walkhighlands

Hiking the Cape Wrath (aka ‘Cape Rough’) Trail

Date walked: 04/08/2020

Time taken: 12 days

Distance: 320km

Hi everyone,

in August 2020, my husband and I walked the Cape Wrath Trail over 320 km. My husband put together this video in which he tried to show the rough and varied beauty of the Scottish landscape, as well as our ups and downs while on the trail.



We used to live and hike in Switzerland for many years. After a year living in Cambridge (Massachusetts), we are now living in London and joined the Austrian Alpine Club Chapter earlier this year. It was my first thru-hike and my husband's second one (he did the Southern Upland Way in March). We both had done the Swiss "Via Alpina" in August 2019 and had done many multi-day hikes in Switzerland.

Below is also my blog with thoughts for anyone considering taking up this adventure. I hope you enjoy both accounts!

Caroline

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My husband and I hiked the Cape Wrath Trail in August. The “UK’s most challenging long-distance walk” takes you from Fort Williams up to the UK’s most north-westerly part at Cape Wrath covering a distance of 370 km.

Upsides
 Experienced true wilderness and Scotland’s most remote glens and mountain passes
 Beautiful weather (string of sunny days, surely hottest weather recorded in the Highlands)
 Corona-compatible holidays (you walk alone 99.99% of the time)

Challenges
 Midges (according to locals, the midges were particularly bad this August)
 Wet feet 24/7
 Tricky navigation

For the patient reader

The Cape Wrath Trail—referred to as the “most challenging long-distance walk in the UK” (if that didn’t get me!)—had long been on my bucket list. It runs 370 km from Fort Williams to the UK’s most north-westerly point at Cape Wrath, following glens (narrow valleys), high moorlands and mountain passes, and is completely unmarked. I had done a fair share of hiking in the Alps during my years in Switzerland and was confident that I could walk miles on end (and up). We had also got a first glimpse of hiking in Scotland during two trips in March and April 2019, which had already taught us that hiking in Scotland is a totally different experience from the Alps. The Alps are (in a way) physically more challenging (with ascents of + 2000 m) and at times more exposed, but paths are well-maintained (and may even give a false sense of security thinking of the vertical ladders at Lac Blanc). Even in thick fog it’s hard to lose track of the white/red marks that lead your way across the steepest mountain passes.

Hiking in Scotland
All this is not the case for Scotland. Scotland is wild and remote and paths, when there is one, can easily be lost in terrain that offers little orientation. There are different accounts out there of why this is so: Scotland, we were told, follows a ‘purist’ approach, regarding signposts and well-maintained paths as intrusive to the landscape and to any ‘real’ hiking experience. At most you get a faint-looking cairn, which on the Cape Wrath Trail often reduces to a single stone sitting on top of a larger rock (incredible how one can develop an eye for the faintest of signs). I still remember vividly how we lost our path to Ben Alligin last year in the sunniest of weathers because everything looked the same. Another story goes that the Scottish Highlands are dangerous and tricky terrain and the lack of waymarking serves to discourage ill-equipped tourists from heading into the wilderness.

In good social distancing fashion, we opted for the Caledonian Sleeper Train from London to Fort Williams. Coming in from sunny and hot London, it was pouring down on our arrival the next morning and it would not stop for the next 24 hours. The first bit took us from Fort Williams to Glenfinnan along a 4x4 road to ‘ease you into the trail.’ However, the torrential downpour turned this part into a flooded nightmare and though officially there were no river crossings on the first two days, we did cross a ‘river’ several times of what was meant to be our 4 x 4 track. Peeking at the water masses to our left that roared down the river Cona, I started feeling a bit wary of the many unabridged river crossings that were awaiting us.

Scottish Midges
Upon arriving in Glenfinnan the following day, the weather turned into what surely must have been the sunniest, hottest days in the Highlands on record.

Lucky us you’d think?

Negative.

Because that is when we met the Horror of the Highlands: the Scottish Midge (or midges really because there is never just one).

Of course, we had read about midges, but as people unacquainted with those infernal creatures, we made the fatal mistake to think of them as mosquitos. And surely, I had dealt with a fair share of mosquitos for my work that has taken me across sub-Saharan Africa. But trust me, nothing prepares you for Scottish midges. They are NOT mosquitos. They’re much tinier (think of it as a size of lice – ugh, right?) and defeat you by sheer numbers. Trillions is not an exaggeration. Some have been known to reduce grown men and women to tears and there are also gruesome tales from Scotland past of people being left tied to a stake in a midge field as a form of torture (it wouldn’t kill them, but positively drive them insane). In preparation, we had brought a mosquito and a midges net (much denser and the only thing that helps when static) and covered ourselves up in long-sleeved everything (also for the ticks), which made us look more like amazon explorers than summer hikers. Midges are not even dangerous (although you can easily end up with + 100 bites in a few seconds), the real thing about them is that they test your psychological capacity to cope, your mental endurance. They are simply everywhere, ALL THE TIME. There is no respite. The moment you stop, they flock to you in the millions.

