Road Trip The Highlands: Glencoe, Glenfinnan and Ben Nevis

1_Three-Sisters-Pass-of-Glencoe
Three Sisters, Pass of Glencoe

Is it possible to get from Edinburgh to the Highlands and back in one day? We’ll prove that it is, stopping off at Loch Lubnaig, seeing the wonderful views from the Pass of Glencoe, Glenfinnan and the towering peak of Ben Nevis.

In order to see everything before it gets dark, especially in the autumn after the clocks change, we recommend leaving before 8am, so you can beat some of the commuting traffic. Day-tripping in autumn can be an excellent way to view the highlands; there is usually less traffic and less people to navigate. However, you’ll have a lot less time in the autumn due to the dark nights and if you’re hiring a car, don’t expect to have the car hire place all to yourself, so book in advance; Edinburgh is a popular place, even in the winter months.

The weather in Scotland is unpredictable at any time of year. Despite the changeable conditions, every time of year yields something special in the Highlands. The autumn colours are spectacular, but the softer greens of the summer months lend a calmness to the area that is in complete contrast to the wilder winterscapes.

Glen-Etive-in-Autumn
Glen Etive in Autumn

Early spring and mid-autumn would be my recommendation for visiting the Highlands. The spring colours are luminous and the mountains in autumn are covered in a range of yellows, golds and orange. The dread Highland midge isn’t as prevalent either side of summer and hiring a car is cheaper too.

Google maps will likely give you plenty of different ways of getting to Glenfinnan. The two main routes take you through Perth or Glasgow. The second option would see us drive along the Loch Lomond shore, which is a beautiful drive. However, we chose a third option because it gave us the option to stop off at Bracklinn Falls, near Callander, just a half hour detour.

There are some nice bridge scenes along this drive too, such as this one of Bracklinn Falls, near Callander.

Other stopping points along this route are Linlithgow Palace, Stirling and Stirling Castle, Bridge of Orchy and on to Fort William.

Loch-Lubnaig
Loch Lubnaig

The mirror reflections in Loch Lubnaig can be stunning, due to the different colours that surround the lake; heather, gorse and pine as well as broadleaf trees intermingled among the pine. The loch can be busy in the summer owing to the bus tours which frequent the stops along this route. Park at the well sign-posted car park and remember your 50 pence.

Glen Dochart

This next section will take you through Glen Dochart. There are so many points of interest along this glen that I could write a post devoted solely to it. However, here are the highlights.

Falls-of-Dochart-Killin
Falls of Dochart, Killin

Turn off the A85 for a very short but very worthwhile detour to the Falls of Dochart. This is all of a 3 minute detour in the car and you’ll regret it if you don’t take advantage. Park at the little car park before you get to the falls themselves (Google maps Link: 56.461285, -4.321525) and walk up Gray Street so you can follow the falls in all their sweeping loveliness.

Loch-Lubhair-Glen-Dochart
Loch Lubhair, Glen Dochart

Another Loch stop was at Loch Lubhair, just before you reach Crianlarich. This is a small but delightful little loch. You can almost reach the other side with a good hoy of a stone.

Ruined-Castle-on-Loch-Dochart
Ruined Castle on Loch Dochart

Also worth a mention here is the ruined castle on Loch Dochart. The castle stands on a little island. You won’t be able to get onto the island itself without a boat or a pair of very large waders. Park at the non-descript little car park on the A85 (google maps here: 56.395493, -4.584740) and look for a little cut through the trees. There is precious little information on the castle but we do know it was built between 1583 and 1631 and lived a very short existence, after being burned down in 1646.

Pass-of-Glencoe
Pass of Glencoe with one of the Three Sisters on the left

After the quick stops in Glen Dochart, we drove through Glencoe, so named because of the River Coe that runs through it. I’ve never worked out why it isn’t called Glen Coe, but I digress. The Pass of Glencoe is well suited to tourists, with lots of stopping points along the way.

Here is a quick run-down of the picture locations in Glencoe. Call it your cheat sheet if you will. The GPS coordinates are for where to park your car.

River-Coupall-Waterfall
River Coupall Waterfall

56.656879, -4.878226

Stob-Dearg-Buachaille-Etive-Mor-Glencoe
Stob Dearg, the highest peak of Buachaille Etive Mor

56.656879, -4.878226

Lagangarbh-Mountaineering-Hut-Buachaille-Etive-Mor-Glencoe
Lagangarbh mountaineering hut, north of Buachaille Etive Mor

56.664556, -4.904667

Three-Sisters-of-Glencoe
Two of the Three Sisters of Glencoe

56.667737, -4.986610

Pass-of-Glencoe
Pass of Glencoe

56.668118, -4.991157

One last tip on Glencoe; if you’re travelling in summer, take the Glen Etive road, which is a single track road, following the River Etive. This glen is less dramatic than Glencoe, without question, but still lovely. I can’t guarantee you’ll have it all to yourself, but you will certainly avoid the tour buses.

