Fort William is the gateway to the Scottish Highlands and the southern end of the Great Glen Fault and the Caledonian Canal. The region of Lochaber that surrounds it is dotted with the UK's highest mountains and some of its most dramatic lochs. The town on the eastern shore of Loch Linnhe, Scotland's great sea loch, claims the title of the Outdoor Capital of the UK. If you like the active lifestyle—cycling, hill walking, mountain climbing, skiing, canoeing—this is the place to start your Highland adventure. If you prefer to sit back and enjoy the scenery there's plenty of opportunity, from cruises to mountain gondolas and steam trains, to do that too.
Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain at 4,409 feet, is about seven miles southeast of Fort William and visible from throughout the town. It's popular with hillwalkers and climbers, especially during the summer months. But its easy to underestimate the challenge of this mountain. In perfect conditions, for very fit climbers, it's a six-hour round trip to the summit and back. But conditions are rarely perfect. Freezing fog or even summer snow can set in making the man-made path to the top easy to loses. Bring a compass and well developed mountaineering skills. Even better, book a guide or join a group walk from Fort William. Visit Fort William has a list of recommended guides or drop in at the Tourist Information Center at 15 High Street.
The Nevis Range Mountain Gondola is the UK's only Alpine-style gondola. It rises from a base camp at 300 feet to more than 2,100 feet, halfway up the north face of Aonach Mòr, the 8th tallest peak in the UK. Originally created to take skiers up into the Glen Nevis ski area, it runs year-round and provides dramatic and panoramic views of Ben Nevis and the surrounded range. There are 80, six-seat, closed gondolas that run continuously (weather permitting) for the 15-minute ride. winter climbers and summer hill walkers use the gondola as a short cut to the scenic routes, higher up. Mountain bikers can race downhill from there on several trails. But just riding up to enjoy the views is what most visitors do.
The Great Glen Fault divides Scotland on a diagonal line, starting from the North Atlantic with the great sea loch, Loch Linnhe, in the southeast and ending in the northwest and the North Sea north of Inverness. Loch Linnhe is the only salt water loch along its length (that also includes Loch Ness and the Caledonian Canal). Take a 90-minute cruise from the Town Pier in Fort William on the Souter's Lass, operated by Crannog Cruises. Expect to see extraordinary views of Ben Nevis plus plenty of sea life—common and grey seals, porpoises, sea otters, heron and, if you are lucky, nesting golden eagles.
The Great Glen Way is a national walking and cycling route that crosses the highlands, coast to coast, from Fort William to Inverness. It skirts Loch Lochy and Loch Ness, travels along the towpath of the Caledonian Canal and offers lochside and forest views, surrounded by the mountains of the highlands. The path is 74 miles and the walk or cycle ride can be done in stages of four or five hours each. Most of it is on level paths although, since 2014, a few higher-level alternatives for more experienced walkers have now been waymarked.
Try Scotch at a Distillery
The Ben Nevis Distillery, one of Scotland's oldest licensed distilleries, has been making whisky at the foot of the UK's highest mountain since 1825. While it is definitely a working distillery, producing single highland malt Scotch whisky, it is also run as a visitor attraction that includes an audiovisual presentation, narrated by Hector McDram about the legend of the Dew of Ben Nevis. After, there's a guided tour of the production areas—filled with intoxicating aromas—and finally a tasting. And of course, there's also a shop.
The 21-arch Glenfinnan Railway Viaduct overlooking Loch Shiel was an essential part of the journey to Hogwarts in several Harry Potter films. It's also part of one of the great railway journeys in the world, from Fort William to Mallaig on the Scottish West Coast. It's an 84-mile round trip in a vintage steam train and includes a stop at Glenfinnan village, where you can get a full view of the remarkable viaduct. It also visits Arisaig, the UK's westernmost railway station. From this station, you can see what the Scots call "The Small Isles," elsewhere known as Rum, Eigg, Muck, and Canna, as well as the southern tip of Skye. Mallaig is a busy fishing and ferry port with regular ferry service departing for Skye every day.
Walk north from the center of Fort William along the Great Glen Way and in about one mile you'll arrive at the ruins of Old Inverlochy Castle. It may not look like much today but it is one of the oldest castles in Scotland and the scene of several important battles. The castle was built in the 13th century by a Norman family, the Comyns (later Cummings). They eventually lost it, in a power struggle for control of the clans, to Robert the Bruce. Like much of early Scottish history, the to-ing and fro-ing between the clans is confusing, complicated, and ultimately only of interest to historians. The castle later played a role in the English Civil War, taking the losing side and being reduced to a ruin by the followers of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell later built a wooden fort at the northern end of Loch Linnhe. The town that grew up around the fort, took its name: Fort William. Today, a walk to Old Inverlochy Castle, with its views of the River Lochy, is a pleasant way to spend an hour or two. The castle is free to visit and open all the time.
Even the most ardent outdoors enthusiasts sometimes need rainy day activities. The West Highlands Museum is an ideal way to while away some bad weather without traveling very far. The museum is in Cameron Square, just off the pedestrianized High Street in Fort William. Its role is to collect and conserve articles of interest connected to the West Highlands. Founded in 1922, it is the oldest museum in the Highlands with items ranging from prehistory to modern times. There's a special emphasis on the Jacobite risings of the 18th century. Among its treasures is a sandalwood fan that belonged to the Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald. It was given to her when she was under house arrest in London. There's also a fascinating secret portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie and a gun used in a notorious 18th-century murder.