Castles, whisky and Nessie; Outlander, kilts and bagpipes – Scotland is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations for a variety of reasons. But skiing? You might be surprised to learn that the Scottish Highlands are home to no fewer than five ski areas, each unique in character.
- Excellent beginner slopes right next to the Day Lodge
- Often quiet even when nearby CairnGorm is crowded
- Relatively sheltered from the wind
- Low altitude can mean poor snow quality
- The short runs can lack variety: most slopes are on a single face
- The most interesting terrain often stays closed on quiet days
The Lecht’s dozen lifts and 20 or so runs spread along two sides of a high, remote road pass in the north-east Cairngorms. With a smaller vertical to play with compared to elsewhere in Scotland, this family-orientated ski center has focused its attention on developing the country’s best beginner facilities, with a row of sheltered magic carpets and drag lifts right next to the restaurant and Day Lodge. Most of the longer runs are of intermediate steepness (no matter their color grading) – don’t miss out on the excellent Buzzard runs on the east side of the pass.
While you’re in the area: The valley of Strathdon lies at the southern foot of the pass: a remote region of rolling hills and ruined castles roughly 20 minutes drive away. To the north, less than 10 minutes drive is Tomintoul; one of Scotland’s highest villages with a handful of places to stay and eat. It is also one of the gateways to Speyside, with dozens of whisky distilleries offering tours all year round.
- Gentle top bowls with the most reliable snow in Scotland
- Decent tough terrain in the underused Ciste sector
- Plenty of other activities to do in the area on bad weather days
- Long queues during Christmas and February half-term holidays
- High winds and drifting snow can shut lifts, scour snow from runs and block the access road
- Apart from the funicular railway, you’re stuck with drag lifts
Cairngorm Mountain has been welcoming skiers and snowboarders to its snowy slopes since the 1960s and overlooks the often-frozen Loch Morlich in the Cairngorms National Park. The mountain splits into two parts with exposed but snowsure beginner bowls at the top. These are reached by a funicular railway from the resort base, which also serves mostly intermediate terrain on the right side of the map. Over to the left, the steeper Ciste sector used to be served by a couple of chairs, but a single drag lift does all the work nowadays.
While you’re in the area: CairnGorm sits at the edge of Glenmore Forest Park, with tranquil forest trails and lochside strolls in abundance. It’s not far from Speyside where you can sample a dram of whisky, and just 10 minutes away from Britain’s only free-ranging reindeer herd.
- Scotland’s best lift-served off-piste when Braveheart Chair is running
- Spectacular “high mountain” views from the summit
- Notable lack of queues on all but the busiest days
- Top lifts and access gondola prone to closure in high winds
- Braveheart Chair only open on a limited number of days
- Beginner slopes are low and can suffer from poor snow
Nevis Range only opened in 1989, at the top of Scotland’s only mountain gondola. The area around the gondola station has decent beginner slopes. Further up, the north-west facing front of the mountain is mostly of an intermediate gradient, though with a few tougher runs on skier’s right. From the top there are sensational views of Ben Nevis and Loch Eil. For experts, the back of the mountain is where it gets really interesting: the yellow itineraries marked on the trail map are epic, ungroomed (and often unpatrolled) runs starting with a cornice drop and ending with a long traverse out from the Braveheart Chair. Speak to ski patrol about avalanche conditions before you go, and take all the gear you’d need for out-of-bounds skiing in the US.
While you’re in the area: Walking, boat trips, distilleries, and museums: there’s plenty to do around Fort William, even if the town lacks life in winter. It's just a short drive away while Loch Ness is 40 minutes to the north. Or head to Glencoe, also 40 minutes away to the south.
- Varied and extensive slopes (for Scotland!)
- Excellent (if short) intermediate cruising runs
- Lift system generally copes well with crowds, with further investment planned
- Close proximity to Edinburgh (2 hours drive) and the Central Belt can mean weekend queues
- Low top height means snow can suffer (particularly late season)
- Access roads prone to blockage by drifting snow
Glenshee is Scotland’s biggest ski area – though don’t come expecting another Park City or Vail. Runs spread across three valleys with the most interesting parts at either end. Stand at the top of Glas Maol and it feels like you’re on the edge of a vast wilderness. In the middle there’s a decent amount of easier terrain, though not much for absolute beginners. The lift company is ambitious: two new chairlifts have been installed in recent years, and more are planned.
While you’re in the area: Glenshee is in the southern part of the Cairngorms National Park, so opportunities for walks are endless – particularly around Deeside to the north. Balmoral Castle, just half an hour away, is frequented by the Royal Family and usually opens to tourists for the summer season around Easter.
- Varied, interesting slopes cater equally well to beginners and experts
- Scotland’s biggest on-mountain vertical when runs to the base are open
- Spectacular views from the summit
- Rocky terrain needs lots of snow to cover it, restricting operations early in the season
- Limited number of wide, cruising runs
- Small car park can get full during weekends
Older visitors still refer to Glencoe as the “White Corries”; the ski area began life under this name way back in 1955. Following financial troubles some years ago it now has a spring in its step following a run of good winters and investment in new lifts. The upper third of the mountain is basically a freeride playground with natural half-pipes, jumps and other terrain features; the steepest runs are never groomed and include Scotland’s gnarliest black: the Flypaper. Gentle beginner slopes cover the plateau below, with long runs returning to the base when there’s enough low-level snow. It’s not a big area, but packs in a lot of variety, and lots of people mention the relaxed vibe.
While you’re in the area: Head to nearby Glen Etive, just a few minutes away, and see if you can recreate the famous James Bond scene from Skyfall. Not exciting enough for you? Kinlochleven boasts the world’s biggest indoor ice-climbing arena, also a half hour drive away.
If you’ve skied Scotland, what are your thoughts? Would you rank them differently?