The Cape Wrath Trail runs from Fort William to Cape Wrath on Scotland’s northwest coast, for approximately 280 miles. The CWT is more of a route than a trail because it’s not blazed or way-marked and because you can connect the endpoints using any sequence of trails, 4×4 tracks, paths, roads, or off-trail segments to connect the two endpoints. While there are a few well-established routes, the freedom to roam wherever you want across a vast wilderness area without seeing many people is one of the key attractions to hiking and backpacking in Scotland. That and the access laws, which permit you to hike across or camp (courteously) without permission on private land.
I backpacked the first half of the Cape Wrath Trail in May of 2019, beginning in Fort William and finishing at Inverlael, a distance of 140 miles in 10 days. (I had to get back home to handle some family health issues, but plan to wrap up the second half next May.) I’ve backpacked extended routes in Scotland before so I have a good idea how to get around without a car, what food to buy, where to buy stove fuel, and how to understand a thick west coast Scottish accent. That said, traveling to an English speaking country significantly reduces the language barrier, even if it is a completely different culture…just how different, you come to appreciate quickly.
While the Cape Wrath Trail is billed as the hardest route in the UK, it’s not insurmountable if you’re a skilled backpacker with experience hiking through mountainous terrain in terrible weather with strong navigational skills and a good sense of humor. The weather isn’t always terrible, but it has its moments when you want to be on your best anti-hypothermia game. Navigation is also fairly straightforward with the UK’s excellent maps, compass, and GPS, although you’ll want to be skilled in off-trail, cross-country navigation when your route leaves the beaten path. This is especially true on the northern half of the CWT where the “standard” track includes extended off-trail travel, with segments up to 12 miles in length.
On my hike, the weather was quite cold the first week I was out, with considerable high elevation snowfall, while the second week was abnormally warm and dry. Water levels were very low for this time of year, which made stream and river crossings easy, but that’s not always the case. There was no insect pressure. Despite the fact that it rained and hailed almost every day of my trip, the weather wasn’t a huge impediment. Many of the rain and hail showers were relatively short. Navigation was easy, including the two off-trail sections I hiked, although I encountered a few unexpected map discrepancies like missing trails, clear-cut wooded areas, and high deer fences which complicated cross-country travel. These were all easily dispatched but required some mental agility. I camped out, stayed in the most remote hostel in the UK one night, a mountain bothy, and the occasional B&B when I wanted to wash my clothes in a sink and dry them on a heated towel bar. I wore every single clothing layer I’d packed every day and slept with my water filter every night to prevent it from freezing when I was camping out.
Planning, Maps, and Navigation
Ian Harper’s Cape Wrath Trail book, published by Cicerone is a useful reference and I brought a copy to refer to in Kindle format on my phone. It’s a bit dated and you can largely ignore his advice about good and bad places to camp. I also carried hard copies of the Cape Wrath Trail maps (north and south) published by Harvey maps, although I find them a bit hard to read. They pretty much follow Harper, but are limited in the area they cover which limits detours or custom reroutes. I much prefer LandRanger (50k) Ordnance Survey maps, but they’re too heavy to carry. I downloaded the Cape Wrath Trail GPS files published by WalkHighlands.com and uploaded them into the OS Maps and ViewRanger iPhone Apps. I also purchased and downloaded the complete OS Map set for the UK in both apps so I’d have all the maps I’d ever need pre-downloaded. Having an iPhone with 256GB of storage is a real luxury. I pre-planned route variants using the ViewRanger online planning tool, although I far prefer using the OS Maps app for position checks when walking. It also displays bearings, making it easy to use with a compass on off-trail segments.
Getting to Fort William is fairly easy. From Boston, I took an Air Lingus flight to Dublin, switching to a smaller plane for the hop to Glasgow. The Citylink Scotland Bus leaves Glasgow airport and travels to Fort William in about 90 minutes. The Citylink bus service is a real gem in Scotland and together with ScotRail, provides a good way to get around if you don’t have a car.
Give yourself 13 minutes to watch this video end to end. There’s some jaw-dropping scenery in it. If you have the bandwidth, expand the window to full screen.
Day 1: Fort William to Clunes
Spent the night at a B&B in Fort William and got an early start. The first stage of the Cape Wrath Trail follows the Great Glen Way, which begins in Fort William near Morrisons Supermarket and a McDonalds. The Great Glen Way runs along the waterfront with views of Ben Nevis to the east. It then meets up with the Caledonia Canal and follows the towpath to Laggan.
