A few months ago, my friend and I set off on a week-long adventure around Scotland. My friend had wanted to do the North Coast 500 road trip; and being that she had never been to Scotland outside of Edinburgh, I wanted to make sure we hit up some of the highlights of my beautiful country on the way.
This turns out to be pretty easy, because in order to go north from Edinburgh, there are two choices (three if you reeeeally want to a take a long and not-so-scenic route) – straight up the A9 from Perth through the Cairngorms National Park, or veer off to the west from Stirling up through Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park and Glencoe.
Two choices, two national parks and arguably the most beautiful area of the UK. Not bad going really, cheers Scotland.
As much as I do enjoy the Cairngorms, there’s no denying that west is best in this case, and so we left Edinburgh with a quick jaunt by the Kelpies in Falkirk, before continuing our Scotland road trip up to one of the absolute highlights of the country.
Our first stop was a loch I’ve never even heard of – Loch Lubnaig, on the edge of the Trossachs. We weren’t going to be passing Loch Lomond itself, so it was good to see some of the smaller lochs in all their glory, and this one didn’t disappoint so we promptly pulled over for a walk along its shores.
As the sun set, we were coming into Glencoe and suddenly we were surrounded by mountains. In fact, we stopped so much for the views that by the time we got to our first camping spot of the trip, it was completely dark! This meant we had to figure out our brand new tent for the first time, and cook on our brand new stove for the first time, with no light… which, needless to say, was… fun.
…well worth stopping though, right?!
As well as having great fun setting ourselves up in the dark, I also committed a massive camping faux pas because once our dinner-in-the-dark was finally finished, I carried the pans to the bathrooms to be washed. As we stealthily made our way past a tent, I dropped the whole lot in a tremendous clatter. Whoops!! #rookiecamper
The next morning, we were off on a big hike – we weren’t tackling Buachaille Etive Mor, but its smaller brother Etive Beag.
Everything went wrong – first we ended up leaving late because we couldn’t get the tent down (not our finest moment, but it was nice of people to stand there and watch us struggle! P.S. pop-up tents are the worst); then when we finally got to the car park for the trailhead, it was completely full. Unsure what to do, I drove around the corner and pulled into a lay by next to the waterfall. I figured that if we walked up the hill from there, we would reach the trail.
I was right – but the “hill” had no path, and we had to be careful of our footing with holes and water everywhere. It was a bit of a nightmare, but we did make it to the path. Again, not our finest moment, but we did have some stellar views on our way up.
Then we took the wrong path.
You see, we had joined it after a fork, which meant we were headed in completely the wrong direction. We got to a stream, and alarm bells started going off; I didn’t remember reading anything about a stream – and isn’t the mountain over there? A couple of people joined us though, and I couldn’t see anyone else, so we crossed the stream together and started chatting.
“Wait, you want to go UP the mountain?” they asked. “This one doesn’t – this goes around it. It’s still really nice though.”
Nice it may be – but it wasn’t what we had set out to do! So an about turn, back across the stream, and twenty minutes back along the path, we finally got to the fork. By this point, it had gone midday, we’d already been hiking for over an hour and we were basically back at the start of the trail! This was not going well.
So by the time we reached the steps, we were already hugely disadvantaged.
When I’d read up on the trail, I’d read that there were “a few” steps (in fact, Walkhighlands describes the ascent as having “the aid of rocky steps“). I hate too many steps on hikes, and the Grouse Grind in Vancouver is honestly the worst hike I’ve ever done.
This one… this one comes close. But at least it had the views the whole way up, so whenever we stopped for a break, it was beautiful. But WHO THE HELL counts this as “a few” steps?!?! Aid? AID?!? We both really struggled, and I felt the most unfit I’ve ever felt (it wasn’t even that I was out of breath; my hips started aching). I’ve done plenty of hikes this length, but the uneven steps for hours really took it out of both of us.
It probably didn’t help that we’d had an hour’s disadvantage, and the sun was out in full force. We couldn’t have asked for better weather for a hike (especially in Scotland!), but we weren’t prepared for a big work out in the sun.
We were incredibly thankful when we finally reached the flat ridge at the top, by which point most people had left. With time getting on and the fact we were so over the steps, we almost didn’t go right to the summit – but I figured we’d come this far, it would be stupid not to.
So we powered on – and I cannot even tell you HOW much easier the rest of the hike was compared to those GOD DAMN STEPS. It was almost like walking on flat ground; the angle didn’t even matter. Just anything but sodding steps.
But the view. THE VIEW.
Honestly the best I have ever seen in Scotland.
Except – wait, there’s ANOTHER summit.
I realised I’d read about this – the fake summit. The real summit had an even better view, and that view was the entire reason I’d wanted to do this hike.
My friend and I looked at each other.
Okay, we have to just do it.
AND WE MADE IT! Again, it was so much easier than the steps, and I’m really glad we did it.
The sun wasn’t at the best angle at this point for photos, but that was OK. We’d done it, and we got the view!
Now THAT’s the best view I’ve ever seen in Scotland.
By the time we got back down though, it was starting to get dark in the valley. We had to wade our way back down from the path to the car (unfortunately the road is too narrow and windy to be at all safe to walk on). It was too late at this point to try and hitch a ride round the corner too – all the other hikers were long gone.
But we made it, eventually!
I contemplated driving back to Kingshouse to camp – but we decided we should grab some dinner in Fort William and find somewhere to stay around there. In fact, after our hike, we really wanted to actually sleep in a real bed, but typically all the budget places were booked. In the end, we decided to stay at the campsite below Ben Nevis, which while it’s a really nice campsite, is probably the most expensive campsite in Scotland!
Still, it meant we got a decent pitch site, a good shower, and a chance to rejuvenate after our disastrous hike.
My next port of call on the Scotland Highlights Tour was a drive over to Glenfinnan. I had been hoping to catch the Jacobite train (a.k.a. the Harry Potter train) crossing the bridge, but the timing didn’t work out.
The last time I was here, it had been raining, and I didn’t make it very far on the trail. We’d also walked up to the viewpoint of Loch Shiel with the Glenfinnan viaduct behind us (another of my favourite views in Scotland), but given that it’s all steps, it was a HARD PASS from both of us this time around. The weather was glorious though (again!) so we promptly headed over to the bridge for a view above the viaduct.
In actual fact, the view I *really* want is the viaduct with the loch in the background, but I realised afterwards that we needed to go up the other side for that. Still, the whole area is absolutely stunning and one of my favourites in Scotland.
We made the most of the weather and took a walk along some of the path towards Glencoe station, and even though I wasn’t really sure what we would see along it, it was so, so pretty!
We had one final stop before we reached Skye – plus a few scenic viewpoints on the way – and it was one of my most overlooked destinations.
Can you believe…
…that I had NEVER been to Eilean Donan Castle before?!
Eilean Donan Castle is arguably the most famous castle in Scotland, if not the most picturesque. Unfortunately the lighting from the other side was not very co-operative (we couldn’t have been luckier with the weather, but the sun does get in the way sometimes!) so we managed to pull over for a view from this side, and it really was stunning!
In fact, I sort of prefer it from this side because of all the hills.
From there, it was off to Skye to find somewhere to camp. But even with our disasters and bad timings, this really had been the most incredible start to our road trip!
Scotland, you are a beauty. And I feel thankful that I have the chance to explore it whenever I like.