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National Parks without the crowds: Loch Lomond and the Trossachs

© Ronald Turnbull

The Covid boom is bringing floods of visitors to our National Parks, and inevitable problems with traffic, crowds and litter. In Scotland's busiest National Park the usual popular hills are teeming, says Lomond and Trossachs expert Ronald Turnbull. To help spread the load, and enjoy a more peaceful visit, he suggests some quieter alternatives to the bustling hotspots.


I'll tak' the high road, and you'll tak' the high road as well, and so will several thousand other people. Me and my true love may never meet again, but you're sure to meet a heck of a lot of other folk on the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond this summer. One of the delights of the Lomond-Trossach National Park is how easy it is to get to from Scotland's central belt and the south. This does mean that as unlockdown of 2021 unfolds, a lot of us are abandoning our lives on Zoom and instead zooming up the A82 out of Glasgow. And I mean, a lot. And I don't actually mean, zooming. I suspect that the twisty bit between Tarbet and Inverarnan is a nasty place to be during normal daylight hours, especially now we're in school holidays.

On Beinn Luibhean, looking back to the Brack and Beinn Donich. No Munro queues in this view  © Ronald Turnbull
On Beinn Luibhean, looking back to the Brack and Beinn Donich. No Munro queues in this view
© Ronald Turnbull

So, how to enjoy a peaceful day out this summer, without contributing to the congestion? The easy answer is to use the National Park designation as a simple, handy guide on where not to go. Instead you could point your steering wheel or bus ticket at Breadalbane or Highland Perthshire, or go leftfield in the always-quiet Borders hills.

The bonnie banks aren't quite so bonnie when they're covered in people and discarded barbecues  © Ronald Turnbull
The bonnie banks aren't quite so bonnie when they're covered in people and discarded barbecues
© Ronald Turnbull

But there's a lot more to Scotland's most popular national park than the busiest bits, with plenty of back roads, back mountains and even whole back glens to spread out into. Airts where you can wander lonely as a daffodil, wild as one of the stinky goats of Beinn a' Choin. Just accept that, for 2021, it may be best to leave Ben Lomond and the Cobbler for other folk to enjoy. A lot of other folk.

In a hurry? here's a quick summary

Avoid both sides of Loch Lomond, including the always-mobbed Ben Lomond. Give The Cobbler a miss. And the Trossachs heartland, Ben Venue and Ben Ledi. You're looking at somewhere on Instagram and can't wait to go and take its photo? Take a screenshot on  your phone instead, and go anywhere else that isn't on Instagram. And go now – the earlier you get there, the emptier the car park and the hill.

Wild camping

A great way to get the place to yourself is to be there after everybody's gone home in the evening, and before they get back there tomorrow morning. When it comes to well ventilated spaces, nowhere's got better air circulation than a tent. Well, a bivvybag's even better, especially for the midges.

High camp at a solitary spot that won't be quite so solitary if we divulge the grid reference  © Ronald Turnbull
High camp at a solitary spot that won't be quite so solitary if we divulge the grid reference
© Ronald Turnbull

But that does mean camping high. Roadside camping, anywhere in the national park, means being kept awake late at night by boozers with portable barbeques, and woken up early in the morning by a park ranger instructing you to move on. Scotland's right of wild camping has been suspended in most low-lying parts of the national park – they call it the  'camping management zone' but camping ban is the simpler way to say it. Basically, any lochside or valley floor with a road is a no-camping zone.

For details see the seasonal byelaws

Camping high also gives you stunning views, midge-free mealtime, a Brocken spectre thrown onto the morning mist, as well as a chance to find out whether your three-season sleeping bag really is up to the job or if it isn't.

If you're crowd-averse then out of hours will be the time to visit popular hills like The Cobbler  © Ronald Turnbull
If you're crowd-averse then out of hours will be the time to visit popular hills like The Cobbler
© Ronald Turnbull

Instead of Ben More, Beinn Mhor

The Cowal peninsular got included in the L&TNP for the sake of the huge tourism boost that the designation was going to bring. Happily for hillwalkers, it didn't quite work out that way. This could be the year to explore the lochs, woodland, sea inlets and small mountains of the quirky corner of the Highlands called Cowal.

The Corbett Beinn Bheula, west of Lochgiolhead, can be combined with lower neighbours Cruach nam Miseag, Beinn Lochain, and Stob na Boine Druim-fhin. Cross this craggy little quartet, and you'll realise that mere Munro-bagging is really rather tame.