The Caledonian Canal is like Scotland’s Suez Canal, linking the Scottish east coast at Inverness to the west coast at Fort William. The towpath is surfaced with rock dust and hard on the feet, but ideal for bicycles. A lot of people cycle the Great Glen Way end-to-end, which is ideal for mountain bikes. The canal took 19 years to built and was finished in 1822. It is 60 miles in length with 29 locks.
While you can technically camp alongside the canal, there aren’t many good wild campsites available. Access to water is also limited unless you take it from the canal, which I did more than once. The surrounding country is decidedly rural and mostly farmland.
The towpath passes by several locks and it’s fun to watch them in operation as they raise or lower boats. Most of the traffic is recreational motorized craft although there are few working boats. The canal is really a pretty incredible feat of engineering when you consider it was built in the early 1800’s. Scotland’s engineering history is legendary, worldwide.
The Great Glen Way breaks away from the towpath when it reaches Laggan Locks at the start of Loch Lochy, which is surrounded by steep slopes on both banks. It passes through forest, shoreline, and some back roads before entering a more natural area near Clunes. Beachside camping is popular here and a National Canoe Trail passes through the area. I continued on the Way for another mile or so and pitched my tent on a wayside along the gravel road, opposite from a small waterfall. It wasn’t the greatest campsite for my first night out, but I was tired, footsore, and hungry.
I pitched my tent, had a bite to eat and started to doze on my mat inside when a violent hail storm let go and pelted my tent thunderously. That’s the last thing I remember.
Day 2: Clunes to West Mandalay
Had breakfast and attended to a few chores. The tent was quite wet inside from internal condensation, so I wiped it down with my microfiber camping towel. I also cut a square out of the towel to use to dampen the rattling sound in my cook pot. In the process, I poked my index finger with the point of my scissors, which spurted a frightfully large amount of blood on my tent and belongings. I also discovered that the old bandages in my first aid kit had fused to their adhesive wrappers and were useless. I wrapped my finger up with a poorly fitting hydroseal bandage, but the bleeding still wouldn’t stop, so I clutched a bloody wad of toilet paper and packed up best I could, before setting off.
Ten minutes later I saw a Tim Whittle approaching me wearing a hard hat and pulling something behind him, which turned out to be one wheeled trailer, like a winter pulk with a bicycle wheel. He was raising money for a charity to combat mental illness in the building trades by doing a 50-day LEJOG, which stands for Land’s End-John O’Groats. This is the longest long distance walk in the UK, from the north coast at John O’Groats to the Land’s End in the south. If his quest resonates with you, please pledge a donation.
Tim noticed my wad of bloody tissue and insisted on cleaning and bandaging my finger with his first aid kit. The bleeding had stopped by this point but my hand was a bloody mess. He soon put me to rights and I packed up the medical waste to carry it out. I was really touched by his generosity.
I continued down the Great Glen Way, passing clear cut sections of forest, above Loch Lochy. The hills on the other side of the lock were capped in snow. I turned off the Great Glen Way in Mandalay, just outside of Invergarry and started heading west toward open country. I started looking for a suitable campsite, even though it was only mid-afternoon because I had a long gravel road walk the next day, that had poor camping alongside. I found a delightful mossy spot in the woods and dried my damp gear in the sunshine while attending to camp chores.
The Lost Day
During breakfast, my MSR Windburner stove died and refused to light. I suspect that it was a problem with the Primus fuel canister I picked up in Fort William, but I knew I couldn’t go on without a functioning stove in the cold weather we’d been having. It had been leaking a lot of extra fuel whenever I screwed the stove onto the canister or removed it. So I packed up my gear and headed back to Invergarry with a vague plan to get back to Fort William, now 25 miles south, and find a replacement stove. Fort William is a booming outdoor recreation town with gear shops, situated at the foot of Ben Nevis, Scotland’s tallest peak. Of course, it being a Sunday, I had no idea if anything would be open.
I retraced my steps from the previous day to the Great Glen Way and saw a bridge over the River Garry, that I hoped would take me into Invergarry. I crossed a farmers field and crossed the bridge, which was for pedestrians only, coming to Invergarry’s Ceum Path, which is what towns call their local trails. I climbed some stairs and came out at the town Post Office, which was closed. I couldn’t tell which way to turn, right or left in order to find the town center, so I turned right, figuring it would probably be closer to the main road that travels up and down Loch Lochy to the east. I walked about half a mile and saw the Invergarry hotel (basically a B&B) on the left, before popping in to ask how to get to Fort William.
