Hiking the Old Man of Storr in Scotland

A Little Mistiness… How to Hike the Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye

Weak sunlight peeped from behind the smoke-gray clouds and I surmised that today, like everyday for the past four days, was another classic Scottish day—damp and cold. Although I had hoped for perfect weather when I tackled one of the most famous hikes on the Trotternish Peninsula, the northeast area of the Isle of Skye, the time had come to suck it up and hike The Old Man of Storr anyway.

The sunny photos I had seen of the Isle of Skye truly made it appear one of the most gorgeous regions of Scotland, and although I didn’t have those views as I explored Portree, even in the rain it was atmospheric and pretty. Taking advice from those who had finished the hike in the previous day, I opted for layers—jacket, scarf, and raincoat—and my sturdy hiking boots, even though it was mid-August and seemingly could be warmer if the sun ever appeared. Then I headed to the bus stop to catch one of the four daily buses heading out that way, hoping the entire time for just a few sunny minutes when I got to the top—after hiking through the Himalayas in Nepal and seeing the peaks only for a tiny glimpse, I learned that I just need a bit of views and vibes to make the struggle of a steep hike worthwhile.

the Sound of Raasay from the top of the Old Man of Storr Hike
Views over the Isle of Skye from the top of the Old Man of Storr during a break in the clouds!

Hiking the Old Man of Storr

The Old Man of Storr is a signature sight not only on the Isle of Skye, but it’s one of the top walks in Scotland. Rocky, jagged pinnacles (these are the Storr) jut into the sky from the hilly land on the Trotternish Ridge. These are ancient volcanic plugs (magma derived gabbro) from the Tertiary period that have eroded over time, likely because of an ancient landslide. If all of that sounds bizarre, that’s exactly why this hike is so popular, the landscape is otherworldly!

Hiking to the top is relatively short considering the height you gain, and although it’s classed as medium difficulty, it’s really quite steep at the end, and then compounded by vast swaths of mud that even the well-maintained trail can’t help you avoid. I imagine there’s no time of year when it’s truly dry—does Scotland ever see enough sun to dry out the mud? Other travelers and the hostel owner indicate that it is, in fact, always muddy. I was grateful for my hiking boots, but it was the gray rocks peeping from the mud that kept me from sinking calf-deep into the trail as I carefully made my way up the nearly 700 meters, to the sweeping panoramic views from the top of The Old Man of Storr.

As I hiked, the weather seemed confused. It was damp and overcast, until it wasn’t. The sun would creep from behind the cloud cover, warming the land and forcing me to continually mess with my layers. The finicky weather also encouraged me to I pushing myself so I would reach the top while there was still intermittent sunshine illuminating the shimmering blue lakes in the Sound of Raasay and across the Isle of Skye.

The view from the top was incredible.

The Old Man of Storr

Views of the Sound of Raasay on the Trotternish Peninsula from the Storr

Blue skies by fog is rolling in over the Storr

Hiking the trotternish peninsula near portree

I picked a sloped spot just off of the trail and pulled out the lunch I had packed. It was peaceful up there. The poor weather meant it was less crowded than some had reported, and I was content to enjoy the bleating sheep munching on grass nearby.

Reinvigorated by food, I tacked the final 100 meter ascent to the base of the Old Man of Storr. This path is even steeper than what came before, but it’s the final push. I could not have timed it better, because although I had enjoyed the muted sunlight that had filtered through during my hike, a dark fog rolled over the land within mere minutes. Fingers of fog claimed each of the jutting peaks one by one, my fellow hikers disappeared from sight, and the world became dark and almost eerie.

It was seriously neat. The woman at the tourist information office in Portree had recommended this as a hike ideal in any weather, and she was right. The view of the Sound of Raasay is gorgeous, and you have views across the Isle of Skye. It’s absolutely something I think everyone hopes for on the hike, but it was also special to see the Storr through dense fog—it felt like I had entered the set of a Hollywood thriller.

Although I could hear disembodied voices meters away, they were muted and distant. A lovely quiet settled over The Storr.

I sat in the calm fog until the chill forced me hike back down the hillside.

Eerie fog rolled in over the Old Man of Storr on my hike.

