The complete guide to every MTB trail at Afan Forest Park in South Wales, including Y Wal, Whites Level, Skyline, Penyhdd and Blue Scar.
- Whites Level
- Y Wal
- Blue Scar
- Afan Bike Park
- The Rookie
Now more than a decade old, Afan Forest Park has become well established as one of the UK’s finest MTB riding spots. Six differing trails trace the demanding contours of the valley with over 100km of world-class singletrack, and for that reason Afan is regularly named as this country’s stand-out trail centre.
With its close proximity to the M4 motorway, Afan is relatively easy to get to, bringing riders from far and wide to taste the rocky and rooty challenges on offer. The all-weather trails ride well most of the year round, making them as enjoyable in the winter as in the heat of the summer. Well designed from the outset, steady development and continuous evolution has seen these trails mature admirably.
The forest has two trail centres: the original Afan Forest Park Visitor Centre and the Glyncorrwg Ponds Mountain Bike Centre (further up the Afan Valley road). All the trails in the hills can be accessed from both, and each offers all the facilities you need, plus a bike wash and decent cafes. There’s a quality bike shop, Skyline Cycles, at Glyncorrwg and rentals from Afan Valley Bike Hire (afan-valley-bike-hire.com).
There are currently six main trails to choose from that, ridden together, will total well over 130km of riding. With some 400m of elevation change, there’s plenty of climbing, but you get out what you put in here — incredible descents are just reward for the lung-busting climbs that precede them. Clever trail building has ensured the mostly singletrack ascents are an enjoyable technical challenge, and you quickly gain altitude.
Opened in 2013, the new Afan Bike Park brings the first dedicated skills riding loop to the forest. With the opportunity to hone your skills from relatively easy to outright demanding, it’s a good place to spend a couple of hours. It’s easily accessible part-way around the Y Wal trail, or it can be driven to with a car park and small cafe onsite.
Afan lacked a green loop until the recent arrival of the new Rookie trail. It starts from the revitalised Afan Forest Park Visitor Centre, and for beginners it’s a good launchpad to the more technically demanding trails elsewhere in the forest.
The main 5.5km green is a flowing delight through the forest and explores new parts of the valley, and when you reach the end there’s an optional blue section. It’s 2.3km long with a bit more climbing and slightly more demanding descents, so it’s ideal for beginners wanting to take a step up. There’s also a small skills section part way around.
Y Wal is famous for its fast and long, rocky and technical descents that produce a dramatic climax for one of the oldest and most loved trails in Wales. It’s 23km long with 450m of climbing and some very rocky sections. A new standalone 2km blue section starts next to the new Skills Area, combining an easy climb and sweeping descent.
Alongside Y Wal, White’s Level is a stone-cold classic. Itl features nearly 90 per cent purpose-built singletrack that really makes the most of the contours of the valley. Beginning with a long singletrack climb that twists and weaves to the top, affording you dramatic views along the valley, it then gives you maximum enjoyment on the fast and twisty descents that snake back to the trail centre. There is also an optional black trail for those seeking a more demanding challenge.
The story of Blade is rooted in controversy. It owes its existence, as the name acknowledges, to the approval of a huge wind farm site in Afan Forest Park. And, like any project that proposes to plonk almost a hundred, 500ft turbines on top of a hill, it wasn’t universally welcomed. A further fear was that Afan’s epic yet under-used Skyline Trail would be lost forever in the construction.
Yet, thanks to a condition of the project’s planning consent, mountain biking has emerged unscathed from the whole process. Indeed, the £300,000 ‘mitigation’ pot from Vattenfall — the energy company that will operate the farm — was more than enough to pay for this new trail to replace Skyline during the construction phase. There was even budget left over for trail maintenance, and a promise that Skyline will fully reopen in 2016, when the project is complete.
From the outset, it was clear the direction that the new trail should take. The Back On Track crew was responsible on a macro level, effectively coming up with a theme for the trail and planning the route through the forest. “We didn’t want to move away from what the Afan Valley has always been about,” explains Rowan Sorrell from Back On Track. “That meant nothing completely new school and wide-open — I wanted to keep that tight, singletrack feel.”
He also identified areas where there was room for improvement. “The original trails were built on fairly gentle gradients,” Sorrell says. “As the soil has washed out and the stone has been exposed, they’ve just got slower and slower.”
Sorrell spent time looking at all the gradient profiles and set out Blade using steeper slopes.
The task of physically building the trail was awarded to Clixbys, creator of the Red route at Dalby and the Altura Trail at Whinlatter. Far from simple, it proved a tough challenge.
“It was absolutely terrible,” laments Hugh Clixby. “The ground was really, really wet. We had lots of water problems throughout and we almost lost the machine a couple of times.”
You only need to ride one of the oldest trails in the valley — the 12-year-old Y Wal — to see how well trails mature around here, so in the long-term they knew that the ground would come good.
“Once it does dry, and it dries properly, it’s sealed for life,” Clixby explains.
To begin with, Blade shares real estate with the White’s Level climb, which is now completely transformed following its scalping last year. Continue past the entrance to Windy Point, and a forest road leads to the first new section of Blade.
The Twister, as it’s known, begins in what can only be described as Wales’s answer to a Louisiana swamp; filthy, black peat pierced by densely packed pine. Lifeless and lightless, escape can’t come quickly enough from the narrow grey path that snakes through a barcode of wretched trunks.
The first descent begins by rolling through a huge clearcut, dodging row after row of regimental stumps. Then it plunges into the forest, picking up speed rapidly on a fantastically narrow and natural stretch of bench-cut. It’s here that Clixbys faced their toughest challenge.
