Discover the remote Cambrian Mountains, the beautiful rural heartland of Mid Wales, in our guide to this magical part of the world.
The Cambrian Mountains of Mid Wales are sometimes referred to as the Green Desert of Wales. This vast upland area of mountains, steep valleys, lakes and forests is largely deserted, with scattered sheep farms and tiny villages, and if you want to explore off the beaten track Wales, this is a great place to start.
We think of the Cambrian Mountains as the Empty Quarter of Wales, and another equally apt description would be the Roof of Wales. Once you’re up on the ridges and mountain tops, it’s just you, the sky and the glorious views which, more often than not, you’ll have to yourself.
The main attraction of the Cambrian Mountains is the wild scenery, and the chance to experience it in some of the most dramatic walks in Wales. The few Mid Wales tourist attractions in the region are spread out as widely as the population, but are very much worth the effort.
We have arranged our Cambrian Mountains guide by county, beginning with Powys, the largest county in Wales, and continuing to Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire.
Where Are The Cambrian Mountains?
The Cambrian Mountains cover a large, sparsely populated region of Mid Wales, with northern Carmarthenshire in the south, inland Ceredigion (Cardiganshire) and parts of the rural county of Powys, reaching as far north as the Dovey estuary and the town of Machynlleth.
The northern part of the Cambrian Mountains is close to the southern reaches of the Snowdonia National Park, while the south-eastern part of the Cambrian range is close to the Black Mountain moorland, in the west of the Brecon Beacons National Park.
Cambrian Mountains – An Introduction
The Cambrian Mountains are one of the best hidden gems in Wales
They get but a fraction of the visitors Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons get, and the nearby Cambrian Coast, with its superb Cardigan Bay beaches, is also much more popular than these remote Welsh hills
If you visit the Cambrian Mountains, you’ll need a car – much of it has no public transport coverage, though we’ll point out anywhere you can reach by bus or train
The most famous part of the Cambrian Mountains is the Elan Valley, a series of reservoirs dammed to supply water to the city of Birmingham in the West Midlands of England
The various things to see in Cambrian Mountains Wales are thinly scattered
These include some remote ruined abbeys and a remarkable chapel in the wilds of Ceredigion
The Cambrian Mountains are the domain of the red kite, the famous bird of prey which was reintroduced to the region and now flourishes again
The Cambrian Mountains were once considered for National Park status, but locals declined to go ahead with this
Cambrian Mountains – Places To Visit In Powys
Upper Wye Valley
The upper Wye Valley is the least-known section of one of the most famous rivers in Wales. The river Wye rises in the rain-sodden bogs below the slopes of Plynlimon, carving out a course through mountainous Mid Wales.
The Wye Valley north and south of Rhayader is rarely explored, with most visitors drawn towards the Elan Valley l;akes nearby. One of the most beautiful parts of the Wye Valley is around Erwood, within sight of the escarpment of the Black Mountains range, the easternmost extent of the Cambrian Mountains.
Exploring the Elan Valley – a series of reservoirs and rather picturesque dams – has long been one of our favourite things to do in Wales. Around 100 residents of the valley were moved out in the 1890s as the valley was flooded to provide clean water for the city of Birmingham, just across the border in England.
There are six dams in all (including the later Claerwen dam), and a scenic 10-mile (16 km) drive takes you along the four main lakes – it’s a 20-mile (32 km) circuit from the nearby town of Rhayader.
The Elan Valley is one of the most magnificent landscapes in Wales, and the best place to appreciate it is from the viewpoint high above Craig Goch reservoir and dam. The dam is a splendid sight, especially when water is released, and the small domed tower fits in beautifully with the amphitheatre of moorland and mountains behind.
Most people who visit the Elan Valley tend to follow the drive around the lakes, stopping at a tea house along the way. The area also has some great walks (see the Monks Trod in the Ceredigion section below) and it’s at its most beautiful in late October and early November each year, when the bracken and forests turn golden-brown and t’s one of the best places to visit in Wales in autumn.
The Claerwen river is a tributary of the River Elan, flowing a few short but scenic miles down from the vast Claerwen Reservoir and dam down into the Elan Valley.
Follow the road across the submerged Garreg-ddu dam and head left, where you’ll pass above Dol-y-Mynach reservoir and drive alongside the river. There is a section close to the road with a couple of small waterfalls which, for me, are archetypal Welsh scenery, a fast-flowing river surrounded by mountains. Worth the short detour from the Elan Valley.
A short section of the Glyndwr’s Way National Trail passes along the northern edge of the Cambrian Mountains. This perennially quiet long distance route criss-crosses Mid Wales, running from the border town of Knighton west towards Machynlleth before heading north-east to another border town, Welshpool.
