A rugged peak, a wild heart, and the spirit of the highlands around every corner, Scotland’s legendary Ben Nevis towers over the surrounding lochs and glens in Glen Nevis. As the tallest peak in the United Kingdom, it’s a high you can’t beat and an experience you’ll never forget!
In the ancient west Highlands of Scotland, near the small town of Fort William, lay the Grampian Mountains. Among these mist-shrouded munros is the once active massive volcano, Ben Nevis.
Beinn Nibheis has two possible translations in the Gaelic: “mountain with it’s head in the clouds” and “venomous mountain.” Both attest to the peak’s imposing height and craggy artistry that attracts hundreds of thousands of hikers every year to attempt it’s summit.
While Scotland is a wild, beautiful country full of windswept moors, secret lochs, and misty mountains, there’s something magical haunting the land that brings the west Highlands to life. Ben Nevis is a natural monument to the passage of time in these mystical glens. This trail, while containing many steps upward, is also a step back in time, and will take your breath away in all the best ways!
Distance: 10.5 (17km) miles roundtrip
Elevation: 4,411ft (1,345 meters)
Average Time: 5-8 hours
At 06:30 on June 23rd, 2019, my brother and I set out on our first adventure in Scotland: Conquering the Highest Peak in the UK, Ben Nevis. We didn’t exactly plan on such an early start, but having just flown in from the US, he on the 21st and me just the day before the hike, on the 22nd, we were both on a funky schedule and laying awake in bed by 05:00, so we said screw it, we’re up, let’s just go!
We stayed at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel for it’s proximity to the trail; literally just across the street from the bridge that leads to the trailhead of the Tourist Path. Don’t be fooled, nothing about this mountain is your standard tourist attraction!
The trail heads straight back towards the first mountain and shortly begins the gradual ascend we’re all accustomed to when starting a mountain trek. Except…this one. Doesn’t. Stop! The wide, stone-step trail continues to climb up the hillside in cutting zig-zags for the first 1/2 mile or so. Having been thoroughly drenched in sweat by this point and questioning our sanity, we joked that this must be the preliminary hike, survive this initial brutal ascent through the brush and you’re worthy to continue on your quest!
The trail soon levels out to a more moderate incline, a welcome respite from the so-far continuous up. It then winds through trees, crossing a few foot bridges over small streams, before curving around the mountainside and opening up to the valley between the two ridges. The views here are just the beginning of amazing sites along the trail, but breathtaking all the same. The stone-step trail bending along the mountainside is so picturesque and quintessentially Scottish, I couldn’t help but smiling the entire time on this section.
At the back of this valley, about 2 miles in on the hike, you’ll come across a sign post. To the left, the trail continues as it has, reaching the saddle near Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe [colloquially known as the “Halfway Lake”] , on the flattest section you’re going to find, before curving back over Red Burn towards the waterfall. To the right, though, lies the old trail, a corroded path clambering straight up Red Burn. It’s easy to miss, and we only caught it because we saw another hiker on their way down taking this route and assumed it was just the regular trail. If you decide to go this way, be prepared to crawl and climb, as it is loose rock over loose dirt and creeps up along old stream beds. If you can manage the scramble, though, you then come up just below the waterfall and get some amazing views before rejoining the main trail. Note: on the way down, we stuck to the main trail, much preferring the balm of a solid, winding dirt trail rather than forcing our battered muscles to undertake the strain of scaling the soft bed of the burn.
The waterfall is a great midway rest spot for snacks, water, and to splash some water on your face! Our goal on this trail was to keep moving, one step in front of the other, with minimal stops, because we knew once we stopped we’d be hard pressed to start again. Also keep an eye out for sheep, as I can guarantee you’ll see them, if not round a bend in the trail and come face-to-face with one!
After the falls, savor the next section of gradual, easy-going, wide trail, because that’s the last of the easy part! After the next switch-back, the trail turns to a well-worn path of boulders and scree, climbing relentlessly in tight turns up towards the summit. While the loose rocks can make for some troublesome spots, nothing about this section of the trail in inherently dangerous or overly difficult as previous hikers had made it out to be. Yes, more experienced hikers will have an easier time navigating over the rough footing, but that doesn’t mean beginners can’t also conquer this trail. As long as you watch your steps and can put one foot in front of the other, you’ll be at the summit in no time!
