It seems criminal that I live in Edinburgh, a mere 60 miles from the start of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, and yet I’ve barely set foot on ‘yon bonnie banks’. This isn’t down to some longstanding ‘East beats West’ ideology, or even a deep-rooted fear of the dreaded midge, just quite simply that I keep putting it off.
“Ach, it’s only a short drive away. I can do that any time…”
That’s one of the wonderful things about Scotland. You really don’t have to drive far at all to find yourself immersed in gorgeous scenery. Sometimes it can be all too easy to take that for granted!
This summer, I was determined to change that. Along with my cousin Catriona, I headed west for three days of fun in and around the loch. Admittedly, we did have some rather excellent weather behind us, but even if that hadn’t been the case, I would have been quick to fall for its charms. With open stretches of deep blue water, the West Highland Way route cutting through its heart, a smattering of picturesque villages to explore and rugged hills to climb, Loch Lomond is the perfect place to base yourself for a holiday in Scotland, especially if you’re a fan of the outdoors.
Three days flew by all too quickly, but it was definitely enough time to get a taste for the area and the surrounding things to do. Here’s a few must-do’s when exploring Loch Lomond:
Stay in Balmaha
As a base, it doesn’t get much handier than Balmaha. This pretty little village has all the amenities you could need, as well as stunning views out over the loch and its own marina if you’re looking to explore the loch by boat. The pebble beach at Milarrochy Bay is a gorgeous spot to whittle away an afternoon and during the summer months that water will have you tempted in…as demonstrated by yours truly:
Although small, Balmaha comes well equipped. There’s a few small shops and hotels, a shiny new visitor centre and numerous camp sites, and it’s also home to the rather fabulous Oak Tree Inn – the type of place that’d be excellent both in summer, when you can have lunch out in the sun, or in the winter, when you can tuck into a bowl of cullen skink by the log fire in the cosy dining room.
We stayed in a gorgeous converted boathouse just outside the village and were lucky enough to have our own access to the loch straight from the jetty! You can read more about our accommodation by visiting their Airbnb site here.
Take in the view from the top of Conic Hill
The path to Conic Hill can be accessed from the main car park in Balmaha. This is a brilliant walk. Though it’s pretty steep, the summit can reached within an hour. The view is absolutely worth it. From the top, you can see right out across Loch Lomond and its various islands, and can also make out the Highland Boundary Fault; to one side, you’ll see the land is completely flat, to the other, mountains etch their way into the skyline. Standing atop Conic Hill, you can literally see the point where the Highlands meet the Lowlands; if that doesn’t have you humming Runrig on the way down I don’t know what will.
Kayak out to Inchailloch
There are several points (Luss & Tarbet included) which offer kayak hire across the loch. Luckily for us, the Bunkhouse in Balmaha was an easy hop, skip and jump away. From the village marina, we were able to kayak out to Inchailloch island, which took around half an hour.
Translated from Gaelic, the ‘Island of the Cowled Woman’ is well-known for its abundant wildlife, lush vegetation, stunning viewpoint and as rumour would have it, ancient nunnery. We didn’t see any habit-clad ghosts lurking about, but we did find the ruins of an ancient church and burial ground – also the final resting ground of some of Rob Roy’s ancestors.
The secluded bay at Port Bawn felt more like a Costa Rican haven than Scotland and was the perfect place to catch our breath and cool down with a cheeky dip before making the trip back to town.
The rate for a shared kayak for 2 hours was £35.
Have a dram at the Glengoyne Distillery
Often described as one of the most picturesque distilleries in Scotland, the Glengoyne Distillery sits in the pretty spot of Dumgoyne and has been operating since 1833! There’s a lot of Scotch knowledge held within those old stone walls, and if you fancy learning a little more about the history of the company, or just whiskey-making in general, you can take part in one of their tasting tours, starting at just £10.50. Find out more about the range of tours on offer here.
Sit back and relax with a cruise of the loch
There are countless great companies which can take you on a ferry-led tour of the loch. Some operate short waterbus rides between the towns of Balmaha and Luss; others offer whole day tours.