Tiny people hiking among the towering Storr.

fog on the storr near portree

Once I got back to the base of the hill, the forest cocooned me in its mossy green world as the damp permeated every breath and heartbeat. I made quick work of the forest trail—maybe too quick. The midges struck as I waited for the bus, and they were as intense as advertised by locals. These wigged, mosquito-like insects travel in clouds and they tried to infiltrate my nose, mouth, and ears, so I spent the long wait with my scarf completely around my face.

As I settled into the warm and midge-free bus, I watched the misty gray fog deepen and settle onto the hillside. The information woman was right—The Storr are beautiful and strange in any weather!

fog on old man of storr

Quick Tips: Plan Your Hike to the Old Man of Storr

Hiking the Old Man of Storr in Scotland is an experience not to be missed!

What to Wear on the Hike

Wear layers even if the sun is shining when you leave Portree. The weather changes quickly not only in Scotland as a whole, but on the Isle of Skye’s drafty hillsides as well. You’ll be glad for waterproof boots and a raincoat, and I was grateful for the travel umbrella that I carried with me around Scotland—it made waiting at bus stop more enjoyable, so I highly recommend bringing one if you’re backpacking the area and not renting a car. Bring a scarf as well so you can protect yourself from the midges if they’re out in full force. And if you’re bringing nice camera gear, heed the warnings that it can be wet—bring your camera’s rain jacket and even consider a small dry bag.

What to Bring to the Storr

Although the weather may make a picnic lunch impossible, I deeply enjoyed sitting and snacking when the weather cleared and I had uninterrupted views of the Sound of Raasay. Consider packing one, especially if you’re taking the bus option since you are at the whims of public transport and it will take a bit longer round-trip than those with cars or shuttles.

When to Hike to the Old Man of Storr

The hike is busiest in high season between 10am and 4pm. If you have a rental car, it’s very easy to avoid these times and it’s highly recommended that you go either early or late. Note that the weather changes quickly during the hike, so you may face sunshine, rain, mist, etc. Lots of the hikers will leave once it starts raining—if you’re well prepared then you can usually wait out bad weather. If you’re keen on sunrise and sunset views, although the rainy mists mean there are no guarantees, the potential photos are spectacular. This photographer shares her tips on making that happen.

How to Get to the The Old Man of Storr

Located just seven miles north of Portree, you have three options:

  1. Bus number 57 leaves from Portree throughout the day (generally 7am to about 5pm, but with abbreviated hours Sunday and Thursday). It drops you at the parking lot at the base of the hike. There are four return buses as well—check the seasonal timetable before leaving for the hike.
  2. If you’re driving, the car park is on the A855 and will surely be full unless you’re there early or late—note that you can park your car in the grass along the road.
  3. Go Skye runs a seasonal shuttle service from Portree—it fills quickly, so book well ahead of time in high season. The fare is £10.00 each way to the Storr, and Go Skye has reasonable prices to the Fairy Pools and Quiraing as well.

Plan Hiking Your Route

You’ll see the Old Man of Storr hike on the Isle of Skye listed as either 3.8 or 4.5 kilometers, and it all depends on if you take the slightly longer route on the way back down—you should! It’s not noticeably more difficult, and is just 20 minutes longer. In good weather, those 20 minutes are memorable. Either route is easily achieved in under two hours and every hiker starts at the trailhead (pinpointed here). It’s a well-marked path up through a forest (veer left when the path forks half-way up) and then up to the Storr as you ascend 288m. On the way back down, veer to the left instead of retracing your footsteps so that you come down via that fork in the road that you did not take! (Note: Do not hike around the back of the Storr, this route is unsafe with potential rockfall. That said, there is actually another more difficult hike to the summit of the Storr. It’s 719m at the summit and is best suited to experienced hikers—it’s outlined here.)

Onward Travel from the Isle of Skye

Check out my guide to top things to do in Portree, and consider buying the Scotland Lonely Planet before backpacking the area—I found the transportation advice invaluable in helping me backpack Scotland.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland

A Little Memory … I Planned Travels to Attend the Fringe Festival

On my bucket list when I planned my route for my round the world trip in position numero uno was the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, the largest arts festival in the world. The Fringe was one of the few non-negotiables because if I was going to traverse the planet, by god I was going to see some good theatre in the process!

And so that’s how I set my route around the world; it’s that simple really. Pick something you’re most passionate about and just do it!

