Fort William, Scottish Highlands
Fort William is known as the ‘Outdoor Capital of the UK’ and so it was always going to make this list.
The town’s dramatic setting, on the shore of Loch Linnhe, and under the mighty hulk of Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis makes Fort William one of the best adventure resorts in the British Isles.
Mountaineering and Hiking
High on any mountaineers list for a trip to Scotland, is an ascent of Ben Nevis, rising at 1,344 m/4,408 ft above sea level. Unusually for a mountain in Scotland it features the ruins of an observatory building, which was permanently staffed from 1883 until it’s closure in 1904.
There are a variety of routes to top of the mountain, with varying terrain to suit all levels of climber. The most popular track to the summit was commonly referred to as the ‘Tourist Route’ or the ‘Pony Track’— it is in fact the old access route to the now ruined Observatory and was designed as a rough bridle path for ponies.
From 2004 it was renamed as the ‘Mountain Track’, in order to move away from what was considered a misleading title. The route to the top of the mountain experiences arguably the fiercest mountain weather conditions in Scotland and therefore, while the ‘Mountain Track’ is the simplest route to the summit, it can still be a very challenging hike with varying terrain and exposure. Hikers need to be fit and competent to reach the top.
For more experienced mountaineers, a different route starting at Torlundy—a few miles north-east of Fort William—can provide a greater challenge. The route takes you up a very steep ascent of Carn Dearg Meadhonach before a much less exhausting slope leads to Carn Mòr Dearg (Scotland’s 9th highest munro) and then continues steeply to the summit of Ben Nevis itself.
There are so many awesome bike trails available in the highlands just waiting to be explored, but the Nevis Range BikePark offers some of the most well known, challenging and well-maintained trails around. Like Leogang (also featured in this list), Nevis Range hosts the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup every year.
A gondola takes bikers 610 m/2,000 ft up the mountain for access to two downhill tracks. The star of the show is the orange (extreme) graded ‘Off Beat’ downhill track. It’s very long and challenging, with a vertical drop of 525 m/1,722 ft and a length of 2.66 km/1.65 mi—pro riders take four to five minutes but 30 minutes can be expected if you take it steady. Fast and Rocky is the best description of the course as it descends down off Aonach Mor. Big Rocky straights, bus stops, tight bermed corners, rock gardens, exposed hillside, slab rock, forest singletrack, tight gullies and big jumps all feature before riders drop down the wall and into the finish. Although it’s an expert level track, best tackled on a downhill bike, it can provide a challenge to any rider with intermediate skills on a good full suspension mountain bike.
The ‘XC red’ trail offers an intermediate descent for riders who want a break from the full downhill or who are building up there technical skills. It’s a blast, starting at the same altitude at the orange (extreme) track. The 5.5km/3.4 mi trail winds its way across Aonach Mor’s awesome mountainscape. Crossing the downhill track, you then join the forest road, cutting back onto the ‘puggy line’ towards the bottom.
For beginner downhillers, the Nevis Range BikePark recently updated their trail offerings, adding the green ‘Cats Eyes’ and blue ‘Blue Adder’ descents. The tracks also have a few jump routes (opened this year-2015) and are lightly bermed at the top, meaning even seasoned riders can get a lot out of the trail. As you would expect from a World Cup stage, the Nevis Range centre has great facilities, including bike hire and school.
Check out the video below, illustrating the challenge that the Fort William DH track provides for the World Cup pro riders:
Skiing and Snowboarding
The Nevis Range Ski and Snowboard center is the best place to shred snow in the winter. Thanks to its 12 lifts, including Scotland ‘s only mountain gondola (used in the summer for access to the mountain bike tracks) access to the slopes is easy.
As with mountain biking, there are options for all abilities. The beginner’s area is literally a stone throw away from the top station, with a variety of easy green and blue runs for you to gain your confidence and skills on. The runs are predominately wide and open with some challenging blue and red runs in the main bowl for intermediates as well as extensive off-piste black and red runs for the more experienced.
Nature and Wildlife
The gorgeous mountain landscapes and seascapes around Fort William offers an extensive range of habitats for a spectacular range of wildlife. From summit to sea, wildlife lovers can spot creatures such as the Golden Eagle, Red Deer and Common Seal. An annual ‘Wild Lochaber’ wildlife festival also takes place each year to showcase the fabulous environment of the surrounding area. A range of wildlife adventure activities are on offer including Wildlife Cruises, Red Deer Safaris and Rock Safaris.
Britain’s largest land mammal, the Red Deer is most naturalists’ favourite . Although these are present all year round, they are most likely to be seen in the winter months as they move to lower ground to graze. It is an especially fantastic time to view these mammals late September and into October as the rutting season begins.
Other Excursions and Adventure Activities
Aside from Mountain Biking and Skiing, Fort William offers a whole bunch of adventure activities, from a high ropes course to a tube slide. In recent years the Nevis Range has become a popular destination for paragliders and hangliders as well. The gondola offers a quick access to a take-off altitude of 650m/2133 ft from either the Sgurr Finnisg-aig or Meall Beag viewpoints.