The Great Glen, a major geological fault line cutting diagonally across the Highlands from Fort William to Inverness, is the defining geographic feature of the north of Scotland. A huge rift valley was formed when the northwestern and southeastern sides of the fault slid in opposite directions for more than sixty miles, while the present landscape was shaped by glaciers that retreated only around 8000 BC. The glen is impressive more for its sheer scale than its beauty, but the imposing barrier of loch and mountain means that no one can travel into the northern Highlands without passing through it. With the two major service centres of the Highlands at either end it makes an obvious and rewarding route between the west and east coasts.
Of the Great Glen’s four elongated lochs, the most famous is Loch Ness, home to the mythical monster; lochs Oich, Lochy and Linnhe (the last of these a sea loch) are less renowned, though no less attractive. All four are linked by the Caledonian Canal. The southwestern end of the Great Glen is dominated by Fort William, the second-largest town in the Highland region. Situated at the heart of the Lochaber area, it’s a useful base and an excellent hub for outdoor activities. Dominating the scene to the south is Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak, best approached from scenic Glen Nevis. The most famous glen of all, Glen Coe, lies on the main A82 road half an hour’s drive south of Fort William. Nowadays the whole area is unashamedly given over to tourism, and Fort William is swamped by bus tours throughout the summer, but, as ever in the Highlands, within a thirty-minute drive you can be totally alone.
A ten-minute drive south of Fort William, GLEN NEVIS is among the Highlands’ most impressive glens: a U-shaped glacial valley hemmed in by steep bracken-covered slopes and swaths of blue-grey scree. Herds of shaggy Highland cattle graze the valley floor, where a sparkling river gushes through glades of trees.
A great low-level walk (six miles round-trip) runs from the end of the road at the top of Glen Nevis. The rocky path leads through a dramatic gorge with impressive falls and rapids, then opens out into a secret hanging valley, carpeted with wild flowers, with a high waterfall at the far end. Of all the walks in and around Glen Nevis, however, the ascent of Ben Nevis (4406ft), Britain’s highest summit, inevitably attracts the most attention. Despite the fact that it’s quite a slog up to the summit, and it’s by no means the most attractive mountain in Scotland, in high summer the trail is teeming with hikers, whatever the weather. It can snow round the summit any day of the year, so take the necessary precautions; in winter, of course, the mountain should be left to the experts. The most obvious route to the summit, a Victorian pony path up the whaleback south side of the mountain, built to service the observatory that once stood on the top, starts from the helpful Glen Nevis visitor centre: allow a full day for the climb (8hr).
Seven miles northeast of Fort William by the A82, on the slopes of Aonach Mhor, one of the high mountains abutting Ben Nevis, the Nevis Range is Scotland’s highest winter ski area. Highland Country bus #42 runs from Fort William to the base station of the country’s only gondola system. The 1.5-mile gondola trip (15min), rising 2000ft, gives an easy approach to some high-level walking as well as spectacular views from the terrace of the self-service restaurant at the top station. From the top of the gondola station, you can experience Britain’s only World-Cup-standard downhill mountain-bike course, a hair-raising 3km route that’s not for the faint-hearted. There are also 25 miles of waymarked off-road bike routes, known as the Witch’s Trails, on the mountainside and in the Leanachan Forest, ranging from gentle paths to cross-country scrambles. Alpine Bikes rents mountain bikes as well as full-suspension bikes for the downhill course from their shops in Fort William and at the gondola base station. The base station area also has a café and there’s a play area and nature trail nearby.
A good introduction to the splendours of Glen Coe is the half-day hike over the Devil’s Staircase, which follows part of the old military road that once ran between Fort William and Stirling. The trail, part of the West Highland Way, starts at the village of Kinlochleven and is marked by thistle signs, which lead uphill to the 1804ft pass and down the other side into Glen Coe.
Set right in the heart of the glen, the half-day Allt Coire Gabhail hike starts at the car park opposite the distinctive Three Sisters massif on the main A82. This explores the so-called “Lost Valley” where the Clan MacDonald fled and hid their cattle when attacked. Once in the valley, there are superb views of the upper slopes of Bidean nan Bian, Gearr Aonach and Beinn Fhada, which improve as you continue on to its head, another twenty- to thirty-minute walk.
One of the finest walks in the Glen Coe area that doesn’t entail the ascent of a Munro is the Buachaille Etive Beag circuit, which follows the textbook glacial valleys of Lairig Eilde and Lairig Gartain, ascending 1968ft in only nine miles of rough trail. Park near the waterfall at The Study – the gorge part of the A82 through Glen Coe – and walk up the road until you see a sign pointing south to “Loch Etiveside”.