The Scottish Highlands: The Complete Guide

Scottish Highlands

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The Scottish Highlands belong on every traveler's bucket list, but, in particular, the beautiful region of Scotland is coveted by nature lovers and outdoorsy adventurers. Located in the western and northern areas of Scotland, the Highlands feature unparalleled scenery, from towering mountain ranges to sweeping, green countryside to sparkling lochs. It's the sort of place that feels otherworldly, especially when you leave the beaten path and get into the more remote areas of the Highlands. It can be difficult to decide what to include on a Highlands itinerary, but you really can't go wrong, especially if you give yourself plenty of time to explore.

The Top Destinations in the Scottish Highlands

The Highlands represent a massive area of northern Scotland, including numerous towns, national parks, and wilderness areas. Deciding what to see can be intimating at first, especially when looking at a map, so it's best to narrow your visit down to a few solid destinations. While there are many places to go around the Scottish Highlands, some of the best and most memorable include Cairngorms National Park, Loch Lomond and Glencoe.

Cairngorms National Park

Cairngorms National Park is one of the most famous areas in the Highlands, boasting magnificent views you won't forget. The vast area is the largest national park in the U.K. and welcomes both day-trippers and those who hope to spend a few days (or even a week) exploring its lakes, mountains, and natural formations. Camping is particularly popular in Cairngorms and there are numerous campsites, for both tents and camper vans, throughout the park.

Cairngorms National Park isn't just for hiking and camping, either. The park features numerous museums, historic sites, and even castles, all of which should be part of your itinerary. Look for Balmoral Castle, Ballindalloch Castle, and the Highland Folk Museum, which showcases living history.

Scotch lovers shouldn't miss the Glenlivet Distillery, where the distillery showcases whiskey-making and even includes a tasting on its tours (which should be booked in advance).

View Over Old Man Of Storr, Isle Of Skye, Scotland
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Isle of Skye

Located off the west coast of Scotland, Isle of Skye is famous for its rugged yet picturesque landscapes and its beautiful coastline. There are numerous villages throughout the island, including Portree and Dunvegan. Many visitors come to Isle of Skye to spot its varied wildlife and enjoy its iconic hikes. Isle of Skye is best visited during the warmer months, when you can better enjoy the hiking trails and beaches.

There's a lot to see and experience on Skye, so it's best to stay at least a few days, whether it's in a holiday home rental or a campsite. Check out the Talisker distillery and Dunvegan Castle and Gardens, which has been the ancestral home of the Clan MacLeod for 800 years. Many visitors also opt to take a boat tour around the island, if you'd like to join one look for tours leaving from Elgol or Portree. If you don't have a car or a rental, stay in one of the main areas, like Portree, but the more remote destinations on the island are recommended for a quiet, nature-focused getaway.

Inverness and Loch Ness

The city of Inverness, located in the far north of Scotland, has a sizable airport and a bustling downtown with nice restaurants and shopping areas. The city is also the gateway to Loch Ness, a beautiful destination that has far more to offer than just its mythic monster. Hiking, fishing, cycling, and skiing are all popular activities in the scenic areas around Inverness, but there's also plenty of history, from Inverness Cathedral to Fort George.

To best explore Loch Ness, book a boat cruise. After the cruise pay a visit to the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition. Families will also enjoy Nessieland, a small theme park with play areas and attractions based on Nessie herself. Adventurous travelers should rent a bike and ride the Loch Ness 360° Trail, which circles the entirety of Loch Ness.

Fort William and Ben Nevis

Found in the western part of the Scottish Highlands, Fort William is a town best known as the gateway to Ben Nevis, the U.K.’s tallest peak that was once an active volcano, and the Glen Nevis valley. While many visitors will want to come during the summer for hiking and outdoor activities, the mountains also boasts great skiing at Nevis Range during the colder months. There area has numerous hikes, in varying degrees of difficulty, and many people attempt the steep trek to the top of Ben Nevis via one of its two faces.

Fort William itself is a small town with nice bed and breakfasts and holiday cottages, and there are also several surrounding villages to explore. There are also great pubs and seafood restaurants in the area, including the Ben Nevis Inn, located at the base of the mountain's footpath.

Eilean Donan Castle
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Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan is a small island in the western highlands where Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh meet, and standing atop the island is the iconic Eilean Donan Castle. It's a place you'll recognize from a lot of movies, including the "The World Is Not Enough" and "Highlander." The historic castle, which dates back to the 13th century, welcomes visitors year-round (although opening hours vary by season). Visitors can also book into the castle's vacation cottages. The castle is located near the village of Dornie, another scenic spot to visit during your journey.

