The Cape Wrath Trail is an epic route that’s considered to be one of the most challenging long distance walks in the UK. It winds up the west coast from Fort William to the Northern tip, Cape Wrath.
I had a couple of weeks free after Christmas so decided to head up north and hike a section of the route. Knoydart is a place I caught a glimpse of last year and I loved what I saw. Sgurr Na Ciche took my breath away and the wild bounds of Knoydart truly captured that sense of adventuring into the wilderness. Another place on the top of my list to visit in Scotland is Torridon. After realising that the Cape Wrath trail can link up through Torridon, I had to try and hike it.
As night fell on the 27th of December I set off on my own from Glenfinnan train station to Corryhully, a well placed bothy a few kilometres past the viaduct. In true spirit of thenext week, it was absolutely pouring with rain. It was the first test for my gear in torrential conditions, where everything seemed to be holding up fine. After looking over my maps for the next few days I realised I’d have to put in pretty long days. So far so good and I made it to the bothy for a good night’s sleep.
Corryhully to Sourlies
This being my first full day in mountains, I was feeling fresh and had ample energy. I zoomed past Streap and Sgurr Thuilm as it was starting to get light and the incline up to the saddle felt like nothing. The precipitation was fading intermittently between showers and sudden downpours. It felt like I had the wind in my sails and I flew down the valley into the Glen Dessarry. It was here that I faced my first major hazard of the trip, a considerable river crossing. After hopping across a few slippy rocks I made it across with the water coming most of the way up my thighs. Not ideal, but I headed on regardless.
As the rain started to come down harder I took a lunch break at the A’Chuil bothy. It’s a beautiful bothy set on the edge of the forest which overlooks the meadow and opposing mountains. My original plan was to stay the night at A’Chuil, but I’d absolutely smashed my pace estimates, so I had my eyes on Sourlies. With the fastest ever consumption of a peanut butter, sriracha and sesame snap wrap I set off again towards the rough bounds of Knoydart.
I had walked some of this route before so navigating the path through the Glen Dessarry forest was mostly straightforward. The rivers and brooks were far higher than usual, but this didn’t pose any problems for most of the afternoon. Unfortunately the weather didn’t subside and I continued to get battered by the elements. Thankfully the high winds only came in gusts meaning I could brace myself for those moments knowing that they’d pass.
As it neared 3PM I made it up to the bealach by Lochan a’ Mhaim. The lake had flooded the area around the bealach, and the path was submerged in half a metre of water. I had to take the south side of the River Finiskaig far higher than the path, which made for hard work on the uneven and steep ground. On my map I could see that the path crossed the River Finiskaig. I expected there would be a bridge, rope or similar. When I got to the crossing there were two cairns. A pile of rocks at both sides of the river, where you’re meant to cross. I think I said out loud some words that shouldn’t be repeated. This was definitely the easiest point in the river to cross, with gentle banks and around 7-8 metres across. The problem is the waterfalls only about 10m downstream. If something goes wrong, there could be terrible consequences. On a calm summers day this wouldn’t be a problem.
I had just crossed a tributary to the River Finiskaig which was really difficult to cross; so I was aware of its potentially dangerous undercurrent. I waded up to my knees through the torrents. I tested the crossing by going about half a metre from the edge. I kept my walking pole ready to secure into the rocks if I got into difficulty. The river was at peak flow. I tried going a metre or so into the river, applying all strength into moving my legs. It was immensely difficult to stay balanced. I realised that there was no way I’d be getting across this river without being swept away to the waterfalls below. I turned my body back to the bank and immediately felt my feet slip beneath me. In what was probably only a few seconds I started to flow down the river towards to waterfalls downstream. I struggled my way to the shore and somehow managed to stay afloat and stabilise my feet in some larger rocks before the falls.
After getting into difficulty crossing the river I was really frustrated. My body hurt and I was cross with myself that I’d got into a potentially very dangerous situation. My forearm was all cut up and I could feel blood starting to run down my arm into my gloves. It wasn’t nice but I knew that I had to do something about the situation I was in quickly. The clouds grew darker and visibility was started to decrease. There didn’t seem to be an easy way to get to Sourlies bothy without having to cross the Finiskaig River. Bearing in mind it was getting dark I analysed the map and gave myself a few options:
1. Set up my tent next to the river, take care of my cut up arm and accept that I’d have a very wet and disturbed night’s sleep.
