Best Things To Do in Scottish Highlands
The best way to tackle this wildland is to figure out what kind of adventure you want to have. If you're looking for heart-pumping hikes, hit up the mountainous Cairngorms National Park or traverse the U.K.'s tallest peak, Ben Nevis. For low-level adventures, seek out Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park, walk along the scenic cliffs at Ducansby Head or road trip to one of the region's many beautiful beaches. Time sensitive travelers will enjoy the verdant Glencoe or Eilean Donan Castle while fantasy fans will have fun trying to spot Nessie in Loch Ness. Whatever you choose to do, make sure part of your trip includes exploration of the unique geography that comprises the Isle of Skye, consistently lauded as one of the most magical places in the Scottish Highlands.
Updated October 8, 2017
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If you only had time to visit one part of the Scottish Highlands, let it be the Isle of Skye. Located on the west coast of the Highlands, Skye is the largest island of the Inner Hebrides. The island is filled to the brim with otherworldly landscapes. There's a lot to see on this island, but travel experts and visitors say you can't leave without peeping these gems: the Quiraing, the Old Man of Storr, Neist Point and the Fairy Pools.
The Quiraing is the perfect introduction to Skye's spellbinding geography. As you descend down the Quiraing, you'll be greeted with sweeping views of stunning geography: Cracked plateaus with craggy cliffsides lead the way to an expansive valley of verdant rolling hills, stately rock formations and alpine lakes. Situated 13 miles south is the Old Man of Storr, a single, pinnacle-shaped rock which stands out for its looks; it's so tall and distinct, it can easily be spotted from sea level miles away.
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You may hear the word "glen" a lot during your trip to the Scottish Highlands. A glen is another word for a narrow valley and the Highlands is filled with them. The most popular glen for visitors – not to mention one of the most popular attractions in the Scottish Highlands – is Glencoe. Glencoe is situated 23 miles south of Ben Nevis along Loch Leven in the central Highlands. The valley is consistently lauded by both travelers and locals for its awe-inspiring landscape, with many recent visitors describing its terrain as "out of this world." The A82 highway conveniently cuts right through the verdant Glencoe valley. Many visitors report only driving through Glencoe due to time constraints, but many express regret at not being able to explore this stunning area more. Luckily, if you are short on time, travelers do say the scenic drive certainly impressed and there are multiple viewing spots along the highway.
If you do have time to explore Glencoe, you'll find the area offers spectacular hikes and great water activities on Loch Leven. The Coire Gabhail, or Lost Valley hike, is a popular 2 ½-mile trail that weaves through a wooded gorge between some of Glencoe's munros and ends in a wide, open valley tucked away from the view of the highway. If you want to hike to the top of a munro, try the 5-mile-long Buachaille Etive Beag or the 7-mile-long Bidean nam Bian for sweeping views of the Glencoe valley.
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Cairngorms National Park is its own world. You could easily spend days exploring the many mountains, lochs, rivers, forests and villages that comprise the United Kingdom's largest national park. Measuring 1,748 square miles, Cairngorms not only boasts four of Scotland's five tallest mountains but also five of the U.K.'s six tallest peaks. In addition to plenty of hiking, biking and skiing trails, the park also features unique attractions. Here you'll find ancient castles – including Balmoral Castle, a favorite of Queen Victoria – and an impressive number of breweries and distilleries, as well as Britain's only free-grazing reindeer herd, the Cairngorm Reindeer.
With so much to see and do, the park may be overwhelming for first-time visitors. The most popular activities in the park are hiking, seeing the Cairngorm Reindeer and riding the Cairngorm Mountain Railway, which transports passengers 3,500 feet up into the park's mountain range. For a low-level trek, try the 5-mile-long Kingussie to Newtonmore trail, which weaves along the base of the Monadhliath Mountains and the peaceful River Spey.
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Of all the castles to visit in the Scottish Highlands, Eilean Donan Castle is the one worth taking the detour for. Located near the small town of Dornie in the northeastern Highlands, Eilean Donan Castle is considered an icon among locals for its rich history and picturesque placement at the junction of three different lochs (Loch Alsh, Loch Duich and Loch Long all meet here). The castle was originally built in the 13th century by Alexander II of Scotland to guard the area against possible Viking invasions. The castle stood in grandeur for hundreds of years until the 18th century, when the Jacobites (Catholic Scottish opposition group to the Protestant, English-ruling government) took over the castle and occupied it. Soon after, English forces descended upon the castle and destroyed it in battle, leaving Eilean Donan in ruins for hundreds of years. It wasn't until the early 1900s that a lieutenant colonel bought the land the castle occupied and rebuilt Eilean Donan from the ground up.
