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The great outdoors: A perfect mountain with hidden delights, Ben Cruachan is a challenge that reaps great rewards

The Ben Cruachan horseshoe circles the reservoir. However, the beautiful mountain views are matched by a massive underground feat of engineering
The Ben Cruachan horseshoe circles the reservoir. However, the beautiful mountain views are matched by a massive underground feat of engineering

The highest of a popular group of four Munros and a Corbett near Dalmally, Ben Cruachan is one of Scotland’s most famous mountains.

It’s an enormous hill, the highest for miles. It dominates its neighbours and is prominent in views from many other distant hills in the Central and Western Highlands.

Ben Cruachan is quite the perfect mountain, with four ridges rising from each point of the compass, culminating in a sharp, pointed peak that towers over Loch Awe.

It can be climbed as a single hill, or in combination with its neighbours – a long traverse of all the Munros, with a high-level camp, is one of the finest mountain outings in the Highlands. A much shorter outing, a wonderful horseshoe route circling Cruachan Reservoir and taking a second Munro, Stob Daimh, reveals much of the character of the mountain. It traverses grassy slopes, a band of massive boulders at the summit, and involves very minor scrambling and a lovely ridge walk. It’s not huge in terms of distance, but involves much up and down and is a fairly testing day out.

On clear days the summit views out over the coast to the western islands, Mull prominent, are spectacular. To the north, the ground drops away dramatically into great, scooped corries. The land below looks remote and wild. Beyond lie the tangled ridges and rumpled peaks of Glen Etive and Glen Coe.

It’s always a busy hill but big enough to rarely feel crowded. The Cruachan Horseshoe is a marvellous round on the longer days of late winter, when the snow lies hard and thick. On those rare days, snow crunching under crampons and surrounded by the enormous hills that encircle the reservoir, creating an amphitheatre, the circuit feels like a proper mountain expedition.


Guide

Pronunciation: Ben Croo-ach-an

Meaning: heaped hill

Height: 1,126m (3,694ft);

Rank: 31

OS Landranger Map 50

Summit grid ref: NN069304 (cairn & ruined trig point)

Nearest town: Oban is roughly 24km (14.9 miles) west. It’s one of the principal towns of the West Highlands. It’s a port town, known as the “Gateway to the Hebrides” and has full accommodation options and a wealth of food, drink and leisure amenities.


The route

Start grid ref: NN080267

Distance: 13km (8.1 miles)

Ascent: 1,400m (4,593ft)

Time: 8hrs

This is the classic Cruachan Horseshoe, starting at the Falls of Cruachan Railway Station. There’s a rough layby at the station or a proper layby 700m (0.4 miles) west on the A85. Head under the railway via an underpass then follow a clear track through dense woods. Out of the woodland, you soon reach the power-station dam, which you climb by way of an iron ladder.

Turn left then follow a surfaced track to the head of the loch. A small cairn shows where to bear west, then north-west, to the bealach north of Meall Cuanail. From here it’s 0.5km (0.3 miles) to the summit. The route, along a winding rocky ridge, is clear. Scramble on the slabby section or bypassed it on the right by a hefty descent then re-ascent. Once past the summit of Drochaid Ghlas, it’s a gentle pull up to Stob Daimh. Head south and follow the ridge over Stob Garbh. Then continue almost to the bealach with the Corbett of Beinn a’ Bhuiridh before heading east downhill toward the reservoir. Stick to the right bank of the burn and take a path to the dam. Return to the start along the woodland path.


Discovering a dam fine piece of engineering

Ben Cruachan is also known as the “Hollow Mountain” as, 1km (0.6 miles) below the surface, it contains a vast cavern housing a power station.

Constructed between 1959 and 1965, Cruachan Power Station is one of the wonders of the Highlands. It’s a magnificent feat of engineering – the gargantuan turbine hall is big enough to swallow the entire nave of Glasgow Cathedral.

It’s a pumped-storage hydroelectric power station. Water is transported by pump from Loch Awe to the dammed reservoir.

It is stored there until the National Grid demands extra electrical capacity – say, at the end of a TV show when millions of kettles a switched on – when it’s discharged to provide power.

Although hidden from site, visitors can see this engineering marvel thanks to tours organised by owner ScottishPower.