In early April I set out to walk the Cape Wrath Trail (CWT) in 8 days. I didn’t make it, but I did have an amazing walk from Fort William to Attadale in what I regard as the best CWT teaser I could have had. This section of the CWT starts at Fort William, walks along Glen Cona, turns north to Dessary and then has an amazing walk across Knoydart. From Kinloch Hourn there is a climb to The Saddle, walks north to see the Falls of Glomach through Kintail and then to Kintail and Attadale forests. Such remote and vast areas, mountains and glens are truly stunning and I think you should try it too.
My walk started on the wrong foot: I took the Caledonian Sleeper train from London to Fort William, but my ticket required a change of car at 4:00 am at Edinburgh which I slept right through. Instead of reaching Fort William at the nice and comfortable time of 9:55 am to catch the ferry to Camusnagaul, I found myself in Aberdeen at 7:45 am. If you are not sure what that means, let me explain: Fort William is on the west side of Scotland, nearing the coast, while Aberdeen is on the east coast. They are roughly on the same latitude, but there is no direct route: to get there you either head north west to Inverness and then south west to Fort William, or south west to Edinburgh and then north west to Fort William. I opted for Inverness as it is a shorter route. At 8:30 I took a 2 hour train to Inverness, waited 45 minutes for a bus that took another hour and a half and then a sprint to the ferry. On the way I called Dougie from the Camusnagaul ferry and he was willing to take me across when I arrived for £6 (regular price is £1.30). At 13:30, more then 3 hours later than planned, I started walking. Those 3 hours became a big part of why I just could not catch up on my original plan to walk the Cape Wrath Trail.
This is how I walked this trip, including some logistics and key transportation methods.
Day one: Fort William to Corryholly bothy, 39km (24.2 miles)
Despite the late start, I was excited to start my trip, fully intending to enjoy the day after too long in various means of travel. The weather was just right: mild, patches of sun and a cool breeze that picked up at times. The CWT starts from Fort William (if you choose to walk it this way) with a 10.5 km road walk – not the most inspiring – but the views are great and it is an easy way to settle in. I thoroughly enjoyed walking along Loch Linnhe and sneaking glimpses at Ben Nevis when the clouds were generous.
During this part I realised that my Garmin watch was having problems: freezing and getting stuck, not the best of starts. After about an hour and a half I reached the road fork near Aryhoulan and turned west to Glen Cona – one of my favourite parts of the trail. This is an easy 11.5 km walk on a 4×4 trail along the river Cona. What I love about this part is how peaceful it feels and I hope one day to walk the CWT more leisurely and enjoy a magnificent wild camp at the end of this section before the climb to the bealach.
In the late afternoon, as the shadows got longer and the wind was picking up, I climbed to the bealach and descended to Callop on the boggy trail and in the worsening weather. After a bit of a wet walk and a chat with my wife, I found myself arriving to Glenfinnan via the unfinished trail that leads to the visitor centre over the foot bridge in the last light of the day.
In the dark, I made my way through the last 4 km to Corryholly bothy. The way was easy but merciless on the paved road and with the rain starting, it felt rather gloomy. Under the hood of my poncho and the headlamp’s beam I reached the turn to the bothy and made my way to the bothy which was deserted and, as usual, very cold. After being unsuccessful at starting a fire to warm up, I just organized my gear, had dinner and dove into my sleeping bag for a shorter than planned sleep.
Day two: Corryholly bothy to Barisdale bothy, 40km (24.8miles)
An early alarm after a short night in a very cold bothy made leaving the sleeping bag very hard, but I had a long day planned ahead of me (55 km!) to just past Kinloch Hourn so I was keen to get going. I packed my gear while still charging the last of my electronics and made breakfast. Some stretching and jumping jacks got me warmed up and ready to put on the wet clothes from the day before. By 7 am I was out of the bothy, sending a message to my wife with the Inreach that all was well and getting on my way.
The weather was warm and humid with the occasional torrential rain coming in and drenching everything. Water crossings were extremely high, higher that I remembered, and the improvised foot bridge over Allt Coire a’ Bheithe was very necessary (just further up the stream from the ford). The weather dried up a bit to allow for a more comfortable climb to the bealach and the wind picked up, cooling off the sweat. In the last section, as the route changes from a 4×4 trail to a narrow walking path, the rain returned, soaking the path and giving me the first introduction to how slippery the soles of my shoes were.
