Sunday, June 1, 2014

West Highland Way Day 2 - Drymen to Rowardennan Hotel

Loch Lomond FIrst View.jpgWe've been walking hard dirt and macadam roads pretty much all the way to this point marking our first view of Loch Lomond which is I believe the largest loch in Scotland. The loch will vanish from view as we continue to follow dirt road that turns into something more like a wide dirt trail winding through rolling valleys and a bit of woods before climbing Conic Hill.
Today we would hike from the Buchanan Arms hotel in Drymen to a small hotel in the small village of Rowardennan. The HF booklet suggests this is about 15 miles and has an ascent (and I suppose descent though the booklet never says) of 1,500 feet. Things would turn out rather differently even if we give the GPS receivers a big fudge factor. The official guide (at least I think it is official) has an ascent value of about 2,160 feet and descent over 2,600 feet. My GPS would come up with about 2,650 and 2,850 respectively. Suffice to say this would prove a challenging day but it was also a very worthwhile day. I'll note here and now that the weather continued to be gentle with us. Though the sun showed some signs of peaking through early on it really was a day for high overcast clouds and brisk winds. The air temperature though remained above 60 degrees F so no one had any real cause to complain. In fact, given how steep some of the climbs were I'm personally just as happy it was not warmer and sunnier. The trek starts out leading you across an active pasture with grazing cows but soon you come to a busy road that you sometimes must walk and sometimes are lucky to follow a path through quintessentially British (OK, Scottish here) hedge-rows. In some ways that encapsulates the nature of hiking here. You never are very far from serious signs of human habitation. To be sure there are places that feel very far away but though they may be hard to reach because the terrain is rugged they likely aren't really that far from a road or farmstead. This doesn't have to detract from the quality of the hike as long as you can come to terms with the fact that you aren't in what an American backpacker would consider wilderness. Rugged countryside is perhaps a better way to think of it. After all, even the climb up Conic Hill which rises some 1,000 feet above Loch Lomond is on good paths and the whole area is actually grazed by sheep. We left the paved road for dirt roads that would lead us into Queen Elizabeth Forest Park. Forest I think is a bit misleading as I certainly did not see much of one. However, most forests here are actively harvested and perhaps the trees were just gone and new ones hadn't been planted. It's nice enough though hardly memorable until you catch your first real glimpse of Loch Lomond as you begin to wind through rolling hills and moors towards Conic Hill in the distance. It took a bit less than half an hour to climb that hill and the views really are quite good. I've no doubt the 360° view from the summit, a side-trail leads steeply to it, is superb but I didn't climb up. It would have taken longer than I think we could have afforded given I was amongst the last to arrive and besides the wind was fierce enough just below the crest. The climb certainly gets the sweat flowing but the path was very good. I suppose I have to be fair and say the path was quite good heading down into Balmaha but I hate all those steps. Scores of them regular sometimes but just as often rough-hewn rock steps of varying widths and heights. For me that means slow going. No way I was going to tear down that trail like the 51 young Dutch school kids with their two chaperones (ugh). This is a popular spot and I can certainly see why (it's just a couple miles from Balmaha). From the fairly treeless but grassy upper slops of Conic Hill you descent into a dense conifer forest. This was a real treat to walk through. We followed more fine paths down towards the currently invisible lake to a huge parking lot for the little village of Balmaha. They boast a variety of shops, a hotel I think, visitor center, and bathrooms which you must pay 20p to use (bring small change when travelling in the United Kingdom: bathrooms cost). A quick pause to buy some homemade ice cream cones and we were off again starting out on or beside a minor paved road and then quickly back on to paths that usually though not always kept to the shoreline of Loch Lomond.
On Conic Hill.jpgYou can't really tell that Loch Lomond is nearly 300 meters below. I am standing just below a very windy summit of Conic Hill. It's windy enough here and I elected not to see the top of the hill. Perhaps had I been alone, at least not in a big group worrying about time, I'd have but really the view of the loch is quite good from this spot. The path remains good as it quickly drop down rough steps towards a forest and the hamlet of Balhama.
Climbing Conic Hill.jpg Nearing the top of Conic Hill. It's a steady climb of some 500 feet in about a mile. THe path, as you can see, is good rising steady above the moorlands.
Loch Lomond Beach.jpgHere is a view of a typical Loch Lomond beach. It isn't quite as threatening as this picture might suggest but the sun never did appear today.
The shoreline is dotted with beaches and the view across the loch is great. But now and then the trail would bend inland and when it would do this it would often climb a 100-200 feet just to quickly drop back down again. We were moving through forest this time and truly a forest with trees so the walking was quite nice. Along the way we passed by a very well put together campground with at least one person tenting. In due time and after several rather steep (no switchbacks here) climbs we hauled ourselves over that one last hill on to a final paved minor road to walk to a little hotel where the bus would pick us up. We arrived at about 17:25 making our day some 8 hours long though we definitely took some lengthy breaks along the way.
Mom Is Benched.jpg I must have been doing something to give Mom a chance to relax on this bench. I think I was changing a battery. This was one of the few open areas we would pass through during the second half of the hike. Mostly we were in forest that was sometimes on the shoreline and sometimes, sadly, not.
A tough but good day and with luck I'll feel fine tomorrow morning ready for the next dozen or so miles. Th section is reputedly one of the toughest bits of the trail from Rowardennan to Ardlui. NOTE: I know it sounds like I am knocking the HF provided booklet and to a degree I am. While I freely admit a GPS-generated elevation profile is likely to be off I suspect it's far closer to the truth and I'd rather be off high as I suspect is the case than so far off in the other direction. This state of affairs would recur in subsequent days but I do believe the leader had a good grasp of the trail from his Ordnance Survey maps and he acknowledge the little brochure, which is all it really is meant to be, could be better. I do wonder why they've not improved it though.

To see all 15 photo, at a much greater size, for this day visit the Flick photo album here.

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