They told me that the Citylink Bus, which stops outside their front door, was running a bit late, but would take me into town. I walked outside and met a couple waiting for the bus, backpackers as it turned out, who flagged the bus down. They were headed to Fort William for a pair of hiking shoes and we soon found out that we had mutual acquaintances. The husband had hiked the TGO Challenge twice and the wife, once. They were on their sixth year of section hiking a LEJOG and we ended up camping and walking the next few days together since our routes coincided. This kind of thing happens to me all the time.
I got to Fort William, tested other Primus canisters with the same result, and bought a replacement stove at Cotswold Outdoor (a Soto Amicus Cookset), before returning to Invergarry on the bus. Pissed off about the lost day, I booked a room at the hotel and had a decent dinner and fantastic breakfast, rather than walking back to my previous night’s campsite.
Day 3: West Mandalay to River Loyne
The day started out with a longish walk down a gravel logging/farm road, before a wet slog over boggy ground, and a hike up a mountain pass into a beautiful river valley. The road walk was fast, running through a number of different farms that were raising Highland cattle and sheep. The road turned into a grassy field at the end and then wet bog for several kilometers as it ran alongside the River Garry. Careful footwork was required to avoid the nasty bits. My route crossed a small bridge, over the River Garry which was too wide and deep to ford, where I ran into a local fisherman. We had a chat about fishing and he said it was still too cold still for a decent hatch (of insects).
I had a short road walk down a single track road before I came to the path that climbed a mountain pass into the next watershed for the River Loyne. I’d spent the next week climbing two of these passes per day, usually about 500-600 meters each. While they weren’t mountain summits, they tended to run over the shoulders of higher peaks, and I got a certain amount of satisfaction climbing up them and back down the other side. There’s a thrill that occurs when the next valley comes into view and you leave the previous one behind. You feel like your making progress, eating up the landscape along your route.
As a crested the pass, I saw the northernmost peak on the South Glen Shiel Ridge, which is the longest continuous ridge walk in Scotland with seven munros (peaks over 1000 meters in height). That might not sound that high, but the climbs really do start at sea level, so it adds up. I’d hoped to traverse it on this trip, but there was just too much snow on top, and I did not have the equipment required with me. No worries, I had the Cape Wrath Trail to hike.
I spied a tent by the River Loyne and though it might be my friends (they arrived later), but it turned out to be another Cape Wrath Hiker named Marco, who was hiking the trail from the north to the south. Marco had been living for the past two years in Glasgow before quitting his job and setting off to hike the trail. He hoped to keep going at the end, all the way back to his home in Italy. It sounded perfectly plausible since the trail system in Europe is so well developed.
My friends arrived as I was making dinner and then it was lights out.
Day 4: River Loyne to Alltbeithe Youth Hostel
My two friends planned to hike to the Alltbeithe Youth Hostel near Glen Affric and I figured I’d join them before heading into Shiel Bridge for a planned resupply. This is the most remote hostel in the UK, smack in the middle of nowhere. It’s pretty primitive, with a single unheated bunkhouse, and a main building with a shared kitchen, sitting room, a wood stove, and a coal stove. These are used for heat and to help dry visitor’s clothing. There’s also a single user hot shower, which was wonderful, but you have to bring your own towel, which I’d packed for such use. Staying in hostels is an inexpensive way to break up a hike in the UK, get clean, and wash some clothes.
From my campsite, I hiked up another mountain pass to get to the valley of Loch Culanie, passing the Cluanie Inn, which is a famous landmark in these parts. The hotel, which is pink, was under renovation so I passed by without stopping. From the hotel, it was a short road walk to the track to Glen Affric. This started off as a well maintained 4×4 road down a deep valley surrounded by munros, before devolving into a muddy track, wet grass, and outright bog.
Halfway through it started to rain (more than a passing shower), then hail ferociously, as I continued down the valley. When I reached the end of the valley, I expected to pick up another track along the river, that would lead me to the hostel. However, it no longer existed and was now a peat bog. I could see the hostel on the other side of the river, but there was a high deer fence that prevented me from reaching the river and ford to the other side. I slogged another kilometer to the style in the fence and then a bridge to the hostel, but I was cold, wet, and muddy by the time I arrived. Picking my way through that final peat bog had wiped me out.
