A demanding, but short, walk brings magnificent views and a visit to spectacular falls.
Distance 5 miles (8km)
Minimum time 3hrs
Ascent/gradient 1,870ft (570m)
Level of difficulty Hard
Paths Well-defined paths and tracks, 6 stiles
Landscape Mountain and moorland
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 255 Llangollen & Berwyn
Start/finish SJ 076293
Dog friendliness Permissive paths requiring that dogs are kept on leads
Parking Car park 220yds (201m) before Tan-y-pistyll farm/café, where there's another pay car park
Public toilets At Tan-y-pistyll pay car park
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1 From the more easterly, and the smaller, of the two car parks turn right along the road for about 400yds (366m), then go through a farm gate to follow a wide grassy track that climbs north west to enter the cwm of Nant y Llyn. Here the track heads north towards the crags of Cerrig Poethion. Ignore the path down to a sheepfold by the banks of stream below.
2 The track degenerates into a path that traverses hillsides scattered with gorse. Higher up it fords two outlet streams of Llyn Lluncaws before reaching the moss and heather cwm of the tarn. Now the path climbs south of the lake and up a shale and grass spur to the base of Moel Sych's crags. Follow the path along the edge of the crags on the right to reach the col between Moel Sych and Cadair Berwyn. From here climb to the rocky south top of the latter peak. The trip to the trig point on Cadair Berwyn's lower north summit is straightforward but offers no advantages as a viewpoint.
3 From the south top retrace your footsteps to the col, but this time instead of tracing the cliff edge follow the ridge fence to the cairn on Moel Sych summit plateau.
4 A waymarker by a summit ladder stile points the way south, a descent across a wide, peaty spur cloaked with moor grass, mosses and a little heather. Note the path follows the west side of the fence, not the east shown on current maps. Halfway down you cross a stile and follow the east side of the fence. Beyond a second stile the path descends south east into the high moorland cwm of the Disgynfa, where the path is met by a stony track that has climbed from the base of the falls.
5 If you want to make a there-and-back detour to the top of the falls, ignore the stony track, and instead go through a gate into the forest and follow the path to the river. If not, descend along the previously mentioned track, which zig-zags down before turning right to head for the Tan-y-pistyll complex. There's a path to the bottom of the falls starting from the café. It leads to a footbridge across the Afon Rhaeadr for the best views.
6 From the café it's a short walk along the road to the car park.
'What shall I liken it to? I scarcely know, unless to an immense skein of silk agitated and disturbed by tempestuous blasts, or to the long tail of a grey courser at furious speed'
This is how author, George Borrow saw the thunderous falls of Pistyll Rhaeadr in his travels in Wild Wales (1862). But Borrow ignored the beautiful mountain valley to the right of the falls, instead choosing to wander off south in search of the site of Owain Glyndwr's castle at Sycharth. We'll not make that same mistake, for that valley, fringed by crag and dappled with heather and bracken, leads to Llyn Lluncaws. Here's a dramatic scene - a wild Welsh cwm in which the lake lies dark and sombre among frazzled heather that can't quite take hold and tussocky moor grass that fills in the extra spaces.
A peat and slate path beats a tortuous route by the cwm's cliff edge up on to the ridge, and you discover why you came up here in the first place. You find yourself up in the gods, looking over a stage where there's a cast of thousands. At the front, the green cloaked Dee Valley weaves its way though the heather hills of Llangollen and the jagged Aran mountains towards the chorus line, where Cadair Idris, the Rhinogs, and Snowdon parade themselves aloof and often with their heads in the clouds. In the alternative theatre at your back, the Tanat Valley scenery of fields and hedges gives way to the little blue hills of Cheshire and Shropshire in England.
The Berwyns are one of the few places in Wales where the cloudberry grows. These shrubs, not unlike a bramble but lacking thorns, cling closely to the ground. You'll have to be up early to get to the sparse fruits first. They belong to the blackberry family but are orange and taste like raspberries.
At one time everybody assumed that Moel Sych and Cadair Berwyn were, at 2,713ft (827m), jointly the highest Berwyns - the OS maps that walkers used said so. But everyone who walked the Berwyns looked quizzically across to that little rock peak forming Cadair Berwyn's south summit - it seemed higher. When the OS checked their large scale maps they found that, at 2,723ft (830m), it indeed was the 'tops'.
Moel Sych is just a broad flat top, with a cairn for you to pat on your way down to the falls. Amid pretty mixed woodland the peaceful Afon Rhaeadr trickles playfully over rocks then, without warning, tumbles off the end of the world. Walkers who have made the ascent look on, amazed, then take the gentler zig-zag route down to the same place. Back in Tan-y-pystyll the café awaits!
The lesser twayblade is hard to spot, being covered by the heather shoots that it chooses for its bedfellow. This 2-inch (51mm) high orchid has tiny red flowers and heart-shapes leaves. It blooms between June and August. Look for it on the damp acid moorland.
You could follow in Borrow's footsteps and head 2 miles (3.2km) north in search of Owain Glyndwr's castle at Sycharth. It's called Sychnant on the map. These days there's only a motte left, for the castle was of wood. Borrow rekindles the magic that once must have pervaded this place by translating Welsh bard, Iolo's poem about the 'mansion in the clouds'. Sycharth was burned by Prince Henry, later Henry V, in 1403.
There's a licensed café and bar at Tan-y-pistyll, where you can get a meal, coffee and cake or something more alcoholic if you're of a mood.