Choosing a walk in the Highlands of Scotland
We’re spoiled for choice here in the Highlands when it comes to hiking opportunities. This can make choosing a walk even more difficult. Where do you start when you’re trying to make a decision on where to go? First you need to decide where your priorities lie:
Have you already seen loads of beautiful pictures of a particular area? Are you planning to tour around the majority of the Highlands? If hiking or mountain biking are your main interests you may want to consider reducing the amount of car travel you do during your stay in Scotland. Instead it would be a good idea to concentrate on one area in particular and explore it in more depth. If you enjoy this visit, then perhaps you can be persuaded to come back and explore again; or visit another area and explore this one too. Remember, if you’ve seen lots of beautiful shots of a particular area, it probably means that loads of other folk have seen them too and this might reduce your enjoyment of the area when you get there and find hoards of people there.
length of walk
Once you’ve decided on an area (not the easiest thing to do), you’ll want to think about how long you plan to walk. Do you want to follow a multi-day, long distance route or would you rather return to a comfortable base at the end of the day? Do you want to walk all day? Would you rather incorporate some attractions into your walk or for a rest between walk days?
circular or linear
Long distance, way-marked paths in the Highlands, like the West Highland Way are really the only way to enjoy linear walks, unless you have 2 vehicles at your disposal. Public transport to most hiking areas is virtually non-existent, so trying to return to the start of the walk to pick up your vehicle can be a nightmare. Unless of course you sign up to a transfer service, like we offer for our self-guided itineraries: Self-guided Cairngorms, Lairig Ghru Logistics or for mountain biking.
quality of habitat
Most people are amazed by the scenery they see when they visit the Highlands of Scotland. What a lot of people don’t realise is that much of the scenery they are seeing is heavily influenced by man-management of the land. For example, if you visit the west coast of Scotland, you’ll notice a lot of barren hillside. This is the influence of many years of over-grazing by deer. The reason the deer numbers are so high: no predators other than human hunters. Unfortunately though we have the red deer commission to regulate deer numbers, many estates are privately run and maintain relatively high numbers of deer so as to offer the opportunity of shooting a stag to their clients.
Here in the Cairngorms, we have a landscape which offers a wider variety of habitats including Caledonian pine forests, moorland and sub-arctic tundra. The variety of habitat is one of the reasons the area is so popular with bird watchers.
You might also want to consider the wildlife watching opportunities when you are choosing a walk. Some coastal walks are great for spotting otters, seals and even dolphins, but you won’t see ptarmigan. In the Cairngorms, you’ll probably see at least 2 different kinds of deer alongside plenty of birdlife (crested tits, ptarmigan, scottish crossbill, buzzards, red and black grouse and if you’re lucky a Capercaillie).
Have you come to Scotland with any preconceived ideas? Do you have a tick list of features you want to see? You might be surprised by the opportunities which open up if you let a guide make the choice for you. This works particularly well if you’ve never been to the area before. It is obviously more expensive than exploring on your own, but you can learn so much with an experienced guide that we can guarantee that your guided day will provide plenty of fodder for chatting about your experiences with your friends.
The Highlands of Scotland cover a massive area and there are literally 1000s of routes which could be walked. Some days it feels like everyone and their dog have chosen to visit the same spot as you. This almost always applies if you are choosing a walk in certain honey spot locations: Ben Nevis,the Old Man of Storr, Glenmore or Rothiemurchus, Meall a’Bhuchaille and certain Munros particularly on sunny days.
Fortunately it is possible to walk away from the crowds. You can also avoid the crowds completely by choosing less well-known routes and less well-known areas. For example, the Outer Hebrides are very well-known for glorious white sand beaches – far fewer people venture into the hills of Harris. In the Cairngorms, there are routes up many hills but there is no public transport down Glen Feshie. Far fewer people make it here, but it is one of the most glorious parts of the Cairngorms – don’t tell everyone!
What will you see when you reach the climax of your route? Do you want to climb a mountain or hill? It’s always good if your walk will offer you a change of perspective. It feels so much more rewarding at the end of the day when you have some magnificent photos to show for your efforts.
seascape or not
Fortunately Scotland is small enough that a great number of hill walks will also offer a view over the coast. There is something about the combination of mountains and coastal scenery which is so satisfying for us. This is one of the utter joys of the Assynt area. The hills look stunning and grand, but are actually not too high, and they’re right next to the sea. Definitely an area which we love to visit. If you have the time, add it to your bucket list as it is just as stunning as Skye, but receives far fewer visitors because it is north of Inverness.
Don’t you ever wonder how the mountains got their shapes? Nature is so intricate that there is always something to provide us with interest and fascination. When children are young they find the outdoors endlessly fascinating. Parents can then be much more relaxed as the outdoors with all the rocks, sticks and water provide entertainment (or education) in and of themselves.
Or book a guide and leave the choice to him/her once you have talked with them.
Another option for choosing a walk: Self-guided hiking itineraries
Of course if you are having trouble balancing all the various factors yourself, or if you don’t have a lot of experience choosing a walk in Scotland, you may want to go for a safer option. Let someone else make the choice for you. In 2017, we launched our first week long Cairngorm Self-guided itinerary. It has proved to be very popular, particularly with our French visitors. We’ve selected a range of walks in the area; we’ve collated the transfers and we’ve provided the accommodation, maps, meals etc. You don’t even need a car. What could be simpler!
We did of course already offer a logistical package to facilitate the Lairig Ghru This 2 day package includes 2 nights accommodation, transfers and all meals to help access a popular 18 mile hike through the centre of the Cairngorm National Park. If organised by yourself you have the logistical nightmare of hours by public transport to return to your vehicle and a longer walk to access the main road – amongst other problems.
Next: part 2
Choosing a walk in Scotland – which area to visit