Sweeney’s are a popular choice, and have been running loch cruises from their base in the town of Balloch since the 1880’s. They offer a range of tours, varying from 50 minutes to two hours. They also run an evening cruise if you fancy watching the sun set behind Ben Lomond. You can even get married on a Sweeney’s private charter; just make sure you’ve found your sea legs first…
Take a stroll around Balloch Castle Country Park
With its excellent transport links and direct trains to Glasgow, Balloch is a popular starting point for people looking to explore Loch Lomond. It’s one of the park’s larger towns and a handy place to top up on supplies or petrol if you’re planning on heading further afield. It’s also home to Balloch House, a characterful pub which serves up some seriously nice Scottish grub and has a sweet wee beer garden to boot.
Balloch sits on the south-western banks of Loch Lomond, where the loch meets the River Leven. It’s a popular departure point for boat trips and has a lovely long stretch of sand, popular with families. Walk along the river and you’ll find yourself strolling through Balloch Castle Country Park, where the castle itself dates back to the early 13th century. Although the property is about to undergo some important structural work, it’s a site well worth seeing, and the long sloping gardens below offer an excellent view out over the water and the hills of Dumbartonshire.
Climb Ben A’an
Although not a munro, as we sadly discovered after reaching the top, Ben A’an is certainly one of the more challenging and rewarding hills to climb when visiting Loch Lomond. It’s often referred to as Scotland’s ‘Mountain in Miniature’ for its rugged terrain and impressive views.
I’m only a beginner when it comes to hillclimbing, so I was quite impressed with myself for being able to reach the summit within an hour. The trail is a doable mix of steep but short climbs, rocky scrambles and some flatter paths. There’s a few stepping stones to hop, but other than the occasional sizeable step, the climb should be possible for most folk, including children. Unfortunately the weather turned on us a little that morning, so visibility was a bit…well…as my mother would say, it was a right ‘Pea Soup-er’.
After a drizzly while spent catching our breath at the summit, the fog did lift enough for us to catch a glimpse of the view below; with Loch Katrine peeping out from the shadows and miles of lush, pine forest stretching as far as the eye could see, I can easily imagine how impressive this would be on a clear day. My advice? Tailor your trip to fit this walk in when visibility is good! It’ll be worth it.
Drive the Dukes Pass
The seven kilometer stretch of road between Aberfoyle and Brig o’ Turk is known affectionately as the Dukes Pass. It’s also widely regarded as one of the most scenic – and perhaps challenging – roads in Scotland. Climbing to a height of 240 meters above sea level, and with more twists and turns than an Ian Rankin novel, it’s both nail-biting and exhilarating, and an excellent route to take when visiting Aberfoyle or Ben A’an.
One of the biggest things to strike me when doing the drive was how green the area was. Giant ferns lined the road, while ancient pine trees towered from above. There was something quite prehistoric about the scenery, and it wouldn’t have surprised me to see the head of a great diplodocus looming out of the vegetation. Thankfully, the most dangerous thing we encountered was the odd car swinging across lanes. A worthy drive, but take it with caution please!
Make yourself some wooly pals in Aberfoyle
Aberfoyle is a bonnie wee place to visit. As well as being home to the Faerie Tree Inn and a rather cute tablet shop, it’s also the site of the Scottish Wool Centre, which stocks all kinds of wonderful knitted garments and is as twee as the day is long. The best thing about this shop, however, is surely the daily dog and duck shows which take place in the field outside. What’s not to love about a shopping centre with its own array of sheep, goats and miniature ponies to admire/steal?
Brace yourself for Ben Lomond
Okay, so we’ve tackled a couple of the easier hills. Time to bring out the big guns. Serious hill climbers and Munro baggers would consider it a sin to visit Loch Lomond without attempting to take on the most southerly of Scotland’s mountains.
This is not stuff for the faint-hearted. With an ascent of 990 metres, Ben Lomond will definitely take you a full day to complete, and will require a certain degree of fitness and preparation. Full hiking gear should be worn, and in the winter, it’s likely that you’ll need an ice axe and crampons. That being said, it’s perfectly achievable if you’re up for a challenge and it seems that many are, with 30,000 making it to the top every year.
In total, the climb will set you back around 5 hours and 7.5 miles. You’ll probably want to add on more though for the views. This is definitely one for the bucket list, and would be the ultimate way to round off your Loch Lomond adventure, if you dare!