Your Scottish Highlands Itinerary
This tour will bring you from either Edinburgh or Glasgow up into the Highlands for either 2, 3, or 4 days. If you only have 2 days, you will have to skip days 2 and 4, but it'll still be an amazing adventure! This self-guided tour may be the highlight of your Scotland trip, but it won't cost you an arm and a leg as you don't have to pay those outlandish tour fees that seem to only keep going up (we tried to book one that was advertised as a 2-day Highlands tour starting at £82 per person, but it ended up being over £166 per person when all the non-included things were added in - and that still didn't include food or beverage!). Most of the things you'll see and do on this trip will be free or inexpensive. So, get ready to save a ton of money and still see and do all of the best that the highlands have to offer!
When you're doing your own trip, you'll need your own transportation as well. We picked up a value vehicle from Europcar for $19.86 per day. But, because we picked it up at the Edinburgh Airport, we also had to pay an additional fee due when we returned the vehicle which came out to another $4.30 per day for "Road Usage and Premium Location" fees for a total of $24.16 per day.
Day 1 - Western Highlands
1. The Wallace Monument
The first stop was the Wallace Monument, and it was loaded with the history of the real William Wallace (a name more recognized after the movie Braveheart). It is a short hike uphill to the monument from the car park, and a tight stairwell to climb. To avoid much of the crowds and make it easier to climb the stairwell, arrive around opening which is either 9:30 or 10:00 AM depending on the season (see hours here). We arrived about 15 minutes after it opened and were fine, but it was crowded within an hour after opening as the tour groups arrive. There is a nice view of Stirling Castle from the top of the monument. The entry fee here was £10.50 per person. Give yourself about an hour or two to explore, depending on how fascinated you are with history and if you think you'll be stopping at the cafe on the way in or out.
2. Kilmahog - Highland Cattle
The second stop was in Kilmahog to see some Highland Cattle. We actually found the same exact spot that Timberbush Tours stopped at by chance! Viewing the cattle is free as they are next to the parking lot. You can find this location by looking up the "Trossachs Woollen Mill" in Callander.
The drive up to Glencoe is stunning! You are going to pass through the upper part of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park, and there won't be any regrets! There are too many picture worthy spots to stop at between Callander and the town of Glencoe to count. Yes, we also stopped in the town of Glencoe itself for a quick lunch, but it isn't the town that is the highlight. Realize that Glencoe is a spacial area, and that some of the best views are between the Bridge of Orchy and the Glencoe Mountain Resort on your drive up. Even we missed a few amazing ones! Keep your camera ready and look for places to pull over. No cost to enjoy the scenic drive up!
4. Ft. William & Ben Nevis
Pass through Ft. William on your way to the Glenfinnan Viaduct, but feel free to stop back in town for some dinner as you'll have to come back through Ft. William on your way out. You can also take in a few pictures of the town and river while you are here and make sure to catch Ben Nevis in the background, which is not only the highest mountain peak in Scotland, but in the entire U.K.!
5. Glenfinnan Viaduct
The next major stop was at the Glenfinnan Viaduct. This location is known from the Harry Potter movies as the bridge the Hogwarts Express crosses over on the way to Hogwarts. If you want to catch the famous Jacobite steam train that passes over this bridge, you need to arrive around 10:15 AM or around 2:45 PM (14:45) as it only crosses twice a day (currently 10:30 AM and 3:00 PM). While there is no actual cost to the Viaduct itself, there is a parking charge which ran us £3.00. Additionally, as we wanted to fly our drone, there was an additional charge of £10 from Alistair as this location is Private Property. The small town of Mallaig is only a little farther away and is very picturesque as well.
6. First Night Accommodation - Isle of Skye
We highly recommend that you stay overnight in the Isle of Skye. If you had made it to the Glenfinnan Viaduct around 3PM to see the Jacobite steam train, and left there around 4PM, you should have no problem making your way all the way to Portree before it gets too late, but Portree tends to be more expensive. Check out booking.com for some good places to stay near Portree. We were able to find some that were between $85-$110/night. There are also a few hostels in the area that go for around $70/night. Some Airbnb's are even available for around $50/night!
However, keep in mind that although you'll want to get as close to the first stop that we'll be going tomorrow morning as possible, it's also best to see the Isle of Skye during the daylight and it would take away from the value to try to drive it during the night.