The caretaker at Alltbeithe is named Hannah and she is a wonderful host. She made me feel right at home, and got me warm, washed, and fed. The other guests were very welcoming too. There was an older Scottish couple who had walked in from Shiel Bridge and two Dutch guys who were hiking the Affric Way. They all walked to Shiel Bridge the next day and I saw them there also. If you get the chance to stay at this youth hostel, it’s a wonderful place to visit. Hannah suggested coming back for a few days and doing some walks in the surrounding munros, which sounds like a grand idea.
Day 5: Alltbeithe Youth Hostel to Shiel Bridge
I was off early the next morning for the walk into Shiel Bridge where I’d booked a room at the Kintail Lodge. I’d stayed there nine years earlier at the beginning of my first big solo Scotland walk, the 2010 TGO Challenge, and had walked this same track on the first day of that trip. After leaving the hostel, I passed the Canban bothy before climbing another mountain pass and into the River Croe watershed. May is lambing season here and there were many newborns in the hills.
I passed the Morvich Caravan Park on the outskirts of Shiel Bridge, which was full to capacity with camper vans. Many people from the south of the UK spend May in Scotland because it’s the best time to visit. I met many of them out walking in the hills during my hike. Another mile or so and I came to the Loch-side track leading to my lodge. I checked in, washed my clothes in my room sink, and went to the pub. My LEJOGing friends had arrived by then and we shared a leisurely meal before I went to bed.
Day 6: Shiel Bridge to Maol Budhie Bothy
My two friends and I parted ways the next morning, although we planned to meet again in Strathcarron in two days. Most people hiking the Cape Wrath Trail pass by the Falls of Glomach on the outskirts of Shiel Bridge. I took a more easterly route to Glen Elchaig, passing by the Eas Ban before dropping steeply down to the River Elchaig and an easy river ford. From there I headed past a house called the Iron Lodge and up another mountain pass leading to a bothy, called Maol Budhie.
Bothies are a lot like Appalachian lean-tos, but with four walls. They’re old buildings owned by the estates that have been set aside for use by hikers. Most of the land in Scotland is owned by vast estates that raise deer for venison. They say that 95% of Scotland is owned by 5% of the population. These mountain bothies usually have a fireplace and bunks or platforms you can sleep on. They’re maintained by volunteers and organized by the Mountain Bothies Association.
When I arrived at Maol Budhie, I was the only person there and I hoped I’d have the bothy to myself. Wishful thinking. Claire, a French woman living in Iceland, showed up about an hour later, followed by two English guys, and then two hikers from Czechoslovakia, so we had a full house. All of them were hiking the Cape Wrath Trail and had been staying at all of the bothies they’d come across together. These guys were really into building a fire in the fireplace, which can often be a fruitless exercise in Scotland because there aren’t any trees. But off they went scouring the peat bogs surrounding the bothy for wood and dry chunks of grass to burn. I would have been happy going to sleep right after dinner.
The whole scene reminded me of a hell night I’d spend on the AT in a lean-to in the Shenandoah when a bachelor party showed up at a lean-to I was sleeping in during a torrential rainstorm. They stood around until late at night blasting bad music on their cell phone speakers, barbecuing steaks, and drinking jello shots while the hikers in the shelter begged them to shut up and go to sleep.
One of the English fellows found a big piece of soaking wet wood, but convinced himself that he could chop it up with his knife into little bits that would burn. In the process, he cut his hand very badly, spurting a geyser of blood on the other side of the downstairs room. It was bad, but the boys bandaged him up with a huge pressure bandage to stop the bleeding and he walked out the next day to Strathcarron, before taking the train to Inverness to see it properly looked at in the hospital. After all that, the boys succeeded in getting a small fire going, which burned for about 45 minutes. And that folks, is probably the last night I’ll ever sleep inside a bothy.
Day 7: Maol Budhie Bothy to Strathcarron
When we woke the next morning the surrounding hilltops were covered with snow. My goal for the day was to hike to Strathcarron and see if I could get a room in the hotel there. It’s under new ownership and they haven’t gotten their act together with answering phones, emails, or online reservation services, so I knew this was a long shot. On the way to Strathcarron, I also hoped I’d run into people hiking the TGO Challenge and maybe see some old friends. Strathcarron and Torridon, to the north, are two popular Challenge starting points. I’d spent the night at the hotel here in 2013 before walking from Strathcarron to Torridon, on a Ramble before the Challenge.
