Best driving roads in Wales – The Elan Valley
Last Updated on 26th August 2020
You’ve watched BBC’s Top Gear enough times over the years to know Wales has some quite amazing scenery. But where are the best driving roads in Wales and is there one you should do more than the others? I asked myself the same thing after the UK “lockdown” and headed off exploring to find out.
I’m all for experiences rather than things, even if you need a “thing” in the first place to have an experience with! Making a specific driving trip to Wales had always been high up on my “things to do list”.
So why The Elan Valley driving route?
My shortlist consisted of a route from Cardiff up into the Brecon Beacons, a circular drive around the Snowdon massif, and the A4069 Black Mountain Pass. The latter commonly known as the ‘Top Gear road’ with Jeremy Clarkson filming there on numerous occasions.
I consulted with some people on an MR2 owners group to see what the best driving roads in Wales are. The general consensus was The Elan Valley in Mid-Wales. I hadn’t even been aware of it up until then:
“Go to Elan Valley then take the mountain pass between Rhayader and Aberystwyth.”MR2 Owners Club Facebook comments
“I second Elan Valley, one of my favourite places to go for a drive.”
“The Elan Valley then west towards Devil’s Bridge is a great route.”
So after doing a little more of my own research I decided on the superb driving route from Rhayader to Devil’s Bridge, but first incorporating a clockwise lap of the 5 Elan Valley dams.
As well as being wonderful in their own right, Caban Coch reservoir was made famous as the location in 1942 for initial testing of the Dambusters’ “bouncing bomb”. More recently Top Gear’s Richard Hammond winched himself up Claerwen dam in a green Land Rover Defender.
How long does The Elan Valley drive take?
From Rhayader to Claearwen Dam and then on to Devil’s bridge is 35 miles. It takes 1h 49 minutes according to Google but in reality you’ll be parking up constantly to admire the views. Or at least a minimum of five times to take a closer look at its 5 main dams. The whole Rhayader to Rhayader trip is only 54 miles and non-stop takes 2 hours. You climb (and fall) 1,100m in total.
Most people start out at Rhayader, go clockwise around the dams before heading out west towards Devil’s Bridge … so that’s what I decided to do too. Also it meant there’s less chance of meeting cars coming in the opposite direction.
The start and finish point is marked by the red waymarker on the map above. NB. If you’re low on petrol there are two Texaco petrol stations in town to top yourself up.
The waterfall icons show the Elan Valley’s dams.
FUN FACT: the orange icon, a couple of km south of Cwmystwyth is the geographical centre point of Wales! (ever wondered London’s too?).
The 11-step guide to driving The Elan Valley
Using the car park numbers on the map below follow the 11 steps below to see all the “good stuff” on your way round. Source.
1. Start out at the Rhayader Clock Tower
… and head south towards The Elan Valley Visitor centre. This is on ‘National Cycle Route 81’ … but is still a normal road for cars. (1 on the map above).
2. Swing by the ‘Elan Valley Visitor Centre’
… for a coffee/nose around, before continuing on past dam one on your left – the Caban Coch dam.
3. Head onward towards dam two – the Garreg Ddu Dam.
Cross over the dam (2) and turn left towards dam 3 – the Claerwen Dam (4 & 5).
4. Visit both Claerwen’s upper and lower car parks (4 & 5).
This is where Richard Hammond was winched up it in an old Land Rover.
5. Double back on yourself, returning over the Garreg Ddu Dam (2).
6. Cross the dam and turn left towards the Penbont Tearooms (6).
Remember to check out dam 4 – the Pen y Garreg dam (7) as you switchback up past the restaurant.
7. Continue on to dam 5 – the Craig Goch dam (8) (with optional short drive over it … and back again). Cover photo above too.
8. Continue along the road to the uphill T-junction (9).
9. Turn west towards Cwmystwyth.
Enjoy this more spirited and open drive over the backbone of the Cambrian Mountains.
