Do you love exploring? It can be challenging finding places that aren’t super-busy, especially in the height of summer,. I love exploring so, although there are places I love and go back to time-and-time again, I especially enjoy finding new paths and ways that are a little bit different or off the beaten track.
The Cowal peninsula, especially the area around Loch Eck (part of Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park), is a wonderful area to explore, with many gems. The region welcomes less visitors than some more popular areas in the National Park, as it is located off the main tourist highways north and west, the A82 and A83. However, this area is well served by buses from Dunoon, which is easily reached by ferry from Gourock – a fun way to travel itself.
Glenbranter is one of the gems, and is a great base if you enjoy hiking, cycling or camping. There are short and long trails to explore, including some stunning woodland walks and strenuous all-day bike rides. It is the historic heart of the Argyll Forest Park – the first trees were planted here in the 1920s – and this prompted the building of Glenbranter village itself to accommodate the forestry workers. The surrounding hills and woods offer some amazing sights all-year-round; in Winter the mountains are capped with snow, and in Springtime there are massed carpets of bluebells in the ancient oak woodland.
On our most recent visit, we chose a there-and-back again hike along the longer West Loch Eck Trail on a superbly sunny Summer day. Even before leaving the arrival point with it’s useful information board and public toilets (currently being renovated), we paused to watch the resident Swallows swooping low and often across the field, gathering insects for the juveniles nesting in the eaves of the forestry building.
The West Loch Eck trail briefly follows waymarked trails south from the arrival point, before diverting east past Glenshellish farm, on a very good but sometimes muddy forestry road. The first stretch of path before reaching the Loch is approximately 2.5km and passes through meadows and pasture full of wildflowers, birds and insects, with views across the fields to the mountains of Carnach Mor, Beinn Dubhain and Sgurr a’ Choinnich.
While walking we spotted Redstart and heard Blackcap and Chiffchaff singing, and enjoyed watching Red Damselfly and enormous Gold-ringed Dragonflies buzzing around. Iridescent black-and-blue Dor beetles bulldozed their way across the path, and Heath Spotted Orchids were abundant, with white, pink and magenta spikes peppering the meadows and verges – they were everywhere!
This Gold-ringed Dragonfly had landed amongst the reeds beside the path and seemed to be struggling to take off again as it’s wings were vibrating against the vegetation. With a bit of help, it flew off again in search for prey.
After a short while the trail climbs and entered the welcome shade of spruce plantation, until the northern head of Loch Eck comes into view, blue and inviting against the swathes of green forest and hillside.
The trail continues through the woodland, high above the loch, and on a day as warm as this one the water below looked very inviting. Occasionally, streams of water could be heard rushing and cascading alongside the track and down small waterfalls alongside the path, providing a welcome opportunity to cool down.
I have heard Loch Eck described as a “slender jewel”, as a “long, narrow, gently winding ribbon of silver, shining against its surrounding, thickly-afforested slopes”, and today – having greeted only a single solitary cyclist on the path all day – it feels like a wild and remote treasure.
We paused at the ruins of a farmstead and walled garden, simply marked “Stuck” on the map (a name possibly derived from Scots Gaelic “stuc”, meaning rocky peak), alongside which a faint path offered access to the loch shore.
After a warm few miles of hiking in the sunshine, it felt wonderful to change into swimming gear on the shingle beach and spend some time immersed in the cooling water. After a swim, we explored the ruins a little more before re-joining the path for the return walk.
Today’s there-and-back-again hike was around 12km in total and took us about a third of the way along the lochs length, meaning we have saved the southern part of the trail for another day of exploring. There are so many tracks and trails in the area waiting to be explored, and I can’t wait to come back and explore some more of this jewel in Cowal’s crown.