15 January 2020

Scottish Highlands Road Trip: Five-Day Itinerary & Tips


One of my favourite road trips I've ever done was last year in the stunning Scottish Highlands. I was blown away by the epic mountain scenery and incredible nature - and that's quite a compliment having grown up in New Zealand!

I only had four nights to spend so it was a jam-packed itinerary but I wouldn't change a thing. There are so many mind-blowing things to see and do in the Highlands but for my first visit (there will definitely be another) I largely focused on the Isle of Skye and top sights along the way/nearby including Glencoe, Glenfinnan Viaduct and Loch Ness.

My husband and I were in Scotland visiting his brother and family who live in Peebles, just outside of Edinburgh. We were lucky enough to be able to borrow his spare car so I'm unable to give personal advice on hiring a car.

There will be a number of options to choose from if you're renting yourself including the common chains like Hertz and Avis, so research to compare the best prices across the range. A handy website to do just that is rentalcars.com (not spon just being helpful).

Here is my example Scottish Highlands five-day itinerary with road trip tips beginning and ending in Edinburgh.


Day One: Edinburgh - Fort William

Pack the car and head out bright and early to avoid any peak-hour traffic. Let the road trip begin!


The Kelpies 

 

Forty-minutes drive from Edinburgh you will find The Kelpies, the largest equestrian structures in the world. Located in Helix Park, it's free to enter the grounds but you do have to pay for parking. There's a cafe and facilities on-site for food and coffee. Take a stroll and admire these 30-metre high horse heads before heading on your way.


Stirling


This historic town is a 30-minute drive north from the Kelpies and has two main points of interest. The National Wallace Monument is a 19th-century tower. It overlooks the site of the 1297 Battle of Stirling Bridge, where William Wallace famously defeated the English. In the heart of its old town, the medieval Stirling Castle is another option to visit.


Callander

You're now officially in the Highlands! Just thirty minutes from Stirling is the quaint town of Callander with good food options. Pick a restaurant you fancy for lunch. We ate in Fat Jack's Diner and it was good with good bathroom facilities. Be sure to stop at The Old Fudge shop for some traditional Scottish Tablet (fudge) and perhaps other sugary treats to keep you going!


Glencoe


From there it's a very scenic 1.5-hour drive to Glencoe. It's a glen of volcanic origins, known for its trails, waterfalls and beautiful mountain scenery. There are loads of photo opportunity stops along this famous road so pull over wherever takes your fancy.


Fort William

Just half an hour later and you're in Fort William, a great little Scottish town known as the gateway to Ben Nevis (the UK's highest peak). It's a good place to spend the night with a range of accommodation options, supermarkets and plenty of pubs and restaurants to choose from for dinner.

We stayed in an Airbnb just outside of the town centre with a great Ben Nevis view. We ate at The Stables Restaurant and Grill (a steakhouse) which we highly recommend.


Day Two: Fort William - Isle of Skye

Glenfinnan Viaduct


Where are all my Harry Potter fans at? This world-famous site is a must-see for Potterheads, and train enthusiasts too I suppose! The viewing platform is only a 30-minute drive from Fort William.

Seeing the Jacobite steam train make its way over Glenfinnan Viaduct was every bit as magical as I hoped it would be! The train came through the valley and tooted its horn on approach, and then slowed down as it crossed the bridge to let everyone at the viewpoints snap a few photos.

When to be there:

The train timetable changes depending on the season, so be sure to check the schedule before you go. Throughout the summer months (June to September) there will usually be two daily services - a morning service and an afternoon service. In the shoulder months (April, May, and October), it might be just a morning service.

As per the current timetable, the morning service departs Fort William at 10:15 AM. The train should cross the viaduct around 30-40 minutes after it departs Fort William.

Top Tip: To ensure you have time to find a parking spot and walk to one of the viewpoints without missing the train, plan to arrive at Glenfinnan at least 30 minutes early.


Because we were then driving in the same direction as the train journey, we happened to drive right alongside it for quite some time, almost like we were chasing the train (and a few others in cars actually were).


Arisaig


A 30-minute scenic drive later you'll find the small seaside town of Arisaig. I highly recommend stopping here for lunch at The Old Library. We had the fish and chips and the Cullen Skink (traditional Scottish soup) and they were both absolutely delicious. The service was wonderful too.


We stopped a couple of times on the way to admire the stunning scenery, it's just breathtaking!

A picturesque mirror lake between Glenfinnan and Mallaig

Mallaig

Just a wee bit further up the road is Mallaig where the Isle of Skye ferry terminal is. Check the latest ferry timetable and pricing here. When we travelled it cost £16.45 for a car and two passengers (one way). The ferry crossing takes 45 minutes but arrive at least thirty minutes prior.

Top Tip: Book your ferry crossing online as far in advance as you can - especially during summer/peak season.

Option Two: You don't have to take the ferry, after visiting the Glenfinnan Viaduct, drive back through Fort William and take a different route to the Isle of Skye via A47. It will take 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Isle of Skye

Armadale

Welcome to the Isle of Skye! It's a wonderland for nature and adventure-lovers. It offers a little bit of everything, from tall, rugged mountains and outlandish rock formations to dramatic seascapes, wild lochs, and epic wild hiking trails.

Hopping off the ferry in Armadale, where you drive next will depend on where you book your accommodation. We stayed at an Airbnb in Carbost so we headed there. We would have liked to stay in Portree but everything was already booked out being July (we booked about 4 weeks in advance).

It took one hour and 10 minutes to drive to our accommodation from the dock and we stopped a few times for photo ops - the scenery is beautiful in every direction. We went to a popular local pub for dinner that our host recommended and enjoyed the seafood specials.



