Well worth the wait! My version of the Three Lochs Way

Three Lochs Way

LAST summer I attempted to walk the Three Lochs Way along with a bit of the West Highland Way but had to abandon after the first day due to the weather which had seen me don full wet weather gear after mile one of what proved to be 18-miles; 18-miles of trudging with my head down.

The forecast for day two was thunder and lightning, and it proved to be correct. It would have been 12-miles, mostly across open countryside and, as I’ve since discovered, long stretches adjacent to electricity pylons. So I called it quits. One-nil to Mother Nature!

Twelve months on and I ventured back; the same route (almost) but with a couple of variations to my accommodation, and this time I’d be accompanied by my walking pal Steve.

Instead of wild camping in Garelochhead we’d stay at the Anchor Inn, where last year I ended up camping in the beer garden.

We’d also visit Inversnaid Bunkhouse and stay at the bunkhouse at the Oak Tree, in Balmaha, instead of heading immediately back by ferry to the car in Balloch and then driving home to Yorkshire.

(In retrospect there was little point in taking a tent last year just for one night, even if it is was a Terra Nova Laser Ultra weighing a mere 750 grammes.)

We’d also miss out the truly tedious section between Helensburgh and Garelochhead which involves five miles of road. It might be an unclassified road but it’s tedious.

After a four-hour drive from Yorkshire to Balloch the car was left in the same place as last year, Balloch Road, which is a little along from the official start at Balloch Information Centre and because of this we did as last year and avoided the loop around Lomond Shores, instead heading to Old Luss Road, past McDonald’s and then on the grass verge of the A811 to the A82 and then to the footbridge to Upper Stoneymollan Road and the walk proper.

The walk proper

Joy of joy; sunshine! It was at this point last year that I had to put my wet weather clothing on, and having studied the forecast for the past few days I knew they wouldn’t be needed this time, but it’s always wise to carry them, especially in Scotland.

The walk’s only significant climb is up to Bannachra Muir (total height 313ft) and it’s changed a lot in the past 12 months; then I tracked a vague diagonal path uphill through mud following red and white coloured barrier tape tied to tree branches in the forest, now there’s a clearly defined shale footpath that’s good enough to push a child’s buggy along.

This time we made the detour to the viewpoint at Gouk Hill Muir; last year the hilltop was covered in mist and I just wanted to get to Helensburgh as quick as possible.

Gouk Hill Muir gives an awesome view north-east across Loch Lomond to the western flange of Conic Hill, and in two days’ time we’d be in its shadow.

After that it was a speedy downhill walk to Helensburgh following Red Burn to the A814 road into town, where he then headed to JD Wetherspoon’s Henry Bell pub for food before the bus to Garelochhead.

Roman Abramovich

In the Henry Bell beer garden we got talking to one of the locals who told us that Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich had been holidaying in the area and had moored his yacht off Greenock, on the other side of the Clyde.

He’d also apparently been seen cycling around the Helensburgh area and was rumoured to have stopped at one of the town’s pubs for a beer.

In Garelochhead, the accommodation was far superior to my tent-in-the-beer-garden last year.

Nothing wrong with the tent or the beer garden; but a tent in a beer garden in the rain is not a good combination.

Day two and the walk started almost at sea level. Turning right out of the Anchor we stop for provisions at a convenience store before another right into Dunivard Road, and then almost immediately uphill along a path taking us under the West Highland Railway to the A814.

Across that and then we were soon on open land leading to the American Road at about 590ft high, which is the southern edge of the Ministry of Defence’s Garelochhead Training Camp and covers around 8,200 acres.

The American Road is so named as it was built by the US Navy in 1942 as part of the war effort, and helped service an oil pipeline linking a deep water jetty and oil storage facility at Finnart on Loch Long, with Old Kilpatrick on the River Clyde where there was an existing pipe to an oil refinery at Grangemouth on the east coast.

Behind us we could see HM Naval Base Clyde, commonly known throughout the Royal Navy as Faslane, in full while in front of us the Arrochar Alps got ever closer with each footstep.

The road was single track Tarmac but at some point became a well-made stone track. It was littered with empty bullet cartridges and we also came across other military cast-offs such as a parachute flare launcher, a smoke grenade and a battle sound simulator.

The American Road sits high above Loch Long and eventually it took us to Glen Douglas, which links with Inverbeg on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond. On the map it looked quite flat, but it wasn’t, lots of short, sharp uphill sections. And it was hot, very hot.

We passed through Gleann Culanach and partly up Craggan Hill before the end of the military zone at Glen Douglas, where the Ministry of Defence has a munitions depot, some of which is underground.

A single track road at Glen Douglas takes you across to Inverbeg and the A82 opposite Rowardennan on the other side of Loch Lomond, where we’d be in about 24-hour’s time.

After a lunch stop using an abandoned wire cable reel as a table we pressed on to Tarbet; still remaining high above Loch Long and it was still baking hot.

The track from here was now quite rough and only driveable in a 4×4, and eventually it turned into a footpath.

It wasn’t long before Arrochar village came into view and Loch Lomond down the valley, and then very suddenly the path ended, it was now Tarmac and we were at a T-junction where right gave access to a water treatment facility, and to the left and a few metres downhill lay the A83. Five minutes later we arrived at, almost journey’s end, Tarbet.

We were in need of coffee and snacks and as there’s not a lot in Tarbet itself we headed straight to the ferry terminal which, as we’d correctly guessed, sold both of those.

We sat on a picnic table eating, drinking and people watching until it was time to catch the ferry up the loch to Inversnaid.

