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The Scottish Highlands is a sparsely populated area of Scotland that’s renowned for its wilderness scenery that includes heather-covered mountains, countless sparkling lakes, waterfalls and gorgeous coastline. While those views are sure to take your breath away, you’ll find a lot more to do here than snap postcard-perfect photos. From searching for the legendary Loch Ness monster to exploring ancient castles, it’s easy to create an itinerary that will ensure an unforgettable escape.
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Cairngorms National Park is the largest national park in the U.K., an unspoiled mountain wilderness area that’s home to five out of six of Scotland’s highest peaks, and four out of 10 of the highest in Britain. It also boasts some of the most spectacular lochs and rivers, native forests and moorland, well as being abundant with wildlife. Just a few of the creatures you might spot include reindeer, wildcat, pine marten, golden eagle, deer and badger. You’ll find miles and miles of scenic trails for exploring too, including a walk around Loch Muick and a trek to the top of the nearly 4,300-foot Ben Macdui for an incredible bird’s-eye view of the landscape.
The Isle of Skye’s Old Man of Storr is a rocky ridge, a labyrinth of craggy spires and pinnacles created by a massive ancient landslide. The “Old Man,” is the tallest and most distinctive of those spires and can be seen for miles around. One of the most photographed spots in the entire country, it can be the summit can be reached fairly easy with a walk up a well-maintained path. One of the most popular hikes on the isle, your reward is jaw-dropping views across Rona and Raasay to the Scottish mainland along the way and the rock formations around the sanctuary, including the nearly 165-foot Old Man.
You can’t visit The Highlands and not at least try to catch a glimpse of its notorious Loch Ness monster, but that’s not the only reason you should visit. You can enjoy exploring the 754-foot-deep lake on a Loch Ness trip from Inverness, hike around the shoreline and explore the ruins of Urquhart Castle. While only the ruins of the medieval fortress remain, it’s an ideal spot for taking pictures or simply serene lake views. At Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition, you can learn about the legends of the country’s most mysterious sea creature.
Considered the most scenic mountain valley and most famous Glen in Scotland, the forbidding mountains, cascading falls and glistening lochs make up a landscape so serene it looks as if it must have been Photoshopped. Fronted by the expanse of Loch Leven and overshadowed by the pinnacles of the Three Sisters mountain range as well as the cone-like Pap of Glencoe, a hike through the valley is one of the most rewarding treks you can take. Walkers and climbers are drawn from all corners of the globe to tackle its many mountaineering routes, including eight Munros, while wildlife enthusiasts come to catch a glimpse of red deer, golden eagles and pine martens.
Take a trip back in time by journeying on a team train from the foot of Ben Nevis in Fort William, crossing the 21-arched Glenfinnan Viaduct which was depicted in the Harry Potter films overlooking Loch Shiel and the Jacobite monument. The train passes the silver sands of Morar, used in the films “Highlander” and “Local Hero,” and ultimately arrives in the fishing port of Mallaig, with a stop en route at the picturesque village of Glenfinnan, where a great monument commemorates Bonnie Prince Charlie’s uprising in a setting of incomparable scenic beauty.
You’ve probably heard about swimming with dolphins, and you may have even experienced it, but have you ever gone swimming with seals? At the Sound of Mull you can take a “seal safari” with Gift Experience Scotland which includes swimming with these adorable creatures in the clear waters of a sheltered bay. The large colony includes harbor, grey and common seals, and there are almost always a dozen or so seals waiting to greet passengers at the boat. You can also view a variety of other marine life like colorful anemones and nudibranchs.
The highest summit in the British Isles, Ben Nevis is nestled deep within the Scottish Highlands, towering more than 4,400 feet over neighboring Fort William. By climbing to its peak you’ll be mesmerized by views that stretch for over 100 miles from the Grampian Mountains toward Glencoe and the Atlantic coast. On a clear day, you can even see all the way to Northern Ireland. Take the main route if you’re not up for a big challenge. The Pony Track starts about 1.5 miles east of Fort Williams at Achintee and brings hikers up the western flank, maintaining a steady and not overly-steep gradient for much of the way.
An area of outstanding natural beauty once roamed by legendary outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor, visitors have been drawn to Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park by tales and poems inspired by local legends and the romantic landscape for decades. Loch Lomond sits at its center. “The Queen of Scottish Lakes,” according to author Walter Scott, it’s the largest lake in Britain with its waters filled with trout, salmon and whitefish making it a popular destination for fishing. It’s also a favorite for boating, water skiing, swimming, and picnicking. One of the best ways to experience it is to take a boat excursion or a hike around its shores.
If you’ve always wanted to try your hand at dog sledding, it’s something you can do all year-round in Scotland. While winter makes for the most authentic experience, when there’s no snow on the ground, sleds with wheels are used. The team of racing sled dogs will pull you and a musher around the Cairngorm forest trails. The Cairngorm Sleddog Centre is the U.K.’s only daily working sled dog center, and just one of five in all of Europe. You’ll get to meet the team, enjoy plenty of hands-on time with the dogs as well as spectacular mountain views and wildlife will riding through the wilderness.