The first part of the day’s hike was an off-trail segment from the bothy to a track around Loch Calavie. I left the bothy first and picked up a faint herd path around Loch Cruoshie, the shallow lake in front of the bothy. I forded a shallow stream and shot a compass bearing to the track that loops around the south shore of Loch Calavie. Then I set out across the hills of heather. Meanwhile, I watched my bothy companions take Harper’s recommended route around the north side of Loch Cruoshie. They then wandered around in the hills of heather quite randomly, obviously not following a compass bearing or GPS. I’d see the same drama played out a few days later with this same group wandering up the wrong side of a ravine, oblivious that they were on the wrong course. My advice: practice your off-trail navigation before you take on the Cape Wrath Trail or hike with someone who knows what they’re doing.
Anyway, I found the track I was looking for and looped around Loch Calavie, before passing by Bendronaig Lodge. That’s when I started running into TGO Challengers coming out of Strathcarron. I met two who I knew, Willem Fox who was hiking with a young fellow named Hinne, and the Mike Knipe who was hiking with his son. It was wonderful to run into these guys and I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed the social aspect of the Challenge.
Day 8: Strathcarron to Easan Dorcha
I made it to Strathcarron early that afternoon and actually got a room in the hotel. They even did my laundry for free! My LEJOG friends arrived and we ate dinner. They were finishing their section hike and taking the train home to the south coast the next morning, so I bought some of their leftover food to hold me over to my resupply in Kinlochewe. I was enjoying my Cape Wrath route so much, I decided to keep going to Ullapool instead of finishing in Torridon as I’d originally planned. This meant I’d finish the first half of the route instead of the first third, and would set me up for a convenient start of the second leg. Ullapool is a fair-sized town with a port and regular bus service. I’ve also stayed in Ullapool several times before and it’s one of the few places where you can get canister gas or outdoor gear in the northern part of Scotland.
I set off taking much the same route I followed to Torridon six years ago but kept on straight along Sgorr Ruadh looping around its north end and back down the other side through the magnificent valley below Beinn Liath Mhor. I’ve been through this valley before, but it’s still a sublime walk. I continued northeast through a forested glen named Easan Dorcha, passing a small 1 person bothy called the Tea House, before camping along the river. Harper claims there’s good camping here, but there really isn’t until the very bottom of the glen. Still, I found a level-enough spot and hunkered down for dinner and sleep.
Day 9: Easan Dorcha to Loch an Nid
I was really running low on food and needed to resupply in Kinlochewe, but many small town shops close on Sunday after noon, and I needed to get to town before then. So I packed up and headed past Coulin Lodge, which brought me to the paved single track road, the A896. I made it to town by 11:00 am with plenty of time before the shop closed up and stocked up on oatcakes, brie, cheddar, and baked goods. While I love a malt bread called Soreen, I’m also partial to Nevis Cakes, “the Peak of Highland Baking.”
After a leisurely lunch, I headed back into the hills past the heights of Kinlochewe, before hiking a much longer off-trail section through Bealach na Croise, south of Loch an Nid. Once through the pass, I followed a herd path (deer) down to an unmarked stalkers path (hunters), which avoided the boggy ground south of Loch an Nid, where I camped for the night. There were several other people camping there, with a wonderful view of An Tealloch in the distance.
Day 10: Loch an Nid to Inverlael
After 8 straight days of walking (since my stove broke), my legs were starting to get tired. I knew I needed a break and decided to push to Inverlael, where I could probably hitch to Ullapool for the night. My hike was drawing to an end and I was running out of time before my flight home.
I broke camp and headed toward An Tealloch, the famous mountain massif at the south end of the Fisherfield Forrest. The morning was warm and I stripped down to a short sleeve shirt while covering my neck with a buff to prevent sunburn. I crested the ridge, passing the head of the beautiful Shenneval valley at its base, before dropping down to the hamlet of Dundonnell. From there I crossed open moorland to the bottom of Loch Broom and Inverlael. I stuck out my thumb when I reached the road to Ullapool and the first car picked me up, dropping me next to the chippy in town. I was rudely jolted back to civilization, longing for another night in hills.
I traveled south over the next few days, stopping in Inverness and Glasgow before flying home. I won’t let another six years go by before I visit Scotland again. One way or another, I’ll be back next May.Editor's note: Help support this site by making your next gear purchase through one of the links above. Click a link, buy what you need, and the seller will contribute a portion of the purchase price to support SectionHiker's unsponsored gear reviews, articles, and hiking guides.
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