The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)
26. CAPE WRATH TRAIL
Distance: 312-357 km
Time: 12-21 days
If you’re the pioneering type who aches for a challenge, who has no qualms about backpacking for days over mountainous terrain, who prefers not to walk on ‘established’ trails where only a single option presents itself as a way forward, you need to consider coming here. If you like traversing landscapes that are oddly familiar while passing through remote glens and nameless bogs that will test the boundaries of your endurance, on a trail that pulls you forward because you’ve done your research and know the splendours that await you at journey’s end, then it’s likely Scotland’s Cape Wrath Trail is the walk you’ve been looking for.
It follows drovers’ routes and old funeral paths (corpse roads) once marked by coffin stones, all trampled into existence by crofters herding cattle through the rugged highlands, and by communities whose loved ones had died but because they lived in villages without churches had to be taken for miles to receive proper burials. There is a basic template to follow here, of course, despite the trail not being waymarked, thanks in no small part to the publication in 1996 of The Cape Wrath Trail by David Paterson. He began at the trail’s accepted starting point at Fort William and made his way north to Glenfinnan and on to the challenging terrain of Knoydart, through Shiel Bridge and Strathcarron to Inverlael and through to the end of the trail at Cape Wrath. But that is only an option. The starting point may be Fort William, and the end of it the hand-dressed stones and granite blocks of the lovely Robert Stevenson-engineered 1828 lighthouse overlooking Cape Wrath - but where the ‘in-between’ will take you? Well, that can be a little harder to define.
With nearly 10,000 m of ascent the Cape Wrath Trail is routinely considered one of the toughest trails in Great Britain, despite having a feel of the ‘theatrical’ about it on Day one as you leave Fort William on the ferry to Camusnagaul. Rough going soon follows though from Glenfinnan to Glen Dessarry, and then that first taste of real wilderness as you pass Loch Hourn, northwest Scotland’s most fjord-like sea loch. (You can also take an alternative route out of Fort William following the Great Glen Way via the Caledonian Canal and Loch Linnhe before rejoining the main route at Glen Shiel.) Climbing along the Forcan Ridge you descend into Glen Shiel through one of Scotland’s most spectacular mountain passes and make an overnight stop in Shiel Bridge. A nature route takes you past the Falls of Glomach, possibly Britain’s loveliest waterfalls and a spectacular sight as the water tumbles over its 113-m drop.
CAPE WRATH TRAIL
Photo: Graham Lewis
The route then turns inland to Oykel Bridge and on to Glencoul via Ben More (1,174 m), the highest mountain in the Crianlarich Hills. Foinaven (911 m) and Arkle (787 m) are next with their wonderful landscapes of boulder-strewn fields, ridges and crags (Arkle’s scree-clad slopes look daunting but in fact it is easily conquered), and then a final stretch past Rhiconich to the far northwest coast. Here you cross some moorlands as you make your way to Sandwood Bay, largely uninhabited since 1847 when the area was cleared for sheep grazing, and at last comes the welcoming sight of Cape Wrath lighthouse.
If planned carefully, a traverse of the Cape Wrath Trail can be done staying in a mix of hotels, B&Bs and bothies - ruined buildings restored to a primitive standard that can range in size from box-like spaces the size of a small shed to larger stone cottages. Bothies are left unlocked but have no bedding or mattresses - so be sure to bring your sleeping bag. And they can be full to bursting, too, which is why you generally don’t do this trail without a tent). It may all sound a little primitive, and certainly there are fewer accommodation options than on many of Scotland’s more trampled trails, but it is this trail’s lack of amenities, and its quiet determination to avoid commercialisation, that contributes to its considerable - and growing - allure.