22nd August 2020
WARNING ⚠️ Midge Alert! – During the spring/summer season from mid June to September is when midges are at their most rife. They operate in large swarms and can become particularly troublesome. It is most common to experience midges during humid days and when there is lots of moisture ie after rainfall and in between showers.
The day I decided to visit Steall Falls happened by chance really. It wasn’t planned. Only the day before I had summited Ben Nevis which was the real reason why I had ventured to Scotland in the first place. As I had lain in my tent at dawn the following morning, the familiar leg cramps just beginning to set in, I realised that laying doing nothing (as tempting as it seemed), was not really going to do me any favours. Keeping moving even if only lightly is definitely key in preventing muscle seizure. Whilst reading a leaflet I had picked up from the Glen Nevis Visitor Centre the previous evening, I had originally settled on exploring the Nevis Trail, a stunning footpath along the River Nevis which takes in the wonderful scenery of Glen Nevis. However suddenly, as if by chance, my eye fell on another exciting walk and with that my mind was made up. I would take on the trail up the Nevis Gorge and visit the amazing Steall Falls.
The Nevis Gorge
The Nevis Gorge spans a large area and includes Glen Nevis with Fort William at its foot. The section that this post will focus on however, is from Glen Nevis onwards as if heading in the direction of Polldubh and beyond it. The gorge itself is a high, steep sided gorge, naturally formed from igneous and glacial events, with rocks made from metamorphic and sedimentary rock and red granite which is characteristic around the Nevis Range. Nearby mountain summits are that of Ben Nevis, Carn Mor Dearg (CMD), Stob Coire a’ Chairn and Binnein Beag which surround and enclose the gorge.
Many waterfalls cascade off the high tops and tumble down into the Water of Nevis, a large river with strong currents giving off a white water rapid effect which runs along the bottom. One such waterfall is the Steall Waterfall known in Scottish Gaelic as An Steall. The location of the Nevis Range and Steall Gorge in particular is home to a wide variety of trees, plants and wildlife with the landscape and ancient woodland consisting of elm, Scots pine, birch and ash. Ground plants and vegetation are lush in these parts with varying heathers, cotton grass, fern, wood sage, purple moor grass, rushes and bog asphodel. Due to its depth and how close the trees are to each other, the surroundings are prone to dampness and so grows a large amount of mosses and fungi adding to its charm and beauty. The Nevis gorge is a very attractive part of the Scottish Highlands and after visiting myself, it was not hard to see why the location attracts tourists in the vast numbers it does.
The official trail head for the Steall Falls walk begins at a dedicated car park at Glen Nevis Road End (NN168691) where a notice board gives clear information about the walk ahead. The walk itself is meant to be only a short one but has so much packed into it by means of scenery and adventure. At the far end of the car park is a public footpath which leads the way right through the gorge for approximately 2.5 miles. It is at this stage that the gorge opens up into the meadow and the first sights of Steall Falls come into view. The path does continue onwards into the open moorland beyond but if seeking out the waterfall, then the trek ends here. The total duration of this hike if starting at the dedicated car park is said to take around 2 to 3 hours for the average fit and able walker, however this is not set in stone and times may vary depending on weather, the conditions underfoot and walking speed.
It is worth noting that my camping spot was at the Glen Nevis Camping and Caravan site in the heart of Glen Nevis, a considerable distance from the car park at Glen Nevis Road End and so my start location would be from there making my walk noticeably longer than what the official trail states.
The plan today was to venture up the Nevis Gorge to Steall Falls taking in all the spectacular scenery which this route had to offer. Beginning at the camp site at the base of Ben Nevis, I would follow the main road through Glen Nevis to Polldubh and on to Lower Falls. From there, I would stay on the road as it heads up to along the Water of Nevis towards the car park at Nevis Road End. Taking the Steall Falls Path, I would proceed to follow this for the 2.5 miles until I reached Steall Waterfall. Along the way, my intention was to explore the gorge as much as I could and take in the beautiful sights of the falls which I had heard so much about. The walk today was aimed at being approximately 13 miles in total including the walk from the campsite and the journey back.
