About Brecon Beacons Four Falls Trail (Sgwd Clun-Gwyn, Sgwd Isaf Clun-Gwyn, Sgwd y Pannwr, Sgwd yr Eira)
The Brecon Beacons Four Falls Trail took me by surprise both with the amount of exertion need to visit all of the major waterfalls as well as with how scenic each of the falls were. I kind of expected something as long but lukewarm as the Ingleton Waterfalls Trail in England’s Yorkshire Dales, but this turned out to be quite the adventure and photo run, and the nice photo you see at the top of this page was just scratching the surface of what I was able to experience. But first, I have to preface everything by telling you that this was not an easy trail, and it would probably require at least a 2.5-hour time commitment to really experience it all (and it turned out that I took a bit of a shortcut from the official trailheads, which I’ll get to later). I say this wasn’t easy because there were some sections that involved some steep hand-over-foot scrambles that contained dropoff hazards as well as some slippery spots. It was also a very up-and-down hike largely because I had to drop down to each of the falls before going back up to the main trail.
As for the main features of the Four Falls Trail, they were pretty much the waterfalls Sgwd Clun-Gwyn [“SGOOD clin-goo-un”], Sgwd Isaf Clun-Gwyn [“SGOOD ee-sahv clin-goo-un”], Sgwd y Pannwr [“SGOOD uh PAN-noor”}, and Sgwd yr Eira [“SGOOD uhr ehr-uh”]. The first three falls were on the Afon Mellte (Mellte River) while the last falls was on the Afon Hepste (Hepste River). In terms of the Welsh meanings, apparently in South Wales, a lot of waterfalls had the name sgwd meaning “cascade” (as opposed to rhaeadr meaning “waterfall”, which we saw a lot of in North Wales). The word clun meant “hip” in my dictionary while gwyn meant “white” if the letter y was obscure, but it could have meant “ache” if the letter y was clear. Meanwhile isaf meant “lowest” so I suppose the first two falls could mean the White Hip Cascade and the Lower White Hip Cascade, respectively. As for the other waterfalls, pannwr meant “fuller” so it could be the Fuller Cascade, while eira meant “snow” so the last falls was the Snow Cascade.
Anyways, it was hard to pick out the most impressive waterfall of this set. Sgwd yr Eira had a classic rectangular drop, and apparently some people were able to go behind it (though I didn’t do that). Then Sgwd Isaf Clun-Gwyn took me by surprise with its many shapely cascades tumbling one after another, while culminating in the uppermost tier, which was shown in the photo at the top of this page. Sgwd Clun-Gwyn had a two-tiered drop that presented opportunities to get a more intimate experience either from viewing it from a cliff ledge or from doing a hairy scramble down to its base or its ledge to get even closer. I had seen pictures of this waterfall appearing much wider in the literature, which must have been when the Afon Mellte River was in full spate. And finally, Sgwd y Pannwr was one cascade I was able to get real close to, where there was a large plunge pool beneath it that I’d imagine some people might have scrambled down below somehow for a dip. Indeed, all four falls had different characteristics, and perhaps it was that variety that really made me appreciate this collective whole on the excursion.
Speaking of the excursion, I actually started from an unmarked trailhead that was closest to the Sgwd Clun-Gwyn waterfall (see directions below). It really seemed like the authorities wanted visitors to either park further away at the Cwm Porth Car Park near Ystradfellte or the Gwaun Hepste Car Park nearby to the east (both near Ystradfellte). I wasn’t sure if the more established Waterfall Centre further south would provide access because it would make for an even longer than an already long walk. Anyways, the more official car parks were pay and display so perhaps that might have a lot to do with it, because I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to add another hour or more of hiking just to park further away. I’m pretty sure there must be a reason why the trailhead I ended up taking was as obscure and unknown as it was, and I’m willing to bet the situation would be prone to changing (maybe they might close it off or they might do other things to discourage using it) to force most of the traffic towards the car parks they wanted you at in the first place.
So with that said, after parking the car, I walked the trail with subtle signposts pointing the way to Sgwd Clun-Gwyn, which then passed through a pasture before leaving the open spaces and re-entering the forest. About 15 minutes after I had gotten started, the trail descended towards top down views of the profile of the Sgwd Clun-Gwyn Waterfall. From this side, there was a very steep and slippery scramble that seemed to allow me to go onto a ledge in the middle of the falls as well as all the way to the bottom where I would be able to go right up to the base of the falls. However, the scramble seemed a bit hairy for my liking so I was content with just experiencing the falls from its precarious top.
As I continued walking further upstream on the trail, I then got to a bridge crossing the Afon Mellte. On the other side of it, there was a trail junction branching left towards the Cwm Porth Car Park some 25 minutes away, where that trail would eventually lead to a cave where the river would disappear from the surface and flow right through it (called Porth yr Ogof or “Door of the Cave”). I didn’t have time to do it, but I always wondered whether I would regret the decision not to explore it. Anyways, as I continued uphill on the linking trail, it ultimately joined with with the official Four Falls Trail where I saw more red arrows reassuring me that I was indeed on the official trail. And just when I got onto that trail, there was steps on a branch trail leading down to a more frontal view of Sgwd Clun-Gwyn from the other side of the river. I had to be careful here because there was some mild cliff exposure at this overlook. Then, when I had my fill of this viewpoint, I followed the “recommended route” back up the steps to the main trail above me though it wasn’t lost on me that there were red signs in the area telling me that a path closer to the river was “closed” for reasons that would become clearer later on.
