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Returning to nature in the wilds of Glen Affric

By John Davidson

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Golden colours of autumn shine bright alongside the east end of the loch.
Golden colours of autumn shine bright alongside the east end of the loch.

At this time of year, I always try to make the effort to visit Glen Affric. The place seems to come alive with the glorious, golden colours of autumn and the light on the lochs, trees and mountains can do wonders for the soul.

A lovely conversation with a retired gentleman I met strolling along the path on the north side of the loch reminded me of how fortunate I am to live so close to this special place.

He was from Glasgow and was up this way while his wife was working in Inverness for the week. There was no desperate urge for either of us to be up on the tops of the mountains today, but just to be out here in this wild place among nature.

Glen Affric feels homely to me. I’ve walked and run this circuit of the loch numerous times, climbed most of the Munros in the vicinity, stayed at the remote youth hostel at Alltbeithe and run the Highland Cross that passes through here on several occasions.

Gaining an intimate knowledge of a place can add to that feeling of belonging, but it’s also the peace and quiet, the chance to escape the everyday and appreciate the overwhelming power of the natural world.

Mullach Fraoch-choire above a stand of Scots pines.
Mullach Fraoch-choire above a stand of Scots pines.

The way these mountains have been sculpted by ice and weather, the rivers that seem to run endlessly and the creatures that help keep that delicate balance of biodiversity in order.

There’s no doubt Glen Affric is beautiful, but it has been affected by the hand of man as much as any other place. In fact, it’s thanks to foresters who worked here in the last century that the last remnants of the Caledonian Forest survived here.

Now there are ambitious plans to extend what has been protected and enhanced including by the work of the charity Trees For Life, which has a bothy base in the glen where volunteers gather to plant native trees and do other conservation work.

A plan to rewild a much wider area, from Loch Ness to the west coast, has been launched, with Glen Affric and Trees For Life’s Dundreggan estate at its heart. The prospect is an exciting one for me. The thought of genuine interconnected areas of wild land, from peatlands to native forests, giving wildlife a chance to thrive and producing an area rich in nature ties in well with some of the changes we need to make to help the planet – or more accurately, to help us humans continue to thrive on it.

And that wild land doesn’t need to be entirely without humans. The ongoing interest and need for people to get out into nature, and for us to manage land and habitats to protect it, means that there will be jobs and people needed to make it work.

The number of people still visiting Glen Affric on a November weekend shows just how much people value nature. The car park at the end of the public road wasn’t rammed full when I was there, but there were plenty of people around, some doing the same route as me, others just exploring the shorter routes down by the river and up to the viewpoint.

The path leads around the outside of Affric Lodge on the north side of the loch.
The path leads around the outside of Affric Lodge on the north side of the loch.

In the past I have always done this route clockwise, but decided to go the other way this time, partly for a change and partly as my late start at this time of year meant there was a possibility I might finish after dark. I figured it would be easier to follow the light of my headtorch along the so-called yellow brick road on the south side of the loch rather than along the more interesting path on the north side, if it came to that.

From the car park, the uppermost track leads to Affric Lodge, where a path is signposted around the outside of the dwellings and up towards a fenced-off area. This is part of an ongoing reforestation programme and stands of ancient Scots pine with their vivid green needles make a wonderful visual impact on the golden landscape.

The path stays high above the loch, offering great views west. Mullach Fraoch-coire is one of the first Munro summits visible beyond the loch, and the combination of sunshine and cloud was making a spectacular view something extraordinary with the ever-changing light.

After about three-and-a-half miles you pass a track that leads up to Mam Sodhail through Coire Leachavie. I have to admit it was tempting, despite the cloud-covered summit, but I resisted and stuck to Plan A.

Beyond the burn crashing down from this corrie – crossed by a bridge, thankfully – the path drops to pass by Loch Coulavie and becomes quite boggy in places. The Allt Coulavie can be tricky to cross but, with decent boots and a stick for support, it was a straightforward task today.

Just below the small rise of Cnoc Fada the path descends to meet a track marked with a post for the Affric-Kintail Way. The youth hostel lies a few miles to the west from here but to complete the circuit of the loch I headed left to Athnamulloch, crossing the bridge beside Strawberry Cottage and going immediately left on a path beside the river.

A small footbridge is crossed before meeting a track, which bends left then climbs to merge with another track heading down from Gleann na Ciche. Keeping left, the yellow brick road leads all the way back to the road end – with one junction a few hundred metres from the car park the only navigational decision to make.

Heading left there leads through a gate and over a vehicle bridge to cross the River Affric. A small path then climbs up to the car park on the right immediately after the bridge.

Route details

Loch Affric loop

Distance 11 miles / 18 km

Terrain Mostly good paths and tracks, boggy in places with fords and one bigger burn crossing

Start/finish River Affric car park at head of Glen Affric road

Map OS Landranger 25; OS Explorer 414 & 415; Harvey British Mountain Map: Knoydart, Kintail & Glen Affric

Embracing the autumn beauty in Glen Affric

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