The circuit of lovely Loch Muick is a walk that can be enjoyed by all ages at any time, but for those looking for a little bit extra, the push on up to the hidden Dubh Loch is well worth the effort.
It’s a familiar sight to those who tramp the surrounding mountains regularly, a high oasis cradled by towering, craggy faces. The trek in to its shores doesn’t take too long, but beware, it’s a place where you will want to linger.
My last visit was on a beautiful blue-sky spring day, the sun blazing down on the remainder of the winter snow sheet, the reflection on the water beneath brilliant white peaks blinding at times.
There were a few cars around when I set off, down past the small visitor centre and then right on the track crossing the river to the buildings at Allt-na-giubhsaich.
There is an alternative path for reaching the track on the other side of Loch Muick which emerges at a boat house, but I prefer the former route with its superb views of Lochnagar filling the horizon. This is also a choice feeding ground for deer and they can often be seen here in great numbers.
Chill in the wind
There was still a chill in the wind, but I was soon regretting wearing my winter gear and the initial part of the walk was punctuated by the need for a series of costume changes.
The temperatures also seemed to have confused the wildlife: as I strode along the side of Loch Muick, my face turned up to catch the sun, I noticed movement at my feet and quickly jumped to the side. I had nearly trod on an adder.
It was hard to tell who had been given the greatest shock. Adders are plentiful in these parts, but I had never seen one basking on an ice-coated path before. After we had both recovered our composure, it slid off into the snow-covered heather and I continued heading south-west along the track to the house at Glas-allt Shiel.
This impressive property was built for Queen Victoria after the death of her husband Albert as a retreat from Balmoral. Those wishing to visit the Glas Allt Falls can take the steep path up through the trees to the left of the house.
I emerged from the sheltering pines at a gap in a wall, the end of the loch now in sight. Beyond lay the long ridges of the high peaks, Broad Cairn to the right, the White Mounth to the right.
A little further on, the path split. The left branch goes across the head of Loch Muick, crossing a series of little bridges, before swinging back to head north-east along the opposite shore. Missing out the climb to the Dubh Loch cuts out 6km/3.5 miles and around 300 metres height gain and should shave two hours off the walk.
I continued west, the path following the waters of the Allt an Dubh-loch rising at a gentle but steady angle through the heather, the soft snow adding to the effort. It was particularly deep amongst the boulders on either side of the stream tumbling down from little Loch Buidhe high above. The icicles on the waterfall were a reminder of winter moods.
One last rise and the Dubh Loch came into view, a flat calm sheet of pure white, frozen waters with a light snow blanket. It was hard to pick out the exact contours of the shoreline.
The silence, the feeling of solitude, was wonderful. The normally-dark crags of Creag an Dubh-loch were vertically streaked with gleaming white, every line of their fierce profile accentuated. As a lunch spot it was hard to beat.
The path continues along the side of the loch but this was as far as I needed to go. Shorter days mean keeping an eye on the clock. It can be easy to get caught out, and this was highlighted as I rejoined the circuit path down at Loch Muick for the return journey.
The lack of sunlight on the eastern shore meant parts of the path were iced over and needed care. By the time it took a slight uphill turn to reach a bridge crossing where a track is joined, all difficulties were behind me.
As I neared the end, the feeling of solitude had long dissipated. The car park was full and the tracks were busy with dog walkers and strollers enjoying the last of the evening sun.
1. Take track over bridge from parking to Balmoral Estate visitor centre. After passing vehicle barrier turn right and follow track to houses at Allt-na-guibhsaich.
2. Turn left on track running down side of loch for 3.5km to reach house at Glas-allt Shiel.
3. Pass to front of house through pines to reach wall, then more open terrain to head of loch.
4. For Dubh Loch, stay on path heading west. It rises gently, passing waterfall and crossing stream en route before final push to loch.
5. Return east to Loch Muick and turn right on path over head of loch via series of wooden bridges to reach eastern shore.
6. Follow path north-east, crossing bridge about halfway along, then continue on track back to Spittal of Glenmuick.
Distance: 18km/11 miles
Time: 5-7 hours
Grading: Estate tracks and hill paths. Low-level circuit of Loch Muick suitable for older children, ascent to Dubh Loch moderate, for relatively fit walkers with hill experience. Sturdy footwear advised.
Start/finish: Spittal of Glenmuick car park (Grid ref: NO 309851). Parking charges apply (£4 per car).
Map: Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 Landranger Map 44 (Ballater & Glen Clova); Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 Explorer sheet 395.
Tourist Information: VisitScotland, Ballater iCentre, Station Square, Ballater, AB35 5QB (Tel 01339 755306).
Public transport: No public transport to Spittal of Glenmuick, but buses to Ballater, with taxi service an option.
- You can follow Alan’s regular mountain adventures at munromoonwalker.com or on Facebook (Munro Moonwalker) and Twitter (@munromoonwalker)
- Please observe government coronavirus safety guidelines in all outdoor activities.