The Citylink coach arrived at the bus stop opposite Drumnadrochit Post Office at 9.40am and dropped us at Ault A’Chruinn at 10.55am exactly on time. It was an enjoyable journey passing through some fantastic landscape and allowing us to take in the views. The weather was unbelievable and we took the opportunity to take pictures of Loch Duich. Conditions were perfect to start our trek – a clear morning under blue skies, we hoped this weather would hold but the large flashing “Yellow Warning for Snow” signs we had passed on the road signs through Shiel Bridge suggested not.
The walk from the bus stop took us along the inlet of the River Croe and through the hamlet of Morvich. As you pass the Ranger and Mountain Rescue stations, the tarmac road turns into a rough track. The Five Sisters of Kintail towered above still with a significant covering of snow. There was still plenty of snow on the surrounding mountain tops but down in the valley it was pleasantly warm. The first few miles were easy, with a gentle gradient on hard packed 4x4 tracks. We reached Glenlicht House, a climbing club bothy where we stopped for lunch by the ruins of an old croft. It was a stunning location where we took in the treacherous looking cornices of snow of the summits above. Against the gable end of the croft was a fresh carcass of a dead stag and inside the ruins that of a sheep both clearly seeking shelter from the snow. They died where they lay down. This would be the first of many dead deer that we would encounter over the next couple of days, highlighting how severe the winter had been in the Highlands. After we finished the trek, we saw a BBC story about the highland deer being malnourished and exhausted due to food staying frozen beneath deep snow for long periods of the winter.
We started the climb alongside the Allt Grannda to cross from Kintail in to Glen Affric. The previously glorious weather changed to intermittent snow showers while the temperature dropped sharply. The climb was straight forward, apart from a section of steep switchbacks where large granite stones had been laid to help stop the track from washing away. Their smooth surface offered little grip when wet which made them quite testing. Having walking poles was a huge help in providing a stable platform when making big steps up.
We passed several spectacular waterfalls on the climb and the path became a narrow goat style track along the steep sided river valley at times. Eventually, we reached the summit after numerous false crests. The landscape changed from a narrow river gorge to an open valley between the mountains and we caught glimpses of Camban bothy in the distance. This was originally to be our stop for the night but it was still only 4.30pm when we arrived at the bothy so we decided to press on to Alltbeithe Hostel where we intended to camp for the night.
Snow showers had become more frequent and the distant hostel was framed by a wall of black clouds heading up the valley towards us. The snow changed to rain and we increased our pace to try to beat the worst of the weather. We arrived at the hostel and read the signs about the Winter refuge – the hostel leave one room unlocked as a shelter when they are closed over Winter (although all the mattresses are removed from the bunk beds so you sleep on the floor). We arrived just in time, the rain increased in its intensity as we dived inside the shelter of the empty bunkroom. It was an easy decision to remain in the relative shelter of the winter refuge. It was cold and damp but we appreciated the school style plastic chairs to relax in whilst eating our dinner.
It had snowed over night and the valley had a light dusting of snow with greater accumulations higher up the mountain sides. It had been cold in the shelter overnight but my sleeping bag had kept me warm and I slept soundly. It’s tough leaving the comfort of a warm sleeping bag on a cold morning. I was certainly glad of my down jacket to keep me warm whilst making breakfast and packing up. I’ve used this jacket loads over the past few months because it packs down small, is impressively light and provides enough warmth for my Autumn to Spring activities.
We were soon on our way along the track that leads to Glen Affric forest. After wading through bogs in Knoydart in 2017, I was expecting similar conditions on this trip but the path had so far been mostly well drained and rocky. There was the odd section where 4x4’s or the ghillies 8 wheeled Argos had created large puddles of unknown depth but thank goodness for trekking poles. I much prefer an exploratory dip with a pole rather than finding out the depth when the water tops your boots!
The views in either direction along the River Affric were stunning with the snow just adding to feeling of wilderness. The path is a typical rocky 4x4 track, undulating above the river with no big hills so we were covering the ground quickly. We soon reached Strawberry Cottage and Athnamuloch, 2 privately owned bothies at the head of Loch Affric – one managed by a climbing club and the other by an Eco group planning to reforest the Glens through to the coast. From this point the track became smoother and started to climb into the forest above the loch. There was a perfect spot by the track with an amazing view of Sgurr na Lapaich and the Loch where we stopped for lunch. Lunch consisted of some cheese, a pepperoni sausage and a chicken fried rice dried meal. For this trip, I’d bought a new heat exchanger pot to use with my stove, which claims up to 30% faster boil time and a reduction in gas use. I’d been dubious of these claims so had tested the pot vs a normal pot and another heat exchanger stove before leaving and had been amazed by the results. It’s by far the fastest boiling combo I’ve used and did indeed use less gas in doing so. It had the water for freeze dried meal and cup of tea boiling in super quick time.
We had seen remarkably little wildlife on the walk so far apart from the odd red deer. We surmised that most creatures had headed to lower levels as the winter had been so severe in the mountains. Pine Martins seem to be living in the Affric Forest is large numbers which was evidenced by the huge amount of scat all along the tracks through the forest. Sadly we didn’t see one but they are definitely there. After enjoying fair weather with only occasional drizzle, the afternoon brought black clouds and intermittent rain and snow showers. On went the waterproofs for the next hour before the clouds blew through and the sun returned. We decided to keep walking until 5.30pm and then we would stop at the first suitable location and set up camp. We passed Affric Lodge on the opposite side of the lake which looked very grand. You can stay there for a mere £1080 per person per night (minimum stay 3 nights) - maybe next year!