Shannon O'Donnell, World Traveler

A Little Technology… Harnessing the Power of Twitter for Travel

edcm pic2
The gracious Andy Hayes, photo by Mike Coulter

I discovered a fantastic new use for Twitter that I plan to use on many of my future travels—and again, I owe it all to my new friend Andy. When I emailed Andy with a question about Edinburgh Fringe Festival shows, we arranged to meet up for a drink and chat. Once he decided that I wasn’t psycho (I promise, although I am a spaz, I’m actually quite nice in person!) he invited me to attend the weekly Twitter coffee meet up in the city.

Apparently these “coffee mornings” happen all over the world and all you have to do is know the secret code. Okay, it’s not secret, but it’s also not entirely intuitive unless you’re searching for it. In this case, every Friday really great Twitter people get together at a local restaurant for breakfast, light networking, and general conversation.

The Edinburgh Coffee Morning

edcm pic 3
Mari Smith at the EdCM, photo by Mike Coulter

The Twitter tag #EdCM (Edinburgh Coffee Morning) unlocks the magic and within moments I discovered that Mari Smith, a social networking expert, planned to attend the meeting too—what fun! I may be crazy for wanting to do a little bit of business while on the road, but it also served as the perfect way to connect with new people, network a little, and learn more about how to use Twitter.

That’s the crux of the dilemma for so many other travelers I have met—they log onto Twitter, add a few friends, talk about what they ate for breakfast, and then quickly decide that Twitter is boring.

Yes, it is surely boring if you’re sharing breakfast details with total strangers. But for networking and building  relationships within a specific community, well, that’s where Twitter’s strength lies.

I have to say, Mari was truly excellent at working the table. Basically, she flawlessly carried on interesting conversations with individuals while seamlessly integrating her social networking capabilities into the conversation. As you’re chatting, she may casually research more information about a conversation point on her phone, then jump over to Twitter to add you as a friend—all while carrying on the conversation—now that is skill.

Shannon O'Donnell, world traveler
Me! Shannon O’Donnell, photo by Mike Coulter

Over the past several months, I’ve found Twitter a vital tool to develop relationships with other backpackers and travelers in the community. This new coffee meet up element is one that I had never considered previously but that has some very real potential. Though I may not seek out a business-y meet up in every town I visit, I certainly feel like these small Twitter communities have the power to unlock a whole new side to my travel experience.

I loved it thoroughly and appreciate all of the warmth from the #EdCM regulars who took me in for a day and welcomed me into their conversations. Cheers and many thanks and I’ll be back next time I’m in Edinburgh!

Travel Twitter Tips: Making Travel that Much Better:

  • Follow the conversation taking place in the next city your visiting by searching Twitter using hashtags. Simply search #Edinburgh to find the most current Edinburgh tweets!
  • Ask for tips by using the city name and a hashtag in your own tweet.
  • Use the “#” in front of an upcoming event to find the beating pulse of the event on twitter. Fringe was the perfect example: #EdFringe and #Fringe contained an unfathomable number of Fringe related tweets giving reviews of the shows all month long. Posting a valid question to the #EdFringe would have definitely garnered many quick responses.
  • At reply (@TwitterNameHere) to people you tweet with and meet up for a coffee in their local town…although social networking is fab, it’s a great way to facilitate face-to-face relationships too.

All photos courtesy of Mike Coulter, check out his photos on Flickr or connect on Twitter.

Edinburgh Fringe

A Little Entertainment… My Favorite Shows at Fringe Festival 2009

Show Board at Fringe UdderbellyI first met Andy by reading his travel blog. Then we started chatting more on Twitter, so naturally I thought to connect when I passed through his city. I was in Edinburgh for the annual Fringe Festival, a huge highlight on my RTW itinerary, so I sent him an email asking for Fringe show recommendations, and warning him that I fully hoped to meet up for coffee and drinks while I was in town. Before he would send over a list of his recommendations he asked me:

“Fringe can be pretty experimental and risqué, are you ok with nudity and profanity in the name of art, or do you take offense easily?”

Well, after watching his favorites—it’s probably a good thing he warned me!

Edinburgh Fringe is unjuried and entirely experimental for a lot of the Fringe performers. And while I certainly don’t offend easily, the more than a dozen shows I saw ranged from campy but skilled musicals to raw-and-gritty physical theatre—and everything lying between those two extremes.