Opposite the ferry terminal we could see the top of Ben Lomond peeping out behind Creag a’Bhocain.

We’d climbed Ben Lomond two years ago after deviating from the West Highland Way at Rowardennan, and it was covered in mist that day. That was the second time I’d been up it; the second time in mist.

After leaving the ferry at Inversnaid we went straight to the bar in the Inversnaid Hotel and ordered beers, and then headed back outside to sit next to the loch and make plans for the evening.

Inversnaid Bunkhouse is about half a mile up the hill behind the hotel, and despite having walked the West Highland Way several times it was only last year, when I was putting my plans together to walk the Three Lochs Way, that I found out about it.

I initially thought I’d get to Inveruglas, the official end of the walk, where I’d then catch a bus to Balloch and then head home; but then I looked into getting to Tarbet and the ferry to Inversnaid and then walking to Balmaha and that was when I discovered there was a bunkhouse. I’ve no idea how it evaded me for so long.

We arrived at the bunkhouse, showered and ate in the restaurant there and then headed out to a lone bench high above the loch that I’d found last year, and toasted the last two days with our cans of Tennent’s lager.

Having both walked the West Highland Way on several occasions tomorrow’s leg would be would be familiar territory, although the other way around to what we were used to.

The final day and another sunny one. It was an exciting prospect walking north to south on the West Highland; would it look familiar, how many people would we see coming in the opposite direction, would it be easier/harder walking than in the usual direction?

It all looked familiar; we stopped counting how many people we saw, but it was probably about 30 to 40 (mostly Germans, for some reason), and the walking was equally as easy/hard.

Generally speaking the section from Inversnaid to Rowardennan, regardless of direction, involves an uphill track to around Toll a’ Bhruic and then it’s downhill.

Rob Roy’s Cave

Again, regardless of direction it’s a heavily wooded but an easy walking section and sits high above the loch. There is a water-side alternative which goes past Rob Roy’s Cave, and which neither of us has ever walked so l can’t say whether it’s worth pursuing or not.

Rowardennan Lodge Youth Hostel came into view and, as always it seemed to be a long way from there to Rowardennan Hotel.

It’s only three-quarters of a mile but it always seems to drag. I think it’s because whenever I’ve stayed at the youth hostel or wild camped behind it (before it was banned) I’ve been hungry while checking in or pitching my tent, when all I’ve really wanted to do was eat and it’s taken me years to accept they aren’t next door to each other.

This is especially hard to recognise when I’ve had to walk hungrily through the rain after a hard day’s walk.

We arrived at Rowardennan Hotel at about 1pm having already agreed we’d like nachos (okay, not the healthiest of meals) but knowing deep down that they haven’t been on the menu for a few years.

It was all they had left one time after arriving there late in the evening, but they hit the spot and I’m ever hopeful they’ll return to the menu.

Only seven more miles to walk after lunch, again familiar territory, and from memory it was going to be hillier than the morning’s trek.

The first ascent we came to was at Ross Wood, which was only 93ft high, but it was quite a pull up which was probably due to lunch, although it hadn’t involved nachos.

I remembered that there was a particularly long and steep hill on this section going north, and this was it.

The descent was a lot longer than I was expecting, which made me realise that it’s a deceptively big hill. I also noticed that new steps had been built as part of the Way’s ongoing upgrading and maintenance, which is understandable with an estimated 85,000 walking it each year (although only 30,000 complete it), and that first figure doesn’t even include day trippers.

There were several people coming up the steps, and near the bottom a man having a breather. I wanted to tell him it wasn’t too bad, but I knew it was; when you think you’re at the top the path swings to the left revealing a bit more ascent.

For the next to two miles until Cnoc Buidhe, just beyond Cashell Farm, the path skirted the loch, which was a welcome sight after being so high above the water for so long.

We got past the imposing and impressive University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for Ecology and the Natural Environment field station and its boathouse, but resisted walking along the jetty (because we’d have to climb over the gate, which suggested it was private property).

Ice cream at Cashel

We stopped for ice cream at Cashel campsite, knowing that we were only a couple of miles to journey’s end, and we weren’t in any rush to finish the walk.

Next up was Cnoc Buidhe which lies within Lag an Amair Wood, and is only 54ft in height, but again it was quite a pull up to the top (I blame the ice cream).

I remembered this wood from my first West Highland Way in 1999 when swathes of it hadn’t long been cleared and it looked like a nuclear landscape.

Over the intervening years it’s started to grow back, and while it certainly has some height there’s not yet much thickness to the trees so it’ll be a long-time before the lumberjacks return.

There was only a mile and a half of easy walking to go, and we could see that the Conic Hill range was towering above Balmaha which was looming ever closer.

There was one final small hill though, Craigie Fort and its view point over Loch Lomond. During the springtime the north west side of the hill is a sea of bluebells, not today though, they’d given way to a huge blanket of ferns.

A couple of minutes on from the bottom of Craigie Fort and we were in Balmaha and our accommodation for the night, the bunkhouse at the Oak Tree Inn.

After eating we walked to the pier just past the path up to Craigie Fort and took the path to a really nice, but isolated, low arched galvanised steel bridge giving access across the small pebble bay to the Pass of Balmaha.

The plan for the morning was to take the ferry to Balloch but it would have meant changing at Luss so we opted for the number 309 bus instead.

Another adventure, albeit it a mini one, was over and it had been a great three days of walking mostly thanks to the weather making up for last year’s disappointment. It was well worth the wait.

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