The realm of story-book landscapes. | John Paul Murray/Shutterstock
The realm of story-book landscapes. | John Paul Murray/Shutterstock

Scotland’s Mountains and Lakes Are the Stuff of Fairy Tales

Though no monsters in these lochs.

With a landscape so lush and vast that it inspired mythical water monsters, the sport of golf, and the Harry Potter franchise, Scotland is a place of scenic beauty so staggering it feels almost fictional. A country filled with craggy stone castles, misty lochs, wallabies, and reindeer, visiting here feels more like a simulated immersive art experience than real life, but that’s just a testament to its all-encompassing nature. And nowhere in Scotland is nature on such a grand scale as its two national parks, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park and Cairngorms National Park.

Both parks are relatively young, established in 2003 and 2002 respectively, but the locals have known about the epic landscapes here for much longer. Their almost folkloric beauty is a tale as old as time, home to soaring mountains, shimmering lochs, and wildlife so epic you’d think you had inadvertently stumbled into a game of Jumanji. Between hiking, water sports, skiing, and haggis-eating, Loch Lomond and Cairngorms offer fantastic windows into the most beautiful aspects of the UK’s most modestly beautiful country (there, we said it). A stroll, paddle, or slalom through either, and you’ll agree.

Cairngorms is well worth the extra effort. | Milosz Maslanka/Shutterstock

How to get to Loch Lomond and Cairngorms

Compared to many national parks in the US, which are typically far-flung remote locales that require substantial road trips (or train treks through the final frontier), the fact that Scotland is only about the size of South Carolina makes both parks comparatively easy to access from just about anywhere.

This is particularly true of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs, a breezy 28-mile drive (about 50 minutes) northwest of Scotland’s largest city and main hub, Glasgow. From Edinburgh, the second largest city, it’s a doable 77 miles, or just less than two hours.

While driving is certainly easy as long as you remember to stick to the left side of the road, trains depart from both cities and can drop you at Balloch, a village at the southern tip of the national park. Plus, trains in Scotland have the added bonus of giving you Hogwarts Express vibes—much of the train scenes in the movies were filmed here, but don’t expect candy-filled trolleys en route.

Small country, big lakes. | Ivan/Moment/Getty Images

Cairngorms, meanwhile, requires a little more effort and patience, but it’s well worth it. Located on the eastern edge of the mountainous Highlands region, the park is about 86 miles north of Glasgow (a little less than three hours). Strangely, Edinburgh is about the same distance to Cairngorms as it is to Loch Lomond (77 miles), but it takes longer to get to Cairngorms (about three hours) due to the smaller, winding roads and mightier mountains.

Trains from both cities take longer than cars, but are a convenient option. Stops include villages within the park, like Aviemore, Newtonmore, and Kingussie. If you happen to be traveling from Inverness, the main city in the Highlands, your drive will only be about an hour.

Loch Lomond is Scotland’s largest lake. | SergeBertasiusPhotography/Shutterstock

So what’s there to see here?

Despite being separated by just about 77 miles (since apparently everything in Scotland is exactly 77 miles apart), the country’s two national parks feel worlds apart, with one being a watery wonderland and the other boasting Alps-esque ski slopes and the UK’s tallest peaks.

Loch Lomond, the more southern of the parks, clocks in at a meaty 720-square-miles. Anchored by its namesake loch, the 22-mile-long watery behemoth is surrounded by quaint villages, strewn with 30 forested islands, and bustling with tour boats. The largest loch in Scotland by surface area (dwarfing the smaller-but-deeper Loch Ness), Loch Lomond looks more like an inland sea than a lake. The park is home to 21 munros, which is the name for mountains exceeding 3,000 feet, including its tallest peak, the 3,852-foot Ben More.

The Trossachs is the term for terrain comprised of dense wooded area—mostly a Celtic broadleaf forestecoregion, to be precise—lined with pastoral hills and glens. Beyond the namesake Loch Lomond, the park is also home to 21 other lochs, which are smaller but no less striking. These include Loch Katrine, Loch Chon, and Loch Fyne, along with Scotland’s only lake, the Lake of Menteith, which is curious since lake and loch are literally synonymous.

More mountain, less loch. | Jack Skinner/Shutterstock

Cairngorms National Park is certainly not loch-less, but water is less of a focal point in this mountainous region. As evidenced by its more remote locale, it’s much larger than Loch Lomond (or any national park in the entire UK, for that matter), clocking in at 1,748 square miles and home to four of the tallest peaks in the country. These include Ben Macdui, the tallest munro in the park and the second tallest in Scotland, ascending to an ear-popping 4,295 feet.

Mountain ranges like the Grampian Mountains and the namesake Cairngorms provide some serious arctic-style elevation, with peaks so high that they’re perpetually snow-capped, if not completely enveloped in fresh powder. Altogether, there are 55 designated munros in Cairngorms, many of which are so far from sea level that their summits look more like the Alps than the UK.

For something a little less intimidating and polar, the Drumochter Hills are a bucolic, tamer region of the park on the southwest side, with grassy hills and less masochistic hiking trails.

