The Western Highlands of Scotland are all about the dramatic scenery. This spectacular landscape – now part of the Lochaber Geopark – was formed by volcanoes and carved out by glaciers, creating a giant outdoor adventure playgound waiting to be explored. Among its lochs, moors and mountains you’ll find the area’s two main bases – historic Glencoe and outdoorsy Fort William. Whether you’re into hiking or history, extreme sports or cosy pubs, the Highlands has something for you. So here are 13 of the best things to do in Fort William and Glencoe.
13 things to do in Fort William and Glencoe
1. Take a hike
From short strolls to multi-day adventures, there’s a walk for everyone around Glencoe. The 1.5-mile An Torr walk is an easy, well-marked trail that leads up to Signal Rock, where the signal was allegedly sounded to start the Glencoe Massacre. The walk only takes around an hour, and keep your eye out for deer and other local wildlife along the way. There’s another easy option at Glencoe Lochan, a small loch behind Glencoe Village with a few different walking routes, including one around the lake and others through the forest and up into the hills.
A bit more strenuous is the walk to the Pap of Glencoe, a conical mountain overlooking Glencoe Village. It’s a steep but steady, well-marked five-mile climb to the top, with panoramic views from the summit. Or if you’re up for a serious challenge, the 96-mile West Highland Way – Scotland’s most popular long-distance trail – passes through Glencoe. The stretch from Glencoe to Kinlochleven is around 10 miles and includes the famous Devil’s Staircase.
Get there: The An Torr walk starts from the Signal Rock car park on A82, 2.5 miles south of Glencoe. There’s also a car park at Glencoe Lochan where paths are signposted, and the Pap of Glencoe walk starts near Strath Lodge which is just to the south of Glencoe Village.
2. Learn about Glencoe’s history
There’s a dark side to Glencoe in among all that gorgeous scenery, and you can find out more about one of the most famous events in its history at the recently refurbished Glencoe Visitor Centre. Early in the morning of 13 February 1692, 38 men, women and children from the MacDonald clan were murdered by government soldiers who they’d welcomed into their houses. More escaped and made it out into the hills, only to die from cold and exposure.
This was just after the Jacobite uprising when King William III ordered the clan chiefs to sign an oath of allegiance by 1 January 1692. But clan leader Maclain of the MacDonalds went to the wrong place and was six days late signing. He thought his clan were safe, and when a regiment of 130 soldiers asked the clan to put them up for 10 days, they made them welcome. And the way they turned on their hosts has made it one of the most shocking events in Scottish history.
The Visitor Centre tells the story of the massacre as well as the mountaineering history of the area (the photos of early climbers and skiers in their original kit are quite an eye-opener!). There’s also a monument to the lost members of the MacDonald clan in Glencoe Village.
Get there: Glencoe Visitors Centre is about a mile south of Glencoe Village on the A82. It’s run by the National Trust of Scotland and entry is free, but there’s a £4 charge for the car park.
3. Drive the Glen Etive road
I loved this drive so much I wrote a whole post about it, and a road trip along the Glen Etive road is definitely one of my highlights of the Highlands. This scenic drive is small but perfectly formed, with just 12 miles of single-track road leading to a dead end on the banks of Loch Etive, a huge saltwater loch which connects to the sea north of Oban. And what the Glen Etive road lacks in length, it makes up for with the fabulous views you get along the way.
You might recognise a few of those views too – the glen’s had a taste of cinema stardom as a location for Braveheart and the James Bond film Skyfall. The road starts with the famous peaks of Buachaille Etive Mor and Buachaille Etive Beag and follows the River Etive through wild moorland and forests, past lochs and traditional white stone cottages to reach Loch Etive.
Get there: The turn off for the Glen Etive road is about 11 miles south of Glencoe on the A82 – look out for it on the right just before you reach the Glencoe Mountain Resort.
4. Hit the slopes at Glencoe Mountain Resort
There are only five ski resorts in Scotland, and the oldest of them is Glencoe Mountain Resort. In winter you can go skiing, snowboarding or sledging on its slopes, with stunning views across wild unspoilt Rannoch Moor. The ski area isn’t huge with eight lifts and 20 runs, but there’s a mix of different levels and among them is the longest and steepest ski run in Scotland. You can hire clothes and equipment from the resort and there are instructors if you need some tips.
