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The Cowal Way 4 days / 53 miles (86km)

OS Route Map → Map Route file →
Cowal Way Logo

Date: 06 May 2017
Start: Portavadie
Finish: Tarbet. Free parking area opposite the Tarbet Hotel on the A83 by the bus stop.
Maps: Explorer 362: Cowal West & Isle of Bute + 363: Cowal East + 364: Loch Lomond North.
Ferry information: Tarbert ↔ Portavadie: Caledonian MacBrayne
Bus information and Journey Planner: Traveline Scotland / Tarbet → Tarbert: Scottish Citylink Service 926 Glasgow ↔ Campbeltown.

Cowal Way: Official Website

Day 1Portavadie & Asgog Loch3.4miles / 579 feet (5.5km / 176m)
Day 2West coast, Glendaruel and Garvie Burn22.8miles / 3055 feet (36.7km / 931m)
Day 3Glen Branter, Curra Lochain & Lochgoilhead18.6miles / 3514 feet (29.9km / 1071m)
Day 4Coilessan Glen, Ardgartan, Succoth & Tarbet8.4miles / 1016 feet (13.5km / 309m)
Bealach below The Brack

A 4-day backpack of the Cowal Way (CW) waymarked trail in Argyll, running through the peninsula from Portavadie in the south-west to Tarbet in the north. The official trail now extends from Succoth to Inveruglas farther north but the transport logistics of including this extension were too cumbersome to incorporate on this trip. Most of the first day was spent getting the travelling out of the way: Scottish Citylink coach Tarbet to Tarbert, Calmac ferry to Portavadie.

Scotlands Great Trails Logo

The CW has recently been awarded the prestigious status of Scotland's Great Trails. The CW website highlights the criteria that must be satisfied for the award and the resources required to implement them, a considerable undertaking in funding and effort that I understand and appreciate. The waymarking, for example, is top notch and the walkways on the rocky west coast are very well engineered.

Nevertheless, route concepts are always constrained by current ownership and usage of the land as well as its topology, and the Glendaruel section in particular is too fond of tarmac (10.7 miles of almost continuous road walking, 2.4 of them on A-roads). Walking this section on a hot day with very little wind didn't help, but I can envisage a pleasant path that runs alongside the River Ruel ironing out the kinks in its course, though I imagine that even if agreement could be reached, the cost would be prohibitive. Given the scope and objectives of the trail, it's a relatively minor quibble.

I did enjoy this backpack almost entirely in glorious conditions, my first trail backpack since 2008, and I was very surprised to find nearly all of it totally deserted. Apart from locals in the towns and villages, the only people I saw on the route were two couples near Sruth Ban waterfalls and a few starting out on the popular Succoth path to The Cobbler.

Day 1 - Portavadie & Asgog Loch

I booked my Citylink journey online and printed the emailed e-ticket for the 13:07 926 bus. I find that bus services have generally improved a lot in recent years but past bad memories still make me nervous, I was the only person at the stop as the clock ticked well beyond the time. By 13:30 my agitation was accelerating as I considered my options, but it finally arrived at 13:35 and I made the intended 16:15 ferry in Tarbert with a few minutes to spare. Incidentally, I tried ringing the contact number on the bus stop but they can't provide any information on current delays or whereabouts of particular buses - I optimistically thought that the prevalence of GPS technology might have made this a reality, it has already been done by some delivery companies.

The ferry boarding point is a few minutes walk from the bus circle and is very basic to say the least, just a concrete slipway into the sea with a small adjacent shelter. I had time to take one shot of the picturesque waterfront on the way.

Tarbert
Tarbert (06 May 2017__15:46:23)

A short way up the road from the landing point at Portavadie is the first CW post signing a track up through the woodland to reach a good path over the headland to Asgog Loch with the small overgrown ruins of its castle, with pleasing local views and distant mountains beyond.

Passing the site of the old gunpowder works at Millhouse and the unusual bell-topped memorial to the hapless workers who perished there, I ascended to the high ground and kept my eyes peeled for a pitch. Just inside the boundary of the golf club above Kames I found a good flat area of mown ground near the forest just beyond the heather-topped rough with the Kyles of Bute visible below.

View from the Portavadie path
View from the Portavadie path (06 May 2017__17:15:11)
Asgog Loch
Asgog Loch (06 May 2017__17:51:36)
Asgog Loch
Asgog Loch (06 May 2017__17:58:51)
Pitch above Kames
Pitch above Kames (06 May 2017__19:39:37)

Day 2 - West coast, Glendaruel and Garvie Burn

A sunny and pleasantly cool start gave a grand early view over the Kyles of Bute as the trail continued towards the signed descent to the houses of Kames. This is fine old woodland and the good path is duckboarded in parts. This was the best time of the day to walk along the Kames shoreline, low-angled light and almost deserted. The trail climbs up around the Kames hotel and back to the shore road through Tighnabruaich that terminates at Rubha Ban with a good view back to the colourful boats.