Aonach-Dubh-Glencoe
Aonach Dubh from the old visitor centre, Glencoe

Although we didn’t have the time to do any walking in the area, if you are not just passing through, I would recommend Signal Rock. Park at the location of the old visitor centre (Google Maps Link: 56.661856, -5.056548). You will have more chance of avoiding crowds (although no guarantees on that). There are some great views of Aonach Dubh from here too. If you’re in Glencoe out of season, head to the new visitor centre. Both are good.

Glen Nevis

The most obvious thing to do in the Glen Nevis area is to hike Ben Nevis. You will need a lot more time than we had, and a reasonable level of fitness, but the paths are well made and well-marked. Read on for an insider’s tip on tackling Ben Nevis.

Glen-Nevis
Glen Nevis

For those of you with time to spare, visit the Glen itself. This beautiful little valley is now a recognisable place, not least because it was the location of several scenes in Braveheart. There is even a car park named after it.

Steall-Falls-Glen-Nevis
Steall Falls

The quickest way to the falls is to take the one-lane road, park here 56.777459, -5.000736 and follow the path up the gorge.

Steall-Falls-Glen-Nevis
Steall Falls, Glen Nevis

To get up close to the falls, it is necessary to cross the wire bridge, or you carry on up the path for some more striking view of the falls.

Paddys-Bridge-River-Nevis
Paddy’s Bridge, River Nevis

For a more circuitous route to Steall Falls, you can park in the Lower Falls Car Park (56.769353, -5.036794) and walk up the right hand side of the river, which meanders through the wooded gorge and offers some spectacular views of the River Nevis. Either cross over Paddy’s Bridge and continue up the road for about a mile until you reach the upper car park or continue up the right hand side of the river, which will lead you to Steall Falls without having to cross the treacherous wire bridge. Good walking boots are required in anything but the driest summer months.

If you’re pressed for time, on your way up to the upper car park, hop out at Paddy’s bridge for a quick photo and hop back in. There are a couple of places to park briefly here but I would advise you never to park in a passing place, unless you want to invoke the wrath of the locals.

Lower-Falls-River-Nevis-Polldubh
Lower Falls, River Nevis, near Polldubh

Before you head out of Glen Nevis, take a look at the Lower Falls, which can be seen easily from the bridge as it crosses the River Nevis at the Lower Falls Car Park.

Ben-Nevis
Ben Nevis, view from the ascent

Ben Nevis is the highest peak in the United Kingdom and a very popular spot for hill walkers in the summer months. There are two ways I’d recommend tackling this mountain; the first, and easiest, route is the ‘Mountain Path’ route. Park here 56.810703, -5.077375 and follow the signs, you can’t go wrong.

Ben-Nevis-Carn-Mor-Dearg
Ben Nevis on the right with Carn Mor Dearg on the left

The second option is recommended for the more agile hill walker. It takes in a less familiar (and therefore quieter) route. Park at the North Face Car Park (56.842007, -5.042946). This is a much more engaging walk and it is possible to bag two ‘Munro’s’ during this ascent; Carn Mor Dearg (1,223 m) and Ben Nevis (1345 m). You will get great views of Loch Eil beyond Corpach and also the great Loch Linnhe, sweeping away to the South West.

Although it’s not possible to do this one-day road trip with a Ben Nevis ascent as well, unless you’re a fell runner, I thought it prudent to include the two contrasting options when climbing the mountain.

Glenfinnan Viaduct

From Glen Nevis, head north and then west to Glenfinnan. We couldn’t travel all this way without ticking off a bit of legendary Harry Potter scenery. It’s only a 25 minute drive from the centre of Fort William, so this is one not to miss if you’re in the area.

Glenfinnan-Viaduct
Glenfinnan Viaduct

Park at the Glenfinnan Visitor Centre (56.870660, -5.435378) and then climb the hill to the viewpoint.

Glenfinnan-Monument
Glenfinnan Monument

The hike up the hill is particularly rewarding, as you get two epic views in one sitting; the Glenfinnan Viaduct on one side, the Glenfinnan Monument on the other.

Glenfinnan-Viaduct
Glenfinnan Viaduct

For a more intimate view of the viaduct, park here (56.871699, -5.437533) and take the path to get up close and personal. It certainly gives you a different perspective of this mammoth piece of engineering.

Church-of-St-Mary-and-St-Finnan-Glenfinnan
Church of St Mary and St Finnan

There is also a lovely little church in Glenfinnan, the Church of St Mary and St Finnan. (Car Park: 56.871823, -5.441117). The views from the church, down the length of Loch Shiel, are pretty fine too.

If you have someone to share the driving, even if it costs more at a car rental counter, I would advise you to do it. A quick nap in between locations makes the world of difference and allows you to see more when you get to your next stop.

Having said all that, it was time to turn the car around, albeit it reluctantly; being so close to other great locations as the white sands of Morar or the romantically set Castle Tioram. They will have to wait for another day. The day was pressing on; time to head home.