My alarm sounded sharp and shrill at 6.30am, closely followed by the pounding of heavy rain on my outer fly sheet. After a hasty breakfast and cup of coffee, I got dressed and considered the day ahead. It sure was looking like my planned day of hiking might not be possible. However, as I made my way over to the shower blocks that morning, the rain began to ease off and lucky as I was, it was still remaining that way an hour later. With my day rucksack packed and my waterproofs included, I made my way over the campsite at approximately 8am. Hitting the Glen Nevis Road, I began heading in the direction of Polldubh approximately 3 miles away.
Despite the heavy rainfall which had continued for most of the night, I had to admit that I quite liked the dark, rolling scenery which befell me. The mists had certainly crept in and were circling low between the towering peaks of the surrounding mountains. Dark, black rain clouds lingered making everywhere appear much darker than what it actually was. Not a soul was in sight. I cast my mind to the day before when I had stood at the halfway point at the lochan on Ben Nevis and glanced in the direction I was now walking. The sun had bathed everywhere in golden light then, a total stark contrast to today. No cars lined the lanes as they did yesterday, nor was there any sign of life in the Glen Nevis pub where I had enjoyed a tasty three course meal the night before. No, the road ahead was dreary with the familiar threat of rain. Typical Scottish weather one might say.
Following Glen Nevis Road, I took in the scenes around me. To my left was the mighty Ben Nevis which looked forbidding today in the dim light. It’s summit as usual couldn’t be seen, shrouded completely in thick grey mist which clung there like magnified steam. As I looked on, I remember feeling thankful that I wasn’t climbing up there today in this poor weather and knew that the Gods of hiking had truly been on my side yesterday morning. Along the foot of the mountain ran the wide River Nevis which weaved and twisted as it rushed over stones and round many corners on its way along the Glen. A large waterfall trickled down off the far side and eventually met up with the river. I crossed the road briefly to stand at a pretty parking space on a small hill to observe its cascades before continuing onwards.
Reaching a car park set back from the road named Ring o Steall, I headed past this into the tiny hamlet of Polldubh where I stopped for a rest on a stone bridge crossing a very wild Water of Nevis indeed. This is one of the starting points for the Ring o’ Steall trail, another stunning yet treacherous hike which forms a loop to view the gorge and surrounding mountains from a high vantage point. By now, I was not alone on this walk as many tourists were beginning to flock to the area. It is here that many trails are started and I had to consult my map to know for certain the correct path to take. There appeared to be many stiles and footpaths, each leading off in different directions into the vast Nevis landscape. Yet the Nevis Road which takes a sharp right after the bridge was the route which appeared most popular.
Upon glancing over the stone bridge on both sides, I was impressed with the size of the falls here. Lower Falls is just one of many stunning waterfalls within Glen Nevis and a large one at that. It is probably one of the most visited due to its size and easy access from the roadside. The falls can be viewed comfortably and efficiently from the safe confines of the bridge without having to use considerable effort to locate it. Vast levels of water tumble down over large rocks and boulders and through the steep sided gorge in the rock before falling down into the deep sump below. As I looked, the water had been churned white as it was aggressively bashed against the rocks at ferocious speeds and plunged deep into river.
As much as it was beautiful in every way possible, a gut feeling persuaded me not to get too close. There are opportunities to venture close to the edge but the waters are very rough. With safety in mind it was time to press on.
The road from Lower Falls begins its first real incline at this stage as it follows the contours of the gorge and the Water of Nevis. If you look over to your right as you walk, you will see many tumbling waterfalls which cascade down from the mountain tops. It really was a fascinating sight. Like the kind of scenery you see in stories and computer games. They are quite some distance away though and although they can be viewed perfectly with the naked eye from the roadside, I found it difficult to capture on camera. The falls appear distorted in my image and blend in with the landscape too much to be noticed. I decided to leave photographing this section with the belief that this is best experienced firsthand by oneself.
It did however manage to capture the above images from closeup of the Water of Nevis. Approximately halfway up the Nevis Road is a point where a public footpath leads off from the road down towards the waters edge, where a small footbridge crosses the river before continuing on down towards Lower Falls. As can be seen here, the surroundings are rich in vivid colour, trees and various plant life. Thick mosses grow all over the rocks and the steep sides of the river. With the shafts of sunlight which filtered through the trees at this stage, it made dazzling white light reflect off the water and made for a very beautiful scene.