From the Streap, the descent to Glen Pean was extremely slippery, muddy and wet. Keeping to the west bank I made my way very carefully down the slope to a reasonable crossing point of Allt a’ Chaorainn. Just past the curve in the stream I crossed the east bank in mid shin deep and fast flowing water – a very cold crossing. On the other bank it was a bit of a climb to find the trail, but then a muddy and very boggy walk down. At some point the wide and clear path splits: the wider one climbs up and a foot path stays lower near the stream – I took the lower thinking the one climbing would be veering off. Retrospectively I recommend staying with the wide path as it stays drier and easier to walk.
After numerous slips and slides (one nasty enough to really bruise my right shin), I made it to the wide bridge over River Pean. The river was in spate and it was an amazing sight, but I had places to go so I pressed on: left and then an immediate right for a small ascent into the woods around Monadh Gorm. Picking up the wide pressed 4×4 road, I turned left and started a fast paced walk in great conditions. It was a good time for a snack on the move (about 11:30) and just long enough to enjoy the woods until the rain came back. After a bit of a trudge under the poncho and the split left to Dessarry Wood, the weather cleared a little. I love the woods in this area as they get so much rain and sun – it all looks so lush and green!
I had a walk through the woods on a track that is a bit flooded at times all the way to the edge of the woods, just near A’Chuil bothy. It was 13:00 and later than planned so I decided not to visit the bothy – it is one of my favourite on the trail and I have yet to spend a night it, but I will one day! The sun was gone and a cold wind and thin rain had started, pushing me on to leave Glen Dessarry and head to the bealach. It is another small walk in the woods until the trail splits at the river fork: turn right on the bridge and about 50m on, the trail splits again to a small trail the climbs up along Allt Coire nan Uth. By then it was hot again and very humid, but I knew that soon after leaving the woods it would turn windy again, so the poncho stayed on.
At the edge of the woods I turned left to the bealach and met 3 young guys at the end of two days of munro climbing in the area; we bid farewell all around and I pressed on. As expected, the wind picked up but the rain stayed away, giving great views back to the glen and up to the bealach. The climb itself is easy and clear but muddy and wet, but turns really amazing when approaching the lochan at the bealach – what a sight! The wind and rain picked again to give this place an even more exciting feel and I was surprised that parts of the trail were under water on the shores of the lochan – there was just so much water.
The crossing of Finiskaig River was simple and uneventful, just fast flowing, and I soon made my way very carefully down to Glen Nevis. I slipped so many times that I became muddy and wet all up to my waist, cursing under my breath. The clouds were clearing a little and the view onto Glen Nevis was spectacular with patches of blue sky above. I headed to Sourlies bothy and found it empty and tidy, though sad and with sign of over use as always. I decided to enjoy the nice weather and have some lunch while sitting on one of the chairs (sitting?!?) outside the bothy.
After a quick break I kept going, aiming to reach Kinloch Hourn by 7 pm to be able to call home using the payphone. The tide was low so the walk around the beach to Carnoch was simple but frustrating on the loose pebbles. Once in the delta of the river, I was trying to carefully pick my way to the bridge without getting too deeply into the bogs until a wrong step got me in waist deep: after that I didn’t care. The rain came back but at least the bridge was still standing. I crossed the bridge and joined the 4×4 track along River Carnach.
The track was in very bad shape, muddy and wet, river fords were very high (some knee deep) and at times the track was nothing but a big muddy mess – clear evidence of the flooding was everywhere. The weather was patchy with rain at times and I managed to make reasonable time. I got a bit confused when the trail was climbing on the first big river curve, confusing it with the climb out of the glen – I should have walked around a narrow gorge. Eventually I reached the point in which I needed to leave the trail and climb up Carn Mor to meet a trail that heads west to Gleann Unndalain. I took a minute to drink some water, have a snack and catch my breath – I remembered that this climb feels longer than it is so I was getting ready. Slowly, on tired legs, I climbed the vertical slope to find the trail, breathing hard and feeling my lack of fitness.
After the climb it just a matter of finding the very clear path and taking a left, but that was after another quick break – I was exhausted! The wind picked up again, cooling me down after the climb so I started walking, climbing to the bealach so I could get to Barisdale and on to Kinloch Hourn in time. The climb felt extremely hard and I was slow, much slower than I’m used to, but tiredness and lack of fitness will do that to a person. As I got closer to the bealach the wind picked up and the temperature dropped, before long it started snowing heavily with big, wet, cold flakes, at times dropping hail, making the final ascent miserable. Luckily the trail here is clear as I was so lost in my thoughts that I wasn’t navigating much in the white out I was in.
