If you love a loch, the Great Glen Way is for you, with Loch Lochy, Loch Linnhe, Loch Oich and Loch Ness lapping alongside you as you hike or cycle the 118km trail between Fort William in the west to Inverness in the east through the Great Glen Valley. This is also a journey along one of the country’s most extraordinary engineering feats, not something you can say of many hiking trails. The Victorians ingeniously used canals to link the lochs, thus allowing boats to cross the country inland rather than taking on the treacherous northern coast to Inverness. As a result, it’s now not only one of the best hiking routes in Scotland but also one of the most beautiful boating arteries, known as the Caledonian Canal.
How was the Great Glen Way formed?
The Great Glen Way is by no means man-made, however, but a completely natural artery. The Victorians just cleverly joined up the dots, or lochs. A glacier carved it out during the Ice Age, creating an impressive long valley or glen and leaving a hallmark collection of freshwater lakes or lochs. The most famous of these is Loch Ness, and the dramatic, mystical waters are the last to greet you on this iconic walking trail through the Glen.
Over the years, the Great Glen Way has been forested and deforested. Although the valley is still rich in forest, there is an impressive movement of local forest conservation experts to rewild the whole area. Led by Trees for Life, the mission is to create one of Scotland’s largest areas of montane woodland by producing native seeds such as aspen on site and then scattering them strategically for quick and natural spread.
Where does the Great Glen Way start and finish?
The Great Glen Way starts in the town of Fort William, which has a magnificent location at the foot of Ben Nevis (1,345m), the UK’s highest mountain. It is also on the shores of Loch Linnhe, the large body of water which connects the town with the sea on the west coast. Fort William is a hive of natural adventurers, from munro trekkers to kayakers, cyclists to fellow Great Glen Way walkers. It’s perfect for any last-minute bits and pieces that you may have forgotten to pack.
The Great Glen Way finishes in Inverness, which translates into Gaelic as Inbhir Nis, or mouth of the River Ness, the waterway connecting the city with Loch Ness. It’s a handsome port city that was, apparently, where the Loch Ness Monster was actually first spotted in the 6th century, when Saint Columba banished it from the river sending it in the direction of the famous loch. It’s also the northernmost city in the UK, with its own university, airport and a delicious food scene.
What are the highlights of the Great Glen Way?
Having Ben Nevis as your starting point sets the bar very high, but the Great Glen Way has many natural and cultural glories along the way.
On day one of walking, you get a good idea of how great the Caledonian Canal is, just a few kilometres into your walk at Banavie, where Neptune’s Staircase stops everyone in their tracks. It’s literally a staircase of eight locks that facilitates the upward movement of boats to a raised canal, and it takes boats around 90mins to get through the whole thing. You get to see another fine collection of locks at Fort Augustus further along the trail, where there are five in total, and the pretty town itself is right on the southern tip of Loch Ness. In Fort Augustus, you can also visit the Caledonian Canal Heritage Centre.
The Great Glen Way is never far from the lapping waves of Loch Lochy, which can get pretty choppy when the wind picks up. Enveloped by steep, forested hillsides, enjoy woodland walks in tranquil areas; keep an eye out for red squirrels, but also bring your binoculars for this section in particular, as keen birders will have their beady eyes ready to spot ospreys, black-throated divers, pied and grey wagtails.
Invergarry and Loch Oich
Invergarry is a Highland idyll of a village located on the shores of Loch Oich with a ruined castle to boot. It’s where the gushing Garry flows into Loch Oich and is a much-loved spot for kayakers and canoeists. And also for fishermen, as the Garry is home to salmon in season. It’s also the starting point for mountain trekkers heading to Ben Tee (904m), one of the Scottish corbetts – the name given to mountains that are over 762m and under 914.4m, and you can get a good view of this one from the Great Glen Way coming into Invergarry. It is said Invergarry Castle was constructed from stone taken from the summit of Ben Tee, with local people passing stones down from one person to the next down the mountainside.
There’s a spectacular walk into Drumnadrochit, following an elevated section of the Great Glen Way. As you climb out of Invermoriston you are gifted with the most colossal views of Loch Ness and the Highlands. It’s a village with quite a lot of Nessiemania going on, but it also has the most splendid of settings, tucked into its own Urquhart Bay on the loch, home to Urquhart Castle, one of Scotland’s most famous. Wandering off the Great Glen takes you into less great but equally gorgeous glens, namely Glen Urquhart and Glen Moriston.