Glencoe

Glencoe, found in the Glencoe valley, is best known for its walking trails and the Glencoe Folk Museum, which showcases 18th-century heritage as well as the history of the Glencoe massacre of 1692. The winter brings skiing and sledding at Glencoe Mountain, while spring and summer invite visitors to bike, go sea kayaking and dip into Lochaber Geopark.

Don't miss Glencoe Lochan, a forested wilderness area north of Glencoe's village, and nearby Loch Leven, where you can follow the Loch Leven Heritage Trail around the lake. Hop a boat or kayak to the uninhabited island of Eilean Munde, the burial place of Glencoe's Macdonald clan, in Loch Leven.

Trossachs National Park and Loch Lomond

The famed Loch Lomond can be found in the Trossachs National Park, a vast park known for its amazing views and water sports. Camping is popular in the Trossachs, with wild camping permitted if you want to go more remote. There are also lots of trails for hiking and cycling, and there are six long-distance trails that make their way through the park (each is about 25 miles long and takes several days to complete). Golfing is also popular, with numerous courses available for visitors, including the Buchanan Castle Golf Club and the Aberfoyle Golf Club. At Loch Lomond, look for the Luss Heritage Path, which traverses the countryside as well as the ancient village of Luss.

There are many towns in the Trossachs, many of which lay alongside one of the lochs. Look for St. Fillans, on Loch Earn, and Callander to get a taste of small-town Scottish life. While there is some public transportation around the park, it's best to rent a car or camper van when exploring Trossachs National Park.

UK, Scotland, Highlands, Glenfinnan viaduct with a steam train passing over it
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Things To Do in the Scottish Highlands

There's a lot to see and do in the Highlands, some of which is dependent on what time of year you visit. Most travelers prefer to tour around the Highlands during the spring, summer, or early fall to take advantage of the nice weather and long hours of daylight. Whether you prefer to explore national parks, uncover historical sites or hang out in the town pub, there's something to do for every type of visitor, including families with kids.

  • Hiking is one of the most popular activities in the Highlands, particularly in the national parks and around Glencoe. Be sure to look for advice from the local visitor's center on the best trails for your ability level and be mindful of any weather conditions. Scotland also features numerous long-distance walking trails, in case you want to make a several-day trek through the wilderness.
  • Camping is another highlight of the area, especially since Scotland allows wild camping (which means you can camp anywhere, as long as you follow the rules of the particular area). Many travelers opt to camp for a few nights or even their entire trip, so make sure you have the right gear and you get any necessary permits ahead of time.
  • Golf courses are a dime a dozen in the Highlands and many boast impressive views. Look for famous courses like the Castle Stuart Golf Links and the Dragons Tooth Golf Course.
  • Outdoor activities like kayaking, fishing, cycling, and rock climbing can be found throughout the Highlands, and many towns have shops offering boat and bike rentals, as well as fishing gear rentals.
  • Scotland's history dates back hundreds of years, which is evident in the numerous historical sites and castles around the Highlands. You could make an entire itinerary of just castles, which can be found all over the area, often in remote locations. Do some research in advance to ensure the sites are open during your visit as many involve long drives to access them.
  • The Highlands are also known for their whiskey distilleries. Most of the 47 local distilleries welcome visitors, including the area's oldest, Glenturret at Crieff and Balblair at Tain. Those interested in malt whiskey should embark on the Malt Whisky Trail, which features eight distilleries around Speyside.
Train in Scotland
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How To Get There

The Highlands are relatively remote and quite vast, so the best way to visit is via rental car. International travelers can fly into Glasgow or Edinburgh, and rent a car there before traveling north. Alternatively, visitors can fly into Inverness, a smaller airport in the north of Scotland, and then drive to their chosen destination. You can also opt for a camper van to help simplify your travel as wild camping is legal in Scotland.

Those looking for a more scenic route should book a train journey from Glasgow or Edinburgh, both of which are three to five hours away from various Highlands destinations, including Fort William and Aviemore (which offers access to Cairngorms). The journey from Edinburgh to Fort William includes the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct and picturesque scenery included in the "Harry Potter" movies as the Hogwarts Express makes its way from London to the wizards' school. Use the Trainline website to find the best route when booking a train. Buses are also available from Glasgow to Fort William or Glencoe.

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