The Scottish Highlands are one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. Its rugged landscape is filled with rich forests and towering snow-clad peaks, which do wonders to enliven the soul. While the Alps certainly has better and more predictable weather for both summer and winter activities, I feel Scotland has an unclaimed rawness to it. It’s un-tameable and ancient, but just like its people, is more than happy to welcome you into its fold.
But enough of those random musings, you’re here to find the perfect itinerary for your trip. A few years ago I spent several weeks in the Highlands with my brother Ben, and family. We were able to cover quite a lot of ground, but because of its vastness and windy roads, it did take time. As such, for those limited to a certain number of days I’ve tried to create an itinerary which will suit both highland newbies and veterans.
There is so much to explore in the Highlands so I do recommend doing several trips. I mean you could spend a whole week in the Isle of Skye alone and never see it all. But this eight-day itinerary focusses on the area around Fort William —the Outdoor Capital of the UK—and combines visits to the Nevis Range, Glen Coe and the Cairngorm National Park. It will give you a good flavour of the area, without spending too much time in the car.
Staying in Fort William
Fort William is a great location to base yourself during this trip. It’s one of the easiest locations to access via road in the area and has ample amenities. While there are multiple hotels and hostels in the town, we opted for self-accommodation. I always find self-accommodation easier as it means I can make and pack my own lunch and snacks for excursions. You’ll be able to find lots of apartments online through sites such as homeaway.co.uk and airbnb.co.uk. It’s worth booking these several months in advance as Fort William is a popular base during summer and winter.
Here’s a map of the itinerary for the seven days. It includes the road to Mallaig and the walking route up Ben Nevis.
Day 1: Walks in the Nevis Range & Mountain Biking
So, hopefully, you’ve settled into your base and you’re looking for the first adventure. Head to the Nevis Range, 15 mins car journey, for your first introduction to the Highland landscape. During summer there are plenty of walks around the Nevis Range, including that to the summit of Aonach Mor (1,221 m). The slope of the mountain is gradual but towards the end gets increasingly steeper. It’s not a technically difficult climb but is a little demanding. Get the mountain gondola from the car park to 650m, then start your climb. There and back takes around two and a half hours.
If you have time, or you fancy something different to walking, the Nevis Range is also the home to some of the best bike trails in the region. Including that used during the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup series (normally held in Scotland in June). If you don’t have a bike, you can rent them at the kiosk and bike shop near the car park. You can then buy a pass which allows you day access to the mountain gondola. There are numerous downhill trails, each with a different difficulty grading. If you want to explore further afield you can also join the cycle link from Torlundy and cycle back towards Fort William. The cycle path goes from the Nevis Range into Leannachan Forest to the Old Ski Road to the village of Torlundy and then on to the Ben Nevis Distillery where there is a nice visitor centre and coffee shop.
For more information on the mountain bike trails, prices and opening times, see here.
Day 2: Climb Ben Nevis & Little Pub
Climbing Ben Nevis is surely a must if you’re heading to this region. Sitting at 1,345 m, it’s the UK’s tallest mountain and was first ascended in 1771 by botanist James Robertson (first recorded ascent). Every year since the 50’s, during the Ben Nevis Race, people attempt to run up and down the mountain in the quickest time possible. The current records have stood since 1984, held by Kenny Stuart (1:25:34) and Pauline Haworth (1:43:25).
If you’re happy to just walk it, which is a challenge in itself, I’d recommend parking at the Ben Nevis Visitor Center and starting your journey from there. Currently, the cost is £3 per car per day or £10 per minibus/motorhome/coach per day. There are toilets at the visitor centre you can use too!
Ben Nevis from Ben Nevis Visitor Centre
This route up Ben Nevis is by far the most popular because of its ease of access. Despite this, it’s still a challenging climb. Make sure to wear appropriate clothing and hiking boots which have good ankle support. Pack enough food and extra layers including a waterproof. The temperature changes quickly as you ascend the mountain. While it can be 20°C+ in the valley, on top the temperature can be below 0 and there is usually snow even during midsummer. (See itinerary map above for a route plan.)
- From the carpark, cross the footbridge in the left-hand corner and follow the path alongside the river. Take the first left on to a track which climbs past the farm and Ben Nevis Inn. After about 10 minutes, you’ll join a stony path with large steps which climbs gently up across the side of Glen Nevis.
- After 30-40 minutes the path swings left to climb more steeply. The path then straightens out as you head towards Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, a small loch also known as Half Way Lochan as it roughly marks the halfway point in the climb.
- Carry along the obvious pathway, which forms a V shape in the mountain to cross over the ravine known as Red Burn. Follow the route, marked with small stone cairns until you reach an area of rugged scree which is the start of the “zigzags”.
- The zigzags are quite challenging underfoot. This area is also normally covered, in parts, in snow. It can get quite cold up here, so add some layers. The weather can change quickly, including an onset of mist. If in doubt, keep on the southern edge of the snow line and do not be tempted towards the left, or North Face, which can be very dangerous. Look for stone cairns which mark the path.
- After about 40 minutes of zigzagging the path will straighten out and lead to the summit where you’ll see the remains of the old weather station.
- On the way back, retrace the same route back to the visitor centre taking particular care during steep descents.
