Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, situated in the southwestern Highlands, is Scotland’s first national park, encompassing a beautiful area of mountains, forests, rivers, and lochs surrounding Loch Lomond itself, the largest lake in Britain. The West Highland Way long distance trail runs through the park below Ben Lomond, the southernmost Munro (3,000 foot peak).
Last autumn I made a short two-night trip along the West Highland Way and over Ben Lomond in stormy weather. The autumn colors were splendid and the rushing clouds dramatic but the hiking was difficult in places, with winds gusting to 60 mph and thick mist on the summits. Photography was challenging too, as holding the camera steady in the strong gusty wind was impossible, so lying down or wedging myself against rocks was necessary, while heavy rain and wet mist meant there were long periods when the camera was kept in its protective bag.
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In the little village of Drymen, which lies on the West Highland Way, is the sixteenth-century hostelry called the Clachan. This was a welcome stop as I drove up the long winding road on the east side of Loch Lomond in pouring rain, though I was more interested in hot warming soup than wines or spirits. I was also aware that I was putting off starting my hike in the hope the weather might improve.
National Park sign at Balmaha, a tiny village beside Loch Lomond where there is a useful and interesting Visitor Centre. From Balmaha you can take a ferry trip across Loch Lomond to the big wooded island of Inchcailloch. I was just passing through and stopped only for a look round the Visitor Centre.
My hike started at Rowardennan, which lies at the end of the public road along the east side of Loch Lomond. The rain had ceased temporarily, and there were touches of color as the late afternoon sun pierced the clouds. Loch Lomond stretched out to the north between cloud-capped hills. My route would lie through the woods on the shore for many miles.
Walking in the dusk was beautiful and calming after a day spent driving in stormy weather. The wind dropped, and the waters of the loch rippled gently reflecting the drifting clouds in ever-changing patterns. Slowly the distant hills faded into darkness, and the forest became shadowed and mysterious.
I pitched camp in the dark deep in the trees. Sometime during the night I woke as the wind strengthened and started to roar in the tree tops, bringing down a gentle patter of leaves on the tent, soon followed by staccato bursts of rain. I woke to dampness and trickles of drizzle. The forest was silent now, soothing and relaxing, and I watched the trees for a while before packing up and hiking on.
The damp forest floor was rich and bright with plant life – mosses, grasses, and clover – and decorated with a scattering of autumn leaves, brown and gold. Hiking through this natural colorful mosaic as gentle rain drifted down through the tree canopy was pleasant and easy, a quiet preparation for the excitement to come.
A mile or so from camp I started to climb away from the loch and out of the trees. The clouds were thickening again now and the rain showers heavier and longer. Across the grey waters of Loch Lomond, the rugged peaks of the Arrochar Alps thrust up into the clouds. But for the deep golds and browns of the birch trees glowing in the pale light, the scene would have been almost monochrome. The autumn colors gave a richness and depth to the scene that had me pausing to look and take photographs despite the rain.
Soon I was leaving the trees for rain-sodden moorland, a morass of deep water-filled holes and thick tussocks of bouncy grass making for difficult walking. The rain was harder now, the clouds lower, and the waters of the loch starting to surge in rolling waves. As I looked across the loch, the distant hills vanished into the wind-driven clouds.
Turning towards Ben Lomond, I hiked through the wet moorland, my feet now soaked, towards my ascent route along the Ptarmigan Ridge, seen here to the right of the summit. Before I reached the ridge, the mountain disappeared in a swirl of cloud, and my final climb to the summit was over wet, slippery rocks in a gusting wind that stopped me moving at times, leaving me leaning over on my trekking poles glad to have kept my feet.
On the summit, I crouched behind a rock out of the wind for a snack and in the hope that the weather might break. The wind was ferocious, but it did tear the clouds apart, giving brief glimpses of Loch Lomond and the surrounding hills. Roaming the summit area in the storm was exhilarating. At one moment thick clouds reduced visibility to a few feet, the next moment they split open and suddenly Loch Lomond with its islands could be seen over 3,000 feet below.
As the clouds rose and fell and parted and reformed in the wind, they revealed the Arrochar Alps rising across Loch Lomond, hazy in the wet, misty air, but with their summits uncovered for brief moments. On the lochside, the tiny white dots of buildings showed where people would be inside, warm and dry, probably glad to be out of the rain and wind. I didn’t envy them. I was reveling in the excitement and glory of the wildness of the storm and the land.
I had intended to camp high, but I was halfway down the mountain before I felt the wind had abated enough for a reasonably comfortable camp. It was raining and dull when I pitched the tent, and I was soon inside with no intention of emerging until the night was gone. I was delighted to wake to a pink dawn with Loch Lomond shining in the distance and big patches of blue sky.
The previous evening I’d cooked inside the tent, something I prefer not to do, but with no vestibule and a storm raging, there was little choice. The dry morning meant I could prepare breakfast just outside the tent door with a view up the slopes of Ben Lomond, which was much more relaxing.
The squalls of rain were not over though, and I had a couple of drenchings as I descended steep slopes back to Loch Lomond. The newly risen sun was shining too however, resulting in some splendid rainbows curving over the loch.
Whilst the rain and clouds had blown away, the wind was still strong and waves were driving along the loch as I walked back to Rowardennan. The sunshine changed the feel of the landscape though. The bright blue sky, sparkling blue waters and brilliant autumn colors gave an air of friendliness and comfort to a landscape that had mostly been threatening and somber. Compare this image with Picture 4, taken from a similar spot two days earlier.
As the last clouds faded away into the blueness, the hills and woods across the loch stood out sharp and clear for the first time. Looking at the colors and sunshine, it was already hard to remember the cold driving rain and dense mists. This mixture of calm and storm, rain and sun, color and dullness, vast vistas and a few yards inside a cloud are all part of the experience of backpacking in the Highlands, which is always interesting, always unpredictable.