Scotland Part 3: What to See and Do in Glencoe

Glencoe was perhaps the most unexpected part of our Scotland trip.  We didn’t expect to love this area so much and only planned a one night stopover en route from the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh, and soon learned that it would hardly be enough time to soak up the strikingly beautiful scenery that defines this area.  And after a week of straight sunshine and warm temperatures it was the first (and only) gray and rainy day of our trip, which is what we pictured Scotland to be like.  So in an ironic twist Glencoe was actually everything we expected it to be and more. 

What to See and Do
After a hearty breakfast we said goodbye to Skye and hit the road.  As we crossed the Skye Bridge to the mainland we decided to stop at the Eilean Donan Castle just as we had done on our way into Skye.  Much-anticipated gray clouds finally filled the sky and created a proper backdrop for the castle, a scene only made better by the young bagpiper playing a pleasant tune outside (thank you @castlepiper for making all of my Scottish dreams come true!).

Back on the road we continued towards Glencoe with one more detour to see the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which has gained recent popularity from the Harry Potter movies as Harry, Ron and Hermione travel to school aboard the Hogwarts Express.  In the non-wizarding world the the Jacobite steam train passes over the viaduct twice daily at roughly 10:45am and 3:10pm on its way from Fort William to Mallaig, attracting crowds of onlookers.  We followed the sign from the visitor center parking lot up a handful of steps to the supposed viewpoint.  While this spot offered impressive views of the Glenfinnan Monument and Loch Shiel in one direction the viaduct was pretty far in the other, not the cinematic view that we had hoped for.

We discovered that there’s a second parking lot (not managed by the National Trust for Scotland) just up the road where a non-descript gate blocks a private paved road.  It was unmarked sans a faded picture of the viaduct with an orange check mark next to it.  Go figure.  We walked along the road for a few minutes to a more official looking green arrow and informational sign that pointed us to the viaduct on our left.  We now found ourselves standing face-to-face with the 21-arch structure, which spans an impressive 1,000 feet long and 100 feet high.  The path continued under the left-most arch to a series of stony steps that lead to various viewpoints between the viaduct and the Glenfinnan Station Museum less than a mile away.  We ultimately decided not to wait for the afternoon train to pass since we were already a little behind schedule, a decision that was reaffirmed by the cloud of midges that formed around us the moment we stood still (the only downside to the warm and wet summer weather).

Returning to our car it was a little less than an hour to reach Glencoe.  As we drove along the A82 we were greeted by a lush green landscape pierced by streams that cascaded down the sides of the surrounding hills of Glencoe valley.  There are several hikes right off the main road and we had our sights set on a more challenging one to the Hidden Valley.  Also known as the Lost Valley, this 2.5 mile hike climbs over steep rocky trerrain between 2 of the Three Sisters to the place where the MacDonald clan supposedly hid stolen cattle during the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692 (read more detailed directions here).  I should also mention that it was literally pouring at this point so we sat in the parking lot contemplating what to do before realizing that we hadn’t lugged our rain gear all this way for nothing.

We set out with the intention of doing as much of the trail as the weather would allow and to our surprise the rain slowed and eventually stopped.  Everything seemed to come alive – the rocks (albeit slippery), trees (bright green) and waterfalls (large and small).  About an hour into our hike (and probably about 10-20 more minutes until the descent into the Hidden Valley) we decided to turn around so that we could make it back in time to clean up before our dinner reservation.  Right before we reached the parking lot it started to rain again.  Despite this I found myself stopping in my tracks to take it all in – an expansive panorama of velvet green that no photo could ever quite do justice.  It was refreshing and misty and wonderful.

After dinner we walked up the main street in village of Glencoe that leads towards the start of several color-coded walks.  We chose the red Lochen Trail, an easy 1-mile loop around Glencoe Lochen.  It was such a beautiful night and the tranquil lake looked glass-like with the pastel sky and trees reflecting off its surface.  Our hike earlier in the afternoon was incredible, but this is the type of quiet and relaxing place where you go to recharge.  With the exception of the aforementioned midges that seemed to follow us, it was sort of perfect.

Where to Eat
The number of restaurants near Glencoe village is limited and after a bit of research we decided on the Glencoe Gathering (A82).  This casual café restaurant is attached to the Glencoe Inn, which also has/ a more formal bistro with a fancier fixed-price menu next door.  The latter requires reservations while café does not, and you can actually order from the bistro menu at the Glencoe Gathering but not the other way around.  The restaurant’s all-day café menu has a huge selection of dishes, from which we ordered the feta salad to share along with the Scotch beef burger and heritage steak skewers with tomatoes and garlic.  Both were served with thick potato wedge chips and their salty “Beach Comber” seaweed and arugula salad on the side.  The presentation was impressive (my skewer of meat was suspended over the wooden plate) and the portions were hearty, perfect after our rainy day hike.  Despite this we managed to save room for some pretty amazing dessert, a concoction of boozy Kirsch cherries served over vanilla ice cream with chocolate pieces.  The service felt a bit jumbled with at least 6 different people interacting with us at various parts of our meal but don’t let this put you off because the food here is well worth it.

Where to Stay
It was hard to find a room for only one night in Glencoe during the busy summer travel season so we broadened our search and discovered the Camus House about 10 minutes away on the A82 in the tiny village of Onich.  This adorable Victorian-style doll house of a B&B was built in 1892 and boasts a beautiful garden and panoramic views across Loch Linnhe.  Our room was well-kept with a king-sized bed, large bow window overlooking the lake and a modern bathroom that felt comfortable while retaining the house’s historic charm.  Simon and Heather were the perfect hosts, from the warm greeting we received upon arrival (despite the power being out due to the storm) to the delicious cooked-to-order breakfast in the morning, which included a choice of continental offerings or a full Scottish breakfast.  They were also happy to offer tips about the local area and other parts of Scotland that we would be traveling to.  The Camus House was the perfect spot to stay since it’s right off the main road with proximity to many restaurants and hiking spots in the Glencoe area, and we enjoyed our experience so much that we sad to leave.

Glencoe was the third part of our whirlwind trip around to Scotland.  Check out the map below for our full 7-day itinerary and read more about Inverness, the Isle of Skye and Edinburgh coming soon!

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