The Steall Falls Path
WARNING ⚠️ The Steall Falls Path is reported to be one of the most dangerous footpaths in the UK and is a location where a number of people have died. This is due to the path being extremely uneven underfoot, slippery rocks, waterfalls which run directly over the path, narrow unfenced pathway in large sections and being 100 foot above the rushing Water of Nevis. Extreme care should be taken if utilising this path and the use of sensible, good grip footwear should be adhered to.
Upon reaching the car park at Glen Nevis Road End, I made my way towards the very back where a large boulder marks the start of the trail alongside a very forbidding signpost. At first glance along the path, it does not look much and it is easy to wonder exactly how dangerous a path can actually be. I had no prior knowledge of the route before I set out apart from hearsay of what a great adventure it is. The information leaflet also made no mention of danger, yet standing here right now reading this sign I was overcome with curiosity of what lay ahead.
The path begins with a gentle accent and is easy going for a short distance, before gradually becoming steeper and rocky underfoot. The slope down the right side of the pathway is barely noticeable here and is lined with beautiful woodland and vegetation. As the path climbs higher, you will notice the slope down the side getting noticeably steeper almost becoming a sheer drop in places. The walkway further along becomes very uneven with jagged rocks sticking up which have to be carefully navigated. It is easy to become caught off guard by uneven rocks, thus resulting in falls and accidents if care is not taken. The rocks and boulders on the path at times involve a small amount of scrambling with the need to use both hands to remain steady whilst doing this.
Presently, there comes a place where a fair sized waterfall trickles down the hillside and crosses the footpath. Here, the drop down the hill is quite steep and the footpath becomes nothing more than a slanted piece of rock which has become polished and slippery over the years that the water has ran over it. I remember noticing that the rock was extremely slippery as I crossed and it took time to find suitable places to stand where I felt considerably safe.
Here are a selection of photographs of this section of the Steall Falls path.
As you make your way along, you will notice that the waters below become more aggressive with extremely fast flow, giving the impression of white water rapids which are common in this location. On the day I visited in August 2020, the trees were in full bloom and viewing in most parts of the path were greatly obscured, yet the noise of the rushing waters could clearly be heard despite me being a considerable distance above.
There are places though were some of the great dangers of this location are noticeable. As I gazed down through gaps in the tree line, I could see huge boulders blocking the flow of water which had fallen from the great heights of the surrounding mountains above. The landscape is gradually eroding over the years and at times, rocks, boulders and debris break away from the edges of the gorge without warning and come rolling down into the river. One famous and well observed boulder is so big that it completely covers the width of the river and has become a favourite place to climb and look down at the spectacular rapids which rush past at vast speed. Due to the height of the boulder, it makes the drop from the top a considerable one and this should be kept in mind if ever thinking of doing this. One of the deaths in this location was actually caused by falling from this particular boulder.
Shortly after crossing the slippery section where the waterfall crosses the path, the walkway becomes a little easier from here on. Care still needs to be taken though as this is now the highest part of the Steall Falls path. Sheer drops down the cliff face here are said to be 100 foot high and startlingly, there is no fence or handrail. The walls of the gorge are damp and moss covered with tiny trickling waterfalls running down through faults in the rock. Despite its dangers, it is a very beautiful pathway and I could definitely feel the pull towards it and the reasons why people still venture along this route.
On one of the few places where the path bends sharply and there is a large clearing in the close by trees, the sheer height can be fully appreciated. There is a designated view point which is stated on an OS map of the trail. The following image was taken from that particular viewpoint. Unfortunately on this day though the views are particularly hazy but the Water of Nevis could be clearly seen reflecting in the high sun and all the surrounding trees.
Following the path onwards I began to notice that I was heading into an open gorge. There are fewer trees here, the ones visible tending to cling close to the rocky crags and steep edges of the gorge itself. From where I now stood on the Steall Falls path, I could see the waterfall in the distance before me and even from way back here it was a spectacular sight.