This 217 km, 135-mile National Trail is backwoods Wales at its best, reaching the pleasant market town of Llanidloes. From there it climbs to the dam of Llyn Clywedog, along the west side of the reservoir and below nearby Foel Fadian and Glaslyn lake. Make the short detour to the summit of Foel Fadian, where you’ll see4 an amazing view north towards Cadair Idris and southern Snowdonia.
Although it’s man-made, Llyn Clywedog reservoir is one of the most scenic lakes in Wales, filling a beautiful valley between Llanidloes and Dylife (see below) justto the north of the river Severn. The B4518 road skirts the north shore of the lake, offering outstanding views, while the turn-off to the dam takes you to the ruins of the Bryn Tail Lead Mine, at the foot of the dam.
As well as following the Glyndwr’s Way trail above the lake, there is also a sailing club where you can rent boat and sail in these awesome surroundings.
Llanidloes – Llani to locals – is a small mid Wales market town which makes a good base for exploring the Cambrian Mountains and Mid Wales countryside. Llyn Clywedog is just a few miles away, and the minor roads from there lead to Machynlleth and the Dovey valley. The HAfren Forest is also on the doorstep.
The most notable building in Llanidloes is the Old Market Hall, a late medieval black-and-white half-timbered hall and rain shelter in the middle of the town.
We’ve never stayed overnight in Llanidloes, but can heartily recommend the restaurant at the Trewythen Hotel in the town.
Dylife – Gorge and Road
Dylife – pronounced ‘’Duh-LEE-veh’ is an abandoned former lead mining village just north of Llyn Clywedog reservoir, and just above the northern escarpment of the Cambrian Mountains.
What is left of Dylife is spread sparsely across the empty landscape. If you approach from Llyn Clywedog and Llanidloes, the first thing you’ll see is the steep-sided gorge, and shortly after that Y Star Inn.
The minor road continues to the top of the hill, the view suddenly opening out, a breathtaking panorama similar to that from Foel Fadian a few miles to the west. Stop for a few minutes at the slate monument to the left of the road – it’s a memorial to the Welsh broadcaster Wynford Vaughan Thomas, who died in 1987.
One of the most scenic drives in Wales, the Abergwesyn Pass, a 20-mile minor road linking the towns of Llanwrtyd Wells and Tregaron, is possibly the ultimate Cambrian Mountains experience.
If you have limited time to visit the Cambrian Mountains, spend an hour or two enjoying this amazing route. It climbs through pine forests and moorland, eventually reaching the dramatic denuded Irfon valley, the steep bare slopes carved over millions of years by the river below.
After climbing the famous Devil’s Staircase, a testing mile or so of tight hairpins, you descend towards the turn for Llyn Brianne and Capel Soar-y-Mynydd, eventually reaching surely the loneliest red telephone box and post box in the UK, surrounded by desolate moorland.
From there, it’s a few miles along another steep valley into Tregaron, one of the best places to stay in the Cambrian Mountains.
Lake Country House Hotel & Spa Llangammarch Wells
The Lake Country House Hotel & Spa is one of the best hotels in Mid Wales, an atmospheric mock-Tudor building with a renowned spa where Kaiser Wilhelm II once stayed.
The accommodation and food are excellent, but what makes this place for me is its setting, its peaceful gardens a haven from the stresses of the world outside, with a buffer zone of some of the most beautiful countryside in Wales.
Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Memorial, Cilmeri
Apart from the Owain Glyndwr-led rebellion of the early 15th century, Wales has been under English rule since the reign of King Edward I, when he subjugated the northern Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd by the 1280s.
The last Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, led a rebellion against Edward in 1282, but was killed in an ambush in December of that year at Cilmeri, a village between Builth Wells and Llanwrtyd Wells. The stone memorial is inscribed with the words ‘Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf’ – Llywelyn, Our Last Leader.
Cambrian Mountains – Places To Visit In Ceredigion
A great way to get a taste of the Cambrian Mountains is to follow the Elan Valley road to the T-junction at the top of the hill, but instead of turning right back towards Rhayader, turning left towards the county of Ceredigion, which you reach via the scenic Cwmystwyth road.
According to the Ordnance Survey, who map the UK, Cwmystwyth marks the centre of Wales, and it’s a typical Welsh landscape with steep hills either side of the valley, including the Elenydd moorlands.
Cwmystwyth was, for centuries, the main lead mining site in Wales, and extensive ruins of mine buildings from the 19th century remain. You can still see pollution in the water next to the mine, and lead poisoning took a heavy toll on the miners.
The rugged scenery eventually gives way to more gentle, bucolic countryside around the village, which is close to one of the most popular places to visit in Mid Wales, Devils Bridge.
One of the most popular things to do in Aberystwyth, the cosmopolitan seaside university town, is to take a trip on the narrow-gauge Vale of Rheidol Railway to Devils Bridge – Pontarfynach in Welsh.
