Famed worldwide for its whisky, castles, Sean Connery, unique (!) national dress, and a fabled, camera-shy monster in one of its countless stunning “lochs,” many visitors to Scotland are often unaware of this small but fun and feature-packed nation’s other notable highlight: its wealth of simply stupendous hiking trails.
The best hiking trails in Scotland vary greatly in character, from ten-day strolls along rugged, unspoiled coastlines to calve-killing ups and downs through remote, atmospheric glens and some of the wildest mountainous terrain anywhere in the world. One thing they all have in common, however, is that each offers hikers the chance to see some of the most exquisite scenery they’re ever likely to lay eyes on.
In this article, we’re going to introduce you our selection of the top fifteen trails “The Land of the Brave” has to offer, each and every one of which, we’re sure, will have you painting your face and running about in a kilt à la Mel Gibson in Braveheart in no time!
Before we get down to our description of those trails, however, let’s first take a quick look at some important logistical details and good-to-knows so you’re ready to get your roam on as soon as you land.
In a few words, there is no bad time to go hiking in Scotland. Although parallel with far more frigid nations like Norway and Sweden, Scotland’s location in the travel path of the Gulf Stream means its climate remains reasonably temperate all year round.
In winter months you can expect daytime temperatures to be anywhere between 25F to 50F, and in summer anywhere between 50F and 75F. Nighttime temps, naturally, are usually 10 to 15F lower.
Trail conditions in different seasons, however, can vary widely:
In winter, lower trails can be snow-free but frequently ice-over, requiring the use of micro studs or even crampons. Snow cover in mountainous areas usually begins at around 1, 000 feet but can, on occasion, start as low as sea level. As with any mountainous terrain, avalanche risk should be assessed before setting off on any hike and you should be familiar with the use of crampons and ice-axes.
In summer, trail conditions are generally more favorable but owing to the amount of precipitation are frequently boggy, thus making boots (as opposed to trail shoes) all but essential. The biggest drawback to hiking in Scotland in summer is the presence of the almost ubiquitous midge, a tiny fly found predominantly in humid conditions or around stagnant water (also fairly ubiquitous in the north of the country!) that has managed to drive many a hiker and camper absolutely batsh*t bonkers over the years in its relentless pursuit of a good feed upon their flesh.
Spring and fall generally offer the best hiking opportunities, with most trails being snow-free and the “b**tard midge,” as it’s known to the locals, safely in hibernation.
Where to fly to
Scotland is a small country, measuring just over 30,000 square miles—that’s about a quarter of the size of Texas!—in total. The two main airports are Glasgow and Edinburgh, though there are smaller airports in the northern cities of Inverness and Aberdeen. If coming from overseas, the best airport as regards access to the mountainous regions is Glasgow, but even those landing in Edinburgh will find themselves just a two-hour drive from where the nation’s more industrial and flat central belt gives way to the lower reaches of the Highlands.
If you’re particularly short on time, catching a connecting flight from either Glasgow or Edinburgh to Inverness will save you a few hours and place you within an hour’s drive from Scotland’s main hiking destinations and two to three hours from the Isle of Skye.
What to pack
What you need to pack for your hiking trip in Scotland will depend on what season you’re heading there in. However, would-be visitors should be warned that Scottish “summers” (scare quotes required) are far from toasty (we’re talking low 70s, max!) and rarely pass without at least a week or two of torrential rain and howling winds.
While we’d recommend bringing the same hiking kit you’d take on hikes in shoulder seasons in North America or in mainland Europe, there are a few points worth mentioning with regard to gear:
- Hiking boots: because of the high levels of precipitation, many of the trails in Scotland are very boggy and, as such, not ideal for low-cut hiking shoes.
- Map and Compass: most of the trails in Scotland are unmarked and without signposts of any form.
- Tent and sleeping bag: wild camping is permitted everywhere in Scotland. As long as you’re not in someone’s garden or a public park you can pitch up wherever you please!
