Steall Falls (Eas an Steill [Steall Waterfall] or An Steall Ban [the spout] in Scottish Gaelic; I’ve heard it pronounced like “shtowl” [almost rhyming with “towel”] and I’ve also heard it pronounced like “steel”) was a very beautiful waterfall ostensibly tumbling 120m into a wide open scenic valley backed by tall mountains. It’s said to be Scotland’s second highest waterfall so if true, I guess it would be fitting considering that almost everything about this waterfall just screamed the word majestic to us. Not only was the wide open valley that the falls was in (technically in the Nevis Gorge) part of the larger scenic valley called Glen Nevis, but the impressive heights of the mountains surrounding the valley probably should have come as no surprise because it was the same range responsible for Britain’s tallest mountain, Ben Nevis, which itself was in the vicinity of the trailhead. The hiking experience was truly back to Nature as the area was owned by the John Muir Trust whose aim was to restore the area to a state as if people hadn’t interfered with Nature. The only thing that kept us from lingering longer and basking in this sublime place was the swarm (more like clouds) of midges that had to have been the worst that we experienced as far as our four-week UK trip in late Summer was concerned.
While we were preparing to visit this waterfall, Julie alerted me in her spontaneous browsings of the web that Steall Falls also happened to make a cameo appearance in one of the Harry Potter movies titled Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. If true, that would mean millions of people would have at least seen this waterfall (albeit not in person), and they might even recognize it without having even been there. Since I wasn’t much of a Harry Potter fan, I wouldn’t be able to tell exactly where in the movie the falls made its appearance as I still haven’t seen any of these movies, but if I ever catch a TV-syndicated re-run or some playback on cable, then I’ll be sure to look out for it.
We began our hike at a car park at the end of the road passing right near the head of Glen Nevis (see directions below). From there, we went on a well-established trail that before long started to climb as well as get rockier as it clung to ledges on the north side of the gorge. For the most part, the ledges were fairly wide enough to keep us from being too nervous, but the dropoffs were significant enough to induce butterflies if we were to step closer to the edge. Even though we had some concerns about Tahia falling in some of the trickier spots, she seemed to do quite well though we did have to help her across places that require a bit of a hot over a stream gully as well as the odd high and awkward rock step. Other hikers who noticed our three-year-old on the trail seemed quite impressed by her fearlessness.
This uphill climbing would persist for about the first 45-60 minutes (we probably were slow because we let Tahia do the hike with some help). That said, we also had opportunities to look back towards Glen Nevis as well as back towards the trailhead where we saw an impressive sliding cascade tumbling on the slopes of Ben Nevis. As we continued on the now-seemingly-unending climb, the valley then narrowed to a point where we were in a gorge as the rocky walls closed in on both sides and the Water of Nevis (the stream passing through the valley) could be heard even louder. The midges were also starting to get increasingly more annoying at this stage of the hike.
Eventually after getting through this narrow and rocky gorge section, the climb leveled out and we found ourselves in an open valley where we caught our first satisfying views of Steall Falls as the Allt Coire a’Mhail made its dramatic tumble beneath 800-1000m peaks before joining the main Water of Nevis watercourse that we had been hiking alongside the whole time. The views were already good from the start of this open meadowed valley, but we hastily continued further to get a closer look. Unfortunately, this meadow was also where the midge swarms were really at their worst as we would suddenly be surrounded by them as they looked for orifices to fly into while the females looked for a way to draw blood.
We probably lingered for 15 minutes at a point where the trail branched in a couple of directions within view of Steall Falls. At this branch, one path continued further east within the valley as the mountains would start pinching it off. The other path headed straight towards the Water of Nevis, where there was a three-wire bridge traversing it. Julie and Tahia didn’t last very long because of the midge swarms so they headed back to the car first. However, I stayed behind so I could make the attempt to get right up to the base of Steall Falls. It turned out while there was a bit of a queue on the three-wire bridge, I was able to cross the Water of Nevis the old-fashioned way using the waterproofing of the Gore-tex and some nifty rock hopping without getting water inside my boots. However, on the return, I would later try the three-wire bridge myself.
On the other side of the Water of Nevis, the path continued past some house before degenerating into a really muddy walk where the combination of grass and water saturation (from the frequent rains here, no doubt) made for a boggy experience. I had to be real selective about where to plant my foot (I generally looked for rocks to step onto) so as to not be ankle or shin-deep into the mud. Eventually after 10-15 minutes of hiking (noticing that Steall Falls was actually a sloping cascade from this angle), I’d then scramble towards the middle of the base of the falls on an “island” surrounded by the Allt Coire a’Mhail on both sides. This was where I could see the waterfall split and segment on its 120m tumble to the base. Even though getting past the three-wire bridge wasn’t necessary to get a good experience of Steall Falls, I was glad that I got to have this unusual perspective. Plus, I was able to look back towards the wide open valley and see both ends of it surrounded by tall mountains including the direction of Ben Nevis when I would look to the left side of the valley.
After having my fill of the bottom of Steall Falls (where the midge swarms weren’t actually that bad), I then followed the trail right back to the rocky ledge on one side of the three-wire bridge traverse of the Water of Nevis. The bridge was high enough so that a fall here would most certainly result in a bad injury (especially given how rocky the stream bed of the river was below), and I’m sure that would play on anyone’s psyche when doing this crossing. Anyways, a sign here said two people at most could go on at a time, but I waited patiently to let the lady before me finish her traverse before I’d make by attempt as I didn’t want to make the crossing any bouncier than it needed to be. There was definitely no way one two people going in opposite directions could pass each other on this bridge.
When it became my turn to do the crossing, I had my two arms holding onto the two upper wires on opposite sides of my body, then I planted my foot (one foot at a time) onto the bottom wire like the way a tight-rope artist would do it. I was genuinely surprised at how stable I was on this bridge crossing, and before I knew it, five minutes later I was on the other side without issue. So based on my experience, I’d have to say that the three-wire bridge crossing looked worse than it really was, and it kind of reinforced in my mind the physics behind how stable having three anchor points at a time is, even on a scary traverse like this one.
At this point, I hastily made the downhill return hike to rejoin Tahia and Julie who were waiting at the car. In about 30 minutes, I returned to the car park (underscoring how much faster you can go when you’re generally going downhill). Overall, I had spent about 2.5 hours away from the car including all the resting, picture taking, and hiking, and the trail itself was about 2.5 miles round trip.
From Fort William, we headed east on the A82 towards a roundabout shortly past the town center for Bedford Road on our right. We then left the A82 and took the Bedford Road for about 6.5 miles through the scenic valley of Glen Nevis (along the way passing by the Ben Nevis and Visitor Centre as well as a handful of campsites and trailheads). While most of this road was already narrow yet still supporting two lanes, the last two miles to the very last car park at the head of the Glen was on even narrower single-track road. We used the very last car park, in which this drive was about 15-20 minutes from the town center of Fort William.
However, we did see there were other car parks preceding the final two miles of single-track road such as that at the Lower Falls Car Park or even further down into Glen Nevis at the so-called Braveheart car park. And while it may not be necessary to walk the entire Glen just to start the hike for Steall Falls, given how scenic Glen Nevis was as we were passing through, I could totally understand why some might even want to park at the Ionad Nibheis Centre at the very start of the Glen.
Just for a sense of reference, the town of Fort William was about 64 miles (90 minutes to 2 hours drive) southwest of Inverness, about 108 miles (roughly 2.5-3 hours drive) drive north of Glasgow, or 133 miles (over 3 hours drive) northwest of Edinburgh.
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