At the end of Loch Affric, the track split, to the left is the picnic area between Lock Affric and Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin or to the right we could continue along the southern side of the Loch to look for a pitch for the night. We decided on the latter but it soon became apparent that flat areas large enough for a couple of tents were going to be hard to find. Eventually we did find a small clearing overlooking the lake with just enough room for our 2 tents. Once we had our tents pitched and wet waterproofs hanging in the breeze to dry, a group of German walkers and an American doing the Affric Kintail Way in the opposite direction stopped to chat. They were also looking for somewhere to pitch their tents for the night. We were surprised at the international appeal of the route – we had so far met Dutch, Belgian, German and American walkers in less than 2 days. No sooner had the German party carried on but the heavens opened and it rained heavily for an hour. We were thankful to be sitting inside tents rather than still walking. It was a lovely evening once the rain had cleared and we enjoyed our view across the lake whilst eating dinner.
It had been my first night using the new tent. It was the type of damp night where a single skin tent would normally have suffered significant condensation but apart from a tiny bit of moisture on the seams and round the top of the bathtub floor this was totally dry inside. The tiny amount of condensation was easily dealt with using a small microfiber cloth.
Once on our way, the track was well surfaced and we were covering the miles more quickly than planned, so stopped several times to enjoy the views. At the car park at Dog Falls we took the opportunity for a quick freshen up in the toilets before the climb into Fasnakyle Forest. Lunch was a dried meal of chicken tikka which went down well whilst using a huge tree stump as an impromptu table. Fasnakyle was busy with forestry vehicles even on Good Friday and we had to periodically jump aside to allow huge trucks to pass by. Otherwise, it was a largely uneventful day with easy walking. It had struck us how little wildlife we had seen on the trip but at this lower altitude there was much more activity. Lots of the small birds that had been completely absent higher up the Glen were plentiful and buzzards circled over head.
We arrived in Cannich earlier than intended and visited the Spar shop for some food before walking to the campsite where we planned to stay. Cannich Woodland Camping is a lovely little site amongst the trees and the small café was still open so it seemed rude not to get a slice of cake and tea on arrival. We pitched our tents and were warned by a couple of fellow campers about the highland cattle that had invaded the campsite on the previous night giving them quite a fright. We had booked the Slater Arms for dinner so we were soon enjoying a few pints and a plate of proper food. It was a very friendly pub and comes recommended by us after this experience! On the way back to the campsite we passed the now closed Glen Affric Hotel – slightly art deco looking but in a sad state of disrepair. It has ornamental plants still sitting inside the widows and the furniture largely still in place after the previous owner was evicted along with her 40+ feral cats.
It was a seriously cold night in Cannich and it was probably the coldest conditions I’ve ever camped in (the 7th coldest temperature ever recorded in the UK was set in Cannich in 1961 at -22.2°C). That morning there was layer of ice across the upper part of my sleeping bag where my breath had condensed and frozen. The inside of the tent was also covered in a mixture of ice and frost while the tent pegs were frozen into the ground. I would estimate that it was -6 or -7°C but it could have been colder. Fortunately, the combination of a good quality sleeping bag and thermal sleeping mat resulted in my enjoying an excellent night sleep oblivious to the ice building up on the outside of the sleeping bag!
It was a beautiful clear morning with no clouds in sight so we were able to move our tents into the sun and melt the frosty coating off them. We packed up quickly so we would have time for a bacon butty and pot of tea in the café before setting off. The best way to start the day, with sunshine and bacon. The first few miles of the day were along the side of the A831. Apparently negotiations with local landowners are under way to take the official route off road for this section. It was pretty warm and the road climbs steadily away from Cannich for a couple of miles. We walked briskly to get this section out of the way quickly. After around 4.5 miles were able to leave the road and back into forest. Within a few yards of entering the forest it was evident that plenty of pine martin were residents here too with loads more scat visible.
Most of the walking was on typical forestry tracks so it made for easy passage. We stopped for lunch above Loch Meiklie – today it was a sandwich I’d bought at the Spar in Cannich along with some noodles. After dropping down to a car park near to Balnain it was steady climbing for several miles until the steep descent towards Drumnadrochit. The path leaves the commercial forest into more natural mixed woodland with views across to the village of Milton which an information board informed us was once totally self sufficient with a smith, tailor, cobbler, butcher etc.
We had covered the final part of the day in good time and soon were back on the edge of Drumnadrochit. We were feeling surprisingly fresh and walked briskly back to the B&B where we had left the car. After a shower and a bit of chilling time it was time for dinner at the Benleva Hotel which was another mile walk away. Hunger and the desire for a pint drove us there and after a couple of pints and a fantastic dinner the walk back seemed a breeze. The burgers at the Benleva are superb!
It had been a fantastic trip passing through some of the best scenery the Highlands have to offer. The first 2 days had definitely been the most interesting but I enjoyed the whole walk, apart from the unavoidable stretch on the A813.