Less is sometimes mhor: Ben Mhor of Cowal  © Ronald Turnbull
Less is sometimes mhor: Ben Mhor of Cowal
© Ronald Turnbull

At the furthest corner of Cowal, above the Benmore Gardens, rises Beinn Mhor. Barely half the height of Ben More above Crianlarich, this is the hill that's big in everything but size. Combine it with Clach Bheinn, after a wander in along the side of Loch Eck; and don't forget to take in the spooky Paper Cave, where  the Earl of Argyll hid his title deeds and documents due to banks in the Cayman Islands not being invented yet.

A Luss resort

The Luss hills are north of the Highland Line. But they don't really feel like the Highlands; more like the Southern Uplands, or even the Howgill Fells, with the add-on of great views of Loch Lomond and Loch Long. Given the greater excitements of the Arrochar Alps alongside, the Luss hills are little visited. They have the advantage of being easy to get to, south of the A82's wiggly bit and the traffic jams. And for those frustrated at missing out on a long multi-Munro outing, Luss has a unique opportunity: eight Grahams in a single, strenuous day.

Luss but not least, and not lost either: we're on Doune Hill here  © Ronald Turnbull
Luss but not least, and not lost either: we're on Doune Hill here
© Ronald Turnbull

Back routes on the big peaks

If you must have Munros, then the trick is to take them from a different direction to the standard walkers' motorways. There's always more than one way up a hill. That could be as simple as looking up Stuc a' Chroin on the Internet, noting what the Internet has as the way up it, and then not doing it that way. In this case the route to avoid this summer is likely to be the busy approach from the north, taking in Ben Vorlich:

For those with a crowd aversion, Stuc a' Chroin can be climbed, enjoyably and alone, from the west (Strathyre): take in the neat ridgeline of Corbett Beinn Each, but it's a tough outing because of the intervening Sgiath a' Chaise ridgeline to be crossed in both directions. Even UKHillwalking has so far failed to tread the wild intervening ground:

Or sneak in behind the hill from the south (Callander) by a long walk in which'll also include the Bracklinn Falls at a time of day when they're rinsed in dawn light and also deserted. Or, yes, from the east (Glen Artney), with a choice of interesting ridges for larger and smaller horseshoe routes taking in also Ben Vorlich, Beinn Each, and even the add-on Corbett Meall na Fearna.

On Meal na Fearna, with Ben Vorlich (Loch Earn) ahead  © Ronald Turnbull
On Meal na Fearna, with Ben Vorlich (Loch Earn) ahead
© Ronald Turnbull

Then again, Beinn Narnain in the Arrochar Alps is ever-popular but I can't call it over-popular when it's such a deserving hill, with its splendid standard route from Arrochar by the Spearhead ridge. But get onto it over A' Chrois for a seriously rugged ascent that threads among crags, then a long ridgeline on comfortable, pathless grass; and the fine Spearhead ridge reserved for the descent.

Such elsewhere approaches will usually be a little (or a lot) longer than the standard route. They lack the standard route's eroded path, and may not have a path at all. They add the pleasures of route choice and navigation to the simple uphill slog. And if the route choice turns out all wrong, the navigation gets lost, then you've acquired some hillcraft you'd never have got in the procession of bodies plodding up the standard line.

Braes of Balquhidder

From Ben More above Crianlarich, a line of Munros stretches southwest, seven of them altogether, along to Beinn Chabhair. Long, narrow ridges run up to knobbly tops, and with their easy access from the A82 they are the Munros everybody loves to bag.

Enjoying the less-trodden southern approach to Stob Binnein  © Ronald Turnbull
Enjoying the less-trodden southern approach to Stob Binnein
© Ronald Turnbull

Too easy, that access. Too popular, the ascents. Instead head in around the back. The long and very bumpy single-track along the back of Balquhidder has lovely views of Loch Voil for everyone except the slightly seasick driver. This unexpected approach gives you quieter paths and hillsides, right up until you join the crowds along the summit ridges. And there's a couple of bonus features too. Stob Binnein and Ben More can be enjoyed without the very long, steep slog up the Crianlarich end. And the outlier Beinn Tulaichean becomes an inlier, part of a natural horseshoe towards Beinn a' Chroin.

Meanwhile, to avoid your fellow-humans altogether simply look south. The Corbett-height Stob a' Choin should not be confused with Beinn a' Chroin opposite, nor with Stuc a' Chroin, 20km to the east. Beinn a' Choin, above Loch Lomond – it ain't that one either. (Chroin means danger, Choin means dog; plenty of both here in Rob Roy country.)