It’s the creativity that just kills me, I love that no two shows at Fringe were even remotely alike—there was nothing formulaic about it.

The Best Shows at Fringe 2009

Zeitgeist was one of the most compelling shows at Fringe this year. The Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre Company out of Australia put on a provocative physical performance that mixed Burlesque, Japanese, and Cabaret styles in a contemporary dance piece that had my jaw dropping and laughing in equal measure. Andy wisely suggested I avoid the front-row, and since I try to minimize the number of times I absolutely must wash my clothes, I was glad not to have saliva and chocolate hurled in my direction.

Bloodbath the Musical, they’re posing for the “camera”

And then in an entirely opposite direction from the intensity of Zeitgeist was Bloodbath the Musical. This fell a lot more into the “campy” category and was a guilty pleasure. The show centers on a cliché high school murder storyline and the main quartet of cheerleaders prance around the stage in various stages of undress. But it was so thoroughly entertaining. And the singBrinkman's Rap Guide to Evolutioning was fantastic. I deeply wish they had sold CDs of the show instead of t-shirts because Andy and I both agreed: We couldn’t have resisted. If you have a special place in your heart for showtunes (I admit, I do) then google the “Serve and Protect” song—it only plays in certain regions of the world, but it makes me smile now just as it did then. :-)

I feel like I could just gush about the majority of the shows that I saw, but another notable performance was Baba Brinkman in the Rap Guide to Evolution. Brinkman is a self-proclaimed rap troubadour and I was blown away that he managed to make an hour of listening to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution interesting . . . and not just interesting, compelling and riveting. He drew parallels between the rap world and evolution comparing a rap artist’s “bling” to the extravagant fan of a peacock’s plumage.

Call me a nerd, but I thought it rad that he covered such a high-brow topic in an entirely palatable and thoroughly enjoyable performance! Brinkman touring in the UK and the US; it’s worth checking out an event if he’s touring near you. :-)

Pretty lights at one of the outdoor show venues.The dance and musicals shows were just so much fun, but another notable one included Ernest and the Pale Moon, a dark show infusing Hitchcock and Poe. I tagged along with Andy for this one and we both thoroughly enjoyed the amazingly simplistic and functional set-design accompanying the eerie live accordion music and engrossingly macabre story.

I’ll leave you with that! Those were my favorites—the best that I saw at Fringe 2009. There is a very real chance that I will come back to Fringe again in the next year or two because I was so thoroughly in my element; Edinburgh beats with the pulse of thousands of performers and artists for an entire month, that’s a temptation I may have to indulge in again!

Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2009

A Little Theatre… Rocking Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Exiting the bus station in Edinburgh, Scotland, the distant sounds of street music and cheering crowds lured me down Princes Street. Traffic bustled past me on the street, whizzing cars causing a passing breeze, and pedestrians vied for space on the sidewalk, eying me with caution since I had to backpacks strapped to my person. I had two hours to kill before my host for the next week would get off work, so that meant wandering the streets of Edinburgh in search of entertainment and grub.

Stepping foot in Edinburgh was a culminating moment for me—in high school, I dreamed of attending university in the city. I eventually abandoned that plan in favor of a full-ride to a state school (and a summer study abroad in Italy, so don’t feel too bad for me!). And years later, when August saw temperatures soaring in Los Angeles, when my acting friends and I baked in the city’s dry, desert heat—that’s when I dreamed big. We would all take a group trip Scotland with the sole purpose of binging on the myriad Fringe Festival shows that annually take over Edinburgh for the month of August.

Edinburgh Fringe Clown 2009
An actor at Edinburgh Fringe 2009 in Scotland
Actor at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Scotland
Performers put on their best show and were decked out all over the city, even for street theatre!

What is Edinburgh Fringe Festival?

When I made the choice to take this RTW trip, I plotted my world trip itinerary with meticulous care. I etched Scotland onto the calendar in August as a non-negotiable. The Fringe has been an annual event in Scotland for more than 60 years and it’s the largest arts festival in the world. One of the biggest lures is the fact that it’s unjuried—that means anyone can take their show to the Fringe and no selection committee stifles the creativity of experimental theatre.

The city swells in size during August and Fringe madness takes over in more than 265 venues spread across the city. I wikipedia’d the Fringe and was amazed that this year there were roughly 1,300 performances taking place each of the 25 days of Fringe—holy crap!