After the first few initial zig-zags along the craggy side of the mountain, the dreaded “is that it?” mentality sets in. These rocky turns soaring above the glen continue for about another mile to mile and a half.
Higher up, the path rounds the first false peak and begins to level out as the plateau to the summit begins. The final push straight back to the peak, complete with one last steep climb, offers amazing views of the sharp drops, jagged rock faces, and the glens below off to the left. Exercise caution and stay well clear of the cliffs!
Legs burning, chest heaving, mind numb of any thought other than “get there, finish it, conquer this mountain,” the sprint to the end is now within sight. With feelings of surreal disbelief and exhausted exuberance, our feet carried us over the last rocky obstacles and soon we were among the ruined monuments scattering the top of the tallest peak in the UK, looking out over all of Scotland as if from the top of the world.
The summit is dotted with various rock formations, including a World War II memorial, cairns, and the remains of a meteorological observatory.
The views expand in every direction, providing a unique, breathtaking 360 panorama of the legendary Scottish Highlands. Munros of emerald green and solemn blue raise the landscape in a sea of peaks, grey lochs and twisting rivers glint along the floor of the glens, and on a clear day you can even look to the west and spy the coast. Nothing is more dramatic, though, than standing at the towering precipice and peering down the north ridge across the rugged elegance of the cliffs below.
It’s hard to step away from a place of such quiet accomplishment and beauty. For a moment, it’s as though time stands still and the world lies at your feet. Alas, if nothing else, the chill of the never-ending wind that plays atop all summits will inspire you to begin the descent back into regular life!
Be wary on the trek back down; Ben Nevis is one of those trails where the down climb can be just as taxing as the ascent. The path back to the waterfall is particularly tricky, as tired muscles on loose rock can make for treacherous conditions. Be mindful of foot placement and pay attention to the trail you’re following. Many shortcuts exist bypassing the switchbacks, and while they’re easy to miss on the way up, they can often appear to be the main path on the way down. While they are possible to navigate, they are much steeper and more eroded, and officials warn to stick to the main trail in order to preserve the mountainside.
Once back at Red Burn, they way down becomes considerably more navigable. Aside from some slight joint discomfort from the constant step-down of the stone path, making our way back down into the glen was smooth sailing.
Before setting out on the this grueling and epic expedition, I set my FitBit Charge 2 to track our journey. Unfortunately, I forgot to sync it with my phone while still connected to wi-fi at the hostel, so I’m wary of the accuracy of the recorded distance.
Distance: 11.62 miles Roundtrip
Ground to Summit: 2 hours 37 minutes
Total Time: 4 hours 52 minutes
This hike did not disappoint. It is an arduous test of stamina, mentality, and heart. But it is doable, one step at a time. Don’t be discouraged or intimidated by the elite who try to convince us you only belong on the trails if you can ultra run a marathon or own thousands of dollars in custom gear. Hiking is a universal venture meant for all, and everyone who has an interest has a right to be on the trails. Now, I wouldn’t recommend going from couch to summit in tennis shoes and a tank top, but if hiking and adventure is calling you to chase the winds to the highest peaks and play among the clouds, Ben Nevis should definitely make your “Munros to Bag” list!
I know this will definitely not be my last time putting boots on the ground in Scotland, and likely not the last Ben Nevis trail dust to grace my hiking boots, either. I will be back someday to explore new glens and brave the seemingly endless trails [West Highland Way, anyone?]. Until then, stay pretty , Scotland!
Team Jordan for the win! Before and after shots of conquering Ben Nevis
All About Hiking
Some common sense hiking advice to help you get the most out of your summit!
Don’t Be Fooled by Scot’s Lingo: When researching hikes in Scotland, it can be tricky to gauge the difficulty of a trail. What we Americans refer to as hiking– typically a moderate-vigorous intensity trail that most likely involves mountains and elevation gain -they call hill walking– which has a low difficulty connotation, such as taking a stroll by a river. Don’t be fooled! Even if something is called a walk in Scotland, it can easily still be 10+ miles or up the side of a mountain. Similarly, if you’re looking into climbing Ben Nevis, the main trail to the summit, the one covered in this post, is called the “Tourist Path” or “Walking Track.” Again, this makes it sound less rigorous than it is! Always double check your distances, elevations, difficulty ratings, and try to read reviews and watch trail videos from hikers who have completed the journey.