In summer the resort switches its focus to walking and mountain biking. There are downhill and cross-country bike routes as well as lots of other outdoor activities like orienteering, tubing and treasure hunts. But whatever the time of year, it’s worth taking the cable car up onto the top of the mountain to catch the views from Eagles Rest and the summit of Creag Dhubb.
Get there: Glencoe Mountain Resort is about 12 miles south of Glencoe on the A82, with the turning on your right. The chairlift costs £12 for adults/£6 for children.
5. Go ice climbing in Kinlochleven
If the Scottish weather is too wet and wild to get outdoors, how about getting your adrenaline rush by ice climbing inside a giant fridge instead? Ice Factor in Kinlochleven has the biggest indoor ice climbing wall in the country, a 15-metre-high indoor iceberg. The owner took a former aluminium smelter building and converted it into a space for climbers to master their winter skills after seeing too many people lose their lives on Scotland’s peaks.
Mountain rescue teams and the military use it to practice their skills, but you don’t need any ice climbing – or even rock climbing – experience to give it a try. There are one-hour taster sessions where you can get to grips with the kit and techniques (ice axes and boots are provided but bring gloves and warm clothes). There’s also indoor rock climbing if you don’t fancy the cold.
Get there: Kinlochleven is 7 miles east of Glencoe, along the edge of Loch Leven. Ice climbing at Ice Factor costs £30 for a one-hour beginners’ taster session (age 12+), plus £6 for equipment hire.
6. Cosy up in a traditional pub
You can’t beat cosying up in a traditional Scottish pub on a cold day – think roaring fires, real ales and copious pub snacks. The Highlands has plenty to choose from, but there are a couple of gems around Glencoe and Fort William which are well worth visiting. First is the Ben Nevis Inn, a 200-year-old converted barn which lies at the foot of the mountain. You get views of Glen Nevis to go with your drink and there’s also a bunkhouse and restaurant attached.
Second is the Clachaig Inn, right in the heart of Glencoe (look out for the massacre-inspired ‘No Hawkers or Campbells’ sign). The inn dates back 300 years and its Boots Bar is a favourite with hikers for its 365 whiskies (and pretty impressive gin selection) and live music evenings.
Get there: The Ben Nevis Inn is around 2 miles south-east of Fort William, along Achintee Road. And the Clachaig Inn is 2 miles south of Glencoe Village, just off the A82.
7. Visit the ruins of Old Inverlochy Castle
The ruins of 13th-century Old Inverlochy Castle sit just outside of the centre of Fort William, along the banks of the River Lochy. It might not look it at first glance but it’s one of the best-preserved castles of its age in Scotland, and has a few bloody tales to tell. The castle was built by the Comyn family who were sworn enemies of Robert the Bruce, but they left when Bruce took the Scottish throne. Later it was reoccupied and two fierce battles took place here.
The first was in 1431 when 1000 men were killed and the second in 1645 when another 1500 died on the battlefield. The castle was finally abandoned in 1654 when it was replaced by the fort which gave Fort William its name. And if you’re wondering whether there’s a new Inverlochy Castle, there certainly is, the 19th-century mansion turned five-star Inverlochy Castle Hotel.*
Get there: Old Inverlochy Castle is 1.5 miles from the centre of Fort William. Follow the A82 north of the town or it’s a lovely walk along the banks of the river on the Great Glen Way.
8. Try a dram at Ben Nevis Distillery
You can’t have a list of things to do in Scotland without there being at least one whisky distillery in there – and for the Fort William area it’s the Ben Nevis Distillery. The distillery lies just beneath its namesake mountain and has been making whisky since 1825, using water from a spring that’s fed by melting snow from the mountaintop. The distillery produces a range of cask-aged single malts as well as a couple of blended whiskies – Nevis Dew and Glencoe.
There’s a visitors’ centre where ‘Hector McDram’ tells the story of the distillery before a tour of the production facility and that all-important tasting. There are a couple of different tours available – a basic Failte Tour or a Tasting Tour with three whiskies to sample at the end.
Get there: Ben Nevis Distillery is just past Old Inverlochy Castle, around 1.7 miles from the centre of Fort William. The Failte Tour costs £5 per person and the Tasting Tour £18 per person.