- Bug spray: lots of it. While mosquitoes have thankfully not yet made the migration north of the French Channel, the resident biters are just as baneful, if not more so. The most pestiferous culprits are the horsefly and the aforementioned native midge, both of which most visitors leave believing to be either some form of small, airborne piranha or direct descendants of pterodactyls.
Do I need a guide?
This will depend largely on your navigation skills and weather conditions. For the most part, the above trails are all perfectly doable without a guide if you are comfortable using a map and compass. The majority of mountain rescue call outs in Scotland are for hikers who have become lost or been benighted in either inclement weather or Scotland’s infamously dense mist. For the Skye Ridge, a guide is highly recommended unless you have mountaineering skills and are comfortable scrambling on steep and very exposed terrain.
Bothies are basic stone shelters which can be found throughout Scotland’s remote areas. Free and open for use by hikers without any need for membership, these shelters make for very convenient overnight stops and can save you carrying a tent. To find out if there are any bothies on your route, check out this map from the Mountain Bothies Association.
The Fifteen Best Hiking Trails in Scotland
If you happen to have a lot of time on your hands, there are much worse ways you could spend it than wandering the epic 537-mile Scottish National Trail, a route that runs the full length of Scotland from Kirk Yetholm down in the Scottish Borders to Cape Wrath in the far northeast.
Every stage of this route regales those hardy enough to take it on with numerous points of historical and cultural interest and a gobsmacking array of natural landscapes. From deep glens and towering peaks to romantic lochs, castles, and yellow-sanded beaches, this one throws in a little bit of everything that Scotland has to offer.
Starting off in the Scottish Borders, the SNT remains fairly easygoing until passing Edinburgh and Glasgow. The real challenge begins when the trail joins with the West Highland Way in the village of Milngavie, just north of Glasgow, from where the terrain becomes far more remote and vertical in nature. After joining with the Rob Roy Way and passing the outstandingly scenic Loch Katrine, Loch Earn, and Loch Tay, the trail arrives in the town of Blair Atholl, where you’ll find a fairy-tale 13th-century castle, a campsite, pub, and a few shops to stock up on supplies. After a long traverse of some of our planet’s oldest mountains in the Cairngorms National Park, the trail then veers west and joins with the Cape Wrath Trail, which hugs the west coast through 73 miles of some of the most rugged, unspoiled, and visually peerless terrain the world over.
Also featured in our guide the Best Hiking Trails in Europe, The Skye Trail is undoubtedly one of the top five trails in the British Isles as a whole. Wild, remote, and taking in almost all of the best features of the Isle of Skye’s utterly unique terrain, this is one not to be missed for anyone with a fondness for serious, self-sufficient adventure.
In 2014, National Geographic awarded the Isle of Skye a top-ten slot in its list of “tours of a lifetime”. Though the consequences of the accolade have seen the island overwhelmed by tourist traffic in the intervening years, the trails that wend their way through this magical location’s fascinating terrain remain, thankfully, largely unfrequented.
The 80-mile Skye Trail runs from the village of Broadford in the south of the island to the lonely, windswept Rubha Hunish peninsula in the north. The route is unmarked, remote, and requires not only good navigational skills but also decent tolerance levels for the vagaries of island weather—like most parts of northern Scotland, Skye is no stranger to biblical downpours, sleet, and frigid temperatures even in summer months.
This route serves up a steady feast of incredible landscapes from start to finish, from the outlandish rock formations of the Quairang and the Old Man of Storr to the wonderfully moody Cuillin Mountains and the Trotternish Ridge. Cameron McNeish, editor of British outdoor magazine TGO says of Skye: “Any argument that says this is not the most astonishing landscape in Britain is surely indefensible.” We’re with Cameron…and we’re sure you will be too!
Undoubtedly the most demanding trail in all of the British Isles, the Skye Ridge Trail is a thrilling two or three-day traverse of a high, airy, rocky, 9-mile ridge connecting each of the island’s Black Cuillin Mountains. If you don’t have a good head for heights, you might want to pass on this one, but if your thirst for adventure is complemented by b*lls of steel and an appetite for the downright audacious, then there are few better trails anywhere in Europe.
