A Complete Guide to Road Tripping Scotland's Western Highlands
May 17, 2019
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment Scotland piqued my interest. Maybe it was a picture of a highland cow on Instagram, or a tip from a fellow traveler on the natural beauty tucked away in the United Kingdom’s far north. All I know is that less than two hours after picking up our car rental we found ourselves in the middle-of-nowhere with a flat tire. My left eye was twitching, my hair in a cobbled mess from the last twenty-four hours of flying. There’s a solid chance dried drool was somewhere on the side of my mouth.
I spent the first ten minutes being as ~dramatic~ as humanly possible. Then I looked up. Sheep grazed five hundred feet above us on the steep slopes of the Scottish foothills. Taller peaks teased us further in the distance. We were exhausted, dazed, and confused. But we were here.
An hour later we were in a small repair shop laughing off our misfortunes with a hearty crew of locals who weren’t afraid to call us out on our typical-tourist mistake: never hug shoulder, because there is no shoulder.
If you’re planning a trip to Scotland, there is a hefty list in front of you. Is your seatbelt on? It better be. Because the roads suck and we’re about to floor it.
Road Tripping Western Scotland: Your Complete Guide
Rule #1: choose your own journey, find your own paths, and always take the side roads. Step away from tours and get out and explore on your own, because so much more comes when you control the adventure.
I look back to the first day, staring at the flat tire and wondering why the hell we decided to road trip. The last day I knew exactly why. Because sure, tours take you to all the top places, but the best places and the top places are two entirely different categories. Make sure you experience both.
Fort William & Central Scotland
The charming town of Fort William makes an ideal home-base for those looking to explore the central highlands. Our tiny home or "pod" was located just outside of town. It is big enough to provide ample options for dining, grocery shopping, & accommodation, yet small enough to navigate and escape to the great outdoors.
Beyond typical tourist hotspots, there is a world of adventure surrounding Fort William. There are dozens of hiking paths, treks, and peaks waiting to be climbed. “The Lost Valley,” which is incredibly unlost in modern tourism, can be traded off for one of Scotland’s true hidden valleys. Hint: Nevis Gorge. That’s the only one I’m giving away.
Because Fort William/Glencoe is quite busy, places like the Glenfinnan Viaduct will be packed full come mid-day. The secret to experiencing the best of the Scottish Highlands is to take advantage of the early daylight and lingering evenings. Many tourists take bus trips from Edinburgh and Glasgow. You may be tempted to snooze past that daily 5:00am alarm. Don't, and thank me later.
Things to do/see: Three Sisters, Skeall Falls/Nevis Gorge, Loch Shiel, Pap of Glencoe, Glenfinnan Viaduct, Ben Nevis.
Places to grab a snack: Lidl Bakery in Fort William. It’s a grocery store and the perfect place for a carb overload before a hefty trek.
Loch Ness/ Fort Augustus
Will you see Nessie? Probably not. Will you be brave enough to take a dip into the mystical Loch Ness? Maybe.
Loch Ness is a massive inland lake the spans from Inverness to Fort Augustus, holding within its depths the legend of Nessie, The Loch Ness Monster. If you’ve been following my blog for some time, it should come as no surprise my one (and only) goal while visiting Loch Ness was to take a dip in the near-freezing water to claim my right with Nessie.
Fort Augustus is a quaint town on the far western edge filled with a few touristy shops, pubs, cafes, and one bomb ice cream shop. You may see Urquhart Castle on the map, but if coming from the far west, it’s not worth the 17-mile drive from Fort Augustus. In fact, the castle was one of the only disappointments of the trip. It’s overpriced, crowded, and only a huge tourist attraction due to its proximity to Inverness and Loch Ness. We ended up only viewing it from the parking platform. Throughout Scotland, you can visit many castle ruins that are more intact than Urquhart, for free, and without massive crowds.
Things to see/do: Loch Ness, Fort Augustus, Inverness, The Great Glen
Best place to grab a snack: Highland Ice Cream
Isle of Skye
An island of maximum mystical capacity and the world’s best bacon rolls. What more do you need?
The Isle of Skye is a pinnacle of Scotland. Thousands of visitors roam the landscape daily, hopping between fairy pools, waterfalls, and vast landscapes. Its beauty is no secret, yet impressively this 639sq mile island holds its charm in full spirit. The tiny villages that dot the coastlines are quaint and quiet. Outside the main attractions such as The Old Man of Storr, you feel alone. Beautifully alone.
Young girls sell their handmade jewelry made from Scottish deer antlers along the side of a tiny one-way road. The evening sun gazes on farms dotted along dramatic cliffsides. The air is fresh, the whiskey is strong, and the sunsets seem to last forever.
If you're wondering if the Isle of Skye is worth the trek, the answer is yes. Completely, 100%, undoubtedly yes. The hardest part of this piece is attempting to accurately convey the feelings, scenery, and moments held within the island. It's impossible. I guess you'll have to see for yourself.
Things to see: The Fairy Pools, Old Man of Storr, Neist Point, Fairy Glen, The Quirang, Brother's Point.
Best place to grab a snack: The Black Sheep food truck, conveniently located next to Mealt Falls. Order the bacon roll (add the local sauce) and the homemade dessert bars.
Budgeting in Scotland
Scotland is affordable. In fact, Scotland is high on the list of "most affordable places I've been", which is surprising considering dismal exchange rates between the USD and GBP. Granted we lived off carbs and cold pasta a majority of the time.
4 days worth of groceries? $15.
A meal out in downtown Glasgow? WITH beer? $8.
Quality 40L hiking backpacks? $39
Tourist stops, parking, hiking, camping, castles? Free (mostly).
Heading into the third day of our trip we purchased ice cream, only to laugh that it was our first official purchase (besides groceries) since arriving in Fort William. The great thing about nature: 90% of the time it's free, and if it isn't it's probably not worth it. Why? Because it usually means the crowds are heavy and the capitalized gift shop prices are heavier.
Scotland is one of few countries which allows "Wild Camping" or better known as "Free Camping". As long as you are on public land, you are allowed to camp. No charge required.
Make the Leap. Always Make the Leap.
The story of road tripping Scotland began nearly two years ago. A new girl arrived in the office, and before long we were laughing on lunch breaks together and detailing our future plan to take over Scotland "Game Of Thrones" style. We may have returned unable to claim the Iron Throne, but we sure as hell conquered the country. It was her first time abroad.
The most rewarding aspect of what I do is watching others have 'that moment'. The moment they experience a completely new world for the first time. I remember that moment. As my friend Quin once said:
"It's never too late to feel a little more alive".
Ready to explore with me? Join my trip to Peru in March 2020!
Soulful adventurer. Probably lost. Definitely eating ice cream.
In her late-teens, Shalee drove out of her small hometown watching the sunset behind her along the two-lane highway. Her ventures began in Michigan, where she taught herself to travel on a budget. Today, Shalee shares her tips and stories to thousands of readers interested in adventure, budget, and outdoor travel. Learn more about her here.