Stob a' Choin. Could be craggier than Stuc a' Chroin, Beinn a' Chroin or Beinn a' Choin, but it won't be more crowded  © Ronald Turnbull
Stob a' Choin. Could be craggier than Stuc a' Chroin, Beinn a' Chroin or Beinn a' Choin, but it won't be more crowded
© Ronald Turnbull

As well as losing the rest of humanity, on Stob a' Choin's complicated rocky top you may also lose yourself… The circuit of the hill (up from the northwest, down the north-east ridge to a footbridge) comes out at 14km with 850m of ascent.

Train rides

My Dad, now aged 99, proudly claims he's never walked up a mountain on grass. As a proper mountaineer, he ascends only on surfaces of rock, ice or snow. So how come he's so familiar with that line of Munros culminating in Ben More? It's because of the war. With petrol rationed, and days away at a premium, anywhere at all was the place to go so long as it was alongside a railway.

Nowadays cars have taken over, and parking was getting fraught on busy days in the National Park even back before the summer holidays:

Officers are currently on patrol at Rowardennan on East Loch Lomond and are reporting that the car parking is now beyond...

Posted by Forth Valley Police Division on Saturday, 24 April 2021

To escape the gridlock, the same public transport approach still pays off today. It sure beats the congested parking at the foot of the most popular hills. The Citylink coach up the A82 may also be a way to avoid parking problems, but it's going to be clogged in the traffic just the same as your car. It's the train that really gives you the freedom of the hills – just so long as you manage to catch the last one back to Glasgow.

Every stop from Garelochhead onwards offers a day out on the hilltops. But why use one stop when you could use two? For the ambitious, there's Dalmally to Tyndrum over all four Munros of Ben Lui (Beinn Laoigh). For the slightly more realistic, try Ardlui to Arrochar over Ben Vorlich via the Little Hills.

A quiet moment on the Little Hills ridge of Ben Vorlich  © Ronald Turnbull
A quiet moment on the Little Hills ridge of Ben Vorlich
© Ronald Turnbull

That one you'll finish off along Glen Loin, on a waymarked track through the low pass. Well, you will unless you're a person with high ambitions, in which case you'll head into Coire Grogain, where a useful track up towards Bealach a' Mhaim will let you catch either the Cobbler or Beinn Narnain in the evening light long after everyone else has cleared themselves off the hill.

Corbetts (but not the Cobbler)

Most of us are after the Munros. So the summer of 2021 could be a good time to take a look at the slightly smaller Corbetts, the hills between 762.0m and 914.3m.

Corbetts are like bread & cheese, against the red meat of the Munros; like beer rather than whisky. (On that comparison, the 2000ft Grahams come out as Iron-bru. But let's not get too entangled in mountain metaphor.) With some notable exceptions Corbetts mostly lack the high excitement of the Munros; airy ridges and grim, black precipices are rather rare. Their pleasures are of a more contemplative sort. Lumpy grey ground without a path. An unexpected sea view. And that special quality of solitude that comes with being less than 914.4 metres high.

Paths and people are thin on the ground on hills like Meall an Fhudair  © Ronald Turnbull
Paths and people are thin on the ground on hills like Meall an Fhudair
© Ronald Turnbull

Many of us, one day, are going to find we've been up all of the Munros and have to decide what to do. Munros all over again, move on down to the Corbetts, or – my recommended option – combine the Corbetts with a second round of the Munros. Munros, like alcohol and tobacco, are an addictive delight, and the more of them you get, the more you need. So that dire moment of decision may be closer than you think. Making 2021 into a taster session of the Corbetts could be useful, as the rest of your life slowly unfolds through the post-Covid years.

Let's suppose you're tempted take a taste of my 'Corbett plus a Munro' technique. You could combine Meall an Fhudair with Ben Vorlich above Loch Earn. The day starts on pathless grass and heather. There's the atmospheric moorland plateau of mingled bog, peatland and bare rock, a proper challenge to your compass work or at least a battery-drain on the old navigation app. Then there's an unexpected approach to the Munro above, a narrow grassy spur without a path. And at the summit ridge, the relaxation that comes with being on a wide and trampled way, with plenty of people to chat with.

You can play the same game almost anywhere. In the north-west, Beinn Chuirn plus Ben Lui: a tough day out, and an intriguing off-piste face of Ben Lui. In the Arrochar Alps, Beinn Luibhean plus Beinn Ime (perhaps throwing in Narnain and The Cobbler too, for two of each):

Above Tyndrum, Beinn Challumby way of two Corbetts, Beinn Chaorach and Cam Chreag.