Inside the castle, you'll find period decor, as well as weaponry and artifacts from the Jacobite era. However, most travelers admit making time for Eilean Donan primarily for its scenic address. The castle is situated on a very small island surrounded by lochs lined with leafy munros. Accessible only by an old stone footbridge, it's easy to see why the castle is considered such a special place for Scots. Travelers do say that since this is such a popular attraction, it's best to get there early as coach buses are known to stop here on tours of the Scottish Highlands.
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The "Harry Potter" movies were filmed throughout the Scottish Highlands (the location of Hagrid's hut can be found in Glencoe), but the most recognizable location is in Glenfinnan. Remember that stately, stone bridge the Hogwarts Express always crossed on its way to Hogwarts? That's the Glenfinnan Viaduct. The Jacobite Steam Train, which shares a striking resemblance to the Hogwarts Express, runs along the Glenfinnan Viaduct. If you can swing it, you should consider a ride on the train, even if you aren't a "Harry Potter" fan. That's because train follows the West Highland Line, considered one of the most scenic train routes in the world. The West Highland Line travels along the west coast of Scotland, through Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park and remote Highlands areas inaccessible by car. Note: The Jacobite Steam Train follows part of the West Highland Line, not all of it; the ScotRail operates the route in full.
If you aren't riding the train, you can get a great view of the viaduct from the Glenfinnan Trail View Point, which starts conveniently at the Glenfinnan train station. Travelers who visited the Glenfinnan Viaduct recommend coming when the Jacobite train is scheduled to pass by. "Harry Potter" fans particularly enjoyed the view, saying it was fun to imagine that they were watching the Hogwarts Express on its way to school. Others travelers offered mixed reviews, with some saying it was nothing more than a train passing over a bridge.
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You can't leave the Scottish Highlands without visiting the infamous Loch Ness, Scotland's largest loch (by volume). Loch Ness is known worldwide for housing the mythical, dinosaur-like monster, Nessie. The loch spans 23 miles in length and is 700 feet at its deepest, making the Nessie conspiracy all the more plausible. Aside from the Nessie legend, Loch Ness offers stunning scenery, with forest-filled mountains flanking either side of the serene loch. Most travelers choose enjoy Loch Ness by cruise. Sailings depart from various towns along the loch, including Fort Augustus, Drumnadrochit and Inverness.
There are also multiple points of interest and hikes worth exploring offshore. One of the most popular attractions is the thousand-year-old Urquhart Castle, which sits in ruins at the edge of Loch Ness in Drumnadrochit. Drumnadrochit is also home to the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition, perfect for those wanting to learn more about the legend of Nessie. For hiking, you'll find plenty of trails in and around Loch Ness. The Fall of Foyers trail, which is close to 3 miles in length, takes travelers to the popular Fall of Foyers, the shores of Loch Ness and atop hills overlooking the loch as well. For more of a trek, try the highest hill in Loch Ness, Meall Fuar-mhonaidh. This nearly 6-mile trek takes travelers to the top of the hill, offering expansive views of both Loch Ness and the general Great Glen area (which spans from Inverness to Fort William).
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Scotland's first national park houses Loch Lomond, Britain's largest loch. The park is much smaller than its northern neighbor (Cairngorms National Park is 1,748 square miles while Loch Lomond & The Trossachs measures 720 square miles), but it still offers plenty of things to do. While Cairngorms is known for its mountains, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs stands out for its many beautiful bodies of water. Along with the grand Loch Lomond, the park has 22 other lochs to its name, yielding about 39 miles of coastline for visitors to enjoy, as well as 50 rivers.
The park is divided into four distinct areas. Loch Lomond is considered its own distinct area and is the most visited, offering villages for visitors to stay, shop and sightsee in. The second most-visited area is the Trossachs, situated northeast of Loch Lomond. The Trossachs stands out for housing two National Scenic Areas, the Great Trossachs Forest and Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, the former of which stands as one of the U.K.'s largest national nature reserves. The Trossachs is an endless sea of munros (mountains higher than 3,000 feet) overlooking glittering lochs, including the popular Loch Katrine. For breathtaking loch views, hike Ben A'an, a 1,491-foot-tall hill that overlooks both Loch Katrine and Loch Achray. If you're looking for something a little more leisurely, hit up part of the 30-mile-long Great Trossachs Path, which passes by Loch Katrine, Loch Arklet and Loch Venachar.
