I took advantage of a day of good weather this week for a challenging mountain route in the Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve visiting three Munros and six Munro Tops.
Creag Meagaidh NNR is located on the north shore of Loch Laggan, halfway along the A86 between Fort William and Newtonmore. It’s an area I have visited many times before and usually to bag the three Munros, Càrn Liath, Stob Poite Coire Àrdair and Creag Meagaidh. This time, I wanted to tick off a few Munro Tops as well.
Difference between Munros and Munro Tops
Munros are defined as Scottish mountains over 3000ft (914.4 m) in height, and which are on the Scottish Mountaineering Club‘s official list of Munros. Munro Tops are Scottish mountains of 3000ft (914.4 m) stature that are not considered Munros but are subsidiary summits.
Creag Meagaidh Munros and Munro Tops
When returning to the Munros – I have completed a full round already – I like to do a different route if I can, or else I’ll add in some other summits. I check the map before heading out to see if there might be a nearby Corbett or Munro Top. This time I spotted six Munro Tops spread across two ridges.
On closer inspection, I realised I’d already bagged two of the Munro Tops on the northern ridge. It’s often the case that when walking a classic route of Munros, you also reach a Munro Top or two. However, there were four outlying Munro Tops on the southern ridge and these became my focus. I had never been up on the southern ridge and I liked the idea of gaining a new perspective of this mountain area.
I invited my friend Geraldine to join me and we decided we would head to the first four Munro Tops, then the Munro Creag Meagaidh before making a decision on the other Munros and Munro Tops. It was Geraldine’s first time on any of these mountains.
Our route to the Munro Tops
We parked at a car park at Aberarder on the north side of the A86, opposite Loch Laggan, and then set off on a well-laid path north-west. The footpath heads to a white buiding that was a farm and now forms part of the National Nature Reserve, run by Nature Scot. There is a toilet here!
We then continued on the path that starts to climb through a patch of birch trees. At an open area, there’s a junction and we took the right-hand path. A popular route on the Walk Highlands website suggests people then branch off to the right again to climb on a series of stone steps and up towards the Munro Càrn Liath. This would take you on an anti-clockwise traverse of the northern ridge, then Creag meagaidh and to return down via the so-called “window” and back along a lower track close to Allt Coire Ardair.
I am not sure I’d recommend this because the well-laid path peters out further up and turns to a boggy, muddy mess. Climbing uphill on tis at the start of a long mountain day would be soul destroying in my opinion.
Instead, I suggest walkers follow the path, staying to the left and heading north-west to continue along the north bank of the Allt Coire Ardair. It’s a superb path and undulates as it gently rises towards the stunning Lochan Coire Ardair, which sits below steep cliffs at the far end of the valley. The views grow in magnificence as you continue along the path.
Geraldine and I ran at a relaxed pace on this path, slowing to a fast hike when the gradient steepened. We were keen to preserve our leg muscles so early in the day.
The usual route to Creag Meagaidh is to ascend a so-called “window” at the end of the valley. This rises steeply to a bealach. I have done this a number of times and I knew there was a path of loose rock and scree that zig-zagged upwards. It looks daunting from lower down, but it’s perfectly doable even if it’s somewhat muscle zapping.
On this occasion, however, I was keen to ascend to the south to reach the top of the southern ridge. I’d checked the map and there appeared to be a way upwards from the eastern shore of the lochan. Geraldine and I assessed this route on the ground and decided it looked fine. It turned out to be steep and rocky at times and we felt like we were making very slow progress.
Then, as we headed on to the ridge itself, we found ourselves in warm sunshine and we could see many of our first summits – the Munro Tops – lined up around us.
Ticking off four Munro Tops
First, we tracked a short way east to reach the first Munro Top, Sròn a’ Choire. The views from here, taking in numerous mountain peaks to the south, were spectacular. We talked about how lucky we were to be out on a day of such amazing sunshine in autumn.
The next Munro Top, Puist Coire Ardair, was very easy to reach, further west along the ridge. It seemed like no time at all before we were touching the small cairn. The top is situated high above Lochan Coire Ardair and above precipitous cliffs. This area is a favourite of climbers.