The climb up and back takes around five to seven hours. So after all that exertion, you’ll definitely deserve a break. The Ben Nevis Inn sits at the foot of the mountain and is a popular stop for most hikers who pass through. Its timber interior is the epitome of mountain cabins and during the summer they have traditional live music every Tuesday evening from 9 pm – 11 pm.
Day 3: Steall Falls & Dun Deardail
The walk to Steall Falls is one of the best short walks in the region. It heads through the ancient and winding woodland of the Nevis Gorge and leads to the spectacular Steall Falls which is Scotland’s second highest waterfall, with a single drop of 120 metres. There is a car park at the very end of the road up Glen Nevis, where you can park and start your journey. The route is well signposted and follows a well-trodden but beautiful pathway. I’d said there and back takes around two hours, but it’s worth spending time taking in the scenery and makes a great stop for lunch.
Another great walk in the region is that up to Dun Deardail, an Iron Age fort whose outline can still be seen today as grassy embankments. At the top of the fort, you get some fantastic views out across the Glen Nevis valley as well as Ben Nevis itself. After walking up it the day before, it’s pretty cool to see it from a different perspective in all its majesty. Park at the Braveheart car park and follow signs to Dun Deardail. The pathway is well marked and flows through a forest and into grassland before ascending the hilltop. Allow around 2 -3 hours for there and back.
Day 4: Cairngorm National Park & Quad Biking
Personally, I’d love to spend a few days exploring the Cairngorm National Park. It’s one of the few places in the UK to see a golden eagle and the only place to see a herd of free-ranging reindeer! If you’re stuck for time, then I think the best way to see this beautiful region is by quad bike! There are several companies who run bike excursions, but we went with Quad Bike Tour. The two-hour tour took us around the Ardverikie Estate—famous for being the setting for the hit BBC drama “Monarch of the Glen” and most recently the Netflix series “The Crown.” It was awesome! The scenery was beautiful and we travelled through forests, open tracks and also onto the estate’s own inland beach! The guides were really friendly and helpful and the actual biking was really exhilarating, powering through some tight turns and pretty challenging terrain. I’d love to go back and do this again!
Day 5: Eilean Donan Castle & Boat Trip
It’s no secret that Scotland has a LOT of castles. But if you’re going to visit one, make sure it’s Eilean Donan. The 13th Century castle, located near Kyle of Lochalsh, sits on an island at the point where three great sea lochs meet—Loch Long, Loch Alsh and Loch Duich. Its stunning backdrop makes for some incredible photography, which is frequently posted on the Facebook page dedicated to it. On top of that, it’s also been the setting for many iconic films including Highlander and James Bond The World is Not Enough.
After visiting the castle, head around the coast and into the Kyle of Lochalsh. From here, you can access the Isle of Skye via the Skye bridge. If you do so, I’d recommend staying in Skye for a few days to explore its wilder parts.
Alternatively stay in the Kyle of Lochalsh and head out on one their boat tris. The Seaprobe Atlantis, which has a glass bottom, takes you out into the loch looking for marine life. You can hope to see everything from common seals, otters, porpoises, fish and jellyfish, seabirds, the best underwater kelp forests in the area as well as a World War II Shipwreck.
Day 6: Glen Coe & Three Sisters
A drive through Glen Coe will offer some of the most spectacular scenery in this region. As you pass along the valley floor, look out for key geological features formed here during the Ice Age from the shape of the floor to the towering spurs on either side, the hanging valleys and the corries above. There are a few parking spaces along the road to get out and explore. One of my favourite walks in this area was that in the Lost Valley, which can be found between the Three Sisters.
Park opposite the Three Sisters and head along the path towards the Lost Valley, which is found between the 1st and 2nd sister (going left to right). While the route is marked by a path, some of it is a little challenging and involves some steep steps up rocks, some scree and a narrow walk past a river. There is a small river to cross shortly before arriving at the lost valley itself. This can be tricky or not even possible after a period of heavy rain. After ascending past the river, you’ll see the valley floor stretching out to each side and forward to the buttresses leading up to Bidean Nam Bian. The route there and back takes around 3 hours.
Alongside its beauty, the valley also holds quite a history. It was here, in the 1600s, that the MacDonalds of Glencoe were said to have hidden their cattle from the Campbells who were trying to steal them.
Day 7: Road to Mallaig
The road to Mallaig from Fort William is one of the most spectacular coastal roads in the UK. From Fort William, you pass by Loch Eil, past the famous Glenfinnan Monument and Viaduct (which features on the Harry Potter films,) Loch Eilt, through Arisaig and on to the small fishing village of Mallaig. While there isn’t much to do in Mallaig, the road to it is well worth it.
The Glenfinnan Monument is run by the National Trust. You can book and pay to go up it, check in the visitor’s centre nearby for details. It’s an incredibly tight and windy staircase, but with great views on top.
If possible, plan your trip to coincide with the Arisaig Highland Games. These games are usually held during the last week of July and sees locals competing in an array of traditional Scottish sports from tossing the caber and the hammer to track events and highland dancing.
I hope you have an awesome trip if you do plan to go to Scotland. Let me know how you got on with the itinerary and if you incorporated any other places into your route. If you’re planning a longer trip and would like some more suggestions, feel free to drop me a comment in the comments box below. ↓↓
See Ben’s photo blog for more info and pictures from our trip.