Wild Walking UK

John O’Groats Trail

Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
Stacks of Duncansby, near John O’Groats

The John O’Groats trail is a 147 mile (237km) coastal route from Inverness to John O’Groats, and I walked it as part of my Land’s End to John O’Groats and 3 Peaks challenge.

The trail is still a work in progress and some of the route is pathless, but is well signed. I used the Harvey XT40 John O’Groats Trail map which has the entire route on one map. It is a tough polyethylene, 100% waterproof, lightweight map. It was essential to show the route because this being Scotland and with the freedom to roam laws, a lot of the paths are not marked on my OS mapping. I found the Harvey map very detailed, accurate and easy to follow. There is also a John O’Groats web site which was extremely useful, and there will be a Cicerone guide to the walk published shortly. 

The John O’Groats Trail can be walked using accommodation every night, so you don’t have to carry a heavy pack if you don’t want to. However, I like the freedom that comes with carrying a tent, meaning I could camp wild every night. 

Arriving in Inverness on the Great Glen Way

Day 1 (56): Friday 12th April 2019

As I was walking the John O’Groats Trail as part of my route from Land’s End to John O’Groats, I walked to the start of the John O’Groats Trail from the Great Glen Way. It was day one of the John O’Groats Trail, but day 56 of my LEJOG challenge!

I had a really nice day today in good weather. The walking was easy and varied, from path to track to road, and ended with a lovely path into the city of Inverness around lunch time.

This is a place I love. Everywhere I went, from the Ness Islands to leaving the city, people were so friendly and happy. I just had to buy some meths for my stove, stock up on some food and find the start of the John O’Groats Trail.

A clue!

I completed all my jobs in Inverness, headed for the A9 and the Kessock Bridge over Beauly Firth – only to find the path closed. Panic set in, as quite often there is only one path over these bridges. I then spotted a cyclist on the other side of the road and a path. Now how to get across a busy road? In the end I climbed down the bank on my side, walked under the bridge and climbed back up to join the path on the other side of the road.

Not a sight you want to see when that’s your only possible route.
Looking back over Inverness

It is always a thrill walking over these massive bridges and I enjoy the expansive views you get. Immediately after leaving the bridge, the route joins a path up into the Kessock Forest, and then a track that contours around Ord Hill. This gave some good views back over Beauly Firth to Inverness.

Path through Kessock Forest

The route then descends through farmland on roads, tracks and paths to Munlochy Bay and the Moray Firth, where I camped at about 8pm. It was still light and I had the tent up, made my coffee and enjoyed the lovely views over the estuary as the sun set.

This had been a nice start to the John O’Groats Trail and it was a lovely camp spot, really peaceful. I had only done about 7 miles of the trail today. Since leaving Inverness it had been easy walking and interesting all the way.

Camp spot overlooking Moray Firth

Day 2 (57): Saturday 13th April 2019

I woke early as usual, and was treated to an amazing sunrise over the estuary at about 5.30am. My camera just didn’t do it justice, but I tried!

A beautiful sunrise. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

It had been a very cold night, and I had added all my layers during the night. There was no wind, and all the condensation had frozen solid on the tent.

My frozen tent

Breakfast consisted of coffee and fruit bread, and me cursing myself for not picking up any more dehydrated meals whilst I was in Tiso Outdoors in Inverness. Idiot. Buy more food!!! I was in too much of a hurry to cover the mileage, I think. I find the proper dehydrated camping meals best for the amount of calories I need. It is hard to buy suitable light weight food otherwise. If I am not eating good food I find I slow down and just cannot cover the miles on long distance walks. I also get miserable too….

Once I had set off, it was a nice walk through the woods, then a fair amount of road walking until I reached the Cromarty Firth bridge. Once over this, I followed tracks and back roads into Evanton and the Novar Arms Hotel for lunch. It was friendly and comfortable in here, with reasonably priced beer and food.

The Novar Arms Hotel in Evanton

I asked the bar staff if they minded if I charged my phone, which they were happy for me to do. However, the socket near my table wasn’t working, and when I told the lady behind the bar, she said she’d get the electrician to take a look at it. Literally 10 seconds later the electrician was taking a look at it – he had been sitting at the bar.

On leaving the pub it was more road walking, then a climb up to follow a forest track and I found a camp spot near the river. This spot was close to a car park which worried me, as I have found remote car parks can be busy with various comings and goings at odd times. However, it was quiet here and I didn’t see a soul, but there was a pile of rubbish left. There must have been 30 bottles and beer tins, carried in by people too lazy to carry them out again. A sad sight.