2. Take the track back to A’Chuil and hope I could cross the river the next day.
3. Find an alternate route to the Sourlies bothy where the rivers should hopefully be easier to cross.
I opted for the third option. Since I was on quite a tight schedule for the trip I figured being set back by at least a day and waiting for the water level to drop would be really hard to recover from. After scouring the map I figured it’d be best to retrace my steps about 3km and take a waterfall further up the mountain where hopefully it’d be easier to cross the high rivers. This ended up working out and about 45 minutes later I was able to wade across a fast flowing but relatively narrow waterfall on the opposite side of the perilous River Finiskaig. I found my way along the North side of the river bank and finally linked up with the original trail. Spotting a trail in Knoydart is hard at the best of times, it’s especially hard in the dark. I kept following the patchy track, which had turned into its own river from all the rain.
An hour or so later of descending the hillside with my head torch I reached a flat piece of land. “I must be close” I thought to myself. A little delirious I glanced to my right. I couldn’t believe it. It was Sourlies bothy. I had made it.
It felt so good to rock up at Sourlies. I’d had a really difficult day but I felt incredible knowing I’d battled through the harsh weather and awful conditions. Other than the pesky mice that devoured my tortilla wraps it was the perfect place to get a good nights sleep. This was only my first full day!
Sourlies to Kinloch Hourn
The location of Sourlies reminds you that you’re in the middle of nowhere. Perched by the ocean it’s located next to the immense Carnach valley, which has steep 1000m mountains on either side. One of the true gems of Scotland.
It was a mild morning with a fine misty rain in the air. It was good to have a break from the weather yesterday, but it didn’t take long before the weather turned. The wind whipped across the wide floodplain and the precipitation suddenly became more formidable. Despite being togged head to toe in high quality waterproofs, it didn’t take long for them to completely wet out.
In the summer of 2019 the bridge over the River Carnoch was rebuilt, making crossing from one side to the other possible when the level is too high to wade. The route along the North side of the River Carnoch was beautiful. The way that the river meanders into the cliff-side was magical. In snowy winters this would be heaven. I really wanted to take a photo of the meandering river but the rain was relentless and I feared ruining my camera.
After the realisation that the next few kilometres weren’t along a trail I navigated up towards the bealach. The higher and more exposed I hiked the windier it became, but it also revealed the views upstream of the meandering River Carnoch, which were stunning.
Once upon the bealach I joined a trail again, making life a little more reassuring. That comfort was soon swept out of the way by battering gusts, the toughest I’d encountered yet. I struggled to the lee of a huge boulder and stayed for a few seconds hoping for the gusts to pass. The wind didn’t stop. I kept walking.
As the descent from Luinne Bheinn levelled out a building began emerging from between a cluster of trees. The first bit of civilisation I had come across in a couple of days. A herd of deer crossed the track in front of me. I made a step louder than the rest and they all stopped stone cold and stared me down. I made another tentative step towards them and they jumped back into the forest.
I passed Barrisdale bothy which had a flushing toilet inside. Incredible. Since it was only 1:30 in the afternoon I decided to head on alongside Loch Beag. The wind was creating huge waves off the ocean, crashing onto the rocks beneath the trail. This section of trail was exposed and the rain was persistent. I was soaked to the bone and starting to lose feeling in my fingers.
Night fell faster than I had expected, and it wasn’t long before I had to get my head-torch on. I made the last few kilometres into Kinloch Hourn in no time. I stopped for a second next to an old boat house which was protected and out of the wind. As I ate some mouthfuls of nuts, raisins and banana chips I got a bit too comfortable. Being soaked through isn’t nice, and the only thing I wanted was to be warm and dry. Upon inspection the door to the boat shed was open, so I peered inside. This little boat house became my own Mecca. – It was everything I wanted and I couldn’t say no. I hung up my wet clothes, cooked some dinner and stretched out my tired legs. I felt comfort at last.
Kinloch Hourn to Shiel Bridge
I left my fond boat house and weaved up the mountainside through a paddock of curious horses, past a hunting lodge and up a steep dirt track. My legs felt like a powerful V8 engine as I went up the hill. The past few days had put me in a good way and I felt as though I had infinite energy.
The expanse of Glen Shiel revealed itself. Epic ridges lined themselves up to terrific mountain tops. Snow capped the peaks and waterfalls cascaded into the valleys.
I took a raging river crossing in my stride and cruised on towards Sgurr Na Forcan. It was strange to feel so fearless all of a sudden. The previous couple of days had put me through it all which helped. The Cape Trail route up to the Forcan Ridge bealach doesn’t have a path, so navigation became far more demanding. I took a route with the fewest river crossings. I had learnt my lesson. Thick cloud came and went, and visibility teetered. Hail and snow started to fall above 600m, showering the landscape in a white dust. With a setting out of Lord of the Rings I felt elated. The views were stunning and everything was on track to get to Shiel Bridge.