Edinburgh Fringe Festival in ScotlandI lucked out majorly with free accommodation for the week with David, a Scottish guy who I met way back in Australia so many months ago. As a backpacker, spending any real time in Edinburgh is cost-prohibitive. Without the free stay, I would not have been able to stay for the full week. That being said, couchsurfing is huge during August and residents are accustomed to taking in poor souls desperate for Fringe fun—I had several offers of floor space around the city if David fell through.

Another stroke of luck? Connecting with Andy Hayes via twitter prior to arriving in Edinburgh. Andy had a press pass to the shows as a reviewer and my selection criteria for the shows was simple: I asked Andy which shows he would see again, if he could.

I took that mottled list of comedies, musicals, more musicals, theatrical drama, and a touch of risqué experimental dance and outlined my week of Fringe shows. Thanks to the generosity an acting friend from L.A. who donated to my RTW trip, I had an extra infusion of cash, and I plan to spin every extra dollar on show tickets. :)

Stay tuned this week for more pictures and fun stories from Fringe, the city, and an awesome Edinburgh Twitter coffee meet-up.

Creative Commons Credit to: Mario CutroneoTaylor Dundee, and Rayan Jeroen

A Little Photoessay… Scottish Highlands, Glens and Day Trips near Dundee

After a week of uncommon hospitality given to me in Scotland, I surly owe a debt of kindness to other travelers—one to be repaid at some point in the future.

On an icy-cold evening in Northern India, I met two sisters, fellow backpackers, who were nestled into a tiny restaurant in McLeod Ganj. We shared a table—there was not a seat to spare in the warm and cozy one-room restaurant—and backpacking stories during our hot meal. When we parted ways several hours later, they casually mentioned that if I headed to Scotland that I should stay at their mom’s house for a few days.

Now, although the offer was genuine, all parties admitted that they didn’t think I would actually take them up it. Four months later, I did. I wasn’t even sure why, except that the chance for a local perspective, and a warm, quiet place to crash, sounded great. So, I spent a lovely four days touring the Scottish highlands and glens with Jeannie, mom of two other RTW backpackers on year-long journeys. Jeannie graciously opened her home to me and made it her task to show me Eastern Scotland’s highlights.

We toured the highlands and glens around Dundee, Scotland, and these are my favorite photos and stories from my explorations!

We hiked to the top of the gently rounded mountains afforded views of the River Tay, the North Sea and all of the low-lying farmland.

Distant View of Cairngorms National Park
Distant View of Cairngorms National Park

Piled Rocks and North Sea in far Distance
Piled Rocks and North Sea in far Distance

Exploring Crail Harbour

The small fishing village of Crail is quiet and quaint and dates back to 800 AD, when it was first settled. This place was utterly charming. Small pottery shops hide in the small side-streets and the perfect cuppa tea awaited us overlooking the sea at Crail Harbour Gallery.

Big cities have a lot of interesting museums and a fast pace of life, but its villages that hold the heartbeat of culture and history, these hold the traditions of an older way of life. And even better, it’s just 10 miles from Crail Harbour to St. Andrews, which makes it very accessible as a quick stop. We parked in the village and then walked down to the Habour, had our tea, enjoyed the sunshine and perfect weather, before making the easy way back to where we had parked.

When we left Crail, which truly is the prettiest of these East Neuk of Fife,  we took a quick drive by Glamis Castle, which is where the Queen Mother spent her childhood.

Boats bobbing in tiny Crail Harbor
Boats bobbing in tiny Crail Harbor

lobster tackle in Crail Harbor
Lobster tackle and fishing gear in Crail Harbor

colorful boats crail harbor scotland
So charming, couldn’t get enough of the colorful boats!

Glamis Castle
Scotland’s Glamis Castle, where the Queen Mother grew up.

The Fortingall Yew

We enjoyed a warm fire and hot chocolate in Kenmore at a bright and roomy restaurant overlooking Loch Tay before heading to Fortingall to see an ancient Fortingall Yew Tree.

The tree is thought to be as much as 5,000 years old, which would make it the oldest living organism in Britain. Modern estimates put it closer to 3,000 years old, but really there is no telling. The base of the tree was once 56 feet wide—until souvenir hunters hacked at it! Natural erosion also took away other parts of the tree. Most of the space inside the wall of the tree was once tree trunk.

