Walking The Great Glen Way in Winter

Commando monument on great glen way

The Great Glen way is a 79-mile-long distance walking trail that stretches from Fort William to Inverness. It follows the diagonal fault line that naturally splits the highlands in half! While it isn’t as famous as its southern counterpart, the West Highland Way, it still has some truly beautiful stretches and memorable sections.

A snow covered path on The Great Glen Way

After completing a few long-distance trails during the summer, we decided we wanted to try this route in the winter. We picked the Great Glen Way as it was close to our home town and could be split into sections with high or low level options. This was a deciding factor as it meant our route could be altered in the event of snowfall. And boy, did we get some snowfall!!

Great Glen Way way-marker covered in snow

Here are our Top Tips for Walking in the Winter:

  • Dress Appropriately!  Layer up in warm clothing so that you can adjust depending on the temperature.  Remember to include a fully waterproof layer!
  • Mind your footwear!  Make sure you are wearing footwear with a suitable winter sole. If you are going to be walking in really snowy conditions, it is worth checking out crampons to wear over your boots. We would also suggest making sure your footwear is waterproof. Cold, wet feet = misery!
  • Check the forecast!  It’s really important to check the forecast for where you are going, especially if you intend to walk on any higher-level routes. We would not recommend hiking at height in the winter unless you have a vast amount of experience.
  • Make sure your phone is charged!  Take a fully charged phone and a back up charger/battery.  You never know when you could need it!
  • Plan your route! Plan your route in advance and try to limit your walking to daylight hours when possible. A straightforward route can change quickly as darkness closes in around you.

Getting Started!

The entire Great Glen Way is way marked, and we found it relatively straight forward to follow. However, due to the shorter winter days and walking conditions, we decided to do it over a leisurely 6 days, following the route set out by walk highlands.

As we are based in Inverness at the end point of the Great Glen Way we decided to take 2 cars each day. We left one at the end of the day’s route and took the other car to the start. It was a good option for us as we preferred to go home each night rather than camping in the snow and cold weather. There’s nothing like a warm bed and a cup of tea at the end of a chilly day!

We wrapped up in our warmest clothes, filled our flasks with coffee, made sure we had our map, compass, head torch and plenty of food supplies, and set off early for our first days walk! 

Day 1: Fort William to Gairlochy

For day one we drove to Fort William and left one car at Gairlochy. Today would be our longest day of driving but the walk would only take 4 hours. The Great Glen Way starts in Fort William town centre and follows the way marked path towards Corpach. We were particularly excited to see the Corpach ship wreck as we have been visiting different ship wreck sites across Scotland recently and this was one is a cracker!

Corpach shipwreck

A Spectacular Shipwreck!

Corpach shipwreck, also known as the Old Boat of Caol, sits abandoned on the stony beach of Loch Eil. Its real name is MV Dayspring. It was built in 1975 and was used as a fishing vessel. Unfortunately she ran aground in 2011 after a night of bad storms and has been there ever since.

Ben Nevis in the background

It a very popular spot for photographers as Ben Nevis provides a spectacular natural backdrop to the rusting vessel. We enjoyed a wee stroll along the stony beach and found another smaller shipwreck there too. It appears to be a notorious spot for ships to run aground!

A smaller shipwreck on the stony beach

Neptune’s Staircase

We continued along the trail until we reached the historic Neptune’s Staircase. The canal locks were built in the early 1800s as part of the Caledonian Canal, which opened in 1847 and was designed by Thomas Telford. The staircase of 8 locks cover a horizontal distance of 457 metres and it takes roughly ninety minutes for a boat to pass through. This is the longest staircase lock in the UK.

The path followed the right side of the canal for most of the days walk. It is a straight and easy to follow path apart from a couple of icy patches that we had to carefully navigate. We covered just shy of 11 miles and the walk took us 4 hours. Our car was waiting at Gairlochy for us finishing but there is also a bed and breakfast and a nearby camp site – Gairlochy Holiday Park if you wanted to pitch up on route.

Day 2: Gairlochy to Laggan Locks

Day two of our Great Glen Way adventure covered the distance of Loch Lochy. Loch Lochy is the 3rd deepest loch in Scotland and is said to be home of Lizzie (a sister of Nessie). We hadn’t heard of her before and think she must keep a low profile compared to her big sister Nessie.