Day 3 (58): Sunday 14th April 2019

It was a cold start this morning, clear and still, which developed later into another stunning day. It still felt a very long way to John O’Groats, however, and this wasn’t helped by the fact that I usually used 1:50,000 scale maps and the Harvey map is 1:40,000. A result of this I was struggling to predict times and distances. I tried reverting to using the mapping on my phone, but that didn’t have my route or the paths on so it was tricky. I was pretty sure I was on track to get to John O’Groats at the end of the Easter weekend. If I could make it by then, my family would be able to drive up and meet me.

Day 2 (57) camp

Breakfast was coffee and fruit bread, celebrating my dry-ish tent. I was packed up and away by 6.45am, and followed the path and track to join the A9. Nothing was going to be open in Tain this time of the morning so I stayed on this main road bypassing Tain.

Dornoch Firth Bridge

I crossed over Dornoch Firth on another mile-long bridge with great views again. I decided to bypass Dornoch itself to save quite a few miles. It was easier walking on the road; my knee and ankles had been hurting on the rougher ground.

This decision would give me more time on the coast path further north. The coast is nice here but it was said to be spectacular further up.

I passed this road side cafe at 10am just as they opened. I enjoyed an hour or so rest and a large breakfast with two pots of tea.

The A9 was really quiet at this time of the morning, and OK to walk on with a nice verge, but later on in the day it got much busier. The verge also disappeared, so I was glad when this stage was done. My iPod got a lot of use today.

LOTS of road walking today. It looked like this.

The trouble with two pots of tea is there’s not too many places to stop for a wee when you’re road walking. I had just stopped behind some bushes when a chap pulled up beside me in a car and asked if I’d lost a boot, as there was one lying beside the road! Lovely of him to ask, but I hoped I would have noticed…

Finally I left the A9, after crossing The Mound (Loch Fleet) and had a nice walk through woods and pathless fields to the beach.

It was then a mile walk along the beach to Golspie, where I managed to find a pub with no food and no wifi. They did have beer though, so all was not lost. The walk from here along the coast path took me past Dunrobin Castle, which is such an impressive building.

Dunrobin Castle

Through some cow and sheep fields after this to camp a mile or so before Brora near the path and the sea.

Some new friends I gained on the way

I camped at 6pm, totally exhausted, which was probably due to the lack of decent food today (dinner was a Naked Noodle, a bread roll, fruit pot and chocolate bar).

Camp spot for night 58

Day 4 (59): Monday 15th April 2019

The day started cloudy and windy. I woke up feeling cold but sweating, so I knew today would be tough. I headed along the stony beach from where I had camped the night before, heading for Brora.

Unfortunately, I had timed it badly and so there was nothing open when I walked through Brora. It was then road walking all the way to Helmsdale. This was hard work as the road got steadily busier, and often there wasn’t much of a verge. I found it difficult to get out of the way of the traffic. Most vehicles were really good, either stopping or moving out into the road to give me room, even if I was on the verge. I didn’t walk the coast path from Bora to Helmsdale, even though the map does show a path all the way. This is because I had met a chap a few weeks ago on the Great Glen Way who advised me to miss this section out, saying it was really difficult walking and not very nice scenery anyway. So I took his advice and stuck to the road.

Following the A9 towards Helmsdale

There were pubs in Helsmdale, but none of them served food at lunchtime. I had to go into a posh, expensive-looking cafe (La Mirage) as a last resort, but it actually turned out to be quite good value. My pot of tea was huge and came with extra water. Little things that make me happy! I later learned that I had been served a pot of tea for two, as the lady thought it looked like I needed it when I walked in. She only charged me for one. My meal was so big I only just managed to eat it all. Highly recommended.

My delicious meal at La Mirage cafe

On leaving the cafe, I re-joined the John O’Groats Trail, along the coast which kept disappearing and reappearing. It was then rough up and down through gullies, finally ending up in the deepest valley after the broch (about 5 miles on from Helmsdale). The descent was definitely not for amateurs – it was extremely steep. It looked like steps were being built down it, but unless the steps go all the way down it will still be a rough descent here.

Steep descent -definitely not for the nervous

It was only 4.45pm but I was exhausted so I made camp on the only level patch of ground I could find. It was closer to the path than I would have liked, but I was happy no one would be along as I hadn’t seen anyone walking the trail in ages.

My camp spot for day 59 – chosen through exhaustion rather than aesthetics

I got into my sleeping bag at 5.30pm but didn’t feel truly warm until 7.30pm, and suffered a bit with a sore throat. Hopefully I can shake this off by tomorrow.

