Scotland’s munros are well known and the focus of many outdoorsy travelers who seek adventure. However, most of us don’t own crampons, ice axes, and rappelling gear, nor do we seek day-long ascents into the lofty, snow-covered peaks of Scotland’s highest mountains. And yet, we still want to get out in nature and experience the scenic beauty that overflows Caledonia’s shores.
Less obvious are Scotland’s gentler hikes, those not so taxing or daunting as to keep us by the hearth fire with pints close at hand. If anything, there are far more casual hikes than munro-baggers, and this fact makes it more difficult to find the gems among them. While the simple truth is that you will enjoy just about any hike in Scotland, I’ve selected five of my favorites that will guarantee maximum gaping.
Today I’m continuing my Best of Scotland series with five casual hikes to get your blood pumping without spilling it on the mountain.
The Fairy Bridge of Glen Creran, Argyll
Scotland’s west highlands present some of the best hiking opportunities in the country. Trails snake amongst the deep glens, sea lochs, and forested hills. There’s boundless serendipity to be had in the highlands, and indeed Scotland possesses a trove of hidden treasures. One such treasure caused time to stop, ensorcelling me in its lovely spell: The Fairy Bridge of Glen Creran.
Glen Creran is tucked deep in the hills at the head of Loch Creran, which hides behind the mountains towering over Glencoe. To find the Fairy Bridge, you must leave the trail where it bends back upon itself. There you’ll find the shadow of a path that leads into dense woodland. Eventually the muddy tract peters out at the edge of a fae realm. Old trees barded in yellowed moss rise from a forest floor the purest green. The small white flowers of wild garlic vie with newly bloomed indigo bluebells around a small stream cutting through the vision with the elegance only nature provides.
The quiet, lush atmosphere is a pocket of otherworldliness. There is no imagination required. The bridge bears an alien quality, slightly off-center of humanity. It is a small thing, the stones forming a quick arch over a narrow but eager river with upthrust stones like tines in the crown of some nature spirit. Take care in the mud and watch out for ticks!
The Old Man of Storr, Isle of Skye
The Isle of Skye’s geology is some of the most violent and awe-inspiring in all of Scotland. The A87 snakes across the island beneath the glowering gaze of the Black Cuillin while lesser peaks lacerate the sky from north to south. On the Trotternish Peninsula just north of Portree stands one of Skye‘s most sought-after natural monuments: The Old Man of Storr. The Storr is a rocky ridge whose eastern face is a labyrinth of craggy spires and pinnacles, and the Old Man is the tallest and most distinctive of these spires.
The trail passes up through plantation forest, and after a half hour climbing up steep slopes and over rough patches of rocks the view out to the islands of South Rona and Raasay and the mainland’s Applecross Peninsula might just unhinge your jaw.
The hike to Skye’s Old Man of Storr is the perfect excursion from Portree. You can reach the trail head via public transportation, and you don’t need to be a hardcore hiker to attempt it. The landscape is alien and gorgeous, the views are stunners, and the Old Man himself will put everything in perspective.
Signal Rock and An Torr, Lochaber
Tucked in the west highlands just south of Fort William, Glencoe is an easy visit — the main highway shoots like an arrow directly through its heart. There are many hikes you can make in the valley of Glencoe. The most well-known is probably the taxing hike up into the Lost Valley, but there’s another, more accessible one that begins just off the A82: Signal Rock and An Torr.
As this is a post about casual hikes, Signal Rock and An Torr is the perfect choice in Glencoe. From a small parking lot in the glen the trail leads across the River Coe and into mist-hung coniferous woodland. Over hills and beneath the gaze of the Three Sisters you eventually ascend a soft, mossy hillside to Signal Rock, called Tom a’ Ghrianain, Hill of the Sun, in Gaelic.
The trail continues down into An Torr, a dense woodland largely free of underbrush. The brownish-red of last year’s leaves are a canvas upon which the emerald mosses leap out. Hiking in Scotland, and especially here, is a feast for the senses, as the path leads through shadow and sun, past a hillside spilling shattered quartz upon the trail, and out into big sky.
Glentrool, Dumfries & Galloway
Dumfries & Galloway in southwest Scotland is anchored by a huge swath of wilderland called the Galloway Forest Park. This innocuously-named span of hills, lochs, and forest broods beneath some of the darkest skies in the country with terrain as raw and beautiful as any in Scotland. There are many places to hike within this beautiful park, and Glentrool is one of the most ideal for casual hikers.
Glentrool wraps around Loch Trool in the shadow of the Merrick, the highest mountain in the southern uplands (and a much tougher hike), in the heart of the Galloway Forest Park. The trail runs through forested shores and up fairly steep hills to Bruce’s Stane, a massive inscribed block of granite commemorating the Battle of Trool, Robert the Bruce’s first victory over the English here in 1307. The trail then leads down to the headwaters of the loch before joining with the Southern Upland Way.
This is a 2-3-hour hike beneath big skies and fresh winds. You get the feeling that this is a place only the residents of Dumfries & Galloway know well.
The Hermitage, Perthshire
The forests of Perthshire mark the edge of Scotland’s Highland line. Rushing rivers cold with the meltwater of the highland peaks descend into this lush landscape before joining with the River Tay. The Hermitage outside the tiny town of Dunkeld is the perfect place to experience the joy of a highland hike.
The Hermitage is an ancient forest with some of Britain’s oldest trees, and the level path that wends through them follows the River Braan past follies from the 19th century. There’s a palpably different feeling hiking through old-growth forest, and I didn’t want the path to end. Luckily, additional trails lead up into the hills around Dunkeld which I found to be just the right amount of challenge.
Coming down from the hills to Dunkeld & Birnam for a pint at the Taybank Hotel is a day out hiking that should not be missed. In all my time traveling and hiking around Scotland, this day ranks as one of my all-time favorites.