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About the Great Glen
With sheer mountains which drop swiftly into steely blue waters, mist-wreathed forests, and winding hillside trails, the Great Glen is steeped in drama - and knowing its story only adds to this sense of ancient wonder.
The glen is actually known as the Great Glen fault, a deep tear in the earth that was formed 390 to 490 million years ago as part of the Caledonian Orogeny. This epic mountain-building event (which formed the Appalachian and Scandinavian mountains as well), brought Scotland’s two halves together, forming a seam which glaciers would rend even deeper to create the greatest of the glens.
Epic history aside, these events left a perfect line through Scotland, containing four natural lochs, Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Ness, and Loch Dochfour, and fringed by high mountains (with even a couple of Munros thrown in too). The glen has seen centuries of use for transport, industry, military tactics, and more, but nowadays, the key focus is outdoor recreation; it forms the basis for one of the country’s finest linear journeys, which can be completed on foot
, by bike, by boat
, or even swum.
The Great Glen Way Route
The Great Glen Way is 79 miles (127 km) long. It’s usually hiked anywhere between four to seven days. Whilst it’s perfectly possible to complete it in four, you’d be missing out on the abundance of sights to explore along the way, so we recommend taking a leisurely seven. This way, your days will average between 9 to 15 miles (14-24km) per day, allowing you plenty of time and energy to do more than just hike.
Best completed west to east, so that prevailing winds from the Atlantic are behind you, the journey starts in Fort William. Named the ‘adventure capital of the UK’, this busy town presents a practical exterior that hides its real charm, a welcoming port with friendly locals, hearty food and great accommodation.
Seated at the foot of Ben Nevis, the journey out from Fort William takes you beneath the UK’s highest peak and joins the Caledonian Canal. This remarkable feat of engineering will accompany you for much of the Great Glen Way, and its most impressive feature - other than its length - is Neptune’s Staircase, which you encounter immediately. This series of eight locks is the largest in the country and offers fine final views back to the iconic north face of Ben Nevis to boot.
Canal paths then lead you past Spean Bridge to the shores of Loch Lochy, the point where you start to feel like you’re getting back into nature. Here the options for those looking for the challenge of the high road begin, but there’s equal reward to be found in the low paths amongst ancient pine on remote forest tracks.
The route then heads along Loch Oichy to Fort Augustus, a picturesque village from which Loch Ness cruises launch, before reaching the quieter settlement of Invermoriston, where a short detour into the nearby forest reveals cascading waterfalls. More lovely forest tracks lead toward Drumnadrochit - here, to avoid the road the route misses another famous site, Urquhart Castle, so we recommend staying in Drumnadrochit to make time to visit this ancient site.
The path then builds heading out of Drumnadrochit, reaching the highest point of your journey as you climb out of the Great Glen. Stunning views summarise the journey you’ve just completed before you take undulating tracks to lead you down toward Inverness, your endpoint.
Much more picturesque than Fort William, it makes for a fitting finale to your adventure through the Highlands - plus, the official finish is at Inverness Castle, a grand location to celebrate your accomplishment.
How Challenging is the Great Glen Way?
The Great Glen Way offers a great introduction to both Scotland and long-distance walking. With much less ascent and descent than you’ll encounter on the rest of Scotland’s multi-day trails, and very few steeper sections, the only things you’ll want to prepare for are the weather, of course, and the fact that the sections on canal path are paved with concrete, so potentially hard on the knees. This is nothing a good macintosh (rain coat) and a couple of poles won’t fix, of course!
Highlights of the Great Glen Way
Chase Myths and Legends
Scotland is packed with thousands of years of history, so it's got more than a few good stories to discover along the way. These stories simply add to Scotland’s sense of wild wonder; with misty isles, hidden glens, mossy forests and deep, dark lochs, it’s not hard to believe fae magic could still reside amongst the Highland hills…
The most famous of these you’ll encounter on this trip of course is that of the Loch Ness Monster. Whilst a visit to any store in Drumnadrochit or Fort Augustus will make you feel like this is merely a tourist commodity, delve further into history and you’ll find the story of the monster maps a fascinating portrait of how Scotland and Scottish culture formed.
