Sure, a dinosaur-like cryptid may dwell in the depths of Scotland’s famous Loch Ness; but even if it doesn’t, there are loads of reasons to head up to the beautiful Highland lake. Take in the stunning scenery, indulge in the many local adventure sports, or traipse about an ancient castle. Not convinced? Read on— we’ve amassed our 6 favorite things to do at Loch Ness Lake and we’ll bet there’s one there for you.
A wee bit of history
Loch Ness is a large, deep freshwater lake just south of Inverness in the northeast Scottish Highlands. It’s part of a series of interconnected bodies of water called the Caledonian Canal that link the Atlantic to the North Sea. Despite its stunning surroundings among the green hills of Scotland’s Great Glen, the water itself is muddy with little to no visibility, which has fed the myth of the sea monster that lives deep below its murky surface.
The history of the area around the lake reaches back some 2,000 years when the tribal Picts roamed its hills and valleys. Known for their body paint, tattoos, and fierce military prowess, the Picts were able to hold off the Roman advance into Scotland throughout the empire’s occupation of Britain. Interestingly, images of an aquatic monster carved into standing stones near the lake date from this period.
Supposedly the lake monster made another “appearance” when St. Columba encountered it some years later in 565 CE while on the lake shore. As the story goes, the saint banished the monster in the name of God, and it was not seen again for 1,400 years.
Nessie, as the monster is so fondly called, finally reappeared in 1933 when a local couple claimed to have seen it frolicking in the lake. Since then, various “sightings” have been documented, with a photo of what appears to be a dinosaur-like creature emerging from the waters taken in 1934. Later revelations that the photo was a hoax, as well as fruitless underwater searches, barely dampened enthusiasm for the Loch Ness Monster myth, which remains alive and well today.
By the early 12th-century CE, Inverness was recognized as a royal burgh (an honorary status granted by the monarch). The city grew into a thriving royal seat and port, supported by ship building, fishing, wool, fur, and hide exports. Over the years, a number of Western Isle invaders challenged the monarchy’s hold in the area, including Robert the Bruce. Later, in the 17th century, the city was the site of a number of battles during the English Civil Wars. Since then, Inverness and its surrounds have grown into a busy commercial center supporting an extensive offshore oil industry, as well as in fish processing, agriculture, and forestry.
What to do
1: Explore Scotland’s beloved Urquhart Castle.
Jutting out from Loch Ness’ western headlands stands the proud ruins of one of Scotland’s greatest medieval fortresses. Built on the site of earlier medieval fortification, the existing ruins are largely from the 13th– to 16th centuries during the Scots’ ongoing struggles for independence. More than once it was held by the English, and was eventually partially blown up in 1692 by government troops during the Jacobite rebellions.
Approach the site from the west, across the bridge (once a drawbridge) to the castle gatehouse. From there, you can visit Grant Tower where you can survey the loch and glen from stone battlements; the Great Hall where the spoils of war were celebrated; the prison cell where enemies were left to perish; and a host of artifacts, including a full-sized trebuchet. Tickets are available online for £12 ($15) and include entry an audiovisual presentation on the castle’s history.
2: Tour the loch by boat.
Nothing beats getting out on the water to experience the loch up close. There’s stunning Highland scenery to take in, historical treasures to discover, and perchance a glimpse of the sea creature herself. There are a number of operators in the area but we’ve picked out two we like in particular.
If you’re angling for an authentic ride with a salty Scottish skipper, climb aboard the Cluaran Dubh from Castle Cruises Loch Ness. The vessel is relatively small (parties of eight or fewer), though comfortable for the hour-or-so-long cruise across the loch. No scratchy loudspeakers here; the ride includes factoids and tales about the loch and its mysterious history told the way only a local could – Gordon (our guide) was actually raised locally. Onboard sonar keeps a watch out for Nessie, should she swim underneath. Tickets are available at the Drumnadrochit gift shop for about £15 ($19).