As this route requires alpine techniques and equipment and involves over 13,000 feet in total ascent and descent, it’s not recommended for anyone without ample mountaineering experience and in peak physical condition. Additionally, because the route involves some high-level scrambling and is easy to lose in poor visibility, any would-be aspirants are advised to wait until two or three clear days are forecast before making their attempt. In clear conditions, the route takes around 15-20 hours to complete, not including an overnight bivouac on the ridge that ups the total “trail” time to around the 30-hour mark. For those without extensive alpine experience, hiring a local guide is strongly advised.
If none of the above has put you off, then hopefully the following video will convince you that this once-in-a-lifetime type of trail is well worth taking on:
Another route featured in our guide to the Best Hiking Trails in Europe, the West Highland Way is Scotland’s most popular hiking trail. And with good reason…
Despite the relatively high volume of foot traffic, this 96-mile route still manages to reward visitors with an almost eerie sense of isolation as it threads its alternatively gentle and grueling course through a delectable succession of lonely glens, rugged glacial cirques, long, wild stretches of heather-clad, loch-strewn upland, bleak moorlands, and exquisitely picturesque valleys.
Connecting the town of Milngavie with the outdoor hub of Fort William, this route takes in some of the most ancient mountains on our planet, the most notable being the picture-perfect pyramid of the Buchaille Etive Mor and Scotland’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis.
Wild camping is permitted everywhere along the route, but be sure to pack a can of bug spray and pick up a protective head net to fend off Scotland’s most infamous and universally despised local, the dreaded “midge” mentioned above. This tiny flying insect may be all but invisible to the naked eye but is capable of driving even the most level-headed camper absolutely nuts with its propensity to evade all defenses employed to ward it off. If you’d prefer a midge-free zone for sleeping or just a little more in the way of comfort, the route can easily be divided into sections with stopovers at bed and breakfasts, inns, and guesthouses along the route.
Fife, the region that gave birth to such internationally renowned figures as Sean Connery (the original James Bond), Adam Smith (author of The Wealth of Nations), Andrew Carnegie (philanthropist), Clive Russel (Ser Brynden Tully in Game of Thrones), and artist Jack Vettriano, has much more going for it than merely an uncanny knack of producing world-famous celebrities. The region’s dramatic Coastal Path, in fact, features enough cultural and natural highlights to place each of its illustrious former residents distinctly in the shade.
This 117-mile route begins not far from Edinburgh near the UNESCO World Heritage Forth Rail Bridge and ends just short of the city of Dundee by the Firth of Tay. Between these two termini, the route passes through dozens of delectably cute coastal villages, former mining villages, and long, wild stretches of pristine coastline where hikers have the chance to spot minke whales, dolphins, porpoises, basking sharks, and various maritime birds.
This is a fairly easygoing route, with no more than 2,500 feet of total ascent and descent, and for those who prefer to travel light, there are plenty of hotels and bed and breakfasts along the way that offer reasonably priced accommodation and excellent seafood.
The highlights of the Fife Coastal Trail are undoubtedly the sections that pass through the fishing villages and artist’s haven of the East Neuk and the ancient university town of St. Andrews. While the latter is best known as the historical “home of golf” and where Prince William met future wife Kate Middleton, it is a worthwhile stopover in its own right and has plenty of excellent restaurants, breweries, and “fish and chip shops” where you can replenish your energy reserves in style!
If wild, remote, and totally unspoiled is your thing, The Fisherfield Round in the northwest Highlands’ region of Wester Ross should go straight to the top of your shortlist of potential hikes while in Scotland.
Often referred to as the British Isles’ “Last Great Wilderness,” the Fisherfield Forest (a misnomer—the Caledonian forest that once existed on the periphery of the area is now long extinct) is home to the most remote Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet) in Scotland. The relative lack of height of these five peaks doesn’t mean they should be taken lightly—the traverse of the full quintuplet and the smaller, adjoining sixth peak is a two-day affair on steep, isolated, challenging terrain. Doing the route from end to end also involves short sections of scrambling, a few sketchy river crossings, a handful of long traverses on exposed ridges, and requires not only a good head for heights but calves of steel!