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If you really want to take in the full spectrum of the Highlands' geographical grandeur, make time for its beaches. Some of the beaches feature waters so clear and sands so white they resemble the kind of shorelines you'd find in the Caribbean. In contrast, there are also a plethora of beaches in the Highlands that are much more dramatic in landscape, akin to the rocky, mountainous coastline you'd come across in the Pacific Northwest.
If you're on the west coast, start at Camusdarach Beach in Morar. Camusdarach Beach is a lengthy shore backed by soft dunes and flanked by green hills and craggy bluffs. The beach also offers views of the mountains on distant isles, including the Isle of Skye. For a more Caribbean feel, head to Achmelvich Beach, located in the northwestern town of Lochinver. It features clear, turquoise waters and nearly white sands. For something a little more remote (with far fewer crowds), trek to Sandwood Bay. This beach requires visitors to traverse an 8-mile round-trip coastal hike, but is consistently lauded as one of the best beaches in Britain for its rich blue waters and striking cliffs situated on either side of the shore. If you'd prefer a shorter walk, Sango Bay in Durness offers similar scenery.
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If you're a golfer and happen to be in the Scottish Highlands, you'll want to take advantage of the region's beautiful courses. In fact, the Scottish Highlands is home to some of the best golf courses in the world. Here, you can find courses both along the water and inland as well as in remote areas and well-connected locales. The highest concentration of golf courses can be found in Caithness, Ross-Shire, Speyside, Sutherland and Inverness, though there are noteworthy courses spread out elsewhere as well.
There is truly a course for all types of golfers in the Scottish Highlands. If you prefer your golf with a side of Scotch whiskey, travel south to Speyside (a known distillery hub in Scotland) to enjoy the Speyside Golf Experience. If you're looking for something more remote, head up to the Brora Golf Club in Sutherland, where instead of yardage markers you'll likely run into sheep on the course. If you want to golf where King Edward VII once did, head up the Royal Dornoch Golf Course (after he visited, the course altered its name to include "Royal" in the title).
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England has the White Cliffs of Dover, Ireland has the Cliffs of Moher and the Scottish Highlands has Duncansby Head. Located on the northernmost tip of Scotland's east coast, Duncansby Head features jagged cliffs – draped in rich, evergreen vegetation – that stretch as far as the eye can see. While you'll likely find this kind of geography in other parts of the coastal Highlands, what makes Duncansby Head stands out are its stacks. The Duncansby Stacks are a series of striking rock formations that stand less than a mile off the coast of Duncansby Head. With their rocky silhouettes so closely resembling that of the mainland's edge, it almost looks as if they are puzzle pieces that could easily fit right back into the slits of the cliffs.
The trail to get to the Duncansby Stacks is a little more than 5 miles in length and incredibly scenic, according to recent visitors. The trail lines the edge of the coast, starting at John O'Groats, a small village nearest Duncansby Head. Before you get to the cliffs, you'll pass by a few low-level beaches. Once you get to the lighthouse, you'll reach Duncansby Head and be less than a mile from the stacks. Visitors note that they had to traverse through grassy meadows along this part of the trail and, considering the damp nature of the area, strongly suggested sturdy boots. Visitors also reported very windy conditions, so bring a sturdy jacket with you as well. When you reach the stacks, don't forget to look down. Travelers say that they were able to spot seals and puffins around the cliffs and on the beaches.
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The most popular trail in the Scottish Highlands is also one of its most challenging. Ben Nevis, the U.K.'s tallest mountain, sits just 7 miles southeast of Fort William. Nevis clocks in around 4,406 feet high, yielding incredible views at the top for those tough enough to ascend its summit. Of all the 125,000 travelers who visit the mountain per year, only 25,000 successfully conquer Ben. The trail is nearly 11 miles total and, according to the Fort William tourism board, takes about seven hours to complete (four hours up and three hours down), though some hikers reported that it can take less time in ideal weather conditions. Travelers who did reach the top say the trek was completely worth it for the unmatched views of the Highlands.
Echoing the concerns of the Fort William tourism board, hikers said the weather conditions in Ben Nevis are unpredictable and can change rapidly, even during a perfect summer's day. Always check the weather beforehand. Wind conditions in particular are known to get more intense the closer you get to the summit, regardless of the temperature. And because the terrain is entirely composed of rock, you'll want to wear the proper hiking shoes. Plan to carry lots of water and snacks, and know that the only restrooms available are at the bottom of the mountain.
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