The Cape Wrath Trail: The Wild, Wonderful, 230-Mile ‘AT of the UK’
Of the 720 long-distance “paths” crisscrossing the British Isles, the 230-mile* Cape Wrath Trail in far northwest Scotland is considered the toughest (*with numerous alternates and plenty of route-finding, the route can be anywhere from 220 to 250 miles).
Beginning where the far-more-traveled West Highland Way ends, the route rambles along dirt roads, trails, indistinct paths, and sometimes no path at all (some 20 percent of the route consists of trackless miles across bog, heather, and fen) to the windswept cape at the most northwesterly point of mainland Britain, with nothing but ocean and ice to the North Pole.
The trail repeatedly climbs up and over vast, treeless, bog-riddled mountains — all part of the ancient Appalachian chain, long ago separated by continental drift — and descends to long sea lochs, fingers of clear-blue Atlantic water that reach miles inland where, if you’re lucky, you may see grey seals, minke whales or even orcas.
But even in the best season for hiking, it’s not uncommon to encounter gale-force winds, lashing rain, hail, or snowstorms, and swarms of maddening midges.
The route is gaining popularity; you’ll find plenty of solitude but also many accommodating B&Bs, hostels, and pubs in tiny towns along the way, as well as a determined cast of fellow hikers from the UK, Europe, and beyond.
Rewarding, challenging, and gorgeous; muddy, wet, and steep; friendly, fun, and populated with charming, enclosed shelters known as “bothies,” as well as accommodations and resupply points — the CWT really does qualify as the “AT of the UK.”
- Length: Between 220 and 250 miles, depending on alternates
- Expected Completion Time: 10-21 days; 12-24 miles per day
- Location: From Fort Williams to Cape Wrath, northwest highlands of Scotland
- Best Season To Hike: May through September
- Trail Type: Point-to-point
- Scenery: Sweeping, treeless mountains; verdant valleys and pastoral tableaux; high, boggy moorlands, sea lochs
- Terrain: Difficult, with some 45,000 feet of elevation gain, many steep, muddy, rocky, and untracked miles, numerous bogs, and countless “burn” (river/creek) crossings
- Harvey map set (available through Amazon)
- UK Ordnance Survey map and app
- GPS app such as Gaia, Ordnance Survey, or AllTrails with uploaded GPX coordinates (easily found online)
- Walking the Cape Wrath Trail guidebook by Iain Harper, available online (generally good, but Harper’s mileage is off by as much as 25-30 percent in places; he overplays the difficulty in places, underplays it in others)
There are frequent flights, many affordable, from US airports to Glasgow or Edinburgh, Scotland. There is excellent public transportation to get to the trailhead from both cities.
Northbound: Catch a train or bus to Fort Williams. Then take a five-minute ferry ride from Fort Williams to the beginning of the trail.
Southbound: Catch a train/bus to Fort Williams and then a bus to Durness. Take a ferry from Durness to Cape Wrath. At the cape, there’s a shuttle bus (in season) from the ferry to the lighthouse, where the route begins.
Best Direction To Hike the Cape Wrath Trail
The Cape Wrath Trail can be hiked southbound but is more frequently done northbound.
- Starting from Fort Williams, which offers grocery and outdoor stores, accommodation
- First days are easier; no route-finding required
- Prevailing winds at your back
- More hikers, though not enough to constitute a “bubble” (yet!)
- Drawn out “dismount” from northern terminus back to civilization
- Finish in Fort Williams with easy access to Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Inverness
- Fewer hikers
- Walking into prevailing winds
- Complicated transportation to northern terminus
- Colder, wetter weather more likely at start
- Trackless terrain on first day
Why Hike the Cape Wrath Trail
If you’ve only hiked in North America, the Cape Wrath Trail is like nothing you’ve done before. At the same time, the route offers echoes of popular US trails: incredible wide-open vistas — akin to miles above treeline in Maine, California, or Colorado — breathtaking beauty, shelters (bothies), powerful solitude, friendly communities and fellow hikers, most not American.
Descriptions of the CWT from European and UK hikers can seem rather alarmist. The trail is challenging, but anyone who has completed the AT, PCT, or CDT will not encounter any particularly dire obstacles (unless it happens to be an extremely wet year or the midges are truly on the march).
For those inclined to explore off trail, there are many munros (peaks above 3,000 feet) and extracurricular climbing/mountaineering routes. “Town” often means a B&B or a hotel that sells snacks, but the people are welcoming; Scottish pub and restaurant fare makes for hearty fuel indeed.
Climate and Weather
Scotland’s northwest coast is notoriously wet. Winds off the North Atlantic can howl and batter. Yet when the sun is out, it makes for almost perfect hiking weather, not too hot for the steep climbs you will encounter.
Still, wet feet are the norm all day, every day—even in a “dry” year, as the route constantly traverses bogland, descends steep, slippery, rocky, or muddy mountains, and fords countless rivers. Expect to be wet and pack up a wet tent on many days (though this writer had to only infrequently).
During summer, you’ll have up to 17.5 hours of daylight, a distinct advantage for those eager to push bigger miles.
Gear Suggestions for the Cape Wrath Trail
- Three-season tent is fine
- Good pack cover
- Some hikers wear “waterproof” socks; but if you go knee- or hip-deep in a bog (don’t worry; you’ll get the hang of spotting them), even the “sealable” kind won’t hold back the flood.
- Solid rain gear — hooded jacket, pants, gloves/mitts
- Merino (or other wet-insulating) layer(s)
- Waterproof case for electronics and phone
- Waterproof quilt/bag stuff sack
So-called “wild camping” is legal in most of Scotland, thanks to the Land Reform Act of 2003, which provides public-access rights to most land and inland water in the country.