At the bealach the wind was brutal and I was soaked and cold, just wanting to get off the pass to a less exposed area, but my slippery shoes determined a different pace – a slow and careful one. Painfully slow, I made my way down to Gleann Unndalain, slipping again and again, hitting my shin again and getting very frustrated. The crossing of the Allt was narrow but with a bit more water, could have also been dangerous. After the crossing the path became easier and the weather improved with every step. It was 5:30 pm and I was just getting a glimpses of Barisdale – I wouldn’t make it in time for a family chat at Kinloch Hourn. I kept on walking, enjoying the return of feeling in my hands, when heavy clouds moved above the bay and it got darker in minutes. I was tired and decided to call it the day at Barisdale bothy.
Just past 6 pm I walked into the bothy to find 3 other walkers: one had remained in one room avoiding the others and two more were CWT walkers. One of the walkers was making his way leisurely along the trail (oh how I envied that) and another was trying to make it 10 days. They both had encountered hard conditions coming from Sourlies that day, the 10 day walker realising he wouldn’t make it and deciding to leave the trail at the first opportunity. I spent a nice evening of banter, chat, food and stories accompanied by strong winds and heavy rain outside. The bothy in Barisdale in an estate one and for £3 a night you get indoor plumbing, a few electric sockets and very cosy sleeping rooms (less cosy cooking area). We had an early lights out and restless night.
Day three: Barisdale to Shiel Bridge, 30km (18.6 miles)
With an early start in the dark, I managed to leave the bothy by 6:30 am with the main struggle being putting on wet socks and trousers. It was still raining outside and the low clouds made sure I wouldn’t even get a great sunrise. I used the easy 4×4 trail to the pier to eat some more and text my wife that I was en route to the payphone and would aim to be at it by 9 am – I had a goal now. The walk is very straight forward from Barisdale to Kinloch Hourn: a km of 4×4 road walk north and then east on the south shore of the loch to Kinloch Hourn.
The big problem with the walk is how tantalizingly short it seems: a simple 10 km on what seems like an easy route but in reality holds 3 ridges to climb and descend. The trail is fairly good most of the time but some areas have been swept away by floods, are very wet or muddy. Luckily the river crosses are all on bridges as the water was high and fast, but I managed to make good progress and made it to the bridge at Kinloch Hourn by 8:50. A dash to the stalkers’ lodge and I found the payphone: I heard my daughter’s voice and felt better and worse at the same time. Home sickness kicked in and I learned from my wife that it was a mess at home with my absence. We decided to talk again in Shiel Bridge when I would have cell service.
Another snack and some water while admiring that the payphone room could be used as an emergency shelter with lots of space, and I was off to climb to the highest point on the trail: the bealach below the Saddle. I climbed into the woods behind the stalker’s hut to the 4×4 road under the pylons in a clear and cool morning. It was a nice climb but the rain was back soon and the clouds moved back in to hide the peaks all around. I made good time to the little stalkers’ hut near Allt a’ Choire Riedh that I had planned on spending the previous night in so I took a small break. It was a good time to stop as the rain was back with a vengeance. I waited the rain a little while eating and drinking in preparation for the climb.
Soon it was back to the rain that was now a drizzle and a tricky crossing of Allt a’ Choire Riedh which was wide, deep and fast. After the cold cross it was a simple walk on a good path to Allt Coire Mhalagain. I planned on climbing to the bealach on the eastern side of the allt as it was trackless last time I was there, but now there was a 4×4 trail on the west side of the allt. I made a dangerous crossing in the fast flowing water of the allt and started climbing on the new and improvised track. The track kept on disappearing into the bog or water ways and the climb was slow and steep. After roughly 300m of climbing, I reached the snow line that was lower than expected for the season. The last 100m of ascent was in snow that got deeper and got to shin high near the lochan at the bealach.
Following the old fence I managed to find the fallen wall that leads from the bealach to Meallan Odhar which was under deep snow. I started making my way to the wall when the slope turned very steep and I retreated quickly before losing my footing in the deep snow. I took a higher route and descended through waist deep snow onto the wall. From here it was slow progress as the snow made finding the route near the wall hard, slippery and dangerous. I met two climbers en route to climb the Saddle if the conditions were right, both in full 4 season gear, making my light 3 season gear feel out of place.
