Experiencing the Stunning Scottish Highlands by Car
Most people opt for an organized tour of the Scottish Highlands, a day trip or a coach tour where the driver takes you to the scenery, you snap a few pictures and then you head back to Edinburgh. However, that’s not really my travelling style and after finding out my boyfriend and I scored a rental car for $100 for the week (!), we decided to drive it ourselves. Driving is the best way to go, so if you can drive a manual car on the opposite side of the road (automatic is available for a higher rate), you’ll be better off. Tours are so overrated, anyway.
We set out from Glasgow at about 10am with one destination: Highlands. (Fun Fact: Anything north of Loch Lomond National Park is considered “Highlands.”) Getting through and just north of Glasgow is a generally smooth ride on the highway. Once out of Glasgow, though, the road starts winding and taking sharp turns and getting narrower and narrower; it’s barely enough to fit two cars around the corner! There’s no room for error.
About 40 minutes north of Glasgow, prepare to lose cell phone service by loading your GPS instructions before you leave (just don’t exit the app, and you’ll always have directions!). Inside Loch Lomond National Park, there’s an elusive waterfall called Falloch Falls nested at the end of an easy hike. You can get all the way to the bottom of the river if you’re feeling adventurous. And yes, it is free.
Two hours later, we entered Glencoe. Safety note: The distance to the Scottish Highlands doesn’t look like much, but you can run out of gas very quickly. If you find yourself at less than half a tank and you’re approaching a gas station, stop and fill up. We were running on E for about 15 miles in the middle of this scenery. Not a lot of options here.
There will inevitably be a time when you will think about pulling off onto the shoulder of the road and taking pictures because there’s a terrible shortage of pull-offs. I do not recommend doing this. When we pulled off onto the shoulder, the rocky terrain grabbed the tires and cut them to the left. The car sank into the mud. The entire left side of the car was in the mud and we were stuck. Thirty minutes later, with the help of a Scottish tow-truck, we were back on the road. Lesson learned. STAY on the pavement.
Another couple of hours later, we arrived into Fort William. The drive into town is nothing short of spectacular: one side of the road is a row of bed and breakfasts, and the other is a beautiful lake and mountains.
There will inevitably be a time when you will think about pulling off onto the shoulder of the road and taking pictures because there’s a terrible shortage of pull-offs. I do not recommend doing this.
I found the tourist information center (you’ll have to park and pay a small fee) and the woman there recommended a park called Glen Nevis, which had some waterfalls and a few nice hikes. Best part? It’s free!
Glen Nevis really is like walking into the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands. It’s a one-way dirt road, with pullouts to let the other cars pass by. We drove seven miles to the end, put the DSLR under the jacket, and headed to the trail. It starts out pretty easy but gets rather treacherous; hiking boots or sturdy hiking shoes are strongly recommended as the trail goes over and under various streams.
The trail opens up into a field, where you’re in the valley of the Highlands with panoramic views. It’s encouraged to do some impromptu rock climbing in this area. I recommend you bring a few snacks to sit on the rocks and enjoy picnic time and the view. Bring your North Face rain jacket, as the weather can change from clear skies to sopping wet in a matter of minutes.
The end of the trail rewards you with a swimming area and a waterfall. Keep in mind this is a national park of sorts, so there’s no trash or rubbish bins. There’s a rope bridge, which looks a lot like a tightrope, you can cross, if you dare. The first few steps are a bit scary, but as long as no one else is on it, shaking it or moving it about wildly, it’s an exhilarating experience. It’s also a lot higher up than it looks from the underside of it. I found my boyfriend hanging on it, as the Scottish say, “like a monkey.”
However, once you get to the other side, there isn’t much to see. There’s a house, but not much after it. We thought we could get closer to the waterfall and wound up stepping into a bog and getting covered in mud up to our knees. There are plenty more things in the park to explore. It’s worth at least two full days, as there are waterfalls in nearly every corner and everywhere you look.
That’s the beauty of the Scottish Highlands: glaciers really do make the best scenery – and the best waterfalls.