Fortingall's 5,000 year old yew tree

5,000 year old Yew tree
The ancient Fortingall Yew Tree.

Etched glass window in the tiny Fortingall church
Inside the old Fortingall church.

The small Fortingall Church and graveyard in Scotland
The small Fortingall Church and graveyard in Scotland

Discovering St. Andrews, Briefly

We hiked some in between the towns on our day trip to Crail and St. Andrews, and the Scottish hillside was abloom in gorgeous heather. I am a fan of folk music, and I couldn’t stop singing The Wild Mountain Thyme in my head while we hiked to vistas and viewpoints of the Scottish highlands and glens.

St. Andrews is beautiful and worth a visit. I would have loved to spend a day or two poking around. The small city is best known for golf and for Prince William attending college there, but it’s so much more than either of those two claims to fame. I have a fondness for small cities (like my days poking around Stirling, Scotland). St. Andrews is charming and I thoroughly enjoyed this pretty little town.

Gorgeous blooming heather in the Scottish Highlands in August
Gorgeous blooming heather in the Scottish Highlands during our August hikes.

St. Andrews church
St. Andrews church is stately and beautiful.

ruins and coastline near St. Andrews, Scotland.
Views of ruins and coastline near St. Andrews, Scotland.

Driving through eastern Scotland, through the country’s famous Scottish glens and highlands, has been an absolute highlight from my round the world trip. I can only extend an enormous thank you to Jeannie, because of her gracious hospitality I was able to explore the nooks and crannies of this area of Scotland.

I owe one to the Universe now, and will repay it when I finally find a place to settle down. I have loved this insider’s take on the best hikes and towns, the stories of how Jeannie and her children enjoyed living this region as locals.


Quick Tips: Planning Your Trip to Scotland

Where to stay: Scotland is full of hostels and budget-friendly accommodations, as well as mid and high-range hotels. One of the best ways to find Scotland hotel deals is through Booking.com, and ALA readers receive a discount on their first booking!

Onward travel: Think about buying the Scotland Lonely Planet before backpacking the region— I found the transportation advice to be invaluable when I was backpacking in Scotland.

Spud the Bagpiper in Scotland

A Little Anecdote… Hitchhiking Misadventures with Spud the Scottish Bagpiper

Spud the Piper in Fort Augustus, ScotlandIce cream dripped down my hand as I made my way to the small Fort Augustus bus stop—I was staring down the barrel of another long and drawn out travel day. I had strapped on both my backpacks, and with 20 minutes to kill before the bus arrived, I made my way to the grassy hill where Spud the Piper piped away to dazzled tourists.

Spud spotted me immediately, finished a tune, and then came over to chat. Since it was instantly obvious I was leaving town, he asked where I was headed next.

I sputtered out a vaguely incomprehensible answer, “Um, a really small town . . . Grey-something. With an “s” in there too . . .”

At his increasingly inquisitive look, I floundered even more for an answer, for the name of this tiny Scottish town where I would head next. I had randomly chose this next town because there was a cheap and well-reviewed hostel, and because it sat at the entrance to the Cairngorms National Park. But it was firmly off-the-beaten-path and I feared he would think me nuts not only for heading there, but for not even remembering where I was going next!

“Near Aviemore!” I exclaimed, the name of a nearby town coming to me as I fumbled to take out my small notebook.

“Grantown-on-Spey?” he proposes.

“Yes, precisely!” And then in the way of weird coincidences, Spud tells me that not only does he live in Aviemore, an hour-and-a-half away, but he’s from Grantown-on-Spey and plays the pipes there nightly.

Without pausing he asks, “Do you want a lift there?”

Oh the quandary I now faced. If I was willing to wait two hours then he would drive me to Grantown-on-Spey and actually drop me off at my hostel. Otherwise it was a looong day and multiple buses to reach the small town.

The only obstacle: I don’t believe in hitchhiking. Not even a little.

As a solo female traveler, I think hitching is unnecessarily dangerous and not worth the money saved. I actively tell other women hitting the road that they should be willing to pay more for their safety.