If you prefer a cruiser cruise on a bigger vessel with a comfy indoor cabin, roof deck, and snack bar, go for Cruise Loch Ness. These tours run about an hour and include loads of deep commentary about the loch and its surrounds, and the requisite sonar-guided Nessie watch as well.
Oh yeah, and if breakneck fast is more your speed, the good folks at Cruise Loch Ness will take you on a heart-pounding, splash-inducing, water flight across the loch in a speedy rib instead. Much of the scenery may be a blur, but it’ll get those endorphins going. Tickets range from £13-45 ($16-57); check online for current pricing and details.
3: Hike the Southern Loch Ness Trail.
Enjoy breathtaking views of the lake from its eastern shore trail, known curiously as the Southern Loch Ness Trail. We like hiking north from Dores along the banks of the loch, up into the foothills and heaths, and across Fair Haired Lad’s Pass (about 6 miles) for a top-notch panorama of the highland region.
Farther south along the route, other highlights include the Suidhe Viewpoint for additional views across the loch; the Falls of Foyers for some of the most stunning waterfalls in the Highlands; and historic Whitebridge village. In fact, we recommend a stop into the Whitebridge Hotel for a Strathcarron Highland Cow beer, a traditional favorite in the area that falls somewhere between a stout and bitter with just a touch of sweetness.
Weather can move change quickly in the Highlands, so it’s best to bring layers (including something waterproof), water, and sturdy hiking shoes. Most of the hiking trails are either relatively flat or have gently increasing inclines. Still, best to review the trails carefully before setting off.
4: Have lunch in Drumnadrochit.
Head over to the loch’s western shore for lunch in historic village Drumnadrochit. White-washed houses surround the traditional village green that overflows with daffodils come spring. While a little touristy (the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition is in town, as is a children’s park dubbed “Nessie Land”), it otherwise hasn’t changed much from its first days in the 1600s when the green regularly hosted local sheep and cattle markets.
For top-notch nosh, head over to Café Eighty2 in the village center. Wooden café chairs, bric-a-brac, and rose-hued walls give the café a homey, sort of quirky feel, but the food is anything but folksy. The menu is decidedly Middle Eastern/Indian fusion with a few old favorites thrown in. There is a full selection of vegetable and chickpea-based curries, elegant frittatas, homemade soups, haloumi, and flatbreads. Our favorite these days has to be the Streaky Bacon and Goat Cheese Toastee with red pepper and chili jam.
5: While in Drumnadrochit, catch a shinty match.
Never heard of shinty? We hadn’t either until we spent some time in the Scottish Highlands. Something like field hockey for men, shinty has been a fixture of highland life for close to 2,000 years. Still played and loved today, it’s loads of fun to watch, given its fast-paced action, spirited stick play, and enthusiastic tackling.
For a quick primer, head to the Shinty Shop in Drumnadrochit for a peruse of the equipment and a chat with locals about what to look for when spectating. Heck, get yourself a shinty stick (aka a caman) to bring home – now that’s a real souvenir. If you’re lucky enough to be there on a Saturday, head out to the village green where matches are played every week during the season (March through October). More information, including additional match schedules in the area, can be found on the Camanachd Association website.
6: Spend a day or two in the Highlands capital, Inverness.
Certainly Inverness, as the Highlands’ largest city and cultural capital, deserves its own article. There is no way we can squeeze in all there is to do there in a paragraph or two. Still, we include it here because of its deep connection to Loch Ness Lake and its fun and inviting character.
Hugging the shores of the Ness River, the city includes a historic old town, medieval ruins, Cawdor Castle (of “Macbeth” fame), a Victorian covered market, and loads of great shopping and eating. Oh and did we mention Inverness Castle? It’s a must-see if you’re in town.
To get a basic lay of the land, we recommend a tour, either by bike or walking if you can manage it. There are several good tour options ranging in price from £11-40 ($14-51) depending on duration and whether you choose to bike or not.