After the thrill of the ride up through the forest, you disembark at the station, from where it’s a short walk to the Afon Mynach waterfalls and the famous three bridges built on top of one another. The earliest is believed to date from the 11th or 12th centuries, and this supports another bridge originally added in 1753. The modern iron bridge was completed in 1901.
The bridges and Hafod Arms Hotel a short walk away both featured in the Welsh crime series Hinterland, which is set in Aberystwyth and the surrounding area.
Strata Florida Abbey
This serenely peaceful abbey ruin in the shadow of the Cambrian Mountains is one of the most intriguing places to visit in Mid Wales
Known as Abaty Ystrad Fflur (Valley of flowers) in Welsh, it was founded in 1164 by the Cistercian Order and remained in use until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. The abbey church was used as a local quarry – the parish church next door was a likely beneficiary – and the remains are fairly scant save for the splendid rounded Romanesque arch, which was the west door of the Abbey church.
The parish church next door is also worth a visit. One of the most celebrated medieval Welsh poets, Dafydd ap Gwilym, is buried in the churchyard, and a small memorial to him can be found next to the yew tree there.
The Teifi Pools are a series of six isolated lakes near Pontrhydfendigaid, the village a mile or so from Strata Florida Abbey. This is the bleak but beautiful back of beyond, wild open hill country where you’ll seldom see another soul, other than a few weather-worn sheep grazing above the roadside.
You can access the lakes on foot or by car, and even stay overnight in the Claerddu Bothy Wilderness Hut – you don’t find many such places in Wales. It’s only around 5 miles from there to the heart of the elan Valley, across the county boundary in Powys.
The Monks Trod is a medieval overland route between the Cistercian Abbeys of Strata Florida and Abbey Cwmhir.
The route is 24 miles (38 km) long, and a great introduction to the more remote mountains in Wales. The first part – the 6-mile walk from Strata Florida to the northern end of the Elan Valley – appears to be a properly laid level pathway, a hugely impressive feat.
Some of the route has had minor roadways lain over it, but most of it is cross-country pathway, culminating at Strata’s sister abbey – sometimes referred to as Abbeycwmhir – a few miles north-east of the town of Rhayader.
Cofiwch Dryweryn Graffiti
The most famous graffiti, and politically significant landmarks in Wales is just off the A478 road as it passes through the western fringes of the Cambrian Mountains near the village of Llanrhystud.
The message – Cofiwch Dryweryn – means ‘Remember Tryweryn’, referring to the valley of the same name in North Wales which was flooded to create the Llyn Celyn reservoir for the city of Liverpool in 1965.
This went ahead despite overwhelming opposition within Wales, and became a rallying point for Welsh nationalism. The Welsh singer Meic Stephens originally painted the mural in 1962 on the stone wall of a ruined cottage.
The mural is frequently refreshed and repainted and indeed vandalized, though in the latter case the damage is usually repaired very quickly.
Plynlimon – Pumlumon in Welsh – is the highest point in the Cambrian Mountains, at 752 metres (2,467 feet) above sea level. Although there are many higher mountains in Wales, it has always been considered one of the great mountains of Wales, along with Snowdon and Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons.
As you’ll see from the image above, Plynlimon is more of a high, rounded large hill than a peak in appearance. But don’t be deceived – this mountain has few peers when it comes to generating convectional rainfall, and its soggy lower slopes give rise to two of the most famous rivers in Britain – the Severn and the Wye.
I’ve only ascended Plynlimon once, and it was one of my most joyous days – of which there have been a great many – in the Welsh mountains. The hike up Plynlimon from Eisteddfa Gurig on the A44 takes just over two hours, a gradual climb up moorland revealing the roof of Wales, with its more rugged cousin Cadair Idris around 15 miles to the north. That day six of us climbed to the highest of the massif’s five summits, Pen Pumlumon Fawr, and we only saw two other souls all day.
The Hafod Estate is a 200-hectare site in the Ystwyth Valley whose woodland landscape was greatly inspired by the idea of the Picturesque, which was growing in popularity in late 18th and early 19th century Britain.
Hafod (‘summer house’ in Welsh) was acquired by Thomas Johnes, a Member of Parliament and landscape architect. He built a Gothic mansion which housed an impressive art collection, which was destroyed in a fire in 1807. This was later rebuilt and a small Gothic church – pictured – was also added on the edge of the Estate.
The Estate – now under the ownership of Natural Resources Wales – has been restored, with several walks showing the gorgeous landscape as Johnes intended it to be.
The sleepy town of Tregaron would be a good candidate for the capital of the Cambrian Mountains, and it’s certainly one of the best bases for exploring the area. It’s at the Ceredigion and western end of the Abergwesyn Pass, and close to Strata Florida, Devils Bridge, Aberystwyth and the seaside resorts further south along Cardigan Bay including New Quay and Aberaeron.