Looking south and west, we spotted our next two Munro Tops, each located on what appeared to be rugged arms of the mountain top. As we headed towards Meall Coire Choille-rais, the terrain undulated in a series of big creases of land indented by small streams. A thin layer of snow covered much of the ground and we had to be careful not to accidentally step into the streams, which were hidden by snow.
Meall Coire Choille-rais rose to the south and the top sat above steep crags to the east. We retraced our steps along this arm and then headed south along another arm to reach our fourth Munro Top, An Cearcallach. The sun was shining brightly, although a chilly wind had picked up.
On to the first Munro of the day
From An Cearcallach, we looked north to see a huge expanse of snow-covered moorland rising towards the ridge line of Creag Meagaidh. We spotted a cairn a long way in the distance.
It might be that there is a decent trod to follow across this moorland but we could see only snow. Having retraced our route back along the arm of An Cearcallach, we aimed NNW. We ended up going a little off route, straying too far east, but after checking the map, we made sure we were back on track. We didn’t have any features up ahead to aim for, which meant we needed to pay close attention to the map.
With snow on the ground, the climb towards Creag Meagaidh was quite slow and tiring. But we were enjoying each other’s company, with plenty to chat about, and the weather was fantastic so we were content to take the slope as it came. Eventually we reached a higher plateau, where the landscape flattened, and we could see the cairn a little way to the west and higher up.
There was a lot more snow on this ridgeline but it had been compacted by the feet of many previous walkers. We were now following the more popular route of the Munros of Creag Meagaidh.
The wind was cold and strong as we touched the cairn, so we were quick to turn back and returned east. We reached another cairn, known as Mad Meg’s cairn. Legend has it that the large cairn marks the grave of a woman who took her own life in the 18th century. Having been denied a burial in the local kirkyards, her family buried her high on Creag Meagaidh.
Still with the cold north wind in our faces, Geraldine and I jogged past the cairn, then downwhill now following a snowy-rocky path. I was now on familiar territory and I explained my ideas to Geraldine for two different routes back to the car park.
The first, and shortest, would be to descend the window and head along the track from Lochan Coire Ardair, or else we could climb up on to the northern ridge to take in two more Munros and two further Munro Tops. The latter would be more arduous but it would also provide a very satisfying circuit. Geraldine didn’t hesitate in agreeing to the second option.
Second half of the Creag Meagaidh adventure
The descent from the cairn on Creag Meagaidh took us down towards the bealach, just above the “window”. From here, we climbed up a steep slope in a north-westerly direction, before heading east. The next Munro, Stob Poite a’Choire Àrdair, seemed quick to reach. There are two small cairns, just a short distance apart, and we debated which was the marker for this Munro. We touched both just to be sure!
The rest of this wide ridge spread out ahead of us with many ups and downs. Before the final Munro of the day, we had another two Munro Tops to reach, including Sròn Coire a’ Chriochairein first, then Meall an t-Snaim. I had not paid much attention to these tops on previous walks but I now really relish the idea of ticking off another long list of Scottish summits.
The wind was almost constantly cold and Geraldine and I decided to stop to add layers and eat a snack before continuing towards the last summit of the day. We met a walker who was from Canada and visiting Scotland as a judge of a major snare drumming competition. He was clearly enjoying the weather and the mountains.
Heading onwards at a run-hike pace – we ran the downs and flats and walked the ups – we finally reached Carn Liath, our third Munro.
It was with relief that we knew we would now be on a mostly downhill trajectory. Our total ascent was over 1650m by this point. The route back to the start drops to the south on a rocky and boggy slope. We picked up a path and followed this south-easterly and then more southerly.
Eventually, we joined a very well-made path – this has obviously been built by the nature reserve – and descended on a series of rocky steps. This path met with the path we had climbed much earlier in the day and, from this point, we ran back downhill, passing the Nature Scot building and toilet, and back to the car park.
It had been a brilliant day in great weather but we were both very happy to change out of sweat-dampened clothes and sit down in the car.
Route details: Creag Meagaidh Munros and Munro Tops
Total ascent: 1665m