You stop to take a bearing. The midges are there.

You stop to drink water. The midges are there.

You cross a mountain pass and think you’re good so high up. The midges are there.

And I am talking swarms. At one point I looked down my hiking leggings only to see that they had turned into a pair of trousers seemingly made out of millions of midges. I felt like in a horror movie. The only thing that keeps them away is a breeze + 5 miles per hour (they cannot take off) and strong sunlight (of which we had a good share but still a few thousand midges held up). You have no choice but to keep moving. As an upside, midges motivated our high mileage of +30 km/day (don’t think of stopping or even taking a break) and made us finish the trail much sooner than anticipated. There were a few days when we could not have dinner or breakfast (unless you like your cereals topped with midges sprinkles), or at most gulp it down as fast as we could while walking in large circles. How I walked a strenuous 34 km one day on a cereal bar shows what humans can put up with.

The fact that I just spent a full paragraph on Scottish midges testifies to the psychological impact they had on me. At night, I closed my eyes and saw midges.

The Bog
Past Glenfinnan (originally known for the spot where Bonnie Prince Charles summoned the 1745 Jacobite risings but now probably better known for the viaduct that features in the Harry Potter movies) takes you into the beautiful Glen Dessarry valley, which turned out a very hot and sunny (= less midges) day. The so-called path down the river was more of a jungle (=fern) path finding mission but nothing compared to what was to come. The trail then takes you into the “rough bounds of Knoydart.” This is certainly a very remote part of the Highlands, where the guidebook and Harvey Map start featuring lines of small red dots, which indicate pathless sections. I haven’t made up my mind whether it’s better to follow a faint path that you keep losing or pathless sections to start with. In any case it requires constant vigilance and strong navigational skills, let alone OS maps and/or a GPS device. The path takes you passed Sourlies Bothy at Loch Nevis and into pathless marshland.

One thing you learn fast in Scotland is to assess the different kinds of bog:

There is the ‘spongy bog’ (in abundance) that makes you bounce along on ends and made me feel like Super Mario Brothers (kind of fun really). There is the ‘stone bog’ which is essentially a rosé kind of marsh plant that takes roots on larger rocks and thus disguised, these rocks easily either make you trip over them or step on them and twist your ankle. There is the ‘pond bog’ that looks like flat green surface but woe to the person who mistakes it for solid ground only to find themselves in for a swim (we tested it and they swallow a trekking pole and half your arm). And then there are the many holes and gutters that get disguised under the bog fauna. Essentially for hours on end, our communication boiled down to a single phrase “Careful, hole here.”

No Easy Day
Knoydart also offered the trickiest navigational challenge of the trail (and there are many), as you hit a dead end at the end of a Japanese-like looking valley and kind of wonder how you’re supposed to get on from there. What you’re supposed to do (and though we knew it, it still took us a good while to actually find it) is to climb up north to meet a faint path across a mountain pass. However, assessing the ‘climbing north’ part under constant attack from the midges took us a while and at some point, we took a leap of faith and fought our way up through the Scottish ferns (using our trekking poles as machetes, ferns are somewhat overtaking parts of the Highlands) to finally meet the path with a sigh of relief that took us down to Barisdale for the next four hours.

For the next day, the Cicerone guidebook mentioned a walk along a Loch. This is when we seriously learned to read between the lines. The Loch-side walk turned into a 3-4 hours up and down relentless walk on a narrow path (full of rocks and overgrown with vegetation) which spits you out thoroughly exhausted at Kinloch Hourn (plus remember the midges). After a seriously steep climb, the trail then takes you across a bealach (mountain pass), somehow finding your way along the 320 m contour line on your way up and a bouldery part on your way down, which for 1-2 hours made us feel more like mountain goats than hikers. After +34 km and 12 hours walking from sunrise to nightfall (the perk of hiking in August), we made it to Kintail Lodge (highly recommend) where we spent a zero day (or midges-free day) for my husband’s birthday.

As of Kintail, the Cape Wrath Trail starts offering different alternatives to create your route of choice. After the Knoydart experience, we started feeling more wary, especially when the guidebook would read: “Some understandably feel that the main route should not pass this way because of the difficult country. Think carefully before taking this route” and opted for some alternative routes (e.g. via Strathcarron), which in any case were still tough going except for the brief respite to and from Ullapool. Ullapool is a lovely little fishing town we got to know last year and the change in menu we had along the sunny harbour side was certainly welcome. Pressing on to the Oykel River (Scotland’s finest salmon fishing river), we walked with a British mechanical engineering student for a while, whose hiking buddies had dropped out on him a few days into the trail (a recurring account for this trail) and who was now bravely pressing on alone. We finally made it to Inchnadamph the following day, after a long, pathless, and (what else) boggy climb up to another bealach across a field of large boulders (again, feeling more like mountain goats). On a positive note, the wind started blowing on the other side of the pass, and the hike down to the valley turned into a midge-free, beautiful couple of hours (though the pathless boggy parts still required vigilance).