The views at the top of each of the peaks—and, indeed, for much of the way in between—are nothing short of outstanding, at times resembling something plucked out of Lord of the Rings’ Middle Earth and at others the most dramatic portions of Iceland or the Norwegian fjordlands. Camping is permitted everywhere in the area, but we’d highly recommend leaving your tent at home and making use of the very cozy (and free!) Shenavall bothy.
How you may ask, can a 2.75-mile trail possibly make it onto the list of a nation’s top hikes? Well, in short, the three-hour circuit of Sutherland’s 1,800-foot Stac Pollaidh is far more entertaining and challenging than this mountain’s diminutive proportions might suggest and the views from the top among the best of all the locations on our list.
Often attracting comparisons to a giant porcupine, the hike to the “stac” (Gaelic for “steep, upthrust rock”) is to Scotland what the Angel’s Landing hike in Zion National Park is to Utah or the Trolltunga hike is to Norway, sharing with both of these trails an exposed, airy terminus and comparably sumptuous views along the way. Getting to the peak involves a short, steep ascent up to the low point on the stac’s ridge, from where the going gets increasingly tougher and rockier until culminating with a tricky scramble to the summit.
It may have only taken you an hour or two to reach this point, but we’re fairly sure you’ll want to spend the same amount of time again soaking up the incredible panoramic views to the shapely peaks of Cul Mor, Quinag, and Suilven, the Inverpolly Nature Reserve, and out across the water to the Summer Isles and Achiltibuie.
Few trails manage to cram in quite so much awesome natural scenery and additional aspects of intrigue quite like the Great Glen Way.
While this route merits its place on any list on account of the ancient forests, dramatic mountainous landscapes, and picturesque valleys passed en route, its historical and cultural “bonus” features combine to make it something of a standout. Beginning at the foot of Ben Nevis, Scotland and the UK’s highest peak, this 73-mile route follows the diagonal course of the Slighe a’ Ghlinne Mhòir valley in a northeasterly direction until culminating at Inverness Castle in the Highlands’ eponymous capital city. On the way it throws in a scenic stroll along the banks of the Caledonian Canal, a hike through ancient pine forest by the shores of the world-renowned Loch Ness (sightings of the eponymous monster not guaranteed!), a stopover at the slightly eerie, 13th-century Urquhart Castle, and non-stop views of dramatic, heather-lined mountains and glens.
With only 8,000 feet of total ascent and taking only 5 or 6 days to complete, this is one of more mellow hikes on our list and ideal for novice hikers or those looking to mix up a bit of historical interest with their trail time.
Were it not for the frigid winds blowing in off the Atlantic and the small posses of sheep walking the island’s loch-strewn moorlands, visitors to the Isle of Harris in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides could be forgiven for thinking the ferry crossing from the mainland has somehow transported them to some very remote, utterly idyllic, and largely unpopulated island in the Caribbean. With its long, pristine, white-sand beaches and turquoise waters, this absolute gem of an island does indeed seem to be somewhere far more exotic—at least, that is, until you dip a toe in that water to test the temperature!
But there’s a lot more to it than just the beaches…
The somewhat morbidly named Coffin Road route travels a path used for centuries by pall-bearers transporting the deceased from the east of the island to the old burial grounds in the west, where they were interred in the soft, sandy grasslands known as “machair.” Endemic to the north coast of Northern Ireland and the Hebrides, machair is a very delicate, fertile plain most often covered in coastal wildflowers such as the Hebridean spotted orchid, Irish lady’s tresses, and other very rare “carpet flowers.” For most visitors, this utterly unique feature often ends up being one of the unexpected highlights of the trip.
In total, the route takes only five or six hours from the rugged, rocky east coast of the island, but on the way delivers plenty of gorgeous scenery in the form of a trio of pretty lochs (Loch Creabhat, Loch a’Bhealaich, and Loch Carran), wild moorlands dotted with lily-filled ponds, and the stunning Luskentyre Sands, which is well worth the trip over to the island in itself.