After a careful walk I reached the end of the wall and moved out of the snow, making my way to the wind swept peak of Meallan Odhar. The clouds shifted a little, giving me glimpses of the beautiful snow capped mountains around me, teasing me to try and capture them on camera. I picked a trail that stayed higher above Coire Caol when descending from the saddle between Meallan Odhar and Biod an Fhithich as it was drier. Eventually I found the trail near the allt and picked it up for an easy but wet walk to Gob na Roinne near Shiel Bridge. The weather was good again, the sun was out and the wind was cool, making me want to freeze the moment as hiking conditions don’t get any better than that.
The crossing at Gob na Roinne was deep and wide, but the slow flow of the river along with using the island in the middle made sure I crossed safely. It was afternoon and the rain was back when I first caught sight of Shiel Bridge. I had a decision to make: press on to Maol Bhuidhe bothy or spend the night at Shiel Bridge. I called my wife and we discussed the situation, deciding on a night in a place with a shower and getting an overview of how my kids were doing: they needed their father back home, fast. My wife went to check on possible changes to my travels and I booked into the trekkers’ lodge in the Kintail Lodge hotel.
The lodge was superb: simple rooms with a couple of shared showers and a nice cosy kitchen and sitting area: an excellent deal for £17. I settled in, had a shower, dried my clothes and talked to my fellow trekkers. I mainly met local walkers coming for a few days to explore the hills and mountains around, and who can blame them? Another chat with my wife and some time looking at the map concluded that the best solution would be for me to spend another night on the trail and then catch a train on the Strathcarron line to Inverness for an early flight back to London.
I had lots of food (some from fellow walkers with leftovers) and a restful night in the lodge, ready to enjoy my last couple of days on the trail.
Day four: Shiel Bridge to Maol-Bhuidhe bothy, 26km (16.1 miles)
Fresh and ready to get going, I had a slow morning knowing it would be a short one. I packed my gear leisurely, enjoyed getting into dry clothes and had two breakfasts to make sure I was catching up on calories. I was out into a cold morning by 8 am with a plan to walk to Maul Bhuodhe bothy – my favourite bothy on the trail.
The road walk to Morvich was uneventful and sadly Jack-o-Bite was closed – I was hoping for a 3rd breakfast. The weather stayed dry and cool and the walk out to the Fall of Glomach was great: the route is simple, the views are great and in general the way I wanted my last full day on the CWT to be. It is an easy but slightly tricky walk, passing several small trails to get to Dorusduain Forest, but after the bridge it is simply a matter of turning right and following the signs to the falls. There are just under 2 km of pressed 4×4 track and then it is a narrow path climbing on the northern slopes above a gorge.
It always seems like a short walk to the falls but just as you think you found them, you learn that you just reached another false peak or hill and there is more to go. The weather stayed true most of the way, allowing me to take loads of pictures and enjoy the views. Above the falls I had a standing lunch near the sign while huddled under my poncho as the rain was back. The noise from the falls is thundering here and I went for a peak over the edge – exciting!
The trail continues down, but needs finding: look straight at the sign of the falls and then take a 90° turn left and walk straight to the boulder ahead. From the rock the trail is visible as it clings to the rocks heading down. In general the path is clear and easy to walk (though wet), but at times it requires down climbing or traversing a few big rock sections – do that with great care, using hands and bum if needed.
After a careful and fairly safe descent, since I had learned to take extra care with my shoes, I reached Allt na Laoidhre to learn that there had been so much water lately that it had eaten the trail on both sides. The climbs into and out of the stream are challenging but the crossing itself was simple. After that it is some contouring to reach the bridge over Allt a Ghlomaich and then around a small hill to another bridge near Loch na Leitreach.
Taking the pressed 4×4 trail east it is an easy walk to the Iron Lodge, and I enjoyed the isolation of the houses around and the peacefulness of the loch. From the Iron Lodge, taking the left turn in the fork, the track becomes looser and hard to walk, washed out at times or even covered with stone falls. It is a constant climb along Allt An Crom to Reidh Leum na Feithe but the views back are amazing, looking at Sgurr na h-Eige to the south or around at the rocky slopes of Faochaig.