On our way down, we met a Scottish Munroe bagger, literally the first person we had seen for the past 24 hours, who offered us a ride up to Rhiconich. This is when I am sad to admit that we skipped the 50 km between Inchnadamph and Rhiconich, because I had finally succumbed to the midges. I am really up for anything when it comes to hiking: rain, mud, river crossings—I have done it all—but the midges really got me after days on end. Knowing that there would be no accommodation along that isolated route via Glendhu, I dreaded the thought of another night with the trillions of midges and talked my husband into taking that ride we were offered to Rhinonich (he was OK if only for the reason that he would be back in October doing the same trail as part of a documentary feature, thus allowing him to complete the trail). As of Rhiconich (featuring a somewhat run-down hotel and a police station), I made sure to plan the following days such that they’d allow us to stay under a midges-free roof. As a result, we cramped the last two days into another long day of 16 + 17 = 33 km. These are the days when the landscape changes distinctly from rough mountain terrain into a coastal walk. But remember, there is no easy day on this trail with the only easy part being the strip from Kinlochbervie to Sandwood Bay (absolutely stunning large and sandy beach, but also lots of weekend campers). Leaving Sandwood Beach behind us, the last part of the trail took us across military terrain (you need to call in advance to see whether it is in use to avoid being accidentally fired at on your last stretch of the trail). And again, coastal walk isn’t an accurate description. Once more, it was harsh, boggy, undinstinctive terrain (I kept thinking of the poor soldiers that had to train here among the midges and the mud) that seemed never-ending (and of course no path). But everything becomes relative on this trail, and I thoroughly enjoyed the breeze (= no midges), sunny day and boggy land that was still boggy but less so after days of hot, sunny weather on end (I don’t want to imagine what that walk will be like in wet weather with the North Atlantic ‘throwing its worst at you.’ I am sure my husband will report back in October). Still it felt like a never-ending walk across bleak, peat-dark rolling moors with the occasional climb across military barbwire (facilitated by make-shift stiles).

Words cannot describe the feelings of joy we felt when we finally hit the 4x4 track to the Cape Wrath Lighthouse after 320 km. The Cape Wrath Lighthouse also offers a welcome surprise as it features the Ozone Café run by a hardy entrepreneur John Ure and his daughter Angie, who purchased this so-called ‘Building at Risk’ last year after a 25 years lease of 1 pound per year. The lighthouse offers basic accommodation (but in this case thanks to Corona, they could only rent it out to people in the same group, i.e. the two of us). Unfortunately, because of Corona, the end of the Cape Wrath Trail was not the end. While usually a minibus service takes you close to Durness, we had to walk another 17 km along a dull, very windy, and seemingly never-ending road to the ferry that took us to Durness and back via the Inverness — London sleeper train to London.

Afterthought
In hindsight, the hardest moments are always the most memorable and I am sure I will never forget the Cape Wrath Trail. I am glad I did it, if just for the challenge, but I am not sure I would recommend it (I will have to go back though to complete my missing 50 km). It really is a rough, relentless, unforgiving trail that requires constant attention and tests your physical but above all mental capacity to cope. The midges did get the best of me and, in retrospect, I would only do it off-midges season (i.e. spring or late fall). But even without the midges, it is tough to cope with the endless up and downs and lands of boggy pains on end (or “Boggylandia” as my husband pointedly coined the terrain), which you know are awaiting you days and days on end. In fact, he suggested to rename the trail from Cape Wrath to Cape Rough, because that’s what it is: rough. It is absolutely exhausting much more so than any Alpine trek I have done. And your feet will be wet, always, no matter what (so better to accept your fate and opt for the wet feet method right from the start). My husband likened it to hiking through a gigantic, never-ending puddle. On the upside, this is a truly remote trail that takes you across unspoilt wilderness and beautiful glens off the tourist track (if ever you’ve been to the Fairy Pools on Isle of Skye you know how horrific that can be) and offers a sense of achievement when you navigate successfully to the next destination. It teaches you the small joys of making out a faint cairn or seeing another wanderer’s footstep. It makes you meet wonderful, like-minded people from all walks of life. It certainly helped me disconnect 100%.

However, we were very lucky with the weather (if not with the midges) and I kept thinking that in bad weather some of the patches and bealachs may be somewhat intimidating and some of the river crossings in spate outright dangerous (judging from how rainfall had turned the peaceful river Cona on our first day into a roaring waterfall – it was impressive). Gear-wise, for our next Highland outing, we will definitely invest in an emergency beacon.

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Comments: 13


caromiri


Activity: Walker
Mountain: Jungfrau
Place: All of it
Gear: Sitting pad (versatile)
Member: Austrian Alpine Club - UK chapter
Ideal day out: I like challenging trails but not a big fan of scrambling
Ambition: Nordkalottleden




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2020

Trips: 1
Distance: 320 km


Joined: Aug 31, 2020
Last visited: Oct 04, 2020
Total posts: 9 | Search posts