The main thing to see around Tregaron is Cors Caron, which is sometimes referred to as Tregaron Bog. A wetland is a better description than a bog, and a series of boardwalks offer an abundance of opportunities for spotting local wildlife, including otters, birds of prey, while less predatory species including the red grouse and willow warbler are also regularly seen there.
Tregaron is home to one of the best Mid Wales hotels, Y Talbot. The building dates back to the 13th century, and has been operating as an inn for around 400 years. According to folklore a circus elephant was buried behind the hotel in the 19th century after falling ill, but a 2011 archaeological dig failed to yield any results.
Bwlch Nant yr Arian Red Kites
The red kite is the national bird of Wales. For centuries its domain was the Cambrian Mountain area, but the population plummeted by the late 20th century to near-extinction levels.
Over the last 25 years, this majestic bird of prey has had a remarkable resurgence, and it is now a common sight over Mid Wales once again. One of the best places to see them is at the daily feeding session at Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian Visitor Centre, on the main A44 road at Ponterwyd, where hundreds of them descend to devour generous helpings of meat.
The forest park also has some great walks, and the Ridgetop Walk is worth the climb for the exceptional views over the Cambrian Mountains and the Cardigan Bay coastline.
Capel Soar y Mynydd
Soar-y-Mynydd Chapel is hidden away in a spot secluded even by Cambrian Mountains standards, just north of Llyn Brianne reservoir and a few miles south of the Abergwesyn Pass. The nearest town is Tregaron, around 8 miles (13 km) away.
The simple whitewashed chapel weas built in 1822, by the Calvinistic Methodists, and it stands next to a small two-storeyed house. The chapel is usually left open, and is notable for the inscription ‘Duw Cariad Yw’ – ‘God is love’ – on the wall behind the pulpit.
Brynheulog Farm Welsh Mangalitza Pork
Mangalitza pork is not your traditional Welsh food – indeed it comes from specially bred pigs from the last decades of the Habsburg Empire, originating in Hungary.
We chanced upon Brynheulog Farm near Llanddewi Brefi and were immediately intrigued. It turns out that this is the only dedicated mangalitza farm in the UK, and the sausages and black pudding that I tried nearby are absolutely delicious.
Check out their website here.
The small village of Llanddewi has two claims to fame. The patron saint of Wales St David – to whom the parish church is dedicated – is believed to have preached on the site, and the ground is said to have risen beneath him allowing the crowd to see and hear him.
The village also came to the attention of many in the 2000s when Little Britain’s ‘only gay in the village’ sketch was set there, albeit with a different spelling. This hasn’t entirely faded from memory, as Llanddewi Brefi village and traffic signs are still pilfered from time to time.
Cambrian Mountains – Places To Visit In Carmarthenshire
The vast man-made Llyn Brianne reservoir, one of the largest lakes in Wales, was created to supply drinking water to the city of Swansea 40 miles (60 km) to the south in the early 1970s.
The main thing to do in the area is following scenic roads around the lake and north towards Soar-y-mynydd and the Abergwesyn Pass. The owners of the reservoir, Welsh Water, don’t permit any activity on the lake, including boating, which is a pity as there is some great scenery to be enjoyed.
Upper Tywi Valley
The Upper Tywi (or Towy) valley runs down from Llyn Brianne, past the former lead-mining hamlet of Rhandirmwyn and the market town of Llandovery, passing through steep, forested countryside before meandering gently west from Llandeilo.
The undiscovered upper section of the Tywi is well worth the drive. This area is largely undiscovered, best known as the location of the cave hideout of Twm Sion Cati. Twm was a famous figure from Welsh folklore from the 16th and early 17th centuries. Accounts of him vary greatly – he was most likely a robber and highwayman, though some stories say that he later became a justice of the peace. His cave is on Dinas Hill, which is also an RSPB Reserve.
Heart of Wales Line
The Heart of Wales Line, which runs from Swansea to Shrewsbury in England, is a wonderful way to see rural Wales. The slow journey, which takes over four hours, passes through a great many tiny stations, and skirts the southern fringes of the Cambrian Mountains as it passes between Llandovery and Builth Road, just north of Builth Wells.
The best-known landmark on the Heart of Wales route is the splendid Cynghordy Viaduct, which passes through glorious countryside a few miles north of Llandovery.
Talley Abbey – Abaty Talyllychau – was a Premonstratensian monastery founded in the 12th century a few miles north of Llandeilo, in the Cothi valley on the southern fringe of the Cambrian Mountains.
Like all other monasteries it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1537, and the church quickly fell into ruin, used as a quarry by locals. Two arches of the central tower and remnants of the storeys above remain. A quiet, atmospheric site that’s free to visit.
Dolaucothi Gold Mine