Historians believe for example the myth of the Loch Ness Monster could stem from the Pictish Beast, a carving found time and time again in the stone carvings of Scotland’s pre-Viking era inhabitants. Nessie’s first recorded sighting was by St Columba, an Irish missionary who is famous for converting the Picts to Christianity. Did he indeed see the monster - or did he use a Pictish folk tale to help spread the word of his mission? It’s also interesting to note that sightings increased from the 1930s, the exact same time the road alongside the loch was completed.
Delve into History
Beyond myth and legend, there’s plenty of fascinating history to discover along the route too. The many towns you’ll find named for their original forts along the route offer insight into the history of the Jacobite rising, and you’ll even walk sections of General Wade’s military road too.
There’s also the chance to learn more about the Caledonian Canal, a massive feat of engineering, 60 miles long, which took Thomas Telford 19 years to orchestrate and complete - so long, that by the time it was finished, the rail system had improved and superseded the canal’s use.
Discover Scottish Wilderness
Away from the settlements, you’ll find yourself in some of Scotland’s most beautiful scenery. Lofty Scotch pines, singing silver birch and even a couple of redwoods line your forest journeys, whilst blooming heather, bright green bracken and orange larch add splashes of bright colour, depending on the time of year you go. As for wildlife, if you’re lucky you could encounter some of Scotland’s most iconic wildlife such as red squirrels, otters, ospreys, or even golden eagles.
Sample Local Delicacies
Scottish cuisine has come a long way from the days which earned its poor culinary reputation. Much more than just fried food and haggis, you’ll find contemporary chefs take traditional recipes and select incredible local produce to create hearty fare and robust flavours you won’t soon forget.
Near the coast, make sure you plump for the catch of the day; on your journey through the heart of the glen, opt for local venison or lamb. And whilst it’s not Scotland’s traditional choice, an ever-growing tourism industry and modern chefs mean vegetarians and vegans won’t be stuck for options either.
To wash it all down, you’ll be able to try ales from different breweries, plus, of course, more than a dram or two of Scotch. Most bars stock plenty of varieties, meaning that even if you think you’re not into whisky, there’ll be a single malt waiting for you somewhere along the way.
Celebrate in Inverness
Finishing in Inverness really is the cherry on the cake when it comes to the Great Glen Way. With plenty of options for more upscale accommodation, we recommend treating yourself to a few days in the city after your journey through the wilderness. It’s also the perfect size to enjoy on foot, making your trip logistics nice and easy.
With the River Ness running right through it, a historic town centre and a vibrant, steadily growing food scene, the capital of the Highlands is a hidden gem. Packed with history, it’s also a great way to round off your walk through the Great Glen.
Start by visiting Inverness Museum, a fantastic resource that houses ancient Pictish stones and has a brilliant range of rotating exhibitions offering insight into life in Scotland past and present. From there, you can head into the historic town centre and discover little gems such as Leaky’s Bookshop, one of Scotland’s best bookstores with a warren of used and antiquarian books, maps and prints.
A spot of lunch in one of Inverness’s fantastic independent eateries, such as Velocity
, a cafe and bike workshop which doubles as a community social enterprise, and you’ll be ready to walk again. Follow the shores of the River Ness to visit Ness Islands, where walkways and quaint Victorian bridges connect forested islands in the river leading over to Inverness Botanic Gardens.
As for the evening, world-class restaurants such as The Mustard Seed
will satisfy any keen foodie, where local chefs pair traditional Scottish recipes with local ingredients and contemporary variations. Round off your day by checking out what’s on at Eden Court
, a theatre and cinema which is, in fact, Scotland’s largest combined arts centre, hosting an eclectic programme of both visiting and in-house produced work.
The Great Glen Way: An Unmissable Highland Experience
For anyone visiting Scotland, walking the Great Glen Way is a journey you won’t regret. With excellent trails, truly stunning scenery and a deep dive into Scottish history, culture and folklore all packed into one adventure, it’s the perfect way to experience the Highlands - and will have you itching to come back for more.
Great Glen Way Active Holidays
Explore the Great Glen Way on an affordable walking or cycling tour with UTracks.
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