Although we stayed in Tain ourselves for around $35/night, we wouldn't recommend it as it added 3+ hours of driving to our time the following morning (Scotland is bigger than it looks!). Stay on the Isle of Skye for the best experience!
If you only have time for a 2 day self-guided tour instead of the full 4-days, choose the "Second Night Accommodations" instead, located at the end of day 2. Also, your day 2 will be "Day 3" (skip day 2 below). However, if you have 3 days, simply skip Day 4 instead.
Day 2 - Isle of Skye
1. Duntulm Castle
Head up to Duntulm Castle, which is about a 45-60 minute drive up the west coast of the Trotternish Peninsula from Portree. Feel free to take a few quick stops at the scenic viewing points along the way and then take a few pictures of the ruins of this medieval castle and prior home of the Clan MacDonald once you arrive.
2. The Quiraing
A short drive from Duntulm Castle is perhaps the best hike in Northern Scotland, the Quiraing. There will be no shortage of wonder and picturesque landscapes as you stop to look out at the majestic scenery from this hike. Make sure you bring proper hiking gear! For more information, check out this family blog post from Earth Trekkers. This hike, if you do it in its entirety, could be up to 3.5 hours long. You can get some great views just within the first 60 minutes though, if you're limited on time. You may also decide to skip this hike if you'd prefer to do the more touristy Old Man of Storr hike (listed below) which takes about 2 hours.
If you have even a passing interest in the Scottish landscape, and you know you’ll have some time on the Isle of Skye, this is one hike that you must put before all others. - Fork+Foot "Hiking the Quiraing"
3. Kilt Rock
Another amazing view of the coast and a view of the Kilt Rock, a rock which looks like the torso of a person wearing a kilt (seen in the distance). Additionally, there is a snack cart and, when we were there, a traditionally dressed Scottish person playing the bagpipes at no extra charge! Additionally, not only is this whole area free, but so is the parking! Estimate about 30 minutes here at no extra cost.
4. The Old Man of Storr
The Storr was our next stop. This place is a bit of a hike and quite a tourist attraction - perhaps more so than Kilt Rock! Many vehicles are stopped here so it may be difficult to find a place to park. You can check out an article by The Wandering Lens that details the hike quite nicely, or the one by the family group Earth Trekkers. Additionally, if you are thinking that you don't want to do both the Quiraing and the Old Man of Storr hikes, you could check out this article by Wilderness Scotland to help you decide which one is better for you!
5. Eilean Donan Castle
This castle makes for amazing photos and is a major highlight to the end of our Isle of Skye day. We arrived here just before closing time, which was great for sunset photos and also for flying the drone - as drones are not permitted until after it is closed. The photos speak for themselves, this is a place you need to stop! You can also gain admission to the castle and the grounds prior to closing time if you'd like (check out their opening hours here). Adult fee is currently £7.50.
6. Second Night Accommodation - Plockton / Drumnadrochit (Loch Ness)
We would highly recommend staying in either Plockton or near Drumnadrochit (south of Inverness and right next to Loch Ness) if you have the choice. Airbnb locations in Plockton or Drumnadrochit both run around $60-$90/night. If you plan on having a long day on the Isle of Skye, you might consider staying in Plockton as it is just over the bridge on your way out. However, if you plan on seeing a lot on day 3, it would be best to stay in Drumnadrochit to get an earlier start. Great accommodations can also be found on booking.com.
I'd like to point out that we thought it would be a magnificent alternative to drive around the coast of Scotland rather than driving through the middle. That was a mistake. The drive around the coast is long and it is difficult to find any decent spots to stop and take photos as the roadway is distant from the water and the view is not so great. To get decent photos, you really need to detour from the highway. We were able to stop only in Aberdeen for some pictures and it was raining the whole time we were there. Another place we saw that looked like it would be amazing for pictures - but we unfortunately missed as we noticed the exit too late - was Stonehaven. We did manage to stop in Dundee for dinner, but we didn't get to see much as it was already too late in the evening. Our whole day was basically driving. Choose the route below to save yourself from this same misadventure as we ended up going back to do it the right way anyway.
Day 3 - Loch Ness & The Cairngorms
Plockton was recommended by our Airbnb hosts in Tain. Plockton is an oddity - a quasi-rainforest like beach town sitting in a unique climate zone. It was certainly worth the stop and had some great views. It may be a great place to start off your morning if you have the time and if you're not planning on doing the Exhibition Center at Loch Ness! Feel free to skip Plockton if you are planning on a busy day.