Loch Lochy

We dropped one car off at Laggan and continued to our starting point at Gairochy. The sky turned a lovely shade of red as the sun began to rise above the Nevis range. We stopped at the Commando memorial to enjoy the beautiful sight. We also spent a few moments to reflect on the memorial which reads ‘In memory of the officers and men of the commandos who died in the Second World War 1939-1945. This Country was their training ground.’

Commando Memorial

After we parked we followed the path towards Loch Lochy. We were soon greeted by another smaller shipwreck. A couple of brave girls were enjoying a dip in the freezing cold waters of the Loch. We shouted our encouragement and carried on our way.

Shipwreck at Loch Lochy

An Abundance of Nature!

The path along the loch was enjoyable with fantastic views of the Loch and mountains surrounding it. At one point the forestry path takes you past some impressive and big houses which have a fantastic view right onto the Loch. A place we both agreed we would love to live if we ever won the lottery! One amazing thing about walking a route in the quiet season is the abundance of nature at every turn. This young stag was certainly curious!

Spotted a stag

We passed a plaque honouring the men who trained here as part of an elite team of commando forces during the Second World War. This area of Scotland was picked due to its hostile environment and the training regime would have been extremely physically and mentally demanding for the soldiers.

A Fine Pair!

They are a couple of Munros (a mountain over 3000 feet in Scotland) North of Loch Lochy which we have hiked during summer (Sron a’Choire Ghaibh and Meall na Teanga) A path turns off to the left for these. This is a fantastic hike to do in the summer. We wouldn’t recommend tackling the peaks in the winter unless you are extremely experienced. We continued on the Great Glen Way path until we reached Laggan Locks. Here are some pictures of when we hiked the munros in the summer!

This section covered a distance of 11.75 miles and it took us 4.5 hours. There is accommodation at Laggan Locks, in the form of a boat hostel and also a separate boat called the Eagle that offers food and drinks (check their website for opening times). The Great Glen Hostel is a short walk from here too and is open all year!

Day 3: Laggan Locks to Fort Augustus

Our third day walking the Great Glen Way started at the Laggan Locks. We made our away along the canal for some time before crossing the main road and heading towards the eastern side of Loch Oich.

There is an abandoned train station here called Invergarry station. The railway tracks were built between 1896 and 1903 but the line closed shortly after in 1933. 

Invergarry Station

The path passes through several miles of native woodland which is part of the Letterfeirn Nature Reserve.  It follows the disused tracks that are now a well maintained walk way and cycle track, and passes under an old railway bridge that has bat boxes at either side. We found this a really interesting section of the walk!

Old railway tunnel that you walk through

Oich Bridge

Looking across the Loch you can see ruins of Invergarry castle and the impressive Glengarry castle hotel and in the distance the Loch Lochy Munros. Once at the end of Loch Oich, the path meets the Caledonian Canal.  Before following the canal path, it is worth detouring to see Oich Bridge which was built in 1854 and is maintained by historic Scotland.

The canal runs parallel to River Oich and then eventually opens up in to larger pools. As we approached Fort Augustus the snow began to fall all around us, creating a magical wintery scene. We felt like we were standing in the centre of a snow globe- as the picture below beautifully illustrates!

It looks like I’m inside a snow globe

Fort Augustus is a quaint little town and it’s easy to see why it is so popular with tourists. With its quirky signs such as one that warns ‘SLOW Ducks Crossing’, pretty canal boats and a number of cafes, shops and accommodation –it is the perfect place to spend a couple of days. One B&B that we would highly recommend is Lorien House B&B (Lin, the owner, has lots of great local tips and knowledge).

At the foot of the locks the canal opens up to the famous Loch Ness. This section of the walk was 10.5 miles, mostly flat and took us 4.5 hours.

Day 4: Fort Augustus to Invermoriston

(Low route)

Day four was a slightly easier day – a fact appreciated by our tiring legs. This stage is the shortest part of the route and only 7.5 miles. It took us 3.5 hours going at a leisurely pace. We really wanted to do the high route so we could get above the tree cover for better views, but unfortunately it was closed, so we settled for the low route instead. If we were walking in the summer months we would probably combine it with the next stage of the walk but we didn’t have enough day light hours to do that.

We had some company for this section

We set off from Fort Augustus with Fin’s Mum and Uncle joining us. It was nice to have some company for this section of the Great Glen Way. As you leave Fort Augustus you have a short but steep hill climb through giant fir trees and then you join a forest path. We made our way through the highly dense forest and when a clearing in the trees appeared we were greeted with fantastic views of Loch Ness.