The water tumbles down from the top of the Coire a’ Mhail, a hanging valley produced by differential erosion by two adjacent glaciers and is a 120 metre fall over white quartzite rock. After falling, it joins the Water of Nevis where it continues on its journey down through the steep sided gorge towards Lower Falls.
This particular waterfall, and one of the reasons this location is so popular is because it is one of the filming locations for the Harry Potter films. Steall Falls features in 2 of the films with it being seen in the background of the Quidditch match scene in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and the scene when Harry takes on the Hungarian Dragon in the Goblet of Fire.
The footpath becomes a much easier walk from here on as the terrain consists more of mud path with fewer rockier sections. Leading down close to the waters edge, here is a great opportunity to view the waterfall from closeup. The banks of the river are shingle with wooded slopes and from this point there are several routes in which to cross the river if desired.
For the daring and adventurous soul, is probably my favourite river crossing of all, a large three wire bridge crossing the Water of Nevis to a mountain hut located in woodland at the base of the falls. The hut in particular has been used lots as a bothy and appears to be an interesting and cosy place to stay. However, although I visited the waters edge that day, I was so overcome with midges that it proved impossible to cross the bridge safely in order to visit the hut. At the time I was disappointed, but due to the nature of the bridge, the need to have your wits about you and the fact that you need both hands at all times, I knew on this occasion it would be too dangerous. I was forever having to slap away midges from my face as I literally felt that I was being eaten alive and at one stage, I passed a young woman whose face and hair was completely covered. I decided to save the wire bridge for another time and remained on the far bank of the Water of Nevis.
WARNING ⚠️ The wire bridge although fun is a long three wire bridge which is prone to swaying and bouncing. Movement of other users can be felt both underfoot and via the hand wires. A sign clearly states that for users own safety and that of others, there should be no more than 2 people at any one time crossing on the bridge.
Territory beyond the bridge is wild and more exposed. As I stood in this spot it was possible to see right across the glen and down the open meadow leading out into open pasture and the stillness beyond. It was a wonderful feeling which came over me as I looked on, like I had the world at my fingertips literally. Everything was so near, yet so far away, almost like I was looking at an oil painting which I could touch in an instant. If continuing on from here, the pathway gradually fades to nothing as it crosses the moorland following the contours of the Water of Nevis towards Meanach Bothy. Terrain during the crossing is boggy marshland in parts, reported to persist even during the summer months. On this occasion due to the timescale and not being familiar with the area, I chose not to venture further on this adventure and focused the duration of my visit on Steall Falls.
Distance walked: 12.39 miles
Elevation gain: 1,136 feet
When reflecting upon my exploration of the Nevis Gorge as I made my way back towards the campsite that afternoon, I couldn’t help but be overcome by how truly remarkable of a place it was. The scenery and location was everything I had been hoping for when I made the journey from Sheffield only 2 days prior and despite the hit and miss weather, it had been a truly exhilarating weekend packed with lots of fun and adventure.
My reasons for venturing this far out of my comfort zone was not only to experience Ben Nevis, it was to sample some of the more rugged terrain and breathtaking landscapes further north which I knew would be totally different to what was all too familiar back home. The outskirts of the Grampian Mountains in the Nevis Range provided me with a great deal of that and in return, felt rewarded that I had taken a little piece of Scotland away with me to cherish and learn from. My aim had been to broaden my scope for hiking, taking it to the next level in order to make walking more of a challenge and perhaps set the scene for possible future adventures. I was pleasantly surprised by what this adventure provided and feel that it gave me a perfect opportunity to gain a small insight into just what is really out there beyond my local National Park.
The Peak District is beautiful in so many amazing ways that I cannot begin to put it into words with stunning scenery and landmarks in locations distinctive and unique to the Peaks themselves. Yet Scotland definitely paved the way to showing me just what can be gained in terms of long distance hiking and trail walking. It seems that up here, there really is no limits….
So what did I make of the Steall Falls path? Is it really as dangerous as the sign makes out?
According to local media, Steall Falls and it’s gorge path in general has an extensive history of well documented incidents and deaths. Here is a selection:
Rebecca Coyle (1996) an 8 year old girl who was out exploring the Steall Falls footpath with her family when she fell to her death from a ledge on the footpath at approximately 100 foot.