What to Wear: Anyone who frequents mountains knows you can easily start out at the base of a peak in sunny, summer weather, and reach the summit in frigid, wintry conditions. We were fortunate to have that golden blend of sun and clouds on the way up, with only the typical summit chill and wind awaiting us at the top. However, especially in Scotland, where they’re infamous for their quick changing and dreary weather, conditions can rapidly turn and you may very well be walking into mist, rain, clouds, wind, or even snow! The solution? Light Layers!
Lightweight layers that pack nicely and can be easily added or removed on the trail are a hiker’s best friend. Start from the innermost layer and work your way out: base layer, over shirt, pull-over, windbreaker. Hat and gloves are also good additions in the northern summits. I did not bring any with me to Scotland, and while I survived just fine, I wouldn’t have said no to my favorite Blood Bank of Alaska Donor knit beanie and a pair of convertible mittens!
My go-to hiking ensemble, which I wore on this trek, consists of:
- Merrell Hiking Boots [Not my exact boot, but a similar style]
- Eddie Bauer Trail Tight Capris
- Long sleeve thermal shirt
- Short sleeve T-shirt
- Lightweight wool pull-over
- Columbia Pack-able Pocket rain jacket
What to Bring: A basic checklist for any hike to have your bases covered.
- Water: Hydrate or Die-drate, literally! Any physical activity endeavor, especially one as strenuous as a 5 mile straight-up mountain climb, requires water. It will help keep you from feeling overly fatigued, avoid headache/light headed-ness, prevent muscle cramping, and help with recovery after the hike. I took two 24 fl. oz. bottles with me, and admittedly did not drink the entirety of them- I was jetlagged, on a funky schedule, and halfway up a mountain at 07:00, eating and drinking was not high on my “want to do list”! Normally I aim to drink 1/2 to 3/4 of my water on the upward climb and finish the remaining on the descent. There are also water sources [a lake and a waterfall] along the Ben Nevis trail to refill if that’s your game.
- Snacks: Light snacking on the trail helps keep your blood sugar and energy up to avoid the dreaded midway fatigue slump, or as I like to call it, the “grumpy phase”. Bring foods with high glycemic indexes that are easy on the digestive system: granola, trail mix, bananas, PB&J sandwich, nuts, cheese, dried fruit, crackers.
- Basic First Aid: While this trail does not pose any major threats- to those staying on the marked path -accidents do happen. Most common injuries to occur on this trail would likely be cuts/scrapes from a fall on the scree or a rolled/sprained ankle on the loose rocks. Basic first aid should include an array of Band-Aids in various sizes and compression bandages to wrap an injured joint. Additional items could include: antiseptic wipes, antibacterial cream, gauge pads, aspirin.
- Extra Socks: A slip in the water happens, and when it does, you don’t want to continue trekking in wet socks. It can cause irritation, blisters, poor blood flow, and is just plain uncomfortable. Always bring a spare pair of trail socks that fit with your boots and protect your skin from rubbing.
- Wilderness Whistle: Again, not a huge risk factor on this open, heavily trafficked trail, but if you happen to lose your way from the main path or get separated from your group, a whistle is a cheap and effective way to increase the likelihood of being found quickly.
- Optional: Mini Survivalist Pack: Useful especially for longer hikes and overnight excursions, mini survival packs often include the bare necessities to survive for a time on your own until help can find you or you can make you way safely off the trail. Packs typically include: flint+steel, cotton or gauze kindle, electrical tape, safety pins, blade, compass, reflective blanket, whistle, LED signal light, first aid supplies,
Leave it Cleaner: Everyone hits the trails to enjoy nature and get away from civilization for a bit. It’s a real mood-killer to be off in your own world, seeking adventure, only to be brought abruptly back by copious amounts of trash left by previous travelers. Always pack out what you pack in, especially plastic containers and wrappers. Go the extra mile and help clean up after others who may have let something slip; if you spy a piece of trash on the trail, stash it in your own pack until it can be disposed of off the trail.
Good karma has a way of working it’s way around and I like to think courteous hikers are high on that list!
Hiking Etiquette: Similar to the above, everyone’s out there to have a good time. Don’t be the jerk who ruins it with a bad attitude. Give the people you pass a smile or nod; if someone asks how close they are to a certain feature or inquires about the trail conditions, take a minute to tell them; if you see a party struggling to take a group picture, offer to take it for them. It’s the little things that can make or break an experience. Be kind on the trail and the trail will be kind back to you!
Slighean Sona Dhut!
Happy Trails to Ye!