The Ben Cruachan dam stores massive reserves of water that are used to power turbines that generate up to 440MW of electricity for Scotland’s homes. Although the dam itself is off-limits to visitors you can walk to it along a tarmacked road which offers superb views of the Argyll countryside.
Review of Ben Cruachan dam
Ben Cruachan is an 1126-metre high mountain in the Scottish Highlands that has two claims to fame. Firstly, it has the distinction of being the highest point in the district of Argyll and Bute. And secondly, it’s home to the Scottish Power hydro-electric dam that generates energy for the power station hidden deep within its depths.
A visit to Ben Cruachan (which isn’t actually a mountain – it’s a Munro) rewards walkers with some of the finest views in the Southern Highlands, especially if they make it to the very top of its summit and gaze down at the multitude of rocky satellites below.
As the highest point of a grand range of sharp peaks between Loch Awe and Loch Etive, Ben Cruachan is at the top of the list of Munros to ‘bag’ for many climbers and hikers, but a much gentler – and equally interesting – walk can be had by heading to the man-made dam part-way up it instead.
You’ll find the dam a strange sight once you get to the end of the track and it looks weirdly out of place with its precise man-made walls set against the totally wild and unkempt backdrop of Ben Cruachan.
It all looks incredibly inviting, but don’t be tempted to strip off and jump in the waters of the dam because you’re absolutely not allowed. On this walk you’ll just have to be satisfied with the gorgeous views across the Highlands that Ben Cruachan offers at the top.
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Things to do at the Ben Cruachan dam
The walk up the well-worn track to this remarkable feat of Scottish engineering is well worth the effort, if only to marvel at the dam which looks so out of place perched high up on the mountain.
The dam stores massive reserves of water which is piped down the mountainside into the power station, with the power behind this flow of water being used to power turbines that generate up to 440 megawatts of electricity.
The water is then pumped back up to the dam at night when the energy is cheaper and released back down the mountain during the day when the energy cost goes back up. Clever stuff.
Ben Cruachan is part of a ring of mountains known as the Cruachan horseshoe which overlooks Loch Awe and Loch Etive*, and a gentle climb to the summit reveals both the loch and the surrounding peaks in all their glory.
Although car parking is limited there are a couple of laybys along the road beneath the Munro, and during the week there are usually only infrequent tourists joining in with the ascent.
You can take a steeper climb by following the path that leads out from the railway station a short distance from the visitor centre, although this route takes you through the muddy fields surrounding Ben Cruachan so be sure to take a good pair of walking boots with you.
While a visit to the dam is interesting enough you really need to take a tour in the Ben Cruachan ‘Hollow Mountain’ centre to fully understand what makes it so special.
The tour takes you deep underground into the maze of tunnels that have been bored into Ben Cruachan until they finally open up to a cathedral-sized room that houses the giant hydro-electric turbines.
The fact that there’s such a large body of water all the way up the side of the mountain that’s powering these machines is pretty incredible, so if you’ve got any kind of interest in engineering it really is a must-see attraction in the Highlands.
*If you like the look of Loch Etive I recommend you drive north to visit the loch where it opens up onto the ridiculously scenic Glen Etive.
- The walk up to the dam is lovely and quite easy-going. Pretty much anyone will be able to enjoy those stunning views across the Scottish Highlands, no matter their level of fitness.
- There’s a lot to do in this part of Scotland other than climb mountains. Two sightseeing ideas are Bonawe Historic Iron Furnace to the west and Kilchurn Castle to the east.
- It gets really muddy in winter so wear appropriate clothing, although if you stick to the road you shouldn’t need much more than a rainproof jacket.
- Combine a visit to Ben Cruachan Dam with The Hollow Mountain Experience.
- The very pretty St. Conan’s Kirk is only a 20-minute drive away which is well worth a visit.
Ben Cruachan dam is not accessible by car but it’s a really nice walk and you can enjoy stunning views at the top. From the Scottish Power visitor centre, turn right and drive to Loch Awe village. After the 30 mph sign, take the first road on the left which is signposted St Conan’s Road.
You’ll then arrive at a padlocked gate which has access for walkers. Now simply follow the road up the mountain to the dam. The road is three miles long, has a good surface all the way, and climbs gradually across the hillside. It’s an easy walk and I’d say most people will manage it, no matter their fitness level.
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Things to do near Ben Cruachan
From St. Conan’s Road, Dalmally PA33 1AL.
- Kilchurn Castle. 5-minute drive. Built in the 1400s for clan Campbell, Kilchurn Castle is now roofless and in ruin. However, its picturesque location on a headland at the foot of Loch Awe makes it one of the most photographed castles in Scotland. There is a large car park with a snack van at the entrance. Entry is free.
- Cruachan Visitor Centre. Cruachan Power Station Lochawe, Dalmally PA33 1AN. 12-minute drive. This attraction takes visitors deep inside the ‘hollow mountain’ to marvel at the power station built underground. The visitor centre is set in a great location next to Loch Awe and it has a gift shop and a café with terrace seating.
- Bonawe Historic Iron Furnace. Taynuilt, Argyll PA35 1JQ. 15-minute drive. Historic ironworks founded in 1753. Bonawe Iron Furnace is located close to Loch Etive and within sight of Glencoe. Visitors can explore the original buildings and learn about Scotland’s iron-making history.
- Loch Awe. 1-minute walk. A large, mostly freshwater body of water that is over 25 miles in length. The loch is a popular fishing location with anglers in search of brown trout and salmon. Boats can be hired for sailing on the loch in the summer months.
- St. Conan’s Kirk. Lochawe, Dalmally PA33 1AQ. 1-minute drive. One of the most beautiful historic buildings in Scotland, in a similar vein to Rosslyn Chapel. This privately-run church is free to enter and welcomes people to view the ornate stone and woodwork carvings.
More places to visit in The Highlands
- Ben Ledi – Stirlingshire: Complete Visitor GuideBen Ledi is an 879-metre high mountain in the lower Scottish Highlands. It can be found 5 miles north-west of the popular country village of Callander in the Trossachs National Park. The Trossachs are famous not just for their mountain ranges but also for their lochs which include the mighty Loch Lomond – one of the most scenic bodies of water in the United Kingdom.
- Muir of Dinnet – Aberdeenshire: Complete Visitor GuideThe Muir of Dinnet is a national nature reserve located on the eastern border of the Cairngorms national park in the Scottish Highlands. The reserve features a wealth of different habitats including heath, woodland and wetland, but it’s perhaps best known for ‘the vat’, a natural gorge formed by glaciers over 10,000 years ago.
- Glen Etive – Inverness: Complete Visitor GuideWhat if I told you there’s a 12-mile stretch of road where you can see those mountains, rivers and forests in a single relatively small area, where gob-smackingly beautiful vistas open up around every corner on a secluded, frequently tourist-free single-track road?
- Faraid Head – Sutherland: Complete Visitor GuideWhile Scotland’s west coast islands usually take first prize for the number of amazing beaches you’ll find (hello Isle of Tiree) you shouldn’t be too quick to discount Scotland’s mainland either, especially in the far north where it’s relatively tourist-free compared to the rest of the country.