Hiking in the Scottish Highlands: expert tips on five challenging routes to the peaks
The Scottish Highlands are prime hiking territory but choosing where to start is no easy feat. Expert guide, Ben Dyson, shares his pick of the best routes to showcase this region.
The Scottish Highlands are undoubtedly a paradise for hikers of all levels: unspoilt beauty, vast landscapes and craggy mountains are all in abundance. Spanning more than a third of Scotland’s land area, the Highlands have much to offer when it comes to hiking routes, so choosing just a few is no easy task. Experienced local mountaineering guide Ben Dyson has some ideas when it comes to selecting a taste of the best of the Scottish mountains, though, as he candidly puts it: “I could probably list another 500 that wouldn’t disappoint.”
1. Ben Nevis Mountain Path Loop from Glen Nevis
Popular among hikers, the navigation app Komoot has a host of community sourced routes, with this testing loop of Scotland’s most famous mountain, Ben Nevis, being one of the most popular. At almost 11 miles, the terrain demands very good fitness and sure-footedness as walkers navigate rocky unpaved mountain paths and a decent amount of gravel.
Starting right next to the Braveheart car park, the loop winds through the River Nevis valley, bringing up views of the UK’s highest mountain and a taster of what’s to come. Highlights include the scenic Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe at around three miles in and striking views over the Caledonian Canal at mile four, before full focus is demanded for the steep and zig-zagging ascent to the summit of Ben Nevis. Given its lofty standing (4,413 feet), on a good day, vistas stretch for miles around and can be incredible to behold. Equally, Ben Nevis is Britain’s highest mountain, and is therefore prone to wild weather and deep snow right into summer. Combined with treacherous ground surrounding the summit, unless you’ve a good deal of experience under your belt (see the safety note below) for the best experience this is definitely one to leave for a summer’s day with a good forecast. The views are worth the wait. Being so well-known, this Munro can get very busy so choosing a weekday or setting off early is recommended to avoid the crowds. On the descent, nipping into the rustic Ben Nevis Inn is a must for a welcome, and cosy, way to round off a long day's exploits.
At 2,389ft, Suilven is not the highest hill in Scotland but, in Ben’s opinion, it’s one of the most iconic. “Its two summits rise almost vertically from the far north-western Assynt landscape like huge dorsal fins, and it looks almost unclimbable as you approach it,” explains Ben. On a clear day, the view of the surrounding hills and sea to the west of the summit are truly breathtaking, he says. It might not be on the list for those looking to bag a coveted Munro (Suilven is shy by just over 600ft of the status), but hiking the peak is no less of an achievement.
Meaning ‘pillar’ in Old Norse, Suilven, appears intimidatingly steep but the ascent to the summit is actually a lot easier than it appears on first glance, says Ben. There are a number of routes into the base of the mountain, but all are lengthy. Indeed, a route on Walkhighlands details it as a 12.5-mile hike taking seven to nine hours. With the opportunity of spotting native red deer, mountain hares and wildcats among a majestic landscape though, it’s a sight to behold.
3. Beinn Alligin
Meaning ‘mountain of beauty’ or ‘jewelled mountain’, it’s no surprise that Beinn Alligin holds a special place in Ben’s heart. He describes it as his favourite of the Torridon mountains; a range located on the north west coast in between Loch Torridon and Loch Maree. “These steep sided hills remind me of something straight out of a Tolkien novel,” he shares, while lightheartedly advising hikers to be prepared to make slow progress along the route due to the awe-inspiring views and ceaseless photographic opportunities it presents.
A 6.5-mile loop of Beinn Alligin, takes in two Munros (Sgùrr Mòr and Tom na Gruagaich), plus epic views of the Isle of Skye and Liathach (often rated as Scotland's finest mountain by mountaineers and hikers). Dramatic scenery — the three Horns of Alligin are a sight to behold — combined with steep scrambles, make this a hike worth savouring. In all, expect it to take around eight hours in summer conditions, while in winter with snow on the ground, crampons and an ice-axe are essential.
4. Ring of Steall
Just the name of this popular hiking route rightly signals a demanding undertaking even with a good forecast and an early start. Located in the Mamores mountain range, to the east of Fort William, you’ll visit a mighty four of the famed ridge of 10 Munros on offer. “This circular route takes in both the stunning upper Glen Nevis, including the Steall Falls, as well as some airy scrambling,” explains Ben. Incredible views of Ben Nevis to the north and Glencoe to the south are also on the menu.
Although the area is most famous for the UK’s highest peak, Ben Nevis, the Ring of Steall affords hikers the best of the rugged Lochaber region, but without the crowds, explains Ben. The narrow and exposed Devil's Ridge, on this 10-mile loop, is a dramatic sight, but still reassuringly achievable to traverse. Incredible views appear along every step of this hike, which can take anywhere between nine and 12 hours to complete. Revel in the spectacular vista of Ben Nevis and Stob Ban, before making your descent down the less dangerous north west ridge towards Allt Coire a’ Mhusgain.
Situated to the east of the Cairngorm range on the edge of the Balmoral Estate, it’s widely seen as another one of Scotland’s best mountains.
Still on Ben’s wish list, is a hike up Lochnagar. Situated to the east of the Cairngorm range on the edge of the Balmoral Estate, it’s widely seen as another one of Scotland’s best mountains, he explains: “this is proper ‘shortbread tin’ Scotland.” Regarded as one of the most celebrated of the Munros, Lochnagar also features in a poem by Lord Byron, in which he pays tribute to the “steep frowning glories of dark Lochnagar''. It perfectly captures the moody and isolated atmosphere of this magnificent mountain, which is most associated with a view of its northern corrie: imagine rocky hills dropping down towards the darkness of a lochan. As well as its proximity to the Balmoral Estate, the mountain has other royal connections: Prince Charles’ children’s book was named The Old Man of Lochnagar, while Queen Victoria — who was not quite so enamoured with the mountain — described her experience of the summit as “cold, wet and cheerless”. The mountain holds snow longer than most and can be difficult to navigate in winter, but in summer it’s a popular mountain for walkers and hikers, with its winding paths, stony hills and charming waterfall. Within the 11-mile loop, which takes on average six to seven hours to complete, there’s a peaceful stretch running along the shores of Loch Muick that sweeps past the striking Royal Lodge of Glas-allt-Shiel.
Before you head into the mountains, make sure you have the skills to navigate safely, and always take a map and compass, suitable clothing and footwear, and adequate food for unforeseen circumstances. Remember on mountains snow can lie well into the summer months, meaning additional equipment and skills may be needed to negotiate terrain safely, as detailed in this guide. Always check the mountain weather forecast before heading out, and make decisions based on your own experience.In case of emergency, dial 999 and ask for the local police, then mountain rescue. This will alert the local voluntary team who may be able to help.
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