When winter arrives in Scotland I always find myself drawn north to the Highlands. The mountains seem that bit bigger with their snowy peaks than they do with their green summer coats; the quiet loch surfaces reflect the landscape like mirrors and although many attractions close their doors for some seasonal respite, a whole new world of outdoor adventure opens up.
One of the best places to base yourself for what is arguably the most spectacular Scottish season, is Fort William. The town is the beating heart of the Lochaber region, dubbed the Outdoor Capital of the UK due to the large number of adventurous activities available. While it is popular with tourists in the summer, the area also has plenty to offer visitors in the off-peak season. I visited in February and easily filled the 3 days I spent there, so here are 10 of my recommendations for winter activities in the Fort William area and you might be glad to know not all of them involve being outdoors!
1. Skiing and Snowboarding
One of the most popular winter pastimes in Fort William is a trip to go skiing or snowboarding at the Nevis Range just outside of the town. With an extensive network of graded runs and the off-piste expanse of the Back Corries all under the shadow of Ben Nevis, it is easy to see why this is a popular haunt for snow-sport lovers. It is also the newest resort in Scotland and if taking to the slope on skis is not your thing or you want to try something a bit different, the Nevis Range also offers other fun winter activities including sledging, snowshoeing and even snow biking.
Alternatively, Glencoe Mountain Resort, Scotland's oldest resort can be reached in under an hour by car from Fort William.
Both resorts provide lessons and equipment hire, so even complete beginners can turn up and have some fun on the slopes.
2. Wildlife Spotting
If you want to spot the Scottish big five (golden eagle, red deer, red squirrel, common seal and European otter), Fort William and the surrounding area is one of the few places in Scotland that offers the possibility of seeing all five in one day.
Of course it always helps to have an expert on hand to point you in the right direction and a guided wildlife safari with Ian MacLeod from Wild West will not only greatly improve your chances of seeing these iconic species for yourself but also teach you about the history, culture, language and geology of the region.
Thanks to Ian I discovered a great spot that has been set up especially for watching red squirrels just next to the car park at Glen Righ. I have driven by there on the way to Fort William so many times without realising this wee hidden wildlife gem existed, needless to say I will be stopping off there in the future.
Being situated in the Outdoor Capital of the UK, it is not surprising that the walking possibilities around Fort William are only limited by your imagination. Although winter hill-walking requires some experience and equipment, there are plenty of low level walks that will reward you with stunning snowy mountain vistas and walking around Fort William you are never far from a great view of Ben Nevis towering over the town.
My personal favourite winter walk is through Glen Nevis to Steall Falls. The Outdoor Capital website also has a selection of recommended walks for different abilities and if that's not enough the nearby Nevis Range has 25 miles of forest trails to explore.
4. Treasures of the Earth
This quirky jewel in Corpach features one of Europe's finest private collections of priceless gemstones, crystals and fossils. I first visited Treasures of the Earth more than 15 years ago and it probably hasn't changed much since then but that doesn't really matter as there is something timeless about an attraction that includes objects as varied as 200 million year old amethyst geodes over 7 feet high, crystals that magically glow in ultraviolet light and a life size T-Rex skull.
I love this place which is a unique wee hidden gem (no pun intended!), and is the ideal place to shelter when you need some respite from the winter weather or all those outdoor activities.
5. Old Inverlochy Castle
No visit to the Scottish Highlands would be complete without a castle and history fix. Although now mostly in ruin, Old Inverlochy Castle was one of the most important castles in Scottish history. Originally dating back to the 13th century, it was abandoned in 1654 in favour of the nearby large timber fort which was built to replace the original stone fort named “Fort William” after King William III.
Standing near to where the River Lochy enters Loch Linnhe, it held a strategic defensive position in the southern end of the Great Glen and was the backdrop to the first and second battles of Inverlochy.
Visiting off-season increases the chances of having the castle all to yourself and the winter weather just makes it feel all the more atmospheric, I just can't imagine how cold and gloomy it would have been to live in a Scottish castle in the cold winter days and long winter nights.
6. Mountain Gondola
Located at the Nevis Range, the mountain gondola is the only one of its kind in the UK. Anyone can buy a ticket to enjoy the 15 minute scenic ride which takes you 2150 ft up the north face of Aonach Mor, the eighth highest mountain in Britain.