Buuuuut, circumstance also plays a role in any situation. Here were the thoughts racing through my head:

  1. Hitchhiking is fairly common in Scotland.
  2. I’ve known Spud for several days now, so it’s not exactly hitching.
  3. He’s wearing a wedding ring . . . that marginally counts for something.
  4. I really do not want to take a bus to a bus to a bus to get to Grantown-on-Spey in five hours when it could take just two.
  5. I have the time and the money to take the bus and I am a smart woman and should just politely decline, walk over to the bus stop, and take myself safely to the next town.

Conclusion reached, I answer.

“Um . . . sure, that sounds great actually.”

Did I just say that? Crap. We arranged to meet up in a couple of hours by the grocery store-cum-café-cum-restaurant. As I walked away, I tossed my empty ice cream stick into the trash, meandered past the bus stop, and pondered my options.

I had time to take the bus, and I was beginning to convince myself that this change in the plan was a terrible idea—warnings my dad had issued to me for twenty years echoed in my head.

Well, crap. When it came down to it, I was going with my gut instinct.

Two hours later, I dropped my main backpack into the trunk and kept my laptop bag with my passport at my feet . . . I mean, I still had to be cautious, after all.

Spud peeled out of the parking lot and as we cruised past the “Welcome to Fort Augustus” sign,  Spud’s announcement caused my heart to thud in panic.

The town had receded into the distance, when glanced over at me with a mischievous look, “Now, I’m going to tell you something, and I don’t want you to get scared.”

Everything inside of me dropped to the floor. The sound of my heartbeat pounded in my ears I as thought, “holy shit, holy shit, holy shit!”

Although we rode at full speed, the doors were still unlocked so I casually crept my head toward the door handle.

Then Spud finished his thought. “This road is small, curvy, and I like to speed.”

Oh my god! I laugh-sighed my relief, and then told him to never say those opening words to a solo, trapped female ever again.

As for the car ride? Oh boy did he speed. We whipped around curves as he candidly told me about his life, and informed me that he was a bit famous in the area (and internationally) because he played the bagpipes for Madonna at her Highland wedding several years earlier (which the internet verifies as true!).

Scotland viewpoint

We chatted the time, comparing notes and thoughts on America—because everyone has an opinion on my country. By the time I left his company, I’d had one of my most positive experiences and personal interactions in Scotland. Although there is great natural beauty in this country (the Isle of Skye comes to mind), and so much history (William Wallace in Stirling), it’s getting to know a local’s perspective that made me feel most connected during my Scotland travels.

Spud is a genuinely nice guy and I’m so glad that I went with my gut instinct and accepted his ride. Although I’m still dead-set against hitchhiking solo, I also reinforced my conviction that all rules can be broken at some point, under the right circumstances.

If experiencing new countries is about meeting the locals and having one-on-one personal encounters (which I think they are!) then I couldn’t have made a better choice. So, thank you Spud if you read this, for the ride, for taking me out of my comfort zone and helping me trust my instincts, and for being a really neat guy. :)

Walks near Fort Augustus, Scotland

A Little Green… Walking the Forests Around Fort Augustus, Scotland

Vibrant green, lush underbrush climbed the trees and crept across the forest floor as soon as a left the main town of Fort Augustus in search of the best hikes near Loch Ness. Surrounded by national park, Fort Augustus offers easy access to hikes and it took mere minutes to leave my hostel and enter the darkly lit canopy.

Fort Augustus has six major walks accessible from town and without a car—each takes between two to six hours. The abundance of options was one reason I decided to spend a week in Fort Augustus. I generally like small towns better than large ones, and I’ve spent my time busing around Scotland in search of not only the touristy (Isle of Skye), but the classic (Edinburgh) and the historic (Stirling), too. I structured most of my days in Scotland around great walks each day, quiet explorations of the smalls towns in the afternoon, and finding great local pubs with music and entertainment in the evenings.

best walks near fort augustus, scotland
Looking out at the pretty Loch Ness unfolding in the distance.

Walking Near Fort Augustus, Scotland

All roads lead back to town, essentially, so the woman at my hostel, Morag’s Lodge, told me to pick a direction and walk. In no time, you invariably find paths jutting from the road and into the surrounding forest. Many paths climb to great vistas high above Loch Ness, where you can glimpse views of the shimmering blue through the trees. Others lead down to the swift-flowing River Oich. This river feeds Loch Ness and serene paths through the woods are empty of fellow hikers—these were peaceful walks.