At the ruin of eidh Leum na Feithe the wind is much stronger so I put my wind jacket on again and had a quick snack, getting ready for the bleak and wet walk to Maol Bhuidhe. This part of the CWT is probably my favourite, almost an underdog in reputation among fellow walkers: it is wide, bleak, wild and remote with a true sense of isolation. Many times I have imagined that if we deserted the planet, this is how it would look after – empty.
I reached the last hill near the bothy, curved around it and crossed the cold water of Allt a’ Chreachail Mhoir just as the rain started. I took shelter in the bothy and enjoy the solitude, it just feels in the middle of nowhere. I settled myself on the second story on the wooden floor under one of the roof windows and made myself at home. It was a short and easy day, only 4:30 pm by then, one of the earliest stops I have had in years. It was time to read, write, eat, stay warm and relax. I texted my wife that all was well and enjoyed my relaxing night.
Just before going to sleep, as the bothy grew too dark to find gear, I noticed a real drop in temperature – it was going to be a cold night. I snuggled into my sleeping bag and went to sleep at 9 pm – the earliest I have in years, too.
Day five: Maol-Bhuidhe bothy to Attadale station, 20.5 (12.7 miles)
I woke up to a cold morning with a cover of snow on the roof window. Hopping to the window in my sleeping bag I saw that a light snow was falling and it was very windy. I decided to take my time and wait out the snow – giving myself until 8:30 to leave the bothy. After coffee and some food, I noticed that the snow not only hadn’t slowed down, it was starting to settle and pile up, falling fast and heavy. I decided to make a hasty retreat from Maol-Bhuidhe to Bendronaig bothy, so I packed quickly and used the jumping jack trick to put my wet clothes on more easily.
It was cold outside but the wind calmed, making it less bad than it could have been. Low clouds hung all around and snow was covering it all, making the wet trails in grass very clear. I made my way to the fork of Allt a’ Chreachail Mhoir and River Ling, just west of Loch Cruoshie – this is the best place to cross the River Ling. It was a cold cross in knee deep water, but it was slow flowing and simple to do. I made my way to Loch Calavie while contouring the eastern slopes of Beinn Dronaig, finding the 4×4 track at times and losing it to bogs at others. Forgetting about the wire bridge at the mouth of the loch, I waded Allt Loch Calavie, getting myself even wetter.
The snow was starting to slow down, falling less heavily, but the low clouds remained, making the whole of Attadale forest disappear. Shortly thereafter I got to Bendronaig bothy, including crossing Allt Coire na Sorna over the disintegrating foot bridge. The bothy was empty and was a great stopping place for a hot beverage and some food. While sorting some food I realised I forgot my poncho still hanging to dry in Maol-Bhuidhe; I got so angry at myself but knew that going back at this point was not an option – I had a train to catch.
I left Bendronaig bothy after 20-30 minutes feeling warmer but a bit bummed about the poncho, ready to make my way to Strathcarron. I took the clear 4×4 track out to Attadale forest, crossing the bridge, and soon after the drizzle stopped and the sun was out. I had to stop and take pictures – as many as my memory card allowed. Along the way I missed the turn to the path leading to Strathcarron so I decided to press on to Attadale on the clear path I was on. At this point I was ready to head back home.
The walk to Attadale is nice, but it is more tamed and tidy, with felled woods and even signs for the trail all around. I saw some electrical pylons and knew I had left the wild and gotten back to civilization. The rain was back but without my poncho I had to accept its presence and the fact that it got my wind jacket wet. Soon I started to encounter other walkers along the trails, eventually getting to Strathan and the paved road to Attadale. From there it was another couple of km to the train station. The train station in Attadale is probably the station with the best view I’ve ever been to, it is well worth the visit.
Only Fort William to Attadale, but a great trip none the less
If you don’t have time to do the whole Cape Wrath Trail, this section from Fort William to Attadale or Stratcarron is great. The fact that starting and ending points are easily accessible via public transportation makes them ideal for a section hike of the CWT.
I enjoyed it greatly and recommend doing it. It can be done more leisurely, too: in 7-8 days, enjoying some of the nicer nightly options along the way: camping in Glen Cona, sleeping in A’Chuil bothy and visiting Bearneas bothy just north of Bendronaig bothy.
I have walked the whole CWT in the past, and I think that this section is often seen as less wild than the northern section of the trail, but it is still magnificent. If you want to enjoy the CWT but keep things a little more toned down, this is a great way to see some of the best landscapes the UK has to offer.
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