I hoped tomorrow’s route would be easier going, otherwise I would have to take to the A9 / A99 all the way to John O’Groats. I was feeling the pressure of a set finish date, too, and I think that had stopped me enjoying the walk. The pain and exhaustion wasn’t helping, either. I had struggled with a lack of pubs serving food when I needed it, and bad timing walking through villages before anything was open.

Day 5 (60): Tuesday 16th April 2019

I set off from just north of Helmsdale at 6.30am, thinking it was 7.30 – although I suppose it made little difference! The day had dawned with very thick cloud, but it brightened up in the afternoon with sunny spells and a fresh breeze.

The John O’Groats Trail has been very well marked, which is fortunate as the navigation would be difficult without it. There were a few places today where the signs were missing, but not many. There are some fences , gates and stiles to climb, and some of these look brand new, so it is clear that the trail is still a work in progress.

At Berriedale, I met Andy Robinson, who wrote the Land’s End to John O’Groats Cicerone trail guide. He was making notes to update his draft of the John O’Groats Trail book, and called me mad for starting my LEJOG in February! Perhaps he had a point.

Gorgeous views along the JOGT

I used a combination of road and coast path to Dunbeath. The village had a local shop and I felt guilty not buying any food in there, even though they didn’t really sell anything suitable to carry in my pack. I ended up buying two chocolate bars and two fresh pies for my tea.

Enjoying my pie from the Dunbeath shop

I stopped at Laidhay Croft Museum cafe about a mile or so further on the A9 – it looked an interesting place, but I enjoyed just sitting down for an hour!

It was a nice walk along the coast from here, following a relatively flat path, although I had to jump a few fences from the road to join it. I walked across nice grassy fields along the cliff edge with a few descents and climbs in and out of gullies. It made this part an interesting walk, and I enjoyed it.

The path is hard going and keeps having to divert inland around gorges like this or dropping in and out of them, lovely but tiring.

Finally I reached Lybster, which was an unusual place with a long, wide open main street. I stocked up on food here with a very friendly and helpful shop owner, then walked the length of the main street to the Portland Arms Hotel. This was a over a mile out of my way, but the two pints and three course meal was well worth the effort. I recommend it.

The extraordinarily wide high street in Lybster

After my dinner, I walked the mile or so back down Lybster’s main street and along the coast path for a short distance. I dropped into a valley and camped near to a small river and the sea. It was about 8pm when I set up camp, leaving me an hour or so of daylight to enjoy my surroundings and sort myself out.

Camp for day 6 (60)

Day 6 (61): Wednesday 17th April 2019

It had been dry all night with a steady breeze, so it was good to put my tent away dry this morning. It had been warmer overnight, too, so there was no issue with condensation.

A river flowing into the sea on the coast path

I had 44 miles left to do, and I could finally think about the finish and the fact that I just might get there. My ankle and knee pain was not so bad yesterday, and I think it was a good move stopping early on Monday and resting them a bit.

I started out on the coast path today but soon struggled, so I used the road for a short distance. However, I got fed up dodging the traffic and having to climb up the bank all the time.

The path is very close to the cliff edge in places

I had a lucky break and chatted to a lovely man outside his bungalow – his knowledge of the coast path between there and Wick gave me the confidence to re-join the coast path via a few fences and fields.

The coast path was still tough going, but definitely easier than before, so I plodded on to Wick, just stopping twice to sit in the sun. All the cloud had now cleared, but it was still very windy.

The path came very close to some high cliff edges at times, and felt a little dangerous. I could imagine how it might feel in more inclement weather. I enjoyed the stunning cliff-top views, but it did feel hard work to cover 18 miles.

Plenty of views today

Finally, I made it to Wick and found a Wetherspoons for a meal, then stocked up with a food shop. I wasn’t sure I had bought enough, but they didn’t really have much that was suitable. I panicked that I wouldn’t be able to get anything at all, as I was supposed to leave the pub at 7pm to allow me time to do my shopping and then find a camping spot out of town before it got dark.

Wick

However, I ended up not leaving the pub until after 8pm as just as I was leaving, I met June, who was on the first day of her JOGLE. I had a lovely chat with her and her husband, who is driving a camper van in support so June didn’t have to carry a pack. June is walking for the Alzheimer’s Society and using roads mainly. I couldn’t help thinking that that would be hard work, but she had put in an awful lot of training. She is aiming to reach Land’s End for a party that has been arranged for her 65th birthday – I admired her, as that time pressure would be hard for me to handle. You can read about June’s progress on her blog here.