There was a resupply package of food waiting for me at a little craft shop in Shiel Bridge. Luckily I had sent all the right amounts of food and the craft shop hadn’t closed for the day. It’s difficult to restock with food on the Cape Wrath Trail during winter since nowhere is open. I was extremely grateful that Carol and Cliff could help me out.
I had food in my belly and was enjoying every minute of being in the mountains. The weather had temporarily been put on hold and I started to catch a glimpse of sunlight along the coast. Maybe the weather was changing?
Since the clouds were clearing, the evening lasted far longer than previous nights. Instead of it being dark at 4PM, it was dark at 5PM. It’s amazing how much of a difference that can make. I made the most of the extra daylight and continued on the track beyond Shiel Bridge. I neared a forest that looked like the perfect place to camp. A golden eagle perched in the tree tops. It stared down on me as I walked past.
I found camp as it was getting dark in a clearing overlooking some waterfalls. I’m usually hesitant to camp near water due to the noise, condensation or bugs. I didn’t think it’d be too much of a problem and the spot was idyllic. It felt right to be under my tarp again. I could stretch right out, cook with ease, yet still belong in the wilderness. Whilst sat cross-legged at the edge of my tarp I was able to witness the extent to which I’d punished my feet. I had three black toenails, blisters on the back of each heal and my soles weren’t a pretty sight either.
Shiel Bridge to Bendronaig Lodge
I woke up a few times in the night and caught a glimpse of the stars. It was refreshing to know that it wasn’t cloudy and that there was a chance I’d have good weather.
When I woke at 7:30 it was already starting to get light. I packed up my icy tent and set off for what was to be my best day yet. A’ Ghlas Bheinn loomed above. As the sky turned a gentle shade of orange I knew I was going to be in for a treat.
Upon reaching the bealach the landscape opened up. I was surrounded by rays of light touching the tops of gently undulating slopes. No wind. In the distance a small cloud clustered over Sgurr na Lapaich, resembling a caldera.
On the other side of the bealach was a path that hugged the cliff on the side of the Falls of Glomach, one of the tallest waterfalls in the UK. I filled my water at the top, although felt a bit sorry for that water missing out on the wild 113m fall. Instead it would have to make its way through my body and end up in some boggy bush somewhere. Oh well.
The sunlight was starting to make an entrance into the valleys, and the the hillside was hit by warmth. The reflections off of Loch na Leitreach made for one of the best views of the trip.
Finally I felt like all my hard work so far was worth it. The payoff was huge and I had some of the finest views I’d seen in a long time. Conditions were perfect. Even the hiking was comfortable. No overly demanding river crossings or super challenging navigational decisions. Finally the camera could live outside of a dry-bag.
For the first time on this trip I could take off my waterproof jacket and let the sunlight hit my body. It’s incredible how the little things suddenly become the most important.
I reached the Maol Bhuidhe bothy in good time that afternoon. My original plan was to stay the night at Maol Bhuidhe, but since the day started early and I hadn’t faced any major hiccups I was a couple of hours ahead of schedule. The bothy is far and away the best I have come across. It’s in great condition and houses lots of little ‘goodies’. There were a good set of maps, everything ranging from modern OS to 60s paper maps. It was well kept, clean and clearly has had a lot of love and care.
Bendronaig Lodge bothy was about 8km away so I set off in that direction. I had to cross a fairly strong river that would have been treacherous a couple of days ago. Luckily it wasn’t too difficult, but deep on the outside of the meander. I went straight towards Loch Calavie, crossing little brooks and deer tracks.
A welcome addition to this route was a set of metal grids. It’s almost as if I was being gifted all these wonderful things in one go. Feeling a little overloaded I set off past Loch Calavie. Once again I felt incredible and extremely grateful for the glorious weather.
Only when I reached Bendronaig Lodge bothy and looked at my watch did I realise it was New Years Eve. Considering it’s a somewhat significant day I decided to make a monster fire and dry out my stuff. There were some crates and logs out the back of the bothy which the estate had kindly left. The bothy warmed up pretty quickly and I was able to dry out my socks. This was all far too luxurious.
Night fell and I fell asleep in a warm, comfy bothy. I probably had a smile across my face all night.
Bendronaig Lodge to Essan Docha
The 1st of January brought a bit more cloud than the day before, but I wasn’t complaining since the rain hadn’t passed through my waterproofs yet. It was a bit of a slog getting across the Bhearnais valley. It was boggy and there wasn’t a trail. There was intermittent rain and it was far colder than the previous days. Strangely enough I think this section of the hike was a little anti-climatic. The peaks weren’t as high and the valleys gentler. After the pointy peaks of Kintail I’d been a little spoilt. The wind returned and so did the rain.