“It was some of the worst ground I’d ever been in,” says Clixby. He ended up stone-pitching one section, then following it up with a tight slalom course to keep speeds low on the poor-quality soil. As a damage-limitation exercise, it actually rides really well, and while it’s currently wetter than an otter’s pocket, there are signs that it’s drying out.
Blade then reverses an old Skyline descent to regain your lost height, at which point the character of the trail changes again. Helter Skelter was sub-contracted out to Nikki Whiles and Shaun Bevan of Trail Craft, and their background in downhill and love for new-school flowing motorway (for want of a better word) really shows. The berms are tall, the surface is smooth and you could almost certainly death-grip the whole thing.
Now the trail splits. Turning right takes you onto Peregrine Ridge, one of the classic sections of Skyline, and directly to the final descent. Go straight ahead and you have the option to extend the loop to include an extra 23km of Skyline, or even ride over the Bwlch to Blaengarw.
Choose the former and you peel off the old Skyline route with, as Sorrell promised, increased velocity. The final drop descends in steps; not the ones you walk up to bed, but rolling terraces that bring brief butterflies to your stomach.
You join the dots between sun-bleached boulders, strewn like dinosaur eggs across the hillside, and brush past a lonely oak, the only tree to escape the cull. By this point you can almost smell the bacon cooking away in the Skyline Cafe below, and that leaves only one thing left to do.
The Penhydd trail at Afan should have been renamed the Phoenix. After a three and a half years hiatus, it has risen from the sawdust of the felled trees that forced its closure, rebuilt by Rowan Sorrell, who has preserved the best of the old and brought in something new too.
The Penhydd is where the trail centre story began for South Wales. The first purpose-built trail stretching up the steep sides of the Afan Valley, it inspired a generation of riders and new trails like White’s Level and Skyline. It first appeared as a less-than-legit moto trail in 1984, says Richard Davies from bike-friendly hotel Afan Lodge: “We cut it in with motocross bikes, then used it for fitness training.” It became an official trail around 2000, before emergency felling to control disease abruptly closed it 10 years later. Now it’s back, fast, fresh and complemented by a zippy new blue trail for beginners and regular riders too.
At 14km the red-graded Penhydd trail is an ideal introduction to the harder trails in the area — it’s relatively short and smooth and loads of fun. Gone are the muddy, slippy climbs that blemished the original Penhydd, and now you’ll gain height from a mixture of new singletrack and fire road. Two classic old sections, Sidewinder and Dead Sheep Gully, remain from the original trail, repaired and feeling like new again. “They were all that was left of the original, but the rest was totally trashed,” Rowan says. They sweep down under thick tree cover before emerging into the open to a view more akin to Yorkshire than Wales, green hills and a view of the sea.
The final descent is undulating natural terrain tracked with fast berms and rolling chutes and drops. There’s nothing rough here, but it’s so fast it’s really challenging to hold your speed and the line.
At the bottom you can double back up the fire road climb you tackled on the way out, and pick up the final descent on the Blue Scar trail. It’s named for the miners who used to work these hills until the 80s, for whom a nick or cut would heal with a blue tint as the coal found its way in as an accidental tattoo. At seven kilometres it’s a decent length for beginners, but new riders will need to take care on it as it will flow very fast indeed. The berms are huge too, and while there is a slow and low line through them they can look intimidating at first approach. It goes without saying, then, that practised riders will be able to absolutely rip.
If you really want to test your mettle then the W2 is a signposted linking of Y Wal and White’s Level, combining both with linking fire roads to offer a huge 44km trail with nearly 1,000m of climbing. It can be started from either the Afan or Glyncorrwg centre, and you can use the other base as a mid-ride food and drink break. This trail earns its black grade through the combined challenge of the two reds, so if you’re up to those, and you’re confident of your fitness, you’ll be just fine.
Afan Bike Park
The addition of the new Bike Park means that, more than ever, Afan has something for riders of every level, so beginners can get stuck in alongside more experienced riders and really raise their skill levels. Nestling alongside Y Wal are five separate trails all starting from the same point, catering for beginners right through to advanced riders. They’re marked for difficulty and they’ll help you learn to jump tabletops and doubles, negotiate step-ups, carry momentum through berms, and flow through rooty corners. Car parking is available on site at Bryn Bettws Lodge.
It’s easy to see why Afan has become such a popular riding spot. Withy so many very high quality trails in a beautiful part of Wales with easy access from the motorway, it comes dangerously close to perfection. It’s also an ideal place to spend a long weekend, and plenty of B&Bs and lodges have popped up in the area catering specifically for the needs of us mountain bikers.
Pedals and pads
Ride free — pads aren’t really necessary and are frankly unpleasant on those humid summer climbs. Clipless pedals are the way forward for powering along the rocky singletrack.
When to go
The trails ride great in both mud and the drier weather, but bear in mind that the midges love the warmth, so in the summer months you’ll need to keep moving to keep from getting bitten.
Depending on which trail you choose you’ll start either at Afan Forest Visitors’ Park or the Glyncorrwg Mountain Bike Centre. The first is off the A4107 with the latter slightly further up the valley just after the village of Cymer.
Need to know
- Parking: there are car parks at both centres. It will cost you £1 to park all day at Afan Forest and £3 at Glyncorrwg, with bike wash, toilets and showers also on site.
- Cafe? The cafe at Afan does a super cheese and ham toastie with outside seating and a toy train to play on. Glyncorrwg’s Skyline cafe is well-loved among mountain bikers for its hearty portions and comfy sofas.
- Bike shop? Skyline Cycles will furnish all your biking needs at both centres with the one at Glyncorrwg stocking a huge amount of kit.
- Accommodation? Afan Lodge, conveniently situated right in the middle of the two trail heads, makes for a perfect night — big rooms, kit boxes, a bar and huge breakfasts, 01639 852 500 stayatafanlodge.com.