Driving The Scottish Highlands: Mountains, Lochs, and Glens

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Scotland Highlands

Highlands, Scotland

The Scottish Highlands are just as beautiful as you’ve imagined. An incredible road trip destination that features rocky peaks and sweeping glens shrouded in mist.

The Scottish Highlands have been on my bucket list for years. After recently returning from a wonderful 4 day journey through the region of Lochaber and the West Highlands, I wanted to share my favorite highlights and tips to help you plan your own adventure.

Why should you visit the Highlands of Scotland?

Well, if you’re a fan of hiking majestic mountain ranges, floating mist-covered lochs, or exploring ancient forests, then you’ll love the Highlands.

They provide intrepid travelers with fantastic travel photography opportunities and a hearty dose of Scottish charm.

The Scottish Highlands are a playground for hikers, bikers, kayakers, and anyone who loves outdoor adventures. The area of Lochaber around Fort William is considered the outdoor adventure capital of the United Kingdom!

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Highland Cow Scotland

Scottish Highlands Mountain

Exploring The Scottish Highlands

My Scottish Highlands road trip began in Glasgow after taking the train from Edinburgh. Driving up to Fort William from Glasgow along route A82 on my way to the Isle of Skye in early July.

The landscape was exceptionally green after weeks of rain.

Weather in Scotland is often cold, windy, and rainy — however don’t let that dissuade you, these conditions also produce some very dramatic scenery.

There’s tumultuous history here too… dark tales of epic clan battles and murderous plots. Mythical legends of lake monsters, fairies, and goblins.

In the Highlands, you never know what hidden treasures you’ll uncover while venturing off into the Scottish countryside. I certainly found plenty! The landscape can be harsh and unforgiving, but totally worth a trip.

Route A82 Scotland

Drover's Inn Scotland

Loch Lomond

My first stop on the drive from Glasgow into the Highlands was the town of Balloch on the banks of Loch Lomond. The area is part of Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park.

It was raining pretty heavily, so we didn’t stick around too long, but I did walk aboard the Maid Of The Loch, a fantastic 60 year old paddle steamship currently undergoing renovation.

Further up the road, make sure to pop into the 300 year old (and some say haunted) Drovers Inn for traditional Scottish food or a dram of whisky (unless you’re driving of course).

This quirky historic stone lodge sits directly in front of a steep mountain waterfall. Stepping inside the building feels like stepping back in time…

Glen Etive Scotland

Foxglove Flowers Highlands

Driving Glen Etive

A winding single track lane passing into the narrow valley of Glen Etive will have any driving enthusiast grinning from ear to ear. It’s a wonderful little side trip off the beaten track when driving through the Scottish Highlands.

You’ve probably already seen Glen Etive before, but didn’t know it. The landscape was a filming location for the popular James Bond movie “Skyfall”, where James takes his iconic Aston Martin DB5 out for a drive.

The icy cold Etive River passes beside the road, and for the more adventurous, it’s a great place to go cliff jumping. Hiking or kayaking (with your own gear) around Loch Etive at the end of the road is another option.

Wild camping is popular in the glen, but PLEASE remember to leave no trace. It would be a shame to ruin such a beautiful landscape with trash from disrespectful campers…

Hiking in the Highlands

Wire Bridge Highlands

Hiking The Highlands

If you’re a hiker, the Scottish Highlands have trails for all levels. Lochaber is home to Ben Nevis, the United Kingdom’s highest mountain at 4,416 feet (1,346 meters). Munro bagging is a popular activity — summiting mountains over 3,000 feet.

For those who enjoy long distance treks, the West Highland Way stretches some 96 miles through the best of the Highlands and takes most hikers 5-7 days. You can carry everything with you, or hire a company to transport the bulk of your gear to guesthouses ahead of your arrival.

Countless shorter day hikes can be found in the area too.

One of my favorites was Steall Falls and Nevis Gorge, where the trail follows a mountain river funneling into a narrow rocky gorge. It ends in a huge meadow, with Scotland’s 2nd highest waterfall dropping over 300 feet from the high mountains beyond.

Glencoe Mountains Scotland

Scottish Highlands House

Glen Coe

Widely considered one of the most beautiful areas of the United Kingdom, the spectacular valley of Glen Coe has a haunted past as the site of a 17th-century massacre which saw 38 members of the MacDonald Clan hunted to death in the snow.

Another 40 women & children died of exposure when their homes were burned to the ground.

Yet the landscape is equally as haunting as its past. Driving around the towering peaks of the “Three Sisters” under foreboding clouds & drizzling rain, you can feel the weight of sadness on this place.

Pull off on the side of the road for photos, or spend an afternoon hiking a few of the trails. Further on is the village of Glencoe, where you can find lodges, cafes, or restaurants to help break up the drive.

Train in Scottish Highlands

Hogwart's Express Scotland

Jacobite Steam Train

Remember the Hogwarts Express from Harry Potter? Well, that train really exists! The Jacobite Steam Train has been called the most scenic train journey in the world, and for good reason.

