The Cape Wrath Trail comes highly recommended by many TGOers – it avoids the boring bit that crosses the farmlands of East Scotland. On the other hand it can be a bit of a lonesome trail compared to the famous Coast to Coast walk.
The route follows some of the wildest countryside in Scotland, starting at Fort William and heading northwards. The trail is what you make of it – joining paths and tracks that head in the right direction – with a useful map from Harvey, in many segments long and narrow as you might imagine, and a book from Cicerone to provide some guidance.
The suggested paths lead north by joining up the glens, whereas I wanted more mountains. This gave my plan a focus – where possible follow the ridges and, as FWAs (foul weather alternatives) use the standard route. It also changed the timeframe. The whole journey can be done in 10 days or so, but the way I was planning it probably I would take more like 15 or 18 days.
As it happened my plan for May was thwarted and I found myself preparing to head off in October. Although the temperatures are similar in both months, later in the year the days are much shorter, and the expected rainfall is higher.
You can see the tracked route here. Route tracking was stored with the late Socialhiking website.
It is nice to arrive at Fort William by train, and a short walk away is the pier for the ferry to Camusnagaul. I shared the 12:20 with a local who moved here from Somerset 46 years ago.
The far side is just a few minutes away, but quiet and remote. There’s 10km or so of walking along a pleasant road before the turnoff to Glen Cona. Although not busy, traffic speeds along and you can sense the frustration of some of the drivers about unusually distant destinations.
I reached the track into the Glen a bit later than expected – 3 and not 2 pm, and the weather looked set for some rain, so I decided to stay in the valley and not go up on the ridge as originally planned. I could confirm though that the start up the ridge looked possible and the continuation looked interesting from down below.
Rain started as soon as I got off the road, and would be with me most of the next 10 days.
A strange fungus appeared out of the gravel in front of me.
The valley was pleasant and green lower down – trimmed by coos – and seemed to offer good camping opportunities. Further up the ground was rougher and wetter. I stopped close to the river on ground I would not usually choose – wet but maybe not too wet, and rough but maybe not too rough. Heavy rain through the night fortunately drained away.
Saturday 7/10/2017 Cona, Glenfinnan, & Glan Pean
In the morning there was a chance for one last look up and down the glen before heading over the bealach towards Glenfinnan.
The track gave way to a barely visible path up to the high point; then down the other side until the way to Glenfinnan was barred by a busy stream – deep and too wide to cross with dry feet.
Glenfinnan is noteable for its monument to the 1754 uprising (erected in 1815), and the viaduct which crosses the glen as you approach Glenfinnan Lodge and the paths heading north.
On Saturday lunchtime there were customers milling around the visitors’ centre and tea room which seems to be open all year around. Few ventured beyond the viaduct however and I soon had the hills to myself and the bellowing deer.
As the road turns to track leading to the lodge, there is a small bothy – the first one I have seen with electricity in evidence.
The route now heads north east over a bealach towards Glendessery. I stayed low when I reached the turn-off to the ridge planned for my ‘high’ route. The weather was poor, and the cloud low.
At the top I found a couple having a brew out if the wind. It was already 5 o’clock and they surprised me by their plan to walk a further 10km to a bothy.
Navigating the route down is not difficult, but without much visible path underfoot it was slow going on the saturated ground. By 6pm I was ready to camp knowing I had 30 minutes or so before nightfall when it would become too difficult to identify level and dry land.
Sunday 8/10/2017 Glen Pean, Glendessary & Sourlies
In the morning I found the couple I had passed the night before camped close by.
The ground was completely saturated and and very slow going. It was a relief to get on the forest track near Glendessery.
It is not long before the track runs out at Upper Glendessary and a path takes over. This skirts the top of a large plantation which leads up the glen obscuring the view and, in these extremely wet conditions, is challengingly unpleasant walking.
I pass another planned link up onto a ridge, and trudge on to to find the high ground which seems to be moving away in step with me.
The downward path is better, and soon Loch Nevis is visible below. Sourlies bothy looks inviting, but I am persuaded by some advice to camp by river Carnach which is just a little further on.
The tide is out at the front of the bothy and I walk along to beach around the corner to the wide flat area where Carnach reaches the loch. My camp is OK, but I realise later the following morning that higher up the valley there several beautiful places to pitch a tent.
I have a tentative plan to reach Kinloch Hourn the following day and I was told it would take around 11 hours, so this coloured my view to push on a bit further than Sourlies.
Monday 9/10/2017 River Carnach, Barrisdale, Kinloch Hourn
I started by crossing the bridge ‘at my own risk’, a little surprised not to see a more permanent looking structure as I am sure many thousands come this way each year.
The upper reaches of the river are attractive with pools and waterfalls and grassy banks. Most of the footfall goes in another direction towards Inverie I expect, and this path remains pleasant underfoot.
Following the river means heading north-east, then north and slightly west, then north east again, then east and slightly south towards Loch Caich.
Before this last turn I leave the river head up to join a higher path, mostly well made and which leads north west to Barrisdale. I was last here on my first TGO Challenge – after the hurricane of 2012 – lots of rain, so this time I know it could be wetter!
The bunkhouse at Barrisdale looked empty and inviting – with electricity and a flushing toilet, but at 4pm I thought I had a good chance of reaching better accommodation of Kinloch Hourn,
The path along the loch from Barrisdale is where I had my full immersion in 2012. Conditions today were much better although the path was very wet in parts and not in the best condition. I began to think about camping, fearing an arrival at Kinloch Hourn in the dark with nowhere to stay.
I found a spot next to the loch, and knocked on a door to get an OK to camp there but no-one was in. Some hours later a boat arrived in the dark, but they ignored me and so I ignored them. This was another wet and windy night.
I knocked on the door in the morning, but again no answer, so I headed off down the path.
An hour later I was at the famous Kinloch Hourn Tea Room.
This was the first time I had stopped here. My image was coloured by many favourable tales of great hospitality. I expected it to be busy, and the rooms full; but actually this was far from the truth and I think Tony the manager was looking forward to some quiet days. The ‘closed’ sign was up. A cup of tea? ‘possible’. A bacon sandwich? ‘might be a problem’. A room? ‘fully booked’.
But after a short while the famous hospitality manifested itself. A room became available (noone else was staying), the Aga was lit and a bacon sandwich prepared, and the fire in the tea room was stoked up to dry my boots and wet gear.
It rained continuously. A rest day was in order.