That means you can set up a tent just about anywhere on “unenclosed” land (i.e., not in the middle of Farmer McDougall’s sheep pasture, but just about anywhere else; you’ll find a wealth of information at the Scottish Outdoor Access Code website). Unlike in the US, “trespassing” is not a “shootin’ offense” in Scotland; it’s not even illegal. Indeed, you can freely walk across most open land, and the CWT frequently crosses private land and livestock pastures.
In addition, there are bothies all along the route, generally very well kept by volunteers and many sporting fireplaces and sleeping platforms. There are 17 bothies total, but some are on alternates. If you are willing to hike 20- to 25-mile days (not always easy when slogging through trackless, boggy regions), you could do the entire route without ever pitching a tent by staying exclusively in bothies and hostels.
There are numerous hostels, campgrounds, and B&Bs in towns and tiny communities along the route where you can stay and/or pitch a tent for a small fee.
Cape Wrath Trail Highlights
As with any trail, there are far too many to mention. But among this writer’s favorites (today) were:
Sandwood Bay: Eight miles from the northern terminus; crashing blue Atlantic waters, towering granite cliffs and sentinels; broad, long, sandy beach
Glendhu and Glencoul bothies: Spectacular views on Loch Glean Dubh and Loch Glencoul, respectively.
Falls of Glomach: Wild, tumbling waterfalls, the highest in the UK; steep but totally doable descent to the valley northbound.
Inchnadamph Explorers Lodge: A hostel that really gets it right.
Beinn Eighe: Massif in the Torridon area featuring several high peaks, a high lake, and endless views. However, the three- to four-mile section NOBO after the lake is the most arduous, exhausting part of the entire route (according to this writer and everyone else who has done it). The way is untracked, steep, rocky, and boggy.
Some hikers backtrack and road walk into Kinlochewe; according to the Harper guidebook, some argue it should not even be part of the route due to the difficulty.
Bog-walk to northern terminus: Gorgeous, exciting, and trackless
International experience: Meeting hikers from many countries.
History: Walls and ruins from the area’s distant past.
Wildlife: If you are lucky (as this writer was), you may spy some feral goats on a steep hillside, brought to Britain by paleolithic peoples; sea eagles, whose populations are recovering; marine mammals, including seals, porpoises, and whales.
This is the CWT’s greatest logistical asset. There is clean, drinkable water all along the way, even in a “dry” year. You can get by with a single water bottle and — unless there is livestock present — drink directly from most water sources without treating, because (sadly) there is little wildlife and therefore no giardia or other microbial threats. This writer seldom treated water except in valleys or where livestock was present.
Because “town” often means a remote hotel or B&B and little else, most hikers prepare and send food boxes to themselves from Glasgow, Edinburgh, or Fort Williams. I sent three boxes but could have gotten by on one.
That said, there are numerous places to buy snacks — petrol stations, hostels, hotels — and solid resupply opportunities in Ullapool (about 7 miles off trail; can return to trail via alternate), Shiel Bridge/Morvich, Kinlochewe and the London Stores near Kinlochbervie. There are numerous pubs, restaurants and hotel restaurants where hikers can fuel up.
Things To Know
- The UK Ministry of Defence conducts live bombing exercises on a reservation covering much of Cape Wrath. Hikers must check the MoD website for bombing days, when crossing is prohibited. May is usually a good time to hike, as bombing is halted or nearly halted, to protect nesting birds.
- Getting from Cape Wrath back to “civilization” requires patience and planning:
- A shuttle runs from the lighthouse to a ferry across a finger of the North Sea, but the ferry sometimes doesn’t run due to weather. If it’s low tide, you can walk across. If not, you’ll have to go six-plus miles around to get to the road into Durness.
- A 16-seat bus from Durness to points south and access to trains runs only once a day and often fills up, so it’s advisable to make a reservation.
- Most bothies are rodent-free, but a few are not. Hang your pack or use an odor-proof sack with a critter-proof container like an Ursack Minor.
- There are no predators in Scotland. No bear prep or equipment necessary.
- Those seeking a longer hike can do the (much easier) West Highland Way from Glasgow to Fort Williams, then continue to Cape Wrath for a total of about 325 miles with an ease-in on the WHW.
- Even in Scotland’s most remote corners, businesses accepted US credit cards (and their card readers are so efficient!)
- The only place I saw stove fuel for sale was Ullapool. You cannot mail fuel canisters, so plan accordingly.
READ NEXT – Tips for Hiking Scotland’s West Highland Way
The Cape Wrath Trail is a spectacular, challenging mid-length trail that can be accomplished by fit, experienced hikers in two weeks.
Although hard to describe, the pervasive views and vistas, courtesy of ancient humans who cut down Britain’s forests for fuel, provide near-constant gorgeous views that are different from anything in North America.
Descending to your next loch with a bright 10 p.m. sun bronzing the edge of dark, dramatic clouds over the North Atlantic, you may feel like you are in a different world. Even traipsing through verdant valleys where lambs prance and shaggy, horned Scottish Highland cattle eye you like insolent teenagers is magical; think the Shire or Watership Down.
You, the pedestrian, are accorded both rights and respect in Scotland. The people are genuinely welcoming to “hillwalkers,” as they call us.
You may have wet feet, but the same can be said for the Sierra and much of the AT and CDT. And you’ll get a chance to develop your route-finding and navigation chops (it’s not that hard; you can see everything for miles around).
And when you’ve finished, you can spend time in Inverness (Loch Ness), Edinburgh, and Glasgow. You can even walk between Scotland’s two major cities on an old canal tow path, as this writer did. Hostelling Scotland runs excellent hostels, and there are plenty of other accommodations in each city.
Two thumbs up, as they say; highly recommended.
Featured image: Clay Bonnyman Evans photo. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
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