One warning about the Corbetts, though. After lockdown you may be a little less fit and vigorous. Don't suppose that the Corbetts are an easier option. Because of their shaggy vegetation, absence of paths, and extra brain-work by way of navigation, a Corbett outing is generally just as tough as a Munro.

Corbett Choices

Instead of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a' Chroin, try the two Lochearn Corbetts nearby:

Meall an t-Seallaidh and Creag Mac Ranaich are the hump of the viewpoint and the craggy hill of the son of the roarer. Which pretty much sums them up. The views are almost as good as the Munros on the other side of the loch, the second of them is a little bit rocky on top, and the roaring is because you just got one of your legs sunk into the peatbog and a nasty dirty gaiter. From Lochearnhead they offer a natural horseshoe that's conspicuously uncrowded, with an escape-route track running through between the two.

Instead of the Arrochar Alps, the Brack and Beinn Donich

They are Arrochar Alps really, but not counted as such because of keeping their noses below the over-hyped 914.4m mark. They're every bit as craggy and adventurous as their neighbours on the north side of Glen Croe. All the way up The Brack above Ardgartan, you're not sure whether you're actually going to get up her among the craggy bits or not, which certainly adds to the interest. Ben Donich has a landslipped, lumpy bit on the way down, with intriguing rock clefts. Return via a forest road on the south flank of the glen – 16km with 1250m of ascent.

The impressive route up The Brack from Ardgartan sees less attention than it probably deserves  © Ronald Turnbull
The impressive route up The Brack from Ardgartan sees less attention than it probably deserves
© Ronald Turnbull

Instead of Ben Lomond, Beinn a' Choin

If Ben Lomond's a bit too busy (and that's putting it mildly), look a little way north to Beinn a' Choin. This widely ignored Corbett is climbed from Inverarnan. You get the impressive Beinglas waterfall, a long ridgeline ramble, a view all along Loch Lomond, and a descent by the Rob Roy viewpoint. The return is along the loch shores, 10km of oakwood along the West Highland Way. And you get to take afternoon tea at the Inversnaid Hotel, which is a facility not offered on the walk up Ben Lomond just down the loch. It's a long circuit, 25km with 1150m of ascent, so you'll be needing that tea.

Alone on Beinn a' Choin. Could this beat busy Ben Lomond for its view of the Loch?  © Ronald Turnbull
Alone on Beinn a' Choin. Could this beat busy Ben Lomond for its view of the Loch?
© Ronald Turnbull

Instead of Ben Lui, Meall an Fhudair

Meall an Fhudair ain't a lot like Ben Lui. To start with, it's a whole lot smaller, only making Corbett height by a couple of metres. It's more of a moor than a mountain, with heather flowers, bog myrtle, and bits of bare rock. But handy hydro tracks eliminate the hard slog at lower altitudes, and the views down the length of Loch Lomond are better than the ones on Ben Lui. Especially if Lui happens to be lurking in the cloud.

Descending north from the summit gives a straightforward circuit of 16km with 900m of ascent. The ambitious could head south instead, to grab Beinn Damhain. This Graham-height summit adds 300m of ascent, and some rougher going over glacier-scraped slabs.

Instead of Glen Coe, go to Glen Croe

Glen Coe, Glen Coe, it's the place to go. And this summer, it's the place where everybody's going. But if you already achieved the eight Grahams of Luss, you might like to give the total Glen Croe a go. As well as the Brack and Beinn Donich described a paragraph ago, there's Beinn an Lochain at the head of the glen, then Beinn Luibhean below Beinn Ime. By the time you did all those, the sun's about to hit the horizon, and you've got the Cobbler all to yourself.

And if five Corbetts at once aren't enough, you could divert over the new Corbett to the south, Cnoc Coinnich (resurveyed at 762m) and even Stob Coire Creagach (the 817m top of Binnein an Fhidhleir and jolly steep). Seven Corbetts in a oner are not to be sneezed at.

So this second Covid summer could be the time to start taking your hills off-trail. The time to try out your navigation and your map reading. To learn by getting lost, and up your hill skills every time you go uphill. Some of these off-path options are in my Lomond & Trossachs guidebook from Cicerone Press.

But better still, 2021 could be the year to give away your guidebooks, and ignore the information gathered online. The year to make like Frank Sinatra, choosing your own route, and singing:

More, Ben More than that, I did it my way.



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