Starting in Fort William, this 84 mile journey takes passengers deep into the Highlands, ending at the small fishing village of Mallaig. Along the way it travels across old stone bridges, through misty mountain passes, and past deep freshwater lochs.

Tickets sell out fast, but if you’re driving nearby, you should stop at the lookout over Glenfinnan Viaduct, where the train passes around 11am and 3pm for wonderful photo opportunities!

Loch Ness Scotland

Urquhart Castle Highlands

Monster Spotting At Loch Ness

Loch Ness is a deep, cold, and very murky lake in the heart of the Scottish Highlands near the town of Inverness. For years locals and tourists have reported witnessing a large unidentified creature with a long neck swimming through the water.

A popular activity is sailing across Loch Ness to the ancient ruins of Urquart Castle, searching for the Loch Ness Monster (aka Nessie) along the way. I hit up Loch Ness while driving back from Skye to catch a train to Glasgow at the end of my journey.

Some people believe Nessie is a plesiosaur, a dinosaur who’s survived to modern times by living isolated from the sea within the loch.

What do you think? Is the Loch Ness Monster real?

Mountain Biking Highlands

Mountain Biking Nevis Range

Under the shadow of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain, lies the Nevis Range mountain bike trails. They have trails for all levels, from relaxing forrest routes to white-knuckle World Cup downhill tracks.

You can rent all sorts of different bikes and protective gear from £25 – £60 per day, and either cycle uphill through the cross country trails on your own, or ride the gondola lift up to the world-class downhill trails.

I spent the morning riding the “Witches Trails”, a fun mix of single track and wider trails that wind through the trees, with the occasional wooden boardwalk or ramp. A low mist had the forrest looking particularly eerie.

Scotland is home to quite a few professional mountain bikers, including Danny Macaskill, the star of an epic short YouTube film called “The Ridge” shot on the Isle of Skye. It will make your heart race!

Eilean Donan Castle Scotland

Episcopal Church Highlands

Ancient Castles & Cathedrals

It goes without saying that Scotland is overflowing with its share of magnificent castles. There are literally hundreds of them, both ruined and active residences.

Scotland’s castles were built as military fortifications, and there are plenty of epic battle stories or sensational legends to learn about once you visit them.

I had the chance to visit a few, like the incredibly picturesque Eilean Donan, the MacLeod family stronghold of Dunvegan in Skye, and the ruins of Urquhart Castle along Loch Ness.

If you’re a fan of old stone churches too, make sure to stop by Glenfinnan Church, St. Andrews, and St. Johns of Ballachulish as you drive through the Highlands.

Hotels in Scotland Highlands

The Old Pines Hotel

Best Places To Stay

The unofficial capital of the Highlands is the town of Fort William. During the summer high season, hotels and B&B’s can sell out fast so it’s very important to book your accommodation in advance!

We stayed at the beautiful Old Pines Hotel outside of Fort William in the village of Spean Bridge. But I’m a big fan of AirBnB too. If you haven’t yet, make sure to read my article about how to find cheap hotels.

Camping

Wild camping is allowed all over the Scottish Highlands, as long as you follow Scotland’s Outdoor Access Code. Remember to leave no trace! There are a few “bothys” too — wilderness cabins free for hikers to use.

Scottish Highlands Tips & Advice

Once you visit the Scottish Highlands, the area will remain etched in your memory long after you’ve returned home. Here are a few tips to consider before you arrive, to ensure you have a great trip.

Everyone thinks of Scotland and the UK as expensive places to visit. While that may have been the case a few years ago, right now the exchange rate is excellent if you’re American (thanks Brexit!).

Scotland is often wet. April – June are usually the driest and most sunny months of the year. But make sure to pack waterproof gear because weather can, and does, change very quickly year-round.

While the drive from Glasgow to Fort William only takes about 2.5 hours, you’ll want to set aside more time to explore the many hidden glens and fun hikes nearby! I’d recommend at least 3 days in the Highlands, if not more.

Don’t be afraid of the food! Yes it’s greasy, heavy, and often made of animal guts, but consider what they had to work with. I recommend trying some Haggis, Blood Sausage, and of course a Full Scottish Breakfast. ★

Watch Video: Scottish Highland Adventures


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More Information

Location: Highlands, Scotland
Accommodation: Old Pines Hotel
Adventure Tours: Wilderness Scotland
Useful Notes: Many people just drive through the Highlands on their way to the Isle of Skye, however I think it deserves much more time & attention. There are a ton of fun things to do in the area.
Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Highlands & Islands
Suggested Reading: Scottish Fairy & Folk Tales

READ NEXT: Isle Of Skye Road Trip

Have any questions about traveling in the Scottish Highlands? What about other suggestions? Drop me a message in the comments below!

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.

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This is a post from The Expert Vagabond adventure blog.



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