Your go-to for aquatic activities and adventure. | Emad Aljumah/Moment/Getty Images

Hike and splash around

In the watery wilds of Loch Lomond, aquatic activities are the star attraction. Kayak, canoe, and JetSki rentals are all available in the park, including guided tours from Loch Lomond Kayak. For something more leisurely, numerous boat tours and cruises embark from various points around Loch Lomond, including companies like Cruise Loch Lomond Ltd. and Loch Lomond Leisure. Set sail on the famed Steamship Sir Walter Scott, a historic vessel providing tours on the smaller Loch Katrine in the park.

On land, The Trossachs provide plenty of scenic lookouts and picture-perfect picnic opportunities. You’ll find hiking trails aplenty, from Ben Lomond (the southernmost munro in Scotland) to an easy jaunt up Conic Hill.

Behold its arctic glory. | Westend61/Getty Images

In all its arctic glory, Cairngorms is known more for its strenuous mountain activities and skiing. Mountain biking and hiking trails abound in the park, including the easy-yet-breathtaking ravine hike to The Falls of Bruar. There’s also the comparatively arduous Black Wood route to the summit of Black Craig and Dun da-Lamh Fort, traversing pine-filled forests and waterfalls along the way.

In the winter months, Cairngorms is basically the Aspen of Scotland. Get your fix at Cairngorm Mountain ski area. This sixth tallest peak in Scotland is home to 11 surface lifts, 18 miles of powdered runs, and enough freestyle terrain for the most ardent adrenaline junkie.

Where there may or may not be dragons... | Wayne Marinovich/Shutterstock

Spy a wallaby or reindeer

Contrary to popular assumption, and the fact that the Scottish Highlands 100% look like a landscape where dragons would exist, there’s more to wildlife here than mythical monsters. The reality, though, is no less awe-inspiring.

Both parks are known for their raptors (as in the birds of prey, not IRL Jurassic Park), particularly their migratory osprey populations and their top-of-the-food-chain golden eagles. Ospreys return to both parks to breed in the spring, after wintering like true snowbirds in decidedly balmier countries in West Africa. In Loch Lomond, the fish-eating seabirds can be seen skimming the lochs and nesting on islands. In Cairngorms, the birds are so iconic that they’re featured on the park’s oddly badass logo, with a fish in its talons. After an initiative called Operation Osprey began in 1954 to protect nests along Loch Garten, the population has bounced back immensely. Nowadays, Cairngorms’ best known resident ospreys are EJ and Lassie, which sounds like the makings of a Disney movie.

The top predator in Scotland, golden eagles are also on the rise in Cairngorms National Park. Not to fear, though, because despite the unnerving fact that their wingspan can reach nearly eight feet and their talons look like Freddy Krueger’s hands, they mostly prey on rabbits and grouse.

Keep a look out for wallabie herds. | Flickr/aechase

Whimsically, both parks have their own unique animal herds you might not expect to find in Scotland. In Loch Lomond, the most bewildering breed is a group of wallabies that live on the tiny island of Inchconnachan. Obviously, Australian marsupials are not randomly native to this one particular 103-acre island in Scotland—rather, they were brought to this uninhabited island in the ‘40s by Lady Colquhoun, who had a fondness for exotic animals. Miraculously, the adorable critters have adapted and thrived, and in the winter months, they’ve been known to bounce across the frozen loch to forage in the hills.

In Cairngorms, the park’s towering peaks and tundra-like terrain lends itself to North Pole vibes. It’s home to the UK’s only free-ranging reindeer herd, where around 150 of the pronged animals rove the snow-swept wilderness. While the animals can be seen on guided tours, the paddocks at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre offer a closer look at the majestic animals—rather than keep reindeer at the center long-term, the facility safely manages breeding and disease transmission by rotating animals in and out to keep them accustomed to the wilds.

Choose between luxury and wilderness. | Paul McGee/Moment/Getty Images

Camp, glamp, or sleep in a cute inn

Loch Lomond and Cairngorms each offer ample lodging options, from roughing it in the wilderness to vamping it up in luxury confines.

Camping in Loch Lomond runs from RV and campervan sites to tent sites, both in designated campgrounds around the loch, and in primitive wild settings. For something a little more chic, The Inn on Loch Lomond is a historic (since 1884) lodging right on the shores of the loch, filled with cozy rooms, deep bathtubs, and huge windows overlooking the water. The on-site restaurant is just as cozy, exuding Scottish tradition with dishes like haddock and chips, gravy-slathered steak pie, traditional haggis with neeps and tatties (aka turnips and potatoes), and sticky toffee pudding glazed in warm caramel.

Camping and glamping both abound in Cairngorms, with plenty of all-natural privacy to be found with both. Like Loch Lomond, you’ll find both designated campgrounds and rustic “wild camping” here, along with wigwams, huts, teepees, and cabins for glamping. Even higher end, Rowan Tree Country Hotel is an intimate family-run abode on Loch Alvie, where each of the 12 rooms are distinctly designed and where dinner comes with Speyside lamb, duck terrines, and pan-fried halibut with buttered spinach in clam and mussel broth.

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He's the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on Instagram.