Views of Loch Ness

We followed the way markers until we needed to make our descent down into Glen Moriston. As we came into Invermoriston we noticed an old stone bridge which was built in 1813 and used to be part of the main road between Drumnadrochit and Fort Augustus. It was designed by Thomas Telford and crosses the River Moriston which has some tremendous waterfalls.

Day 5: Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit

(High Route)

We started day five feeling refreshed and optimistic after our leisurely section the day prior. We opted for the high route for this section, and were rewarded with fantastic views. It’s a steep, zig zagged climb up the hill and the snow made it a bit tricky so we took our time with the ascent. My favourite feature on this section was the view catcher, not too far from Invermoriston. The view catcher is sculpture made from stone and wood and frames the view of a group of Munros north of Loch Cluanie. There is a fairy bridge close to the view catcher too.

View Catcher

The snow was heavy so we used our OS map to make sure we were on the correct path. We followed the wintery track for many miles passing through varied woodland while enjoying views of the iconic Loch Ness mountainn, Meall Fuar-mhonaidh. Eventually we reached a road at Bunloit before beginning a steep ascent to Drumnadrochit.

A Winter Wonderland!

This was one of the most scenic parts of the whole route. We were spoiled with fantastic views throughout this whole section and the recent snowfall made everything feel magical. I felt like we had stepped right through a wardrobe into the heart of Narnia. The snow cover, while beautiful, slowed our pace. This section took as 8.5 hours and we finished just as it was starting to get dark. We covered 14 miles and surprisingly didn’t pass a single person on our walk. This was a very quiet but exquisite stretch.

Day 6: Drumnadrochit to Inverness

The final section is the longest part of the Great Glen Way and covers 19 miles! It’s a long walk to the end! The terrain is reasonably easy-going covering farmland and forestry paths, however as we approached Inverness the darkness had already firmly set in. There is always the option of splitting this section into two parts if completing the route in the winter.

As you leave Drumnadrochit there are fantastic views over to the picturesque Urquhart Castle on the peninsula. This is followed by a steep climb through the woods with good height gain at this stage.

Scenic bench with viewpoint

Abriachan Forest

The highlight of this section was Abriachan forest. This area is maintained by the Abriachan Forest Trust and there is a variety of forest walks here.  There is a reconstructed Iron Age house, treehouse and variety of picnic benches and toilets here.

We passed a camp site and Eco café that looked like a lovely place, but we didn’t have time to stop.  There are a number of signs on the narrow path informing you about the refreshments available and it’s open all year round! We wish we had been able to sample some of the treats!

We continued along a minor road for a few miles. Everything around us was covered in snow and it made us really appreciate this experience of doing a long distance walk in the winter.

Finally the view of Inverness came in sight before disappearing with the daylight as we drew closer to the finish line. We walked along the canal for a short while, then a tarmac path until we reached the River Ness. We walked along the river, now completely in darkness, until we reached Inverness Castle, the official finish point. Nine hours later, we had completed the Great Glen Way! Here is picture of the castle in the day time!

Inverness Castle

Reflection

We were glad we decided to try a long distance walk in the winter.  It provided us with a very different experience than our summer walks.  Shorter days, colder weather, and harsher walking conditions made it difficult at times However, in many ways it made the experience more wonderful.  There is something very special about walking for miles in the snow alongside snow capped mountains and icy lochs. The solitude also made the experience feel something of a pilgrimage.

Remember to Layer Up!

We recommend wearing lots of layers including waterproofs, hats, scarfs, and gloves. It’s well worth taking a flask of hot coffee/tea/hot choc. Invest in good walking boots, a torch and of course a map and compass as sometimes the path was harder to follow due to the volume of snow. Walking poles may be helpful to some people and we always carry a first aid kit and storm shelter in our backpacks.

There are five official rest sites along the route with access to a composting toilet and space for 1 or 2 small tents for wild camping. A key is available for £10 per person and can be bought in advance at a number of locations – more about it here.

Space is not guarteed at these stops so a backup option is advisable. There are a variety of campsites, B&Bs and hostels on the Great Glen Way route.

It is also possible to kayak or canoe the Great Glen Way. This is definitely something we would be keen to try in the future. For more information click here.

We hope this has inspired some of you to try a winter walk! Please let us know if you do and remember to stay safe!

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please have a read at some of the other long distance walks we have completed. The West Highland Way, Skye Trail and The Dava Way.

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