Next, I continued on the Four Falls Trail along what turned out to be a pretty dry part of the apparent loop trail. While I was up here, I was straddling what appeared to be the edges of the forest and some open spaces. Throughout this stretch of the trail, I started paying more attention to some numerical signposts, which I’d imagine would be keyed to some guide that I didn’t possess. Eventually after nearly 25 minutes after leaving Sgwd Clun-Gwyn, I found myself at the David Morgan Memorial, which was between the spur trails for both Sgwd y Pannwr and Sgwd yr Eira. This memorial was basically a tree that was planted in his honor as he was credited with being the first National Park warden of the Brecon Beacons. Shortly thereafter, I had to descend what seemed to be a pretty long series of steps leading down the immediate gorge walls eventually reaching the banks of the Afon Hepste, where I finally got to see the Sgwd yr Eira waterfall and its classic rectangular shape.
I was content to take somewhat distant photos of the falls from the riverbank because the morning sun was against me. I didn’t feel a need to scramble on the slick boulders along the river to get closer to the falls so I basically took my photos (wishing I had a tripod though it wouldn’t have been easy to lug it around this far), then went back up the way I came on the long series of steps. And about 20 minutes after I was done with the Sgwd yr Eira (35 minutes since I first saw the memorial), I then found myself at the bottom of the next spur trail descent for the Sgwd y Pannwr waterfall. This waterfall was shorter but intimate as I was able to sit on a ledge and watch the Afon Mellte spread out over a ledge as the waterfall then plunge into a dark pool below me.
At this point, I had visited three of the four waterfalls on the trail, and there was only one more to go. Fortunately, I saw there was a trail continuing along the river towards it so I wouldn’t have to go back up then back down for it like the case with Sgwd yr Eira. After a few minutes of pretty tame walking, I was then confronted with a sign warning me to be careful as well as to make me aware that the trail would be very steep, rough, and slippery. Little did I realize just how much rougher it would get. Anyways, the trail started hugging ledges and traversing boulder and rooty slopes. Then, I’d start to see and hear some cascades composed of smaller drops but started looking impressive as more tiers were revealed. Apparently, someone had left unfinished or uncooked food in containers down here (not cool), but when I started noticing some hidden upper tiers further upstream, I felt the urge to keep scrambling on the trail to get a closer look.
As I ascended this very steep stretch, that was when I went above the lower cascades and started to see the upper two most drops of what had to be the Sgwd Isaf Clun-Gwyn, which was the last of the four major waterfalls on this trail that I would see. Eventually after a little more of the somewhat dangerous and steep scramble, I would finally get up to the base of the uppermost of the tiers of the waterfall, which was the waterfall you see pictured at the top of this page. Even though I wanted to linger here a bit longer and just bask in the remoteness and tranquility of this spot, I knew Julie and Tahia had been waiting for me for over 2 hours at this point so I had to keep moving.
The trail continued scrambling very steeply along the gorge walls above the waterfall. It was a good thing I was climbing this stretch, because I couldn’t imagine how anyone would want to scramble down this very steep stretch. Clearly, a fall here would have been fatal. Eventually, the scary part of the scramble was over when I finally found more familiar (albeit narrow) trail still hugging the ledges above the Afon Mellte River as it followed its general course. Ten minutes later, I would eventually be at the other side of the red closure sign I had seen earlier near the Sgwd Clun-Gwyn waterfall. That was when I realized that this “closure” was really a one-sided closure as they wanted you to do this part of the hike in one direction, which turned out to be for good reason because the steep scramble was best done as an ascent and not a descent.
When I was back at the Sgwd Clun-Gwyn, I saw a lot of abseilers making their way down the Afon Mellste within the river itself. And eventually after another 20 minutes from the closure sign, I was finally back at the car park to rejoin Julie and Tahia.
From Cardiff Bay, we drove the A4232 motorway for about 9 miles towards the M4 motorway. Then, we drove east on the M4 for about 3.3 miles to the A470 exit. Then, we continued north on the A470 for about 20 miles to the Heads of the Valleys Road (A465), which we continued on for about 10 miles to the exit at Glynneath. After the off-ramp, we followed the road to an intersection at High Street, where we turned right onto High Street then followed it for 0.2 miles towards Pontneathvaughan Road, where we then turned left to go on.
The Pontneathvaughan Road sharply climbed above the town and continued another 1.3 miles before we kept left to go onto the Abermellte Court Road (roughly 0.1 miles east of the Waterfall Centre). We then followed this road another 2.3 miles high up into the farmlands and woodlands of the Fforest Fawr (Great Forest) towards the obscure car park on the right side of the road. At the time of our visit, there were signs for a “Bunkhouse” as well as a smaller sign pointing the way to the Sgwd Clun-Gwyn (15 minutes walk away). This was the start of my walk, and the overalll drive to get here from Cardiff Bay was roughly 90 minutes though the last 30 minutes was probably spent trying to figure out whether I was in the right car park or not.
To get to the other car parks (Gwaun Hepste as well as Cwm Porth), they recommended leaving the A465 onto the A4059 road at Hiraun instead of Glynneath. This turnoff was about 3.5 miles or so east of Glynneath. Then, going on the A4059 for about 3.4 miles to the town of Penderyn, turn left onto a pretty scary narrow single-lane road for about 2 miles towards Ystradfellte (veering left at the turns). The Gwaun Hepste car park would be the first one encountered going this way.
Then, going left at the next fork, continue another 0.4 miles to the Cwm Porth car park, which would be the car park closest to the cave where the Afon Mellte would disappear into and reappear from.
Finally, to give you some context, our base of Cardiff Bay was 192 miles (4 hours drive) south of Conwy, 57 miles (over an hour drive) west of Bath, England, and 151 miles (3 hours drive) west of London.