A track undulates onward to pass a wooded headland with a small lighthouse and Eilean Dubh beyond. After Glen Caladh Farm the CW approaches the rugged part of this section that I have called the Creagan Dubh headland after the hill whose north-eastern flank falls to this steep termination.

Early view over the Kyles of Bute
Early view over the Kyles of Bute (07 May 2017__06:47:22)
Kames shore on the Kyles of Bute
Kames shore on the Kyles of Bute (07 May 2017__07:03:14)
Tighnabruaich boats from Rubha Ban
Tighnabruaich boats from Rubha Ban (07 May 2017__08:21:46)
View to Caladh Harbour and lighthouse
View to Caladh Harbour and lighthouse (07 May 2017__08:50:37)
Approaching Creagan Dubh headland
Approaching Creagan Dubh headland (07 May 2017__09:20:11)

The rocky vegetated Creagan Dubh headland is the highlight of this coastal section. A clear route has been forged here, climbing and twisting through the mossy rocks, small trees and rhododendrons to reach a railed walkway with fine views over Loch Riddon. It continues upward through silver birch to the high point maintaining the views and descending steeply to Ormidale Lodge.

View over Loch Riddon from Creagan Dubh walkway
View over Loch Riddon from Creagan Dubh walkway (07 May 2017__09:33:44)
View over Loch Riddon from Creagan Dubh
View over Loch Riddon from Creagan Dubh (07 May 2017__09:48:08)
View over Loch Riddon from Creagan Dubh
View over Loch Riddon from Creagan Dubh (07 May 2017__10:03:40)
View back to the Kyles shore from Ormidale Lodge
View back to the Kyles shore from Ormidale Lodge (07 May 2017__10:31:00)

It was now time to knuckle down for that very long 10.7 mile road tramp I mentioned, just as the heat of the day was building. The salt marsh at the head of Loch Riddon is on view to the east as the A-road plods on to the one brief respite provided by a short track at Waulkmill that joins another road back to the A8003. There is really little to say about the road through Glendaruel beyond its seeming interminability, except perhaps the extensive bluebell displays at this time of year. As a note for wild backpackers, I didn't see a single possibility for a tent pitch along its entire length, at least one that would satisfy me - it depends how fussy you are. Its flat eastern side is protected by a barbed wire fence and its loosely tree-clad western side slopes right down to the road. There might be flat shelves up there somewhere but nothing that looked promising.

At the north-eastern end there is a final road walk down the A886 to Garvie Farm and the start of an extensive forestry section. Relief at last, a track ascends the slopes above Garvie Burn into the hills. Many hillwalkers are contemptuous of forest tracks but I don't mind them at all provided they have some open views and are not tightly shut-in on both sides the whole time for long distances. This track has a pleasing open aspect and I made good progress past the dam into the heart of the forest.

I was mindful of the difficulty forests can present when seeking a tent pitch and I was scanning the rough terrain constantly. The track levels out and passes an old sheep fank marked on the map at Tom a'Chromain where the first candidate appeared, but I was going surprisingly well and pressed on. Where the track ascends near the head of the stream, now called Eas Davain on the map, I saw that the trees were on both sides up ahead. I looked around and spotted two vague possibilities among the formidable tussocks and brash, and the first was flat and just big enough for the tent, a very good pitch. Being alone in this huge silent forest felt really eerie.

Salt marsh at the head of Loch Riddon
Salt marsh at the head of Loch Riddon (07 May 2017__11:08:04)
Track above Garvie Burn
Track above Garvie Burn (07 May 2017__15:33:53)

Day 3 - Glen Branter, Curra Lochain & Lochgoilhead

A cold night depositing frost and ice platelets on the tent gave way to a sunny start for my ascent to the highest point of the forest track and a descent into Glen Branter. I had marked the new CW route line on my map sheets that differs from my 2015 mapping where it makes a sharp hairpin turn left onto a woodland track and later descends right to a footbridge over the Allt Robuic. The waterfalls and cascades here were very weak today after a dry spell, but on the far side an excellent path traverses the northern flank of the glen through splendid woodland to emerge on the main track past the Glenbranter Information Centre.

Early light from the descent to Glen Branter
Early light from the descent to Glen Branter (08 May 2017__07:35:00)
Bridge on the Allt Robuic in Glen Branter
Bridge on the Allt Robuic in Glen Branter (08 May 2017__07:52:08)

At Bridgend I set off on the 3.9 mile road hike along the lane to the outskirts of Clachan Strachur and across the A815 to the lane ascending eastwards towards Succothmore and arriving at a bridge over the River Cur. A path ascends to a forest track, again with an open aspect, to reach a bealach with pleasing views. The CW crosses the valley head and marches eastwards into the forest and through a firebreak to the fence approaching the next highlight Curra Lochain, an attractive and secluded stretch of water.