10. At Cwmystwyth join the B4574 which takes you on to Devil’s Bridge.
NB. There’s a car pack on your left 200m before you head down into the village. Enjoy an ice cream at the Hafod hotel (below) before checking out the Devil’s bridge falls and its 3-tiered bridge.
11. Finally return west to east straight back towards Rhayader.
There are actually 7 dams in The Elan Valley?
Yes there are but the Dol y Mynach is hidden from the road down a steep footpath. If you’re a fan of What3Words this is a good spot to see it through a gap in the trees.
The Nant-y-Gro dam is in a derelict state and no longer used but is the “Bouncing Bomb” test dam. Both can be found on the Caban Coch reservoir (below) and also on the map above.
If you visit after a spell of rain or nearer the winter time you might see more of the dams in full flow. When I was there in late July it was only the northern most dam – Craig Goch – that had water flowing over it.
What’s it like to drive on Welsh countryside roads?
So why are the best driving roads in Wales? Well I may have had rose-tinted sunglasses on but the Welsh roads simply felt “better”. No pot holes and no tell-tale signs of previous roadworks. Another bonus was they felt pretty empty too, but then it was late July 2020 as we were opening ourselves up to travelling again.
A lot of the roads within the Elan valley are single-track ones (no dividing white line in the middle). This was noticeable on some stretches along the B4574 near Cwmystwyth and certainly around the dams loop. But occasionally you can see 3-4 bends ahead and can have a lot more confidence knowing nothing was coming around the next corner!
The road in-between Cwmystwyth and Devil’s bridge was a delightful stretch of seemingly freshly-laid light grey tarmac with black and white Armco barriers in place. It felt like I was on a racetrack at times, but ever cautious of the sheep nibbling the grass on the side of the road.
Another gem stretch was on the way to Claerwen dam soon after crossing the Garreg Ddu Dam. A long line of towering conifers reminded me of the mighty sequoias of California and it warranted another parked up, legal photograph!
What are some great Elan Valley photo spots?
You will be literally spoilt for choice! I took photos at every dam and made sure I went to both the lower and upper car parks at Claerwen dam to do both “looking up” and “looking down” shots. That long row of tall conifers just past Garreg Ddu Dam are pretty impressive too.
You can get various nice views from the car park at Garreg Ddu Dam. However the most picturesque dam is considered to be the upper most dam – Craig Goch. I was lucky to see water flowing over it when I visited (cover shot). Finally at point (9) on the map you get some sweeping views across the valley showing how exposed you are up there!
If you’re in to nighttime DLSR photography then the Claerwen dam is a designated ‘Dark Sky Discovery Site’. Visit when there’s a cloudless sky and a New Moon and I’m sure it would be pretty magical!
Anything else of interest as you drive along?
Between the first dam (Caban Coch dam) and the second (Garreg Ddu Dam) look left across the Caban Coch reservoir to see the remains of the Nant-y-Gro Dam. Here you’ll “just” about see the remains of the “Bouncing Bomb” experiments. You certainly need to look for it so maybe best for the passenger in the left-hand seat to do that!
The Wild Swan store in the centre of Rhayader did dome delicious homemade Welsh Cakes. Perfect food for the multiple pit stops I intended to have as I circumnavigated the valley.
At the end of the day enjoy a drink sat outside the now lime green-coloured Elan Hotel just down from the Clock Tower. It gets bathed in sunshine in the evening during the summer months and is the perfect spot for a post drive congratulatory pint. You’ve just experienced one of the best driving roads in Wales!
For a full week long itinerary for the Cambrian Mountains check out this wonderful guide by WalesBucketList.
A good place to stay in Rhayader?
We stayed at the Ty Morgan hotel right in the centre of Rhayader. It was the perfect location to explore the town and be in the right place to head out driving the next day. There’s plenty of parking on the street – right under your window if you’re lucky.
Now you’ve checked out one of the best driving roads in Wales why not read up on some of our other car exploits? But if you’ve now got a taste for some more UK-based trips then check out ‘the 5 best UK road trips’ according to A Lady in London too. Drive safely! 🙂