Unless you are an experienced winter walker, I don't recommend venturing too far from the Snowgoose Restaurant at the top. Instead enjoy some coffee and cake while enjoying the views across the surrounding mountains and beyond before the leisurely gondola trip back down.
7. Movie Locations
With mountain and loch backdrops aplenty, it isn't surprising that the area around Fort William has been used for filming some iconic movies. If you're a film fan then you can have lots of fun looking for some of the recognisable locations used in blockbusters such as Harry Potter, Skyfall and Braveheart (scenes from Braveheart were filmed in the area of Glen Nevis shown in my pic above).
If you fancy doing your own movie tour of the area, here are some of the places you should have on your list that are all within easy reach of Fort William
Glen Nevis - featured in Braveheart, Harry Potter, Rob Roy, Highlander, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Lonely Place to Die, Quest for Fire
Glen Coe - featured in Braveheart, Skyfall, Harry Potter, Rob Roy, Highlander, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, A Lonely Place to Die, The Eagle, Centurion, Quest for Fire, The 39 Steps, made of Honour
Glen Etive - featured in Skyfall
Glen Finnan Viaduct - featured in Harry Potter
Loch Shiel - featured in Harry Potter, Highlander
8. Caledonian Canal
Fort William lies at the southern end of the Caledonian Canal, a 60 mile long route running through the Great Glen to Inverness, it connects four lochs with man-made waterways. Designed by Thomas Telford, construction of the canal was authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1803 to link the west and east coast of Scotland, allowing vessels to avoid the risky journey around Cape Wrath.
Following the towpath makes a great walk or cycle and look out for the impressive Neptune's Staircase at Banavie, a flight of eight locks that raise vessels to a height of 70 feet above sea level over a distance of 500 yards.
If you would rather experience the canal the way it was intended, Caledonian Discovery run fantastic holidays along the Great Glen on their colourful barges. You can read more about my experience on their Classic Cruise here.
9. Fort William Mountain Festival
The annual Fort William Mountain Festival offers a range of workshops and events celebrating the wild mountain culture. I'm not a mountaineer but still found some interesting events all held in the cosy indoors that would appeal to both hardy outdoor types and soft adventure types like me!!
I will be writing a full blog post on my experience of the festival shortly so keep a look out, you might be surprised at the variety of events on offer. I particularly enjoyed a workshop on understanding our mountains through the Gaelic language.
10. Lochaber Geopark
There are many factors that contribute to an area being designated a geopark and although rocks play their part, a geopark not only includes sites of geological importance, but also sites of archaeological, ecological, historical or cultural interest. The theatrical Lochaber landscape of mountains, glens and lochs that you see today has been shaped over millions of years by colliding and rifting plates, volcanic activity and glacial action.
Thanks to my local guide Ian, I went to see the famous Parallel Roads of Glen Roy for the first time, apologies the pic above isn't great but hopefully you can make out the parallel lines on the top left in the snow! The mysterious features have been subject to many theories including a scientific paper by Charles Darwin, with the accepted conclusion being made in 1840 by Louis Agassiz that they were the result of glacial activity. My photo doesn't do the scale of the glen justice and it really is one of those places I would urge you to visit for yourself.
For me, admiring the dramatic scenery is one thing, however gaining even a basic understanding of the power and time taken to create it, gives you a whole new level of admiration. The best place to find out all about the geological history of the region is The Geopark Visitor Centre in Fort William High Street. While you are there be sure to pick up copies of the Geotrails and Rock Routes leaflets that point you in the direction of some of the most fascinating and significant geological features.
Winter is my favourite season to visit the Highlands of Scotland, no midges, few tourists and the possibility of snow!
For more ideas on activities available in Fort William and Lochaber, check out The Outdoor Capital of the UK website.
Where I stayed
I stayed at the Alexandra Hotel in Fort William which is a budget hotel, ideally based in the centre of the town. I was a little concerned by the mixed reviews on TripAdvisor before I arrived, but can honestly say I found no problems during my stay. The staff were friendly, the food was good and my room was comfortable and clean. Yes, some of the corridors and stairways needed freshening up and WiFi is only the public areas, but I found the overall standard of the hotel to be good, especially for the price, and I would definitely stay there again.
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I was kindly invited to experience Fort William and the Mountain Festival by the Outdoor Capital of the UK, however all experiences and opinions as always are my own.
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