West Highland Way: Rowardennan to Crianlarich
Inevitably on a multi-day hike, there will be a day that is either longer or more strenuous (or both) than the others, and for me, day 3 of the West Highland Way (WHW) was it. For 33km (20.5 miles), there was quite a bit of ground to cover that day, leaving Rowardennan behind on route to reach Crianlarich to the north, and I was only halfway along the length of Loch Lomond at the start of the day. Thankfully, I’d had a restful night’s sleep at the Rowardennan Hotel, and breakfast was included in the room rate, so I made the most of the cooked buffet to fill myself up in preparation for the long day ahead. I kept a sideways glance out for Kevin Bridges in case he was still around, but then it became time to push onwards.
Immediately outside of the hotel, there was a sign requesting people kindly pick up their litter, something I had been frustrated by the mess of on route to Rowardennan the previous day. But shortly after leaving the hotel behind, the road peters out at a car park where the hike to Ben Lomond begins from, and from here northwards, it is hiker’s country, and this made a big difference to the litter level which was much more pleasing. It was another cloudy day, but with the path hugging the bank of the loch, this did not detract from the ongoing scenery as it was passed. I passed the end of the Ptarmigan route that my brother and I had descended Ben Lomond from just a few weeks prior, and beyond here, the path is quite easy going.
For the length of the path up Loch Lomond, there were reams of little waterfalls spilling over the rock face to the side of the path. It was a nice distraction from the occasional monotonous section where the trees hid the loch from view. Deep within the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, the path meandered for mile after mile. A lower track that divides and goes down to the shoreline past Rob Roy’s prison was closed at the time of doing the hike, but this did not stop some hikers ahead of me going down this route. I didn’t see them again after that, so have no idea if they had to turn back or made it through, but the route had been deemed as dangerous, hence the closure. The forest was thick in places so I found this part of the track rather uninteresting. I kept a good lookout for red squirrels but saw none, and was eager for every break in the foliage to give me an uninterrupted view of the loch. At one such spot, a bench had been provided to soak up the view of the Cobbler on the far side of the loch.
Where the two paths rejoin, the path quality is quick to reduce, and continuing through the forest, it was rougher and narrower under foot although still an obvious and easy path to follow. When at last the forest opened up a little, and curved up past a very isolated house, I was intrigued to see a little stall by the fence line and wandered over for a look. The home owners had very lovingly provided home made edible treats and juice with an honesty box for hungry walkers to fill their stomachs with. It was a lovely idea, and had I not been full from breakfast, I would have purchased something, but I had more than enough edibles to carry already. Thankfully the route past here was more interesting than it had been for the previous few miles, with some large rocky outcrops and a change in vegetation.
After 7 miles, I had crossed the river to reach the Inversnaid hotel where the ferry to Inveruglas on the far shore of Loch Lomond leaves from, and a few walks can be accessed from here too, including a route that leads to Loch Katrine to the east. I’d foolishly thought I was close to the end of the loch, but in reality I still had a third of it’s length to go, although it gets narrower and narrower the further north you walk. My brother, who had walked the WHW in 48hrs for charity, had warned me not to eat at the Inversnaid hotel, having had a bad experience there himself. I had no intentions of doing so, having another place in mind for lunch, but I did stop to rest my feet briefly, and there were a few other people enjoying some food and drink outside whilst I was there. The hotel does have road access, but it cuts down from Loch Katrine, rather than following the route of the loch or the WHW.
The sky was threatening to rain, but leaving the hotel and the road behind, the path plunged back into the trees again which provided relative shelter. There were a few other people on this section of the walk out for a local stroll, as this section of the path also leads to an RSPB reserve. After the RSPB path splits off, the WHW became quite rough, and this was the section I had been warned about, where it undulates up and down, negotiating boulders, tree routes and rocky crags. At least it wasn’t monotonous, and when I stumbled upon a cave that was purported to be a hide-out for Rob Roy, a famous Scottish outlaw in the early 18th century, I took the opportunity to have a snack stop on the large rock balancing above it. Unfortunately, just as I was finishing, the rain finally decided to arrive and it was time to kit up in waterproofs before heading on. The trees at least provided some shelter as I continued to navigate through the rocky terrain, and at one point the path passed through a gap between a tree and a large boulder that was just big enough for a hiker and pack to get through.
