill!

This time, in the car, we’d chosen a great location for our stay, right in the heart of the valley at Penbont House.

After popping in to the Elan Valley Visitor Centre where we acquired a free map, we set off and spent a glorious autumnal day negotiating the tiny roads that led to the five dams: Claerwen, Craig-goch, Pen Y garreg, Garreg ddu, and Caban-coch.

There is a sixth dam that never got finished, the one that was used in the famous WWII Dambusters film.

You can see why Shelley loved this place so much. Though, of course, in his time before the dams were built the landscape would have looked very different.

There is a poignant reminder of this at the Visitor Centre where 27 large stones stand like sentinels, each reminding us of the villages that were lost forever when the taps were turned on and the water filled the valleys.

the 27 lost villages in the Elan Valley, represented by standing stones at the Elan Valley visitor centre
27 standing stones, each representing a village in the Elan Valley that was lost under the water

The old metal mines at Cwmystwyth

After visiting all five dams we headed for the road we had avoided in the van back in the summer time. It presented no problem for the car and at the junction at the top, we turned left on to the B4574. Even though this leads you out of the Elan Valley the drive is none the less spectacular.

Here, the roads get even more twisty and narrow – with fewer passing places – and we felt justified in having chosen to do this route in the car. We pulled over and spent an hour exploring the old metal mines near Cwmystwyth, transported back a hundred years or more. Some serious hard labour took place here and it’s well worth a visit.

Then we pressed on to the Devils’ Falls Bridge but, with light fading, this was as far as we went. With more time we might have carried on to Aberystwyth on the coast for some fish and chips for tea. Gav’s excuse was that he didn’t want to attempt the drive back on these tiny, winding roads in the dark, even in the car.

the old metal mines at Cwmystwyth near the Elan Valley
The old metal mines near Cwmystwyth – well worth exploring

Road trip summary

In this article, we’ve condensed several visits to the Brecon Beacons into one page. These are the must see/must do things we recommend…

  • Hay-on-Wye: if you love books you’ll be in paradise. (And if you’re in a campervan or motorhome you can park for free overnight in the main car park)
  • Crickhowell: a lovely little town with walks along the river and canal. Plus a great walk up Table Mountain
  • A walk up south Wales’ highest peak – Pen Y fan
  • 4 Waterfalls Walk and Henrhyd Falls near Ystradfellte
  • The National Show Caves near Abercraf and a walk to the crashed Wellington bomber
  • The drive along the Top Gear road (the A4069)
  • The drive along the A470 – voted one of Britain’s best driving roads
  • Visiting all 5 dams and reservoirs in the Elan Valley
  • The old metal mines near Cwmystwyth


Check out our other road trips in Wales…

We hope you’ve found this page entertaining and informative. Have you been to the Brecon Beacons or the Elan Valley? What did you like best? Did you go by motorhome or car? Let us know your story via email. We’d love to hear from you.

Check out our other road trips in Wales, including our visits to Anglesey, the West Coast of Wales and the Llyn Peninsula, and the Horseshoe Pass to Llangollen.

motorhome hire - all you need to know

Notes:

(1) Read the story of Shelley’s time in the Elan Valley http://history.powys.org.uk/history/rhayader/shelley1.html

(2) The A470: voted Britain’s favourite road https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/a470-britains-favourite-road-yes-7228725

And for more about the history of the Top Gear Road/ Black Mountain Pass see this BBC news article

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