The Cape Wrath Trail is considered the hardest hiking route in the United Kingdom. Located in Scotland, it runs from Fort William, through the Highlands and Western Scotland, to the lighthouse at Cape Wrath, the northwestern-most point of Scotland. Approximately 230 miles in length, most people take 2-3 weeks to backpack the trip.
Technically, the Cape Wrath Trail is not a trail at all, but a route, meaning that you can walk from one end to the other any way you like. This gives hikers a fair amount of leeway where they hike and the mountains and side trips they take in along the way. There are many famous mountains along the west coast of Scotland, well worth climbing, if the weather cooperates and you like mountain views.
While there are guidebooks available and even maps where people hike, the Cape Wrath Trail is unmarked and unblazed, requiring good navigation skills to complete. More often than not, people walk some of the way on old drover’s roads called Hill Tracks, estate roads, and old paths, although there are times when you will hike cross-country over miles of grass tussocks, heather, and bog. Previous Scottish hillwalking experience is definitely an asset and a high degree of self sufficiency is required.
Why would one ever want to hike a route like this? It’s in Scotland for one, which is simply a magical place to backpack. Mountainous, wild, and remote, you can travel for days without seeing a soul. Planning your own cross country route is also a fun, if time-consuming process, and adds to the pleasure of journey. Finally, hiking the Cape Wrath Trail gives you the opportunity to navigate a wild route for hundreds of miles without worrying about private property boundaries and other hassles. Walkers can hike where they want in Scotland, one of the few countries in the world that has right-of-way laws for that purpose. The freedom to roam…that’s freedom.
But the Cape Wrath Trail is challenging for all the reasons that make backpacking in Scotland challenging:
- Being on the west coast, you’re more likely to encounter the wet weather that blows cross country from west to east.
- There are no trees, so little cover, and you’ll often need to camp at night in high wind.
- Massive peat bogs, the Scottish equivalent of quicksand, require careful footwork to cross.
- Resupply points are scarce, so you’ll want to carry plenty of food and fuel.
- The ground is very wet and your feet will be wet most of the time.
- You need to be constantly vigilant about where you are, so you don’t get lost.
Thankfully, there are no bears or wild animal to worry about, although bloodsucking midges are a hazard depending on the time of year, and Lyme disease carrying ticks are on the rise.
While you’ll probably wild camp out most of the time, there are streams and lochs everywhere and water is never is short supply.
There are also outbuildings called Mountain Bothies that dot the countryside, often donated by farms and estates, for walkers to shelter in. They usually have a stove or fireplace inside. I have friends who carry lumps of coal on their backpacking trips when they plan a stay, since there’s so little firewood available nearby. Still these plain buildings provide welcome shelter in poor weather and make a nice spot to get out of the wind and rain for lunch when you pass by during the day.
If you’re not from Scotland, your biggest challenge is likely to be understanding the thick Scottish accent and unfamiliar vocabulary used by locals in local shops and pubs. People tend to polite and welcoming in rural Scotland and as long as you mind your manners, you can expect warm hospitality.
The best time to hike the Cape Wrath Trail is mid-May to early June before the midges come out (thanks to Alan Sloman, for this piece of advice). If you’ve never backpacked in Scotland, hiking from the west coast to the east coast of Scotland in the Annual TGO Challenge is good preparation for planning and hiking a Cape Wrath route of your own. I completed the Challenge in 2010 solo, and again in 2013 with friend Martin Rye, and plan to hike the Cape Wrath Trail by myself in 2018.
For more information about the Cape Wrath Trail, here are a few good links and references:
- WalkHighlands: Detailed stage descriptions and GPX files
- Harvey Maps (1:40k) : North Half and South Half
- Cicerone Press: Walking the Cape Wrath Trail
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