9. Scale Ben Nevis
Reaching the top of the UK’s highest mountain is one of the Highlands’ biggest challenges – and not least because of its wet and windy weather. Ben Nevis is the highest of the Grampian Mountain range at 1345 metres and was originally a giant volcano which collapsed in on itself. Which is part of the reason for its nickname of ‘venomous mountain’, that and the cloud which shrouds the peak. If you fancy tackling the Ben there are a couple of different routes.
The Carn Mor Dearg Arête route is for experienced scramblers only but the easier Mountain (or Pony) Track is accessible to anyone with a good level of fitness. It takes five–seven hours on average to climb Ben Nevis, starting off with a steep climb to a small loch before a zigzag path with some sheer drops. On a sunny day the views from the summit make it all worthwhile. But even in the middle of summer there’s likely to be snow at the top so pack warm layers.
Get there: The Mountain Track starts from the Glen Nevis Visitors Centre (postcode PH33 6ST), just under 2 miles south of Fort William, where there’s a car park which costs £3 per car.
10. Visit the West Highland Museum
Learn about the history of the Highlands’ people and landscapes at the West Highland Museum in Fort William. It’s best known for its Jacobite exhibits, with weapons, medals and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s embroidered silk waistcoat on display. But there’s lots of other local history too, including archaeological finds, artefacts from the original Fort William, treasure from a Spanish galleon as well as Victorian, Second World War and industrial heritage exhibits. And for peak Scottishness there’s even Rob Roy’s sporran and the bagpipes played at Bannockburn.
Get there: The West Highland Museum is in Cameron Square in Fort William. Admission is free.
11. Watch steam trains on the Glenfinnan Viaduct
The journey on the West Highland Railway from Fort William to Mallaig on board the Jacobite steam train is rated as one of the most beautiful rail trips in the world. But for a whole generation of Harry Potter fans, it’s better known as the Hogwarts Express, and the best place to see it is as it crosses the 1000-foot-long and 100-foot-high arching Glenfinnan Viaduct.
If you want to catch the steam train on the viaduct you need to time it just right. The Jacobite runs from the end of April to the end of October, with up to two services a day in each direction. Check the timetable to see when the train leaves or arrives into Fort William, and it should cross the viaduct about 40–45 minutes before or after then. Allow around half an hour to find a parking place and walk to the viewpoints. And when the train’s gone by, head to Glenfinnan station where an old train dining carriage has been turned into a cute café.
Get there: The Glenfinnan Viaduct is 17 miles (30 minutes’ drive) west of Fort William along the A380. There are parking places at the Glenfinnan Visitors Centre and along the road.
12. Climb Neptune’s Staircase
It sounds like something you’d find at sea, but Neptune’s Staircase is really a 19th-century engineering marvel – a series of eight interconnected locks on the Caledonian Canal. You’ll find it just north of Fort William where the canal starts its 60-mile journey towards Inverness. Neptune’s Staircase was the brainchild of Scottish engineer Thomas Telford, who needed to find a way for ships to travel up (or down) 19.5 metres in height within just 450 metres.
It’s the longest staircase lock in the country, which means each lock is connected to the next, with the upper gate of one acting as the lower gate of the next. The locks were originally hand-operated but now work on hydraulics. It takes boats 90 minutes to get from one end to the other – you can watch them from the towpath or there’s a café with great views of Ben Nevis.
Get there: Neptune’s Staircase is 3.5 miles north of Fort William on the A830 in the village of Banavie, where there’s a train station on the Fort William to Mallaig route.
13. Hike to Steall Falls
Located just south of Fort William, Steall Falls is the second highest waterfall in Britain, which thunders 120 metres down from the slopes of An Gearanach into the River Nevis. The walk to the falls is around two miles long and takes you through the Nevis Gorge past ancient woodland and alpine meadows. The path is rocky and can get slippery with steep drop offs (as shown by the cheery ‘Danger of Death’ sign at the start), but it’s well-marked and easily accessible.
There is a bit of a challenge thrown in at the end though if you want to get up close to the falls – a wire rope bridge. You have to balance your way across the single wire while holding onto the two upper wire rails to make it across. It’s a popular hike so there may well be a queue to get over, and if you don’t fancy the bridge then there’s still a good view from the other side.
Get there: The start of the path to Steall Falls is from the Upper Glen Nevis car park (postcode PH33 6SY), around 7 miles south-east of Fort William.
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