How hard is the Great Glen Way?
We categorise the Great Glen Way walk as moderate and the route is well-signposted throughout. Although daily elevation gains are not substantial, the highest climb is 710m, but that one’s to get the best views of Loch Ness ever, so it’s worth it. However, be prepared to walk on average 19-22km or 5-7h per day over seven or eight days, depending on your chosen route options. Some days are more challenging than others, and the terrain is varied, with some rough and rugged footpaths. The longest walk, on day 7 (30.5km) can be split into two by adding an extra day.
Cycling the Great Glen Way
Cycling the Great Glen Way is a firm favourite with both visitors and local people. You can cycle the whole trail in five days, following pretty much the same route as walkers. It is also categorised as moderate, especially between Fort William and Laggan, where you follow the Caledonian Canal towpath, which is traffic-free, of course. Parts of the route north of Laggan are a bit more challenging, with a few long climbs and steep descents. The final section to Inverness involves some road cycling but, for the most part, you are on a towpath, forest trails and some gravel forest paths. There is also an option to use an e-bike on the Great Glen Way, and the cycling season here is a bit longer too, stretching between March to October, whereas our hiking holidays on the Great Glen Way are between April and September.
Should I walk the West Highland Way or the Great Glen Way?
This is like asking us to pick a favourite child, and we just can’t do that. They both have wonderful traits, stunning aspects and curious characteristics. The West Highland Way is longer at 154km and takes you into wilder terrain such as Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. As a result, some people divide the West Highland Way into two sections, following Loch Lomond between Milngavie and Inverarnan or through the Highlands between Tyndrum and Fort William. With the Great Glen Way, however, you can do it in one go, in eight days. Even though it’s not as remote, it’s also not quite as world-renowned and is, therefore, easier to book. The West Highland Way can book up quickly, especially for peak season.
Both the West Highland Way and the Great Glen Way walking holidays are categorised as moderate in terms of difficulty but, because the West Highland Way is more remote, it feels a bit more challenging to some people. Although, as with all our tours, you have 24/7 support along the way as well as luggage transfers.
A colossal Caledonian combo
The best way to choose is not to choose at all – and just do them both! You can take on what we like to call a colossal Caledonian combo, which combines both into one pretty package and covers a mammoth 275km of pure Scottish joy over 17 days.
Walking the Great Glen Way solo
All of our Great Glen Way holidays are suitable for solo travellers. There’s a great feeling of camaraderie along the Great Glen Way, with a mix of cyclists, walkers and canoeists doing the Way their way. You are likely to bump into the same people at different spots along the way, so you won’t be short of a welcome smile or two from fellow adventurers.
Can I access the Great Glen Way by train?
Taking the train is by far the best way to start walking the Great Glen Way, not only because there are train stations at both the start and finish, but also because rail travel in Scotland is a joy. Just sit back and watch the Highlands and moorlands, lowlands and lochs whizz past you, depending on which direction you are coming from. The Harry Potter franchise may have brought Scotland’s magnificent train journeys to the world’s eyes, but the country’s spectacular, scenic rail routes have been world-renowned for a long time. Travel on the West Highland Line to start your Great Glen Way holiday in Fort William and, for a perfect finale, treat yourself to the sleeper train if you are heading to England after finishing it, and travel back the Caledonian way.
Will there be midges on the Great Glen Way?
Sadly, they aren’t like the Loch Ness Monster – midges do exist in Scotland. They aren’t harmful, but they can be forceful. For those who are new to midges, they are small flying insects that thrive in the Scottish Highlands and other damp, marshy areas throughout the country. They are particularly prolific between May and September beside water and when there is little or no wind. Midges like to party at dawn and dusk and rest during the day, thankfully. So you can enjoy plenty of midgeless marvels along the likes of the Great Glen Way for many hours in between. Read our blog on how to deal with midges in Scotland.
We hope you enjoyed your journey along the Great Glen Way. You may also enjoy our blog on Scotland’s best hiking trails and Wild swimming spots in Scotland, and please don’t hesitate to contact us for any more Scottish guidance.