The Torridon area of northwest Scotland offers some of the most challenging hiking and spectacular scenery in the UK as a whole. Rising sharply from sea level, this trio of rugged peaks throw in a lot of thrills and adventure on a short, 7-mile loop through a veritable wonderland of mountainous terrain. From the top of each, the panoramas merit every cliche in the book—breathtaking, awesome, astonishing, awe-inspiring, you name it!—stretching out to the Atlantic coast in the west, north to the lonely peaks of Assynt, and northeast across the vast, loch-dappled wilderness of Wester Ross.
Starting 2 miles west of the idyllic coastal village of Torridon, the route follows the Abhainn Coire Mhic Nobuil river up to the saddle on Sgùrr Mòr, after which point you’ll set off on a long and at times exposed traverse of the narrow ridge connecting all three of the peaks before dropping back into the valley below and completing the loop to the village. Although the route involves some sections of scrambling, these are relatively easy and not prohibitive for anyone comfortable with a bit of exposure and not afraid of getting their hands dirty!
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous or have time and energy to burn, throwing in an extension to the area’s two tallest peaks, Liathach and Beinn Eighe, is highly recommended, with cheap accommodation available at the end of the route in the bunkhouse at Kinlochewe.
A frequent feature on top-five lists of Britain’s best beaches, Sandwood Bay is a mile-long strand of pristine white sands that only be reached on foot by way of a rough, five-mile trail over stark, windswept moorland.
The trailhead lies just seven miles south of the most north-westerly point in the British Isles in the tiny hamlet of Blairmore, which boasts a very distinct (and ever so slightly spooky) end-of-the-world feel that belies the incomparable beauty that awaits just a short distance to the west. The trail itself is often boggy and battered by fierce winds, but culminates with a grand finale is as grand as any you’re ever likely to come across.
As if the beach, the turquoise waters, and rolling dunes weren’t idyllic enough, the forces of nature put the proverbial cherry on top of the cake by placing a giant sea stack—Am Buchaille (“The Shepherd”)—like a giant sentinel at the beach’s southern end. The stack can be reached at low tide, but for those of a more fearful nature or not keen on the prospect of a very cool swim back to safety when the tide turns, an equally ideal viewing point can be reached by making a short detour south before descending into the bay itself.
While this trail is easily doable as an out-and-back trip in a single day, we’re pretty sure you’ll want to extend your stay as long as possible. If so, the giant dunes behind the beach make for one of the most spectacular camping spots you’re ever likely to find and also provide a little shelter from the strong winds blowing in from the Atlantic.
For those as enamored with the location and keen to explore a little further, the trail can be extended to the dramatic Cape Wrath on the wild, 8-mile footpath starting just northeast of the beach.
Few avid hikers who visit Scotland do so without undertaking the popular mountain-goer’s pilgrimage up to the summit of Ben Nevis, which at 4, 413 feet is Britain’s highest peak.
Though lacking in height compared to the tallest national peaks elsewhere in Europe, the ascent of Ben Nevis is not to be taken lightly. Over the years the mountain has claimed the lives of many hikers who have underestimated the route’s seriousness and/or set off poorly equipped, believing the volume of traffic on the well-maintained “tourist path” that ascends the mountain’s west flank to be an indicator of the ease with which it might be undertaken.
Like all of Scotland’s mountains, the weather on and around Ben Nevis is an ever-present danger, changing from one minute to the next with the fronts blown onto the mountain in quick succession from the Atlantic and the North Sea. In low visibility, losing the trail is quite easily done, meaning that map and compass skills are essential to ensure you steer clear of the huge drops where the path treads the ridge between the mountain’s north face and the equally steep Five Finger Gully.
Most hikers set off for the trailhead in the early morning from the town of Fort William, which is a handy base for forays onto other hiking trails in the area, but a reasonably priced and friendly youth hostel on the mountain itself is a better option for those wishing to make an early start.
