Few adventures are as memorable as exploring the northern reaches of Scotland by road. You’ve learned to drive on the left-hand side (or coerced a British friend into driving), secured a car, and you’re ready to begin your road trip through the Scottish Highlands. There’s only one problem: the Highlands are huge. With so many ancient towns, castle ruins, and imposing mountains scattered throughout this vast landscape, it can be tough to know where to start, or how to plan the most scenic route so you don’t miss anything. The remote Isle of Skye is a complete destination in itself, and you could easily spend a few days losing yourself in the wilderness of Cairngorms National Park. Seeing it all might seem like an insurmountable task, but rest assured — it’s completely doable, and well worth it. Here’s how to plan a truly unforgettable road trip through the Scottish Highlands.
1. Edinburgh to Inverness
You can start your trip pretty much anywhere, but Scotland’s capital city is a natural launching point. Before setting out from Edinburgh, explore everything the city has to offer. Check out Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Mile, Princes Gardens, and stumble home through the cobbled alleyways after a night at one of Edinburgh’s famous pubs. It’s the last large city you’ll be seeing for a while.
Just an hour and a half north from Edinburgh you’ll find Cairngorms National Park. The largest national park in the British Isles, Cairngorms is home to castles, gardens, and a plethora of hiking and biking paths. Among the most impressive castles are Braemar and Blair. Blair Castle is easily accessible, just past the town of Pitlochry at the southern edge of the park. Braemar Castle, however, is located in the heart of Cairngorms, and you might need to take a brief detour to see it. You can also check out Balmoral Castle in the northeast of the park — one of the Royal Family’s holiday residences. If castles aren’t your thing and you’d rather plunge into nature, the park has several hiking trails that lead through the woods. The trails are largely non-strenuous, and you can easily spend an entire afternoon wandering through the hidden gardens, rivers, and old bridges of the Scottish wilderness.
When you’ve had your fill of rugged adventure, the coastal town of Inverness is just an hour’s drive north. Considered the cultural capital of the Highlands, it’s the perfect place to rest after a long day and a convenient launching spot for tomorrow’s activities.
2. Loch Ness to the Isle of Skye
Under an hour’s drive west from Inverness will bring you to Fort Augustus, a town on the shores of the famous Loch Ness. Expecting Fort Augustus to be totally devoid of tourists and gift shops would be a little unreasonable, but the kitsch isn’t too overwhelming, and you can take boat tours of the lake for around $18. Even if you don’t give much weight to the legend of Loch Ness, it’s still pretty cool to sail around the loch, and the ship’s crew is extremely knowledgeable about local history.
Although Loch Ness might be the site most heavily associated with Scotland, Scots know that the Isle of Skye is their most breathtaking destination. Located on the country’s western extremity about two hours from Fort Augustus, Skye is brimming with natural beauty, from ancient rock formations to sweeping ocean vistas and pools straight out of a fairytale. Use the town of Portree as your base and explore from there. The capital of Skye has a whopping 2,500 residents, and it’s perfectly located for seeing everything the island has to offer. A 13-minute drive north of town will bring you to the Old Man of Storr, a set of jagged, iconic rock formations formed by an ancient landslide. The full 2.3-mile hike through the area takes you through these and other rock formations, and over rolling green hills.
After you’ve spent your morning among the rocks, head a half-hour south of Portree to the Fairy Pools. These crystal clear pools at the foot of the Black Cuillins mountain range are famous for their mini-waterfalls and magical aesthetic. Scotland isn’t exactly known for its sunny blue skies, but this is one place where a gray, low-hanging mist seriously adds to the otherworldliness of the scene. Once you’ve hiked the 1.5 miles to the pools, you can even take a dip. Just don’t expect the water to be warm.
3. The west coast
You could spend a couple of days exploring the Isle of Skye, but if you’re short on time, begin heading south along the coast until you reach Fort William. On the shores of Loch Linnhe, this town is a perfect base for intrepid hikers looking to climb Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest peak at 4,413 feet. Whether you decide to hike the mountain or just stop for a few photos, continue south through Glencoe, a glen full of striking mountains and waterfalls. This may be the final leg of the trip, but that doesn’t mean the scenery gets any less impressive. Glencoe is one of the Highlands’ most beautiful regions, particularly famous for a group of three massive peaks called “The Three Sisters.” There are several turn-offs where you’ll be able to park and photograph the stunning landscape.
Drive an hour south from Glencoe, and you’ll arrive at Loch Lomond, a massive loch with several hiking trails. You can drive around the park at your leisure and take in the landscape with your eyes, or spend the day exploring by foot. There are biking, hiking, and camping opportunities for those who aren’t quite finished roughing it in the Scottish wilderness.
When you’re done exploring the lake, it’s time to return to civilization. Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, is just a 45-minute drive south. We recommend spending at least a night here to get a true feel for what this vibrant city has to offer, including seeing the Glasgow Cathedral and Botanic Gardens and maybe treating yourself to a shopping spree on Buchanan Street.
The ride back to Edinburgh shouldn’t take more than an hour, so when you’re ready to return, take your time. If you feel like venturing a bit further south, the seaside town of Ayr is worth visiting or take a detour to Stirling to visit its famous castle — about halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh. If Stirling Castle inspires you, you can even drive another 15 minutes north to visit Doune Castle, which you might recognize from the iconic opening scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
4. The far north
If you have more time to spend in The Scottish Highlands, you can go all the way north to the Orkney Islands, which are accessible by ferry from Aberdeen. Stay a night in Kirkwall, Orkney’s largest town, and spend the next day exploring Skara Brae — the ruins of a Neolithic settlement on the west coast — or the ancient Midhowe Broch. To venture even farther, take the eight-hour ferry from Kirkwall to the Shetland Islands. There might not be a ton to do on these far-flung isles, but the landscape is out of this world, and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve ventured pretty much as far north as you can go in Scotland.