As a launch pad for Scotland's most arresting examples of natural beauty, Inverness is hard to beat. From the nominal capital of the Highlands, you can easily drive to Loch Ness, the Cairngorms and Ben Nevis. What's more, in just a couple of hours you can also reach a stretch of land described as the most stunning place in all of Scotland: Glen Affric. A vast expanse of lochs, moorlands, mountains and forest, it's best accessed, at least initially, by car.
Glen Affric sits southwest of the pretty village of Cannich and around 24km due west of Loch Ness, home (perhaps) to a certain long-necked creature. Winding through the glen is the River Affric, which opens out into Lochs Affric and Beinn a’ Mheadhoin, both of which are popular with wild swimmers. Despite the glen’s broad size, there is only a minor public road that passes through it, but to experience this part of Scotland in all its splendour, perhaps it’s only right to travel further by foot.
The Forestry Commission Scotland now manages the glen, which is the third largest area of ancient Caledonian pinewoods in the country. These trees first colonised the area more than 8,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age, and the organisation Trees for Life has been restoring what’s left of the ancient Caledonian forest that once covered most of Scotland by planting more than 30,000 trees. The trees have been called ‘the glory of Glen Affric’, and from a high vantage point, the glen’s undisturbed forest blankets the landscape, breaking only for the lochs, which, in summer, reflect the snow-capped mountains looming in the distance.
The western half is largely absent of trees, though no less beautiful: here are rushing streams and vast plains where golden eagles and ospreys soar overhead. It’s no surprise that the glen is popular among walkers and hikers. The ridge on the north side of the glen has eight Munro summits including the 1,183m-high Càrn Eige. There are shorter walking trails, too, leading to waterfalls such as Plodda Falls and Dog Falls. At Plodda, the water plunges for nearly 50m, and the trail to reach it winds through aromatic green Douglas fir trees that add to this part of the glen’s unique identity. There is a thrilling sense here of discovering an unwalked route, of hiking unchartered territory.
The path is relatively flat with only a handful of narrow streams to cross, and it begins from the River Affric car park so those who have hired a car from Inverness can easily find their bearings. The path runs through pinewood and moorland scenery, and you’ll almost certainly encounter otters, hares and other woodland creatures as you walk on. You’ll also pass smaller lochs and take in views of the Mullach Fraoch-Choire and Mam Sodhail mountains that are almost unsurpassable.
Though in its serenity the glen may not call to mind adventure sports, there are routes here that are hugely popular with mountain bikers. There is also a charming Victorian lodge to rent, and a far-flung youth hostel in a wide river valley surrounded by mountains that has been called ‘the most remote place to spend a night in the United Kingdom’. It’s 13km from the nearest road, 20km from the nearest shop and there is neither a landline nor any mobile reception or internet. It’s perfect for those who truly want to leave the city behind, if only for a few nights.
What strikes visitors to Glen Affric, and perhaps what makes it the country’s most beautiful glen by common consent, is how breath-taking the landscape seems no matter where in the park you happen to be. There are haunting moorlands and high mountains, untamed forest and untouched plains. The air is clean and fresh; wildlife roams freely. It is a slice of wilderness, a slice of Eden, a classic example of Highland scenery, carved out of the country barely two hours from lively Inverness.