Hill walking in the Scottish Highlands
Few walking destinations can equal the majestic landscapes of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Local guide Peter Khambatta, an experienced hill walker and mountaineer, describes what's on offer.
Generations of walkers have sung the praises of the Scottish Highlands, with good reason: few places in the world can match the majesty and drama of this incredible landscape. From the summit views of the UK's tallest mountain to the shimmering lochs and rugged coastline of the Isle of Skye, the Scottish Highlands provide endless opprtunities for fantastic hill walking experiences.
Scotland's mountains are quite simply stunning. Set amongst sea and freshwater lochs, the landscape has a real wilderness feel about it. The views are truly magical. The weather is famously terrible, or at least temperamental, and no visitor should visit Scotland without experiencing a Scotch mist or a wet walk in some magnificent Glens. Ben Nevis and Glencoe are a great starting point, yet are only 100 miles from Glasgow.
GUIDE TO HILL WALKING IN THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS
What follows is a list of the four principal areas within the Scottish Highlands and islands that I believe to offer the very best hill walking. I have visited these places many times and spent many a night wild camping, followed by a night in a local hotel to recover.
I find the west coast of Scotland to be the most pleasant location regarding scenery; the mountains tend to be rockier here, and the combination of rugged coastline and lochs make it a magical place.
THE BEST AREAS FOR HILL WALKING
Ben Nevis and Glencoe
Ben Nevis and Glencoe are great introductions to the Highlands and only 100 miles or so from Glasgow.
The Mountain Track is very popular and often busy from May to October. The Visitor Centre or Youth Hostel in Glen Nevis or the Ben Nevis Inn at Achintee are the usual starting points. For the more adventurous, Ben Nevis via the Carn Mor Dearg arête is a beautiful route; people usually set out from Torlundy at the North Face car park, three miles north of Fort William. A less-used walkers route goes via Steall at the head of Glen Nevis.
Glencoe itself has several very imposing Munros and is not an ideal venue for novices. The Aonach Eagach is probably the best-known ridge in the region and is usually walked east to west for the best views. A pint in the Clachaig Inn is very welcome. Alternatively, the beautiful peak of Buachaille Etive Mor (aka The Buckle) gives splendid views of the Glencoe mountains themselves, as well as across the expansive wilds of Rannoch Moor.
Isle of Skye and Isle of Rum
Skye is a massive island with some of the best scenery Scotland has to offer. The Red Cuillin in the south-centre provides slightly easier mountains to climb, while a few miles further north Glamaig from Sligachan is short, steep and wonderful. Alternatively, Glen Sligahan takes one to Loch Coruisk and onto Elgol and is possibly one of the best low-level walks in Scotland. The main Cuillin itself often starts with a climb up Sgurr nan Gillean for an open view on a small summit.
The departure from Mallaig to Rum - a real wilderness of an island just to the south of Skye - is well worth the effort. Many people stay at the hostel in Kinloch; for the more adventurous, the bothies (shelters) at Guirdil and Dibidil are remote and idyllic. The Rum Cuillin ridge itself is a long day out and includes the summits of Hallival, Askival, Ainshval and Sgurr nan Gillean.
Knoydart, Torridon and Sutherland
These wonderful destinations are up in the wilds of the Northwest Highlands. Knoydart is a spectacular and wild area on the mainland just across the water from the southern tip of Skye. There are various challenging Munros here - the highest is Ladharr Behin, and the views - a glorious jumble of mountain and sea - are up there with the best.
Further north, the main attraction in the Torridon mountains is Liathach. Torridon village is an excellent base with a good pub called The Torridon, and there is also a campsite and youth hostel. Liathach is a fabulous climb which is usually done from east to west, starting from the free car park at grid reference 957568. The walk usually takes about eight hours in total and begins with hand railing the river Allt a’ Choire Dhuibh Mhoir before climbing scree slopes onto the main ridge. There is some scrambling, but all difficult stretches can be avoided if required.
Far to the north is Sutherland, just about the remotest place in the British Isles. Between Ullapool and Cape Wrath (Scotland's stormy northwestern tip) is an immense sweep of mountain and moorland grandeur, with epic climbs including Ben More Assynt, Ben Hope and Quinag.
Further east is this bleak but inspiring National Park, a sub-arctic environment that is home to the UK's skiing industry - and endless possibilities for hill walkers. Protected as a national park since 2003, the area encompasses four of Britain's five highest mountains.
The majority of walkers will base themselves at Aviemore or Glenmore, and tackle the summit of Cairn Gorm (1,245 metres). It's a demanding four- or five-hour hike, with some steep drops and rapidly changing weather. Allow another three hours to take in the magnificent scenery of Ben Macdui (1,309 metres).
TOP 5 EXPERIENCES
1. Ben Nevis - Fort William
At 1,343 metres (4,406ft), Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the United Kingdom by some distance. The Mountain Track is the most popular ascent but for those looking for a more adventurous route, the Carn Mor Dearg (CMD) Arete is outstanding.
2. Buachaille Etive Mor - Glencoe
Glencoe's most iconic mountain and when viewed from the Kingshouse Hotel it takes the shape of the perfect pyramidal peak. Many just climb the main summit with wonderful views over Rannoch Moor, but the ridge should not be missed.
3. Isle of Skye
There is no place like Skye anywhere else in the UK. The walking opportunities, from the red and black Cuillin to the Stor north of Portree - the island's capital - are simply stunning.
4. Isle of Rum
Less than 50 people live on Rum. Once you depart from the ferry and head out into the mountains you seldom see more than one or two people all day. In fact, you're far more likely to see the red deer for which the island is famous.
With three Munros, no road-head and a pub, Knoydart has it all. It was the first place I ever walked in when I was 17 years of age. The ferry from Mallaig is the easy way in, or you can walk down Loch Hourn.
WHEN TO VISIT
Best times to go:
I am a great believer in out of season travel. There are many advantages - and you never know, the weather may even be kind to you. My business adventurenevis.com operates all year. Generally speaking, July and August, which tend to be the busiest months, are my least favoured, mainly due to the midges which really can spoil a holiday. Believe it or not, it can also get quite warm, and hazy weather can obscure the fine views.
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