I love feeling lost and alone when I hike—empty paths are the perfect invitation to sing out loud (and off-key, I admit). Also, like any good hiker, I pack lunch and as I sing I search for perfect picnic spots, ones with great views, a dry shady spot, and no one else around.

hiking outside of fort augustus

River Oich Walk

This is an easy walk and one families would enjoy, as well as anyone else who enjoys hiking near the sound of burbling water. You can walk to the starting point from Fort Augustus (have someone point you in the right direction out of town, then follow signs for Auchterawe and then River Walk). There’s a steep-ish bit at the start, but for most of the walk you are on well tread forest paths, and ones alongside the river. When I did this one, I added in lunch by the river and it took about 2.5 hours, but it’s under two hours if you’re just hiking round-trip from town. Here’s a step-by-step guide to the walk.

Allt na Criche and Jenkins Park Walks 

Part of the Great Glen Way, Allt na Criche is short and should be combined another nearby trail if you’re after a day out and a good workout, too—the Jenkins Park Walk is a good option. For Allt na Criche, there’s some steep at first, and you have a total ascent of 150m (492ft), but it’s short, so most anyone can make it. This trail starts two kilometers outside of town, so it’s accessible on foot, or there is a carpark for those with a car. For Jenkins Park, you’ll have some great glimpses of the lake and it’s quite pretty! Here’s a step-by-step guide to the Allt na Criche walk and a step-by-step guide to Jenkins Park, which easily links with the former.

Great Glen Way: Fort Augustus to Invermoriston

There are a lot of different ways you can hike the Great Glen Way, and you can always double back if some of these routes are too long. This walk is a good one if you want to combine a hike with some exploring of another town and then perhaps bus back to Fort Augustus (or walk back!). It’s 12km (7.5 miles), so give yourself about 3.5 hours to get to Invermoriston, where you can grab lunch at the one cafe. (To leave Invermoriston village, find Glenmoriston Millennium Hall, next to the main car park, where you can find toilets and the bus stop). Here’s a step-by-step guide to the walk.

If you have a car, or time enough to bus to nearby hikes, there are some great ones. Consider the Loch Affric Circuit for a moderate-to-easy four hour walk, the Carn Eige and Mam Sodhail Hike which is challenging and at ten hours is for the fit and knowledgeable.

Forest walk from Fort Augustus

walking paths near Loch Ness

forest walks in scotland
So green it hurts! This is a #nofilter beauty from one of my forest walks near Fort Augustus.

Where to Enjoy a Picnic Lunch Near Fort Augustus

My favorite lunch spot was just a 15 minute walk out of town along the road, then a short walk across a cow pasture. I would like to say that it’s a secret spot, but a group of campers rowing the length of the lake actually found this gorgeous beach first. The spot, Borlum, is at the very tip of Loch Ness; the entire 23 miles of the lake unfolds into the far distance in a shimmery expanse of clam blue waters.

Huge shady trees dot the bank of the eight-foot wide pebbly beach and it’s hard to convey just how gorgeous it was to watch the sun begin to set and cast its warm orangey-yellow light over the water.

There are many tranquil walks in the region and I found Fort Augustus a pleasant and undeniably charming town, truly. It’s small but sweet and the town manages to nestle itself nicely between the forests, lake, and rivers. The gorgeous natural setting over-powers the chatter and bump of tourists that crowd the sidewalks (and there are charms to the tourists too, like meeting the famous Scottish piper who plays near the locks!).

loch ness picnic spot

picnic lunch loch ness

Video Tour of Fort Augustus


Trip Planning Tips for Inverness and Fort Augustus

Where to Stay

The Inverness Youth Hostel is one of the best budget options in Inverness—book ahead during high season, however, as Inverness can fill up quickly! The King’s Highway Wetherspoon is a solid option if you have a mid-range budget.

What to Wear

The weather changes quickly not only in Scotland. You’ll be glad for waterproof boots and a raincoat, and I was grateful for the travel umbrella I carried with me around Scotland—it made waiting at the bus stop more enjoyable. Bring a scarf as well so you can protect yourself from the midges if they’re out in full force. And if you’re bringing expensive camera gear, bring your camera’s rain jacket and even consider a small dry bag.

Planning Onward Travel

Think about buying the Scotland Lonely Planet before backpacking the area— the transportation advice is invaluable when I was backpacking in Scotland.