If you aren’t from Scotland and came to study here, you probably heard plenty of exciting stories about the highlands. You might be thinking about visiting them – and you should. However, the Highlands are a rather large area, so it can be tricky to plan your first trip. This post is here to help with that.
This part of the post focuses on heading out by car. Don’t worry if you don’t own one, I don’t either. There are two active car rental businesses in Dundee to get you sorted. Alternatively, stay tuned for the second part, which will focus on going by train.
Highlands, vast space of dramatic mountains and pretty glens. But where and when to start? Right now! Now is the time to get the tips of mountains covered in snow, but the lower elevations will still have decent temperatures, so you don’t need to wear 20 layers.
As of the “where” part, that would point you to a car rental (unless you own a car, naturally). Renting can be daunting at first, but actually, it’s convenient, and when you travel in a group, it runs relatively cheap too – depending on your age. Say, if you are 25, the rental and fuel costs are around 140 quid for an extended weekend packed with exploring loads of places. After you split the price between the group, the transportation is under 30 pounds per person; which is less than a single train journey to Inverness.
So you have a car; now’s the exciting bit. Here’s my itinerary for an ultimate 3-4 day road trip.
Set off west to Perth, and keep the direction by going through Crieff and Tyndrum, where the hills turn to mountains.
Turn north to Glencoe, which is the best first-impression road to the Highlands. It climbs up to a pass which offers top class scenery in each direction:
There, you can make a quick diversion to Glen Etive – it is a beautiful b-road from where you can take many walks, and see loads of deer (do not feed them like some stupid people do). If you are into the James Bond movies, you can also check out the Skyfall Lodge.
Descending from the pass, continue northbound towards Fort William, after which turn east towards Mallaig. On the way, you can stop by the Old Inverlochy Castle, or the Neptune’s Staircase – a section of eight staircase locks on the Caledonian Canal. From both of these places can be also seen the UK’s tallest mountain, Ben Nevis.
Don’t stay for too long though, as the days are short, and you want to save the daylight for the next stop just down the road: Glenfinnan – where’s another engineering marvel, a viaduct, made famous by the Harry Potter movies.
Once you will finish a walk around, it is likely to be dark. The good thing is, the road to Mallaig has plenty of hotels / hostels to spend the night in.
Wake up early, and take the first morning ferry from Mallaig to Skye…
..and drive to Sligachan, where’s a pub, and more importantly, this view:
Head up to Portree, and continue driving north to the Storr. It is one of the most photographed landmarks of Scotland, and one can easily see why. No matter the season or weather, this place is simply stunning.
It requires a bit of a hike to get there, but wear good shoes and it is a piece of a cake.
After you’ll enjoy the place, continue further north, as there are fab waterfalls in this area, like Mealt Falls:
…from here, it is just a short drive to another icon, the Quiraing.
There is a nice road passing it, which will take you to Uig, where you turn left and back south, towards Minginish peninsula – a place where you spend the night. If you still have some daylight left, get down the Talisker Bay – it is a great place to watch sunset.
Start with the Fairy Pools. In the morning, you will beat the crowds and enjoy the unspoiled genius loci of the falls.
Adventurous people can take a swim here – but if you want to give it a go, make sure you have something warm to put on later. The water is rather fresh any day of the year.
This done, it is time to leave the island. Join the A87, and shortly after you reach the mainland, there’s another gem not to be missed: the Eilean Donan Castle
From here, follow the pass towards Loch Ness. You will need to make choice here, depending if you like more castles, or waterfalls. If the first, keep straight on A887 to the west shore of Loch Ness, where’s the Urquhart Castle:
If you fancy waterfalls instead, turn right to stay on A87, merge on A82 to Fort Augustus, and turn to the old military road (B862) that follows the east side of Loch Ness. This option is longer, but more scenic and more fun to drive. And it features the Falls of Foyers:
After either of these points of interest, it’s going be getting dark again. If you have only three days, you might want to head to Spean Bridge and back to Dundee through Laggan. However, if you have the extra day, extend the adventure and head north to Inverness. Eat dinner, walk around its downtown, and find a place to sleep.
Drive south on A9 to Carrbridge:
… then to Aviemore, where you turn to Loch Morlich.
This picturesque area has loads of easy walks, as well as attractions like the reindeer centre to spend some time around. Then, on your way back to Dundee, stop by Dunkeld’s Hermitage, where are these waterfalls:
And if you still have some daylight left, the cathedral in Dunkeld is also worth a visit.
There you go. The 3-day version is roughly 525 miles, 4-day is ~575 mi.
To be clear, there are tons and tons of cool places in between of the mentioned stops. This itinerary is specially curated for those who never been in the highlands, as it offers a solid mix of attractive points of interests to create a comprehensive idea of what’s “out there.” Once you establish that, you can go on and explore certain areas more in depth – as they deserve. I’ve been doing that for the last three years, during which I made my own map of “places worth visiting.”
You get an idea, the opportunities are endless.
Get more of Highlands inspiration in my previous posts:
Epic road trip around the northern coastline.
Hiking to experience the Highlands Magic.