A new gate at the eastern end leads to a vague path on the southern side of the outflow that becomes clearer as it swings right above crags and descends steeply by the Sruth Ban waterfalls, again weak today but another real highlight.

View from the forest track on the flank of Carnach Mor
View from the forest track on the flank of Carnach Mor (08 May 2017__11:04:09)
Track approaching Curra Lochain
Track approaching Curra Lochain (08 May 2017__11:12:19)
Curra Lochain
Curra Lochain (08 May 2017__11:53:26)
Curra Lochain
Curra Lochain (08 May 2017__12:00:32)
View back along Curra Lochain
View back along Curra Lochain (08 May 2017__12:10:10)
View east from the top of the Sruth Ban waterfalls
View east from the top of the Sruth Ban waterfalls (08 May 2017__12:26:11)
Sruth Ban waterfalls
Sruth Ban waterfalls (08 May 2017__12:32:05)

At the foot of the falls the new CW line goes directly ahead as waymarked rather than following the Lettermay Burn as it did on the 2015 mapping. The line goes directly to the main forest track heading for Lettermay.

I walked around the coastal road past the numerous chalets and crossed the bridge over Donich Water to arrive in Lochgoilhead where I bought some extra food at the Post Office/general store. The CW continues up the adjacent lane, now proudly proclaimed by a new sign, past the public toilets and upward on a path above Donich Water with good rearward views. I crossed the footbridge over the Allt Airigh na Creige and climbed to the steep firebreak leading to the open hill. The angle eases over open grass as the line veers left to reach the bealach between The Brack and Cnoc Coinnich.

As remarked above, the CW waymarking is excellent but I must take issue with the excesses here: the route is marked with a line of tall white posts marching across the bealach that is offensively obtrusive in this wild open place. Even the dreadful proliferation of cairns in the eastern Lake District would be preferable (I never thought I'd say that), at least they are small and naturally coloured.

I'd been hoping for the clear blue sky to last until now and so it did, this was the biggest highlight of the trip. I walked to the tiny lochan at the eastern end and had plenty of time to drop my pack and saunter around in the afternoon sunshine seeking the best pitch spot.

First view north-east from the bealach
First view north-east from the bealach (08 May 2017__16:38:54)
View west from the bealach
View west from the bealach (08 May 2017__16:40:34)
View east from the eastern end of the bealach
View east from the eastern end of the bealach (08 May 2017__16:55:45)
Pitch by the bealach lochan
Pitch by the bealach lochan (08 May 2017__17:38:20)

Day 4 - Coilessan Glen, Ardgartan, Succoth & Tarbet

Dawn brought a temporary gloom to the conditions as I opened the door to a wall of mist, no problem as I had all the photos I wanted already. The descent eastwards to the forest edge is indicated by more white posts.

A good path descends through the trees to a pair of footbridges and parallels the main forest track for a while before joining it to follow Coilessan Burn. A lane heads towards Ardgartan where another mapping difference occurs: shortly after Coilessan Cottage the new line is directed down along a good shoreline path and to the left of the Ardgartan Hotel arriving on its driveway. A footbridge gives access to a fine riverside path emerging on the A83.

The forest track bound for Arrochar gave good views over Loch Long as the mist was clearing. At the top of the zigzags descending to the car park I had a rest and a bite to eat on the welcome bench as walkers sporadically arrived toiling upwards for The Cobbler. I walked around the head of the loch at Succoth on the surfaced footpath inside the loop of the A83 to emerge on the road by the hotel, giving a good view down the loch.

Early misty view over Loch Long
Early misty view over Loch Long (09 May 2017__07:34:15)
Riverside path at Ardgartan
Riverside path at Ardgartan (09 May 2017__07:59:22)
View over Loch Long from the Ardgartan to Arrochar path
View over Loch Long from the Ardgartan to Arrochar path (09 May 2017__09:21:32)
The head of Loch Long at Arrochar
The head of Loch Long at Arrochar (09 May 2017__09:40:30)

Here I parted company with the new line of the CW that heads northwards through Glen Loin to Inveruglas. The start of the Arrochar to Tarbet path is a flight of steps roughly opposite the chippy signed 'Main Trail'. At the top of the first climb is a Forestry Commission waymark signed 'Tarbet Station', a very good path that undulates along the hillside with good views over Loch Long and finally arrives at a 3-way fingerpost, the smallest finger generically labelled 'Helensburgh something...', I can't remember exactly, pointing down the slope to Tarbet station.

View over Loch Long from the Arrochar to Tarbet Path
View over Loch Long from the Arrochar to Tarbet Path (09 May 2017__09:56:26)
View over Loch Long from the Arrochar to Tarbet Path
View over Loch Long from the Arrochar to Tarbet Path (09 May 2017__09:56:41)

Emerging from the tunnel at the station, a short walk along the road verge brought me back to the Hotel and parking area.

As I unloaded my pack into the car I distilled my thoughts on my first trail backpack for a few years, an enjoyable return to form in great conditions.