Day Three: Isle of Skye

Talisker


We happened to be staying only a ten-minute drive to the Talisker Distillery and my husband being a fan of it couldn't resist. We joined the next available Classic Distillery Tour which was very interesting. It was an informative guided tour along with a taste of their award-winning Single Malt Scotch. When in Scotland! The tour ran for 45 minutes and cost £10 per adult.

From there we drove thirty minutes to Portree, admiring more beautiful views along the way (we were lucky and had a lovely blue-sky day).

Picturesque bridge on the way to Portree

Portree

Portree is the largest town and the capital of the Isle of Skye. The cute village boasts a picture-perfect harbour dotted with colourful buildings, traditional pubs and restaurants.

For lunch, I recommend heading to Fish and Chips on the harbourfront (1 Quay Street) for the best fish and chips in town (though be wary of the skulking seagulls).


If you have any room left, Isle of Skye Ice Cream Co nearly always has a long line but is worth the wait! Stock up on any supplies at the local supermarket before heading towards the Trotternish Ridge.


Old Man of Storr


Now, one of my all-time favourite hikes, the Old Man of Storr is an ancient 160-foot pinnacle rock formation. Parking is free at the bottom and the return hike takes around 1.5 hours with plenty of photos stops and a rest right at the top.

The dramatic rocky pinnacle is such an incredible sight, it rises 30 metres from the ground and the surrounding loch and mountain views from the top are mesmerising.

Top Tip: Hiking shoes are recommended - I was slipping and sliding around in my sneakers.


Fairy Pools


Heading back to our accommodation, we stopped by the Fairy Pools, a magical little spot and another top sight on the Isle of Skye. The pools are easy to reach from the roadside, it's a twenty-minute walk to the main pool and waterfalls (forty-minutes return).

The natural waterfalls are unique and the crystal-clear water is a vivid greeny-blue, making you feel like there should be fairies flying around! It's a popular spot for swimming if you can brave the cold water.


Day Four: Isle of Skye - Inverness

It's time to say goodbye to Skye and their famous Heery Coos - I hope you've spotted some by now! From our accommodation in Carbost it was a 50-minute drive to our first stop of the day.



Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan Castle is one of Scotland's top must-see castles and one of the most iconic images of Scotland. The picturesque 13th-century castle is frequently photographed and has appeared in many films and television shows (most notably James Bond: The World is Not Enough, Highlander and Elizabeth: The Golden Age).


Eilean Donan is a small tidal island where three sea lochs meet. Entrance to the castle is £10.00 per adult (which includes an Audio Guide). Allow around one hour to visit.


Inverness

From the castle, it's a one-hour and fifty-minute drive to Inverness, the largest city and the cultural capital of the Scottish Highlands. There are two routes to get there that take around the same time so it's totally up to you. We went northeast and it was a nice drive, I'm sure the other way would be too!


We stayed at an Airbnb again in a central location in walking distance to town. Here you have a large city with plenty of sightseeing options including Inverness Castle, an Old Town featuring 19th-century Inverness Cathedral, the 18th-century Old High Church and an indoor Victorian Market selling food, clothing and crafts. There's also a great contemporary Museum and Art Gallery which traces local and Highland history.

There are plenty of good restaurant and bar options to take your pick from. If you're not so interested in big cities and don't have the time, feel free to skip Inverness and head straight back to Edinburgh from Skye or even spend the extra night there.


Day Five: Inverness - Edinburgh

It's a bit of a driving day but it's only 3 hours total from Inverness back to Edinburgh, with an optional one-hour add-on if you wish to visit Loch Ness (like we did).

Loch Ness


You can't really visit the Highlands and not try to spot Nessie, can you? It's a half an hour drive from Inverness to the northern tip of Loch Ness, a deep freshwater lake. It's a place full of mysterious stories and legend so I think it's worth the extra drive to see it.


Pitlochry

Pitlochry is a quaint wee town and a great stop on the way back to Edinburgh for lunch. It's two hours straight from Loch Ness so you'll be keen for a bite and to stretch your legs by now.


Edinburgh

It's a final 1.5 hours back to the capital city which sadly brings our Highlands road trip to an end. I hope you had a fantastic time! Below is a rough map of the five-day route:



Road Trip Essentials & Travel Tips

Hire a Sat Nav with your rental car or purchase a data/mobile plan or pocket WiFi so you can have directions/Google Maps at your fingertips.

Good music is essential on any road trip! If your car doesn't have Bluetooth buy/bring along an AUX cord so you can play your favourite tunes straight from your phone (have a roadie playlist pre-made).

Buy a good midge spray - midges are profound on the island and can bug the heck out of you without adequate protection.

Visit in the off-season to avoid the crowds - winter, early spring, and late autumn see a large drop in visitor numbers on the island.

Renting a camper van is a popular option to save on hotel costs and free up your itinerary. Wild camping is also permitted everywhere in Scotland, meaning you can pick the most scenic spot you find and pitch a tent wherever you please.

If you're wanting to stay in hotels, book as far in advance as you can during peak season (along with any ferry crossings).

Don't pack too much into your daily itinerary - leave some time free to be able to make multiple stops as you please, the views are too good not to!

Take the road less travelled - there can be a lot of crowds in the summertime but there are plenty of spaces for all. Have a heart of exploring and you'll never know what you might come across.


Pin it! :)

I hope you found this Scottish Highlands itinerary useful if you're planning you're own road trip! Let me know in the comments if you are or if you have any other questions or your own tips to add, I'd love to read them!

Stay tuned for a post on Top Things to do in Edinburgh as well as a Scotland Highlights video on Youtube.

Thank you so much to Visit Scotland for making this trip possible.

Happy Travels,
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