I crossed the train line and took an old pony track labelled as the National Route to Torridon. Considering it was through some overgrown forest, I don’t think it sees much pony traffic. The signs warning of hidden high voltage electrical cables were a little disconcerting, luckily nothing came of that.
As I set foot out of the forest I was greeted by big, rugged mountains. I checked my maps and without realising I’d already made it to the outskirts of Torridon’s mountains. Since the last few days had whizzed by I hadn’t appreciated the mileage I’d travelled. Long days with few breaks equates to a lot of ground being covered. The thick pine forest I’d been in earlier was instantly replaced by an alien landscape of sporadic trees shaped like something out of a nightmare.
My next stop was Easan Docha, the ‘Teahouse Bothy’. I hadn’t read up much on this bothy but knew it was quite small with only space for one or two. It’s a cute little wooden shelter placed next to a stunning waterfall. After reading through the logbook I found out that in 2018 a wedding took place underneath the waterfall.
It hadn’t got dark yet but I still started cooking my dinner. I was hungry and knew I had the Skurka beans and rice ‘special’. Just as I was boiling my water I heard a low humming sound. I thought it’d be my stove making a racket, but it was coming from outside. I opened the door and right outside was a red quad bike. A man was running up the trail towards the waterfall. He took off his clothes and dived into the pool. The man proceeded to use some small pruning shears and cut off some pine needles from nearby branches. I decided to investigate further and find out what he was up to. It turns out it’s a ritual his family had taken part in for centuries. He comes up every evening, swims under the waterfall and brews some pine needle tea.
It seemed that the weather turned dramatically during the night and the bothy’s little timber frame took the brunt of high winds coming through the valley. Difficult to sleep at times, but very thankful I wasn’t in a tent. The forecast had predicted 70-100mph winds for the North West Highlands, with gusts exceeding that.
Essan Docha to Coire Fionnaraich
When I woke up the extent to the weather change was apparent. The path outside the Teahouse Bothy had turned to a stream, feeding onto the raging Essan Docha. Heavy rain battered the windows and I could see that the peaks were shrouded in thick cloud.
The original plan was to camp on the south side of Leattach near Ling Hunt. Looking through the bothy, there was no way this was feasible. I reexamined my route and decided to head to Coire Fionnaraich instead. The path would take me past a couple of Munros.
High wind is tolerable. Heavy rain is tolerable. High wind and heavy rain is not.
I don’t remember much of this day other than that I was cold and wet for its entirety. Waves were spraying off the lakes and the rivers were raging. I got an awesome fire going at Coire Fionnaraich that brought back the feeling of my arms and legs being connected to my body. My gear was wet and I was exhausted. However, a fire is the true moral booster that could heal any tough day. After staring into the flames for a bit too long I hear a knock on the bothy door, and in come a couple of wet hikers fresh from the mountains. It was Lotte and David, two outdoor enthusiasts also spending the night in the bothy. They were great company and we spent the whole evening talking about long trips, wilderness survival and spending extended amounts of time in the outdoors. Lotte is an expedition leader who takes clients up peaks in the Alps. She was currently training for an expedition in Tanzania. David is a dentist who enjoys ski touring and long distance pack-rafting adventures. Just when I thought the evening couldn’t get any better, Lotte offers me an Avacado. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted something so incredible.
Coire Fionnaraich to Torridon
After a warm night’s sleep next to the crackling fire, there was only one more leg of my trip. I set off on the path to Torridon; past the lakes. across the rivers, and up to the bealach. At the bealach I was greeted with extremely high winds, hail and snow. It was horrendous weather, but as the kilometres went by it began to clear up. Views revealing Torridon’s epic peaks came and went between fast changing weather events.
As I dropped below the clouds the landscape opened right up. My gosh was it impressive. Liathach lined the horizon in an epic display that photos only go some way to demonstrate.
Before I knew it I was down the valley and into Torridon. The clouds cleared to reveal some blue skies above. Ecstatic to have made it all this way (as planned) I stopped at Torridon Stores and Cafe and ate all the fresh fruit they had.
Sat in the cafe at Torridon the extent of my trip dawned on me. I had somehow managed to fight through the adverse conditions in some of the most remote parts of Scotland. Everything from nearly being swept down a waterfall on my first day to seeing Golden Eagles in Shiel Bridge. The Cape Wrath trail is an epic route, taking in some of Scotland’s finest. I will for sure be going back to finish the route, perhaps when the weather is a bit better.
Thanks for reading,