Tomoko Urushido (1997) was a 31 year old student who was attempting to climb Steall Waterfall when she slipped and fell resulting in her death. She was not discovered for several days following the accident.
Andrew Luckley (2009) was an experienced hiker and climber. At 35 years old he went exploring the Steall Gorge with his girlfriend who left early as she was tired. Andrew stayed longer as he still wanted to explore and made arrangements to meet his girlfriend later in the day. He never showed up. His body was discovered the following day at the foot of the waterfall. Police believe he fell down the side of the waterfall after attempting to climb it.
Stuart Baillie (2021) was a 60 year old experienced hiker out walking the Steall Falls footpath with the intention of wild camping in the location. The weather had turned on the day Stuart ventured out and he lost his footing on the path and fell down the side of a waterfall.
There are many other tragic cases such as these mentioned above but this is an example of how treacherous the path can be with full concentration being necessary. However, despite this I feel that the path is doable if safety aspects are carefully considered. The day I visited Steall Falls it was the height of summer and although it had rained early on in the morning, the ground underfoot was relatively dry by the afternoon allowing good grip with my hiking boots. Staying on the footpath at all times played a large part in maintaining safety and not being tempted to stray too close to the edge of the viewing ledges or climbing onto overhanging boulders.
The section where the waterfall crosses the footpath was probably my most daunting part of the whole trail as there are no real secure places to hold onto to aid crossing. Good balance and concentration is definitely needed here. My observation is that if something doesn’t feel right then don’t attempt. Steall Falls will always be waiting on another day. The path is not a long route (only 2.5 miles approx) but maybe this is why people take more of a risk to view the waterfall as people know it is the shortest route.
Finally, the midges in and around the location of Steall Gorge are fierce and are the worst swarms I have ever experienced. To be fair, numerous people both on social media and in the visitor centre at Glen Nevis did warn me in advance but if I’m honest, I took it lightly. Although I bought Smidge, a usually effective midge repellent and applied lots before my walk, it proved fruitless here at the falls. I recommend the use of a good midge net as an additional measure to the Smidge when venturing in this location. As stunning as the waterfall is, I feel my adventure was abruptly cut short due to nothing else but the intensity of the midges that day. I have since learned that the best time to visit Steall Gorge to avoid midges is in May time just before they properly wake up for the season and have spoken to other adventurers who say that they experienced none in this time. This is why May time has become my favourite time to begin a trail in my future Scottish adventures but at the start, I can only blame lack of experience.
UPDATE! The Steall Falls path as of March 2022 is currently closed to the public. Extensive path repairs are currently in progress to make the route safer and easier to access.
As always, Thankyou for taking the time to read this latest post. It means so much to have the continued support of my readers and to hear the exciting adventures which people enjoy upon trying out a route I may have written about previously. I plan to visit Steall Gorge again some day and explore the location further as due to midges, I didn’t quite get the time and opportunity to stay for longer than was absolutely necessary. Still, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed myself that day. Steall Gorge truly is a beautiful location and captures your very heart from the second you arrive. I hope this blog sheds a little light on the location and hopefully helps when planning a walk around this neck of the woods. Happy adventures.
Sources of information used to aid the factual aspects of this blog are as follows:
http://www.wildlochaber.com Nevis Range and An Steall.
http://www.ben-nevis.com Nevis Gorge and Steall Falls.
http://www.world-of-waterfalls.com. Steall Falls – a Harry Potter waterfall in the Nevis Gorge.
http://www.hiddenscotland.com. Hike to the Steall waterfall via a wire rope bridge.
http://www.heraldscotland.com. Falls danger warning after second death.
http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk. Body found in search of hill walker who went missing near Scots mountain top.
http://www.pressreader.com. ‘We will never recover from her death’ Eight year old lost footing.
http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk. Holiday tragedy after climber falls to his death.
The following images used within this post are my own. They were taken using an iPhone 7 camera device and were further edited using Instagram editor tool. All images can be viewed at my Instagram account at SoloExplorer23. Distance mapping and elevation images were taken from my Strava GPS app and are live recordings of the actual walk itself.