When the trees opened up to a patch of fern, the far side of the loch looked exceptionally close as a small island was passed by. Not only could I see the traffic winding its way down, but I could hear it also. Not far from here, a ladder had been provided to navigate a jump in level of the hike, and as the route continued, the surrounding vegetation became more and more open, with close access to the loch side for a while, before cutting behind a headland, and then rejoining the loch past a cluster of buildings which included a public bothy. Bothies are the Scottish version of a mountain hut, usually an old cottage or building that retains its watertightness but is usually bare inside apart from a deck to sleep on, and an area to cook. As basic and dark as they are, these bothies, scattered across the Scottish countryside, can be a lifesaver or an overnight haven to hikers out in the middle of nowhere. I’ve slept in a couple in the past on hiking adventures, and I popped inside for a nosy.
Beyond here, it was like walking through a meadow, the fern at chest height for the most part, and I became consciously aware of the fact that I was in tick country. When I used to live in Scotland, I always carried a tick hook, a small device to remove ticks, when I went hiking, but having lived in New Zealand for several years now, a country which doesn’t really have ticks, I’ve become complacent. It hadn’t even entered my head to get a tick hook to take with me, but suddenly it was all I could think about. No doubt I was being rather melodramatic, but I did my best to avoid touching the ferns as best as I could.
Passing a small jetty where a ferry crosses to Ardlui on the far shore, the route finally started to leave Loch Lomond’s shore behind, and suddenly I found myself feeling sad that this section of the walk was over. Despite the cloudy sky, the intermittent drizzles and the occasional monotony of the hike in this section, I’d actually really enjoyed having the loch as a constant companion, and I realised that leaving the loch behind was the beginning of the change in scenery, whereby I was heading more into the wilderness, and more into the mountains. As the path began to creep uphill, I turned back regularly to catch a glimpse of the loch disappearing into the distance, but finally, it slipped out of view, and a valley of green opened up ahead of me in the form of Glen Falloch.
By now mid-afternoon I was tired and starving. I had planned on going to the Drovers Inn, across the river Falloch from the WHW, and on the side of the A82, for lunch, but as I got nearer and nearer, I realised this was quite a diversion off the path, and I was in two minds whether my tired legs were going to win over my hungry stomach or vice versa. My dad had told me that a campsite near the WHW had a cafe, so I held out hope for this instead, and as the WHW drew nearer to the Beinglass Farm campsite, I was overjoyed to see a sign advertising hot food. The rain was beginning again as I stepped inside what was effectively a very busy little pub, and I settled in to dry off and fill up with a much-needed meal. My feet were aching, and the ongoing rain made me reluctant to get going, but my bed for the night was still 6 miles (9.5 kms) away so I had little choice but to wrap up and get going again.
Following the course of the river Falloch, the road and railway line are not far away on the other side of the river, so the regular noise of traffic down this busy road intruded slightly. But there was plenty to look at with some impressive waterfalls, and then finally hitting stock as farmland was reached, with sheep ambling about the pathway, and then cattle as a little farm was reached. A large bull watched me pass as he chewed the cud, and there were cows littered all over the place, a group of which got a fright as I approached the bridge that crossed the river, threatening to scatter in all directions. Having worked on a farm when I was younger, I knew how frustrating scattered stock could be, so I didn’t want to get in their way. In the end I had to hide in the bushes, just so that they would come across the bridge without scattering, before I was able to get past myself. Now I was immediately below both the road and the railway line following the broad, bubbling river upstream.
Cutting under the railway line through a tunnel meant for stock, meant having to crouch down to get through, then along what used to be the road, another tunnel directs the WHW below the A82, the main trunk road. Now, I was in prime farming country, walking along what used to be an old military road, a really uncomfortable rocky path under the watchful eye of some sheep. In sections it was incredibly churned up and muddy, especially as the farmhouse itself was reached. In the distance, a woodland grew closer and closer, and I passed through the gate into a large conifer plantation to see the sign I’d been longing for: the turn-off for Crianlarich. It was then a long descent through the woods to reach the A82, crossing it and cutting down to the Crianlarich train station. Nestled behind here was the YHA hostel where I was booked for the night. On arrival, the person at the front desk was almost apologetic about the fact that a large school group were also staying at the hostel, and there were teenagers draped over every available surface of the building and grounds.
There’s not a lot of choice for eating out in Crianlarich, but down on the main street, I found myself at the Rod & Reel where I was served the most enormous portion of chilli con carne I’ve ever seen. Like the previous nights, the UEFA EURO football was playing at the bar, and I was excited to see it was Iceland playing. Having watched them beat England whilst I was in Iceland, I was happy to watch them again, until the goals started rolling in for the opposition. After filling myself full with a well-deserved meal and cider, the game soon became embarrassing, and I didn’t bother staying till the end. Waddling back to the hostel with sore feet and a full belly, I crept into my bunk bed, trying not to disturb my roommates, and fell into a broken sleep.