Great Glen Way Round Up
I am back at work now. Al is at grad school for the week. Sabbatical and more hikes are in the future but seemingly far away. With this summer in the rear view mirror, it seems to make sense for some final thoughts and...some cool links when I can find them.
First, I want to bring up some basic advice that might be helpful:
General Statement: This trip has some beautiful views and wild scenery. However, by the standards of hiking in the United States, this is not remote. Also, the daily cumulative elevations are not that high. This is worth factoring in to your plans in a number of ways. For us, part of the attraction was getting to see the towns we passed though and to experience something of Scotland in its entirety. It was less an exercise in survival as it was a chance to be tourists in slow-motion. I really feel like I have a sense of the Great Glen now that I wouldn't have gotten by skipping the middle parts and taking the train or bus to Inverness.
This may not be your bag if hiking your hike includes being out away from civilization for days at a time or if you want the challenge of climbing all the big peaks. If self-sufficiency is key then this probably isn't for you. Even the people camping were setting up near multi-use trails and in commercial campsites from time to time.
That said, it was challenging in many different ways, particularly as foreigners. There was plenty of problem-solving and there was plenty of walking. There were also new things revealing themselves constantly as we went along. If you want a physical challenge that also has those elements I mention above; people, food, culture, etc. This might be the right hike for you. Here are some thoughts based on our journey that might be helpful if you are planning to do it yourself.
Shoes: This was a bit of a sketchy area for me. One thing that I heard from everybody when I was researching this hike was that my feet were going to hurt. Part of this was the mileage, no doubt, but I have hiked plenty of long-mileage days. The biggest issue, actually, is the amount of road walking. The majority of the trail is on some sort of road. Usually they are small and picturesque. Mostly they are dirt roads. What is important to know, however, is that they are all very very hard surfaces. The impact of repeatedly stepping on them creates plenty of cumulative shock. For this trip I purchased a set of lighter and more springy boots than what I normally wear. I think they helped but I was in plenty of pain by bedtime.
If I had to do it again I would have probably gone even lighter and grabbed some trail runners. I am a big boot guy. Still, the more "trail" parts are not like where I usually hike. For the most part they were well groomed and clear of rocks, sticks and whatnot that might trip you up. Also, I may not have needed the level of ankle support I thought I did. As it was I had a pair of sandals and an old pair of sneakers for walking about town after the day was done and when I woke up each day I was not much the worse for wear.
Hiking Poles I had heard that I could not bring hiking poles in my carry-on. Since we had decided not to check our bags this meant I went without. In the end I picked up a single, cheap, pole in Fort William. I needed something! That said, pole users know that really to get the best effect you need two. Next time--if we ever manage to pull off a Scotland hike again--I will make sure to have two high quality hiking poles for the trip. It is what I usually have, after all.
I know that there is still a dwindling group of people who don't like poles or feel goofy using them. To me they are essential. Most of the time I use them for almost every step of a hike. They get stowed for scrambles but that is it. They save your knees, not just in the moment but for future hikes as well. They distribute your weight more broadly. They actually slow me down a little, which is a good thing. I suspect that my feet hurt more each day because I didn't have two poles on this trip.
Camping v. B&B There are a huge amount of camping options on this hike and there were a number of times I envied the campers we encountered. The lochs are beautiful. Also, even if you aren't on a loch, it is nice to be able to stop and start when you want to. We were bound to the schedule of our reservations. If we had more time, I think we would have at least considered camping more seriously.
As it was we chose to do it the way we did because of time. We actually had to finish in 5 days for family reasons. There was also the logistical bother of bringing our gear from the states. In the end it was a matter of expediency for us but I could easily see going the other way. Both are good options on a hike like this one.
Time: This brings up my next suggestion. Next time we will find a way to take a rest or low-mileage day mid-hike. As I mentioned earlier, this is a tourist trip as well as a hiking trip. The long mileage days meant that we could check out some things but not all of the things. We did take a day in Inverness at the end. I would have also liked another in Drumnadrochit or Laggan to do some shorter hikes and just soak in the atmosphere. Oh well. Maybe next time we take more time, camp a bit, and explore.
Day-Pack: This is not as relevant if you are camping through because you have everything and probably will re-supply in Fort Augustus. We carried relatively heavy day-packs. Part of this is habit. We do most of our hiking in the White Mountains where basic safety equipment--the "10 essentials"--are...well...essential. However, I think it was a good move in general. We each packed rain gear, a light extra layer, snacks, socks, water purification tablets, an emergency blanket, and tons of water. I also had a compass and a whistle.
The rain gear didn't get used, but that was because of the global ecological disaster we have gotten ourselves into. You cannot guarantee that level of dryness in Scotland. When we hiked a few years ago in the Lake District we basically lived in our rain clothes. The other things we brought are just sound. You do not know when you might need the safety gear. Also, even though this trail has all that road-time and there are some cute picks of tea shops, there aren't very many shopping opportunities if you are hungry or thirsty. Again, it ain't the hardest multi-day hike but 17 miles a day is still 17 miles a day. No rain means high heat as well. I carried three liters of water and drank about 2.5 liters every day.
Were there others who carried less? Yes. But I did not envy them.
OK, that is it for advice unless you can think of a question and want to ask, then I will update it! This next section is mostly links to sites or services that we liked. We actually didn't find much to complain about in general. It was a wonderful time. That said, in each of the days of the hike I noted a few things in the post that are worth lifting up again. There is also a link to each of the day's posts at the beginning of each section.
Day One: Fort William to Spean Bridge On the first day we hiked mostly along the Caledonian Canal to Spean Bridge past the Commando Memorial. The memorial is quite moving and worth a visit. However, it does at quite a bit of road mileage to the day. Finally, I gave a shout out to Hillwalk Tours who arrange our rooms and the bag service for taking our non-essentials to the next B&B. I cannot thank them enough. They made it so we could enjoy the walk without the worry of logistics.
Day Two: Gairlochy to Invergarry This was one heck of a day. We departed from the canal and walked farther above with occasional views down to the loch. Of note on this day--other than the amazing hike, itself--was the Eagle Barge Inn which is very much worth a stop for food and/or drinks along the way to your bed/campsite. Also, the grisly tale of the Well of the Seven Heads and the quite lovely Invergarry Hotel. These last two are on the Invergarry link route of the trail.
Day 3: Invergarry to Invermoriston This was a good day but mostly it was spent in the beautiful forest and the fabulous high route. We did, however, pass through Fort Augustus. We also took a moment on the Bridge of Oich which was early in the hike and probably still on the Invergarry link.
Day 4: Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit This day, too, was all abut the high route. We saw the viewcatcher and way too many cool views. A couple more links are in order, however. The Loch Ness Clayworks is definitely worth a visit. Also, Al's favorite B&B of the trip: The Kilmore Farmhouse
Day 5: Drumnadrochit to Inverness I am going to buck a trend and say that Day 5 was my favorite day. The varied landscapes and the general adventure of it was wonderful. Yeah, not much for loch views but the journey itself more than made up for it. We walked through Drumnadrochit at the beginning and then dove into the forest. Of interest might be the Abriachan Forest Trust whose property we walked through. The Abriachan Eco-Cafe in the middle of the woods has the best lemon cake ever. Also we stayed at the Dionard Guest House who saved the day by booking us for dinner across the street at the Crown Court Townhouse. Also, you will note we found a good deck from which to watch people completing the Great Glen Way. That would be the Castle Tavern.
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I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.