2. Loch Ness & Urquhart Castle
Stopping to see Loch Ness is worth the effort, if even just to tell your family and friends that you saw it. We stopped in the tiny town of Drumnadrochit where the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition is located. For the best pictures of Loch Ness itself, stop at Urquhart Castle, which is in this town. If Loch Ness is a highlight for you and your family, it is also possible to do a boat cruise nearby; However, if you stop here for anything more than the Loch Ness Center & Exhibition and lunch, you should probably consider skipping a few of the historical sites or the Dalwhinnie Distillery, especially if you started your day in Plockton.
3. Culloden Moor & Clava Cairns
For some great historical sites, feel free to stop at either or both of the Culloden Moor & Clava Cairns, which are both in the same general area, as you pass through Inverness before your journey south. There is a rich history of battles fought and lives lost that takes place in this area and is an important place to stop for anyone interested in Scottish history.
4. Highland Folk Museum
An hour away is the Highland Folk Museum, a free open-air museum filled with history of the highland way of life. It is a recreation of a town from the 1700's, complete with animals (sheep, ducks, chickens, and cattle), heather thatched roofs and open turf fires. Actors in costume bring the town to life. Learn more at the visitscotland website.
5. Dalwhinnie Distillery
The highest distillery in Scotland is the Dalwhinnie Whisky-Distillery, which sits midway down the western side of Cairngorms’ National Park with great mountain scenery nearby. It is known for its gentle classic single-malt whisky, which has notes of heather honey, citrus, vanilla and sweet malt. According to Drinks International, Dalwhinnie offers the best distillery tour in Scotland for 2017 and that is no surprise as they combine it with chocolate pairings! You can get tastings or tours for between £6-24. The tours are roughly 45 minutes long. Learn more at the Dalwhinnie Distillery website.
6. Third Night Accommodation - Pitlochry
When you arrive in Pitlochry, most of the stores will likely be closed (everything closes around 5 PM). However, a few restaurants will still be open to accommodate you for dinner. You can find places to stay for $80-$110/night using booking.com or look on Airbnb as we found one nearby in Strathtay for only about $60/night.
Pitlochry hosts "Highland Night" once a week on Mondays between the end of May and the beginning of September, which is packed full of traditional entertainment, such as Scottish Music and Dance, courtesy of the Vale of Atholl Pipe Band. The evening begins at about 19:15 with the Pipe Band marching down the street. Additionally, you could check out the Enchanted Forest - available from the beginning of October until the beginning of November (check website here).
With dazzling visuals and innovative design set against an original music score explore the stunning autumn woodland setting of Faskally Wood near Pitlochry. Scotland's premier sound and light experience. - Pitlochry.org
Day 4 - South Cairngorms & Perth
An adorable Victorian town in the heart of the Perthshire Highlands. There are a few Museums, the Dam and Fish Ladder, the Lavender Spa at Atholl Palace, two different Distilleries, golf, and plenty of shopping available to keep you busy in the morning. Choose your favorite thing(s) to do and relax a little. If you're an adventure seeker, there's also white water rafting available through Pitlochry Outdoor Activity, or nearby at Splash White Water Rafting or Nae Limits.
2. The Hermitage
Walk among giant Douglas fir trees and smell the earthy woodlands on your way to Ossian’s Hall, where you can view Black Linn Falls! This beautiful walk may take your breath away as you walk through the green trees along the River Braan and up to the actual Hermitage Hut. Here you may see red squirrels, beavers, and you may even see salmon jumping up the waterfall (we did!). It's more beautiful and peaceful than you are imagining!
3. The Tower at Kinnoull Hill
The Tower at Kinnoull Hill Woodland Park in Perth is a great place to reflect what you've seen on your highlands adventure. This park does not get too crowded, but the short walk up to the Tower and the view from the top is astounding! You'll be glad you stopped here for the view and you can even grab a traditional Scottish lunch or dinner in Perth, depending on what time you arrive.
4. The Queensferry Bridge
The Queensferry Bridge, with the two Forth bridges right next to it, is quite an amazing sight as well. There are a few locations on either side of the bridge that are worth stopping at for pictures, but the Forth Road Bridge Car Park or The Bridges View Point are the best. See those locations on Google Maps here.
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Jenny & Bradley of EatWanderExplore