With the sun shining on Good Friday, we escaped the city for an afternoon of hills and woodlands at Garwnant Visitor Centre – our 12th ‘free’ day out in the challenge we set ourselves to visit 52 free family-friendly places in South Wales in 2019.
Five miles north of Merthyr Tydfil, this beautiful forest area is the Southern gateway to the Brecon Beacons National Park and sits within the Fforest Fawr Geopark. At Garwnant, you’ll find walking trails, including one fully accessible for wheelchairs and buggies, junior mountain biking routes and a fantastic playground.
We’ve been to the Natural Resources Wales managed site a few times previously, although not for over a year. In fact, the last time we visited was December 2017 when we left Cardiff on the hunt for snow. The white mountainside looked incredible.
It was quite a different view that greeted us today, with the green trees and grass glistening against the blue sky.
We arrived at just after midday, parking in the on-site carpark at a cost of £2 all day. We grabbed one of the picnic tables between the car park and the playground and had our picnic lunch. If you don’t want to bring your own food, there is also a cafe onsite serving hot and cold meals, snacks, drinks and ice creams.
With bellies full, it was then straight to the playground, which kept my children entertained for more than an hour. There’s an area for under sevens, with a climbing frame and swings, plus an area for children aged seven to 15 with a net climbing frame, wooden obstacle course, swings and – my children’s favourite – the zip wire. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a playground with a better view.
Dotted around the playground and car park area are various wooden sculptures, which we always love spotting. Look out for baby bear, Mummy bear and daddy bear, the Gruffalo’s child, the BFG and more.
There are also lots more to spot on the family-friendly puzzle trail, one of several walks that starts from the visitor centre, and which has 12 animal sculptures to find, as well as a tree trail where you can identify wooden leaves.
The trail is around 1km (half a mile) with a time guidance of 30 minutes. However, it took us closer to an hour because our children stopped to play on the rocky banks of the shallow river. They had great fun jumping across the stones – and yes, they did end up rather wet, so if you have adventurous children then spare clothes, waterproofs or a towel to dry off wet feet are an idea.
You can pick up a free map at the visitor centre for the trail, which gives clues to each animal and tree, with space for children to write down the answers as they find the sculptures.
Most are wooden carvings, including a fox, rabbit, squirrel and red kite, but there’s also wire dragonfly hovering in the water, a willow reindeer and a mole made from Welsh slate.
This trail is mostly buggy-friendly. The paths are gravelly and there’s one uphill bit near the start which is tough going but we’ve managed previously with a buggy, although a baby carrier is much easier.
After the trail we headed back to the café (which has toilets, including baby changing facilities and accessible toilets) where we bought ice creams for the children.
It was then time for a return visit to the playground – half an hour on the zipwire – before we then headed off on the longer Wern Walk, again using a map from the visitor centre as guidance.
This hillside walk is 3.2K (2 miles) with a time guidance of an hour, and involves going up a hill on one side and down on the other. The trail is just about manageable for buggies, with a few tricky shallow river crossings along the way (such as the one in the photo above). There wasn’t much in the way of shade, so it did get a little hot. The views are stunning and the route took us past several little streams which the kids enjoyed splashing in, as well as the ruins of an old farmhouse.
There used to be a wooden giant’s chair on this trail but (as a friend who lives in the area informed me) it was removed in the winter and is due to return in the summer in a new location. We stopped at the woodlands on the way back down where my children played on some fallen tree trunks and tree stumps as well as a huge den that had been built from long tree branches.
We were at Garwnant for around four hours – but you could easily stay for longer.
There’s another 1km (0.5mile) half hour Willow Walk trail. This gentle all-ability trail is fully accessible for wheelchairs and buggies, and crosses three bridges and goes through a willow tunnel on its way back.
Plus there are two mountain biking trails for juniors and a mountain bike skills area for younger children.
If you’re looking for a free range and fun outdoor family experience, then we highly recommend Garwnant.
Garwnant Visitor Centre is situated just off the A470, five miles north of Merthyr Tydfil. The postcode for sat nav is CF48 2HU.