June at the start of her JOGLE for the Alzheimer’s Society

So, I was a little worried when I finally left the pub at 8pm that I wouldn’t find any food. I managed to find somewhere open after asking a very helpful local lady – thank you – then walked out of town to find a lovely camp spot by the sea. It was perfect, but could have ended differently – I was lucky!

Camp for day 7 (61)

Day 7 (62): Thursday 18th April 2019

I woke this morning to a wet tent, but it was spray from the sea rather than rain or condensation. The morning was clear and warm, and it was one of the first mornings that I hadn’t needed gloves on first thing. I walked a mile back into Wick for breakfast and coffee, and bumped into June again. They insisted on buying me breakfast as I’d nearly finished, which was a lovely gesture.

Just outside Wick, the town I finally managed to leave

I tried to leave Wick for the second time, but then got chatting to Bruce, and we had a lovely chat about gear and long-distance walks. He was really interesting and even offered me a lift back to Wick from John O’Groats when I’d finished. It would have been absolutely perfect if my wife and children hadn’t been driving up to meet me at the end. He was only the second person on the whole trip that I’ve suggested they keep in touch and maybe we could walk together in the future, and both of them have been in Inverness or above. Nice people up here!

Shortly after this, near the light house, a couple stopped me for a chat and asked what I was doing. When I told them, they said that they were glad they’d asked me. It felt good to have improved someone’s day – it made me happy too.

I followed some nice paths or grassland, and the history of the area was fascinating. I particularly enjoyed walking past Castle Sinclair Girnigoe just past Noss Head.

Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
I walked the whole length of this – Sinclair’s Bay. The path didn’t last for long

All the delays leaving Wick meant I had timed it perfectly, reaching Sinclair’s Bay beach just as the tied was going out. This made the walk a lot easier and nicer along the sand. There is a river crossing half way along the beach which is impossible at high tied. I arrived to find all I had was an ankle deep paddle. Nice. 

You never know what you’re going to come across on long distance walks. Part way along the beach there was a massive engineering project. A large pipe line was being brought ashore here.

Freswick Bay

I made it to Freswick Bay, but there were a load of cows where I had planned to camp. This meant I had to compromise and just managed to squeeze my tent in between some sea defences, next to a small stream that I wasn’t expecting. I needn’t have bought and carried two litres of water from Wick! I had transferred this water into my Platypus but hadn’t quite done the lid up tight enough, which had led to a puddle in the bottom of my pack. My sleeping bag had been at the bottom (for the first time on the whole trip), so it was soaked. I also hadn’t bothered to do up the waterproof bag properly in the nice weather. These were all mistakes of my own making, but very frustrating – perhaps I had relaxed too much now I was so close to the end. The last cock up was managing to spill my wee bottle inside my tent…

Limited camping on rough ground – I was very grateful for my inflatable air bed

Predictably, I had not eaten enough today so tea was looking good. It was a Naked Noodle, chicken tikka slices and bites, an iced bun, two chocolate muffins and fruit shortbread. I briefly considered leaving some for breakfast, but I was just too hungry so I ate it all.

Day 8 (63): Friday 19th April 2019

My last day.

I woke at 1am. It was breezy. And dark. So my thoughts of getting going to John O’Groats had to wait…

Leaving early – a gorgeous sunrise

It was nice to camp my the sea, listening to the waves all night. I didn’t sleep well and my left foot was throbbing all night, and very painful. I was glad it was only eight miles to the end as it was definitely time to give my body and feet a rest before I ended up doing some serious damage. A few times, I had come close to being unable to walk.

Skirza hamlet

I was keen to get going and get the challenge finished, but I knew I was going to miss the people I met, and being out in the fresh air. I was really looking forward to being with my family again, washing my clothes, cleaning all my camping kit, eating proper meals and sleeping in my proper bed! Oh, and a bath. I will miss this though – I wonder if the experience has changed me?

Amazing cliff views along the path to John O’Groats

I had a lovely walk to and over Duncansby Head, with amazing cliff views on the way. It was then an easy route to the harbour at John O’Groats.

Stacks of Duncansby

I met my wife, Emma, and two youngest children, Rhiannon and Isaac, at the John O’Groats sign at 9.15am – it was perfect timing.

Reunited at John O’Groats

We sat in a great little cafe together and had breakfast (not the posh cafe, obviously). It will take time for me to process this experience, which a month later (as I’m writing this) is still the case.

My boots – after 1,200 miles
The End.

I walked the trail as part of my Lands End to John O’Groats and 3 Peaks challenge. You can read my LEJOG+3 peaks adventure from the start here, and my rough route plan and gear list here.

My 11 wild camping rules.

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