Scotland is essentially divided into two regions: the Highlands and the Lowlands. The Lowlands make up the south and southeastern part of the country, and the Highlands comprise the north and northwestern portion. While the whole of the country begs to be explored, the Scottish Highlands are truly a special place.
Towering mountains, chains of islands, rugged coastline, and hundreds of lakes beckon the outdoor lover to come and play. The low population and vast area means plenty of space to explore without navigating crowds.
Fort William and Glencoe offer do-it-all stops for those who want to spend each day doing a different activity. From trail running and mountain biking to water sports and long distance hiking, the Scottish Highlands offer just about any kind of adventure one could want.
Outdoor Activities in the Scottish Highlands
Fort William and Glencoe are world renowned mountain biking destinations, with tracks both for both the adrenaline seeker and complete novice. Since 2002, Fort William has hosted the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup, which brings some of the most talented riders and thousands of spectators to the region each June.
The endless trails, forest roads, and rugged mountain terrain should put this country at the top of any avid mountain biker’s list of dream destinations. A good starting point is Glencoe Mountain Resort, where you can take the gondola to the top and explore the trails of the Nevis Range from there. You can drool over all the trails as you plan your trip with this trail map from the tourism board.
Visitors can rent bikes from Off Beat Bikes, a great shop with friendly and knowledgeable staff that rent a variety of bikes to suit all abilities and types of recreation. The staff will provide route suggestions and a map based on your experience and comfort level.
Thousands of miles of trails meander through the glens (aka valleys) and up and over the mountains of the Nevis Range, offering a luxuriously remote and rocky playground for trail runners. In fact, the region lays claim that the first mountain race ever took place on Ben Nevis in 1895.
Follow in their tracks by choosing from several trails that summit Ben Nevis, the tallest peak in the UK, or plan a run-cation along the famous 154km (96-mile) West Highland Way. If you think you have what it takes, you can always try to run the Ring of Steall SkyRace or “the Scottish Vertigo,” a 29 km (18 miles) race with 2,382 meters (9,291 feet) of elevation gain that is part of the tough Golden Trail Race Series.
Paddle Boarding and Kayaking
With over 31,000 lochs in Scotland, plus the numerous sea, canal and river options throughout the Highlands, traveling this region by water paints an entirely different perspective of the mountainous landscape.
From day trips to multi-day paddle camping adventures, there is an abundance of waterways to explore. Plenty of outfitters throughout the Highlands offer tours or boat rentals. In Fort William, look for Rugged Paddle Board. Owners Rob Kingslad and Keren Smail returned home to the UK after paddling around the world, realizing there was no better place for the sport.
Depending on your level of experience, Rugged Paddle gives lessons, offers short outings of 1-2 hours, or a longer full day tour exploring the region by SUP. Alternatively, you can hire your own board and go where you like.
There is a reason that the Scottish Highlands are known as the Outdoor Capital of the UK. Throughout the region, thousands of miles of trails intersect across the Nevis Range, crossing rivers, and diving into valleys.
For day excursions, you can “bag a munro” (one of the 282 peaks in Scotland that rise above 3,000 feet, including Ben Nevis, of course or go on a waterfall hunt to Steall Falls or Eas Chia-aig Waterfall.
An hour and a half drive from Fort William will bring you to Cairngorms National Park, the largest in the UK. The park covers 4,500 square km (2,800 miles) of unspoiled countryside, including five of the six tallest mountains in the country and 42 munros.
The coastline in the Scotland Highlands is simply exquisite. Though quickly becoming overrun by tourists, there still remain some less-explored beaches. Follow the Road to the Isles from Fort William to check out the beaches at Arisaig and Mallaig.
Rocks jut out from the water that laps over the golden sand. Sand dunes tower above the coastline, asking to be climbed, and then sprinted back down. For even more remote beaches, visitors can take a variety of boats to nearby islands.
What to Wear
No matter the time of year, expect rain and cool weather in Scotland. You’ll want to bring plenty of layers, and waterproof gear is a must. We recommend our favorite KÜHL gear:
- Jetstream Rain Pant to keep you dry and comfortable on wet hikes.
- Virtue Short Sleeve dries quickly and blocks the sun with UPF 30.
- Aspira Tank carries you through any trail runs or long hikes on warmer days.
- For relentless rain or just surprise storms in the mountains, the Deflektr Hybrid Shell keeps you dry.
- At night or on cooler days, stay warm with the Sora Hoody, a perfect midlayer long sleeve.
- Relax at camp or at the pub with the Traverse Legging that goes from trail to city and holds up to long days outdoors.
- The Sloane Hoody is a great lightweight zippered layer to add or subtract as the weather changes.
Jen Sotolongo is a writer, photographer, and blogger. Together with her husband and their dogs, she travels the world in search of the most dog-friendly cities and outdoor adventures. Join their journey at Long Haul Trekkers.