Starting from the hostel, or after driving or catching a bus to the trailhead, the trail weaves its way through the leafy Glen Nevis before climbing steeply up the boulder-strewn flanks onto the rocky summit, from where the views are nothing short of sensational. The whole hike measures just 11 miles and can be done in 6 or 7 hours.
Thru-hikers with an appetite for truly wild terrain and spectacular coastal scenery will be hard pressed to find a trail more accommodating of their tastes than northwest Scotland’s Cape Wrath Trail. This 230-mile route is one of the least frequented long-distance routes in the British Isles and serves up some of the most rugged, wild, and remote hiking anywhere in Europe.
Starting in Fort William, the trail hugs the western seaboard as it heads due north through some of Scotland’s highest mountains and most isolated countryside. After staying a high course through the exquisite Glen Sheil, over the Forcan Ridge, the Torridon Hills, and the Fisherfield wilderness, the trail descends on the lower-lying terrain of Sutherland and Assynt, passing idyllic glens and lochs before turning sharply north again on its way to Sandwood Bay and its terminus at the wild and windswept Cape Wrath, Britain’s most north-westerly point.
Like most of the trails in northern Scotland, the CWT is entirely unsigned and so competence with a map and compass is absolutely essential.
Whisky-lovers rejoice! While we’d be loath to advocate drunken trail-going in any form, it would be a great pity to travel all the way to the homeland of “the water of life” without indulging in at least a tipple or two along the way, right?!. And there’s no better place to do so than the Scottish Highlands’ Speyside region, where there are just about as many distilleries as there are mountains!
That’s not to say the region is short on sizable summits, merely that in the shadow of said summits you’ll come across plenty of opportunities to partake of some of the finest malts in all of Scotland—Tomintoul, Glenlivet, Ballindalloch, and Glenfiddich, to name but a few—directly from source.
Beginning at the town of Buckie on the gorgeous Moray coastline, the Speyside Way follows the course of the Spey River all the way down to the town of Newtonmore, some 80 miles southwest. On the way it passes through a simply gobsmacking variety of terrain, starting with the coastal dunes and pine forests of the Spey Bay before moving onto dense birch forests, sweeping moorlands, and high, snow-capped mountains in Cairngorm National Park.
This route is well signed from start to finish (even for the mildly inebriated!) and presents far less of a challenge than the other long-distance routes on our list, which is probably a good thing given the above distilleries’ free daily tours and tastings!
Commonly referred to as “Scotland in Miniature,” the Isle of Arran packs a little bit of everything you can find on the mainland, from rugged mountains and whiskey distilleries to long sandy beaches, Caledonian pine forests, Iron Age hill forts and burial cairns, and even duo of castles.
The scenery on this 65-mile route never fails to delight, with each turn in the trail offering up something truly majestic or jaw-droppingly beautiful. While not the most challenging trail on our list, parts of the route are unmarked and a few sections, at Brennan Head and between Kingscross and Lamlash, become impassable at high tide. For those who want to up the ante a little, a short but steep detour will lead to the summit of Goat Fell (2,867 ft), where you’ll find simply stunning views back across to the mainland and out to the islands of the Lower Hebrides.
The highlights on this one are the aforementioned Brodick Castle and Lochranza Castle, the slightly scary rock scramble at Bennan Head, and the opportunity to spot some of the island’s spectacular wildlife, which includes seals galore, the odd eagle, minke whales, otters, dolphins, porpoises, and basking sharks.
Twelve small villages are passed along the route, each of them offering accommodation in bed and breakfasts, hostels, and/or campsites.
From short and steep one-day wanders to epic multi-day odysseys, Scotland has a little bit of everything in store for hikers of all levels of experience, fitness, and trail-ready fortitude. Whether you’re headed to the Land of the Brave to indulge in a bit of culture and history or simply for the thrill of stomping through its wild and wonderful landscapes, the above list is sure to feature at least a handful of trails that will have you booking a return visit sometime very soon.
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Sam Hardy is an outdoor enthusiast with a penchant for survival skills. He writes about the great outdoors and his favorite equipment here.