We stayed in Alexandria, Scotland at the southern most tip of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, a twenty minute drive northwest of Glasgow, for three nights. Balhama is a small town from which you can access the Loch and is a jumping-off point for many visitors into the wider park. (Read more about visiting the National Park.) We decided to head out to Balhama via car after reading about the nature preserve on the park’s website and having it recommended to us by a park guide.
When you arrive in Balhama, head to the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park visitors center. You can park for free here and it’s an extremely easy walk to the ferry to get to Inchcailloch island and nature preserve. Grab an Inchcailloch walking guide from the visitor’s center and then from the car park, you walk down a small road to an almost unmarked shack in the boat yard. A friendly man will materialize out of nowhere and explain that to get to the island it’s free, but to get back off the island it’s £10 a person, and he’ll take the money now.
This is reiterated on a sign on the shack so while that price feels high, we hand the man £20. He asks how long we’ll want on the island and then points to a small, beautiful wooden vessel named Margaret and says to climb aboard. It definitely looks private and we surmise that perhaps this man just lays in wait for tourists and then takes their ferry money while the park employee is on break. Two French Millennials are already aboard, kitted out in full Swiss-Alps hiking gear and ponchos. I offer them a cookie from our backpack full of snacks. They smile but politely decline. The girl looks a little worse for wear, I think due to the insistent drizzle. The guy is talking soothingly to her and pointing to things on their map of the island, which he then offers to us. We tell him thank you but we already have one and then, suddenly, the boat is moving! It’s exhilarating! I love boats! Our tiny little vessel – a la the film Dunkrik – moves swiftly through the maze of other anchored boats and within ten minutes has docked at a rock covered from waterline to sky in tall trees. While disembarking, we realize the man piloting the boat wasn’t the man who took our money and hope that someone will be back to pick us up in two hours.
Standing on the slippery dock in the mist with the two French tourists, there’s only one way to go: up. We wave goodbye, wishing them luck, and start our gradual assent to the top. The wonderful thing about Scotland is that – for the most part – they don’t have hikes they have walks. Not that walks aren’t exhausting in their own way, but walks are much more my speed than true, American Style Hiking. Lest we forget, America has a handful of the largest mountain ranges in the world. Within forty minutes, we were able to make it to the top of Inchcailloch’s highest point, and the end of the longest trail on the island. Each of the three trails is equipped with numbered markers that correspond with a free accompanying guide (get one from the ferry man or from the visitor’s center) that explain different histories about the island or loch.
The view from the top is really wonderful and there’s even a bench for your comfort! After exploring the rest of the island, we raced back to the dock to see if we could get on an earlier ferry – in total we spent 1.5 hours on the island because it had started raining pretty hard by the end – and we were in luck! We clambered onto The Margaret again and set off for Balmaha. The rain had let up again by the time we were onboard and so this time, I stood in the bow.
Ready for lunch, with literally one option in the tiny quaint main drag of Balmaha, we stepped inside The Oak Tree Inn. It’s lovely and new but still very cozy inside the inn’s restaurant. A friendly server suggested we try the daily special, cullen skink, since it was such a dreary day and also recommended different locally brewed beers. After the delicious, creamy and savory potato, leek and haddock soup that is the Scottish classic, cullen skink, we went full local and ordered baked potatoes for lunch. Mine was covered in way too much haggis and a wonderfully sharp cheddar with baked beans, Kyle opted for way too much pulled pork. Overall, the meal was really lovely and a great place to warm up after a cold, wet, windy morning.
With all our energy completely devoted to digesting all that potato, we stopped into another of the three establishments in Balhama: St Mocha Coffee Shop and Ice Cream Parlour, also owned by The Oak Tree Inn. Two flat whites and a millionaire’s shortbread later, the sun was shining and we were finally ready to be on our way to the next adventure: Queen Elizabeth Forest Park and nearly getting stranded in a tiny village near the Lake of Mentieth.