Visiting Scotland’s First National Park

Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park was founded in 2002 and it’s their first national park! In comparison, the United States just celebrated the centennial of her National Park Service, which was founded in 1916 and is famously, “America’s best idea.” It’s only a twenty minute drive north west of Glasgow to get to the southern tip of Loch Lomond, the largest inland stretch of freshwater in Great Britain. The loch (Gaelic for lake) traditionally marks the transition from Central Scotland to The Highlands. With Ben Lomond – the most southerly ‘Munro’ or mountain over 3,000 feet in Scotland – on the loch’s east shore, the park is a great option for visitors who want to experience the majesty and beauty of the highlands without trekking all the way to Inverness.

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There are a few options if you want to stay within the southern boundaries of the National Park including the villages of Luss, Balloch, and Balhama, with dozens of even smaller villages dotting the roads in between. Prime locations within the park paired with a small number of available rooms makes staying in one of these popular destinations pretty pricey. For example, the average price for a traditional double bed hotel-style room in Luss in September ranges between £135 and £235 a night. August is the busiest month in Scotland for tourism and when we visited, I opted for a private room at an AirBnB in Alexandria, a town just a 5 minute drive south of Balloch, for $77 a night.

There isn’t much to see in Alexandria, but it is very convenient to the park and you have a bit of money leftover to spend on things like a rental car, kayaking on the loch in the shadow of Ben Lomond, taking a ferry to Inchcailloch nature preserve, and a couple of flat whites and a G&T a day. Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, and the nearby Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, provide miles and miles of picturesque mountains, woods, valleys, lochs, and sheep grazing fields, studded every few miles with welcoming inns when you’re ready to put your feet up and have a pint. Our two full days in the park felt like four; the hours spinning out wondrously until we crashed – exhausted and full of Scottish pub fare – into bed.

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If you’re traveling to Scotland and find yourself in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, here’s what I suggest:

Rent a car. If you’re traveling at all in Scotland outside the major cities, or even just want to take a day-trip out into the country to see some sheep, cars are highly recommended. While Scotland’s big cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow discourage car use, getting around the Highlands or parks without one can be restricting. There’s plenty of transportation in the national park – everything from ferries to trains and cabs – but the freedom of a car is worth the extra poundage a day. (Tip: learn to drive a manual! It’s way cheaper to rent a manual than an automatic.)

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Stop in a National Park visitor’s center. Visitor’s centers are for tourists and guess what? You’re a tourist. The Scots have poured a lot of hard work, thought, and money into their first national park and it really pays off. The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park visitor centers (and the Queen Elizabeth Forest visitor centers) are lovely, filled with a ton of information about the surrounding areas, staffed with incredibly friendly and helpful guides, are usually a great place to buy postcards and often provide free maps. Constantly shifting weather means your best-laid plans might change dramatically when you wake up to a drizzly mess. Rather than waste time fumbling around Google with a poor WiFi connection, pop into a visitors center and the local staff will be excited to tell you all about their park and how to make the most out of your stay.

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Take the tiny wooden ferry boat to Inchcailloch nature preserve and have lunch in Balhama. An island off the east coast of Loch Lomond, Inchailloch boasts nearly-ancient ruins, a wildlife refuge, tiny coves, and an easy walk to one of the best views in Scotland. Even on a rainy day, Inchcailloch was an exhilarating and rejuvenating way to spend a morning. There’s free parking at a park visitor’s center and the ferry ride to the island is free, but to get back to Balhama it’s £10 a piece. Balhama is a remarkably small town for how heavy the tourism traffic is, but it never felt overcrowded or like a tourist-trap. It’s really just a lovely place to stop and take a break, wether you’re Scottish or a visitor. I can personally recommend The Oak Tree Inn as a lovely place to get warm and have a bite to eat and the Inn’s St. Mocha Coffee Shop for dessert. Be warned, though, the baked potatoes are loaded. (Read more about our trip to Balhama and Ichcailloch here.)

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Kayak, canoe, or paddle boat on Loch Lomond. If you have the weather for it, get out on the water! We used Loch Lomond Leisure to rent kayaks for two hours for a total £60. We had a beautiful day with very low wind so the waves were pretty low, but if you’re inexperienced or nervous in a kayak, a canoe might be a better option. There are dozens of different options for boating out on Loch Lomond and on our way back – paddling into the wind – we thought paddle boating looked really lovely. Being out on the loch, exploring the small islands on your own time, and the view of Ben Lomond from the water was surreal, so any way you can get out on the water, do it!

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Go beyond Luss Village. Since we were Luss Village on what might have been the most beautiful Saturday in August, I was expecting it to be absolutely packed with people. Luss is advertised on Scotland’s tourism website as “the most picturesque village in Scotland,” and while it was indeed busy and full of non-Scots, it was still enjoyable to walk through the village and get our most expensive coffee of the trip. I had planned to spend a decent amount of time exploring Luss, maybe half a day, but once we walked through after kayaking, we didn’t really feel like we needed to stick around. While we were only there in the main village for about half an hour, we definitely got a distinctly Epcot-like feel. We ended up driving further north and stopping off at some scenic viewpoints, which was a great way to explore the Loch’s coast.

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Bring a tiny bottle of scotch with you, everywhere! You never know when the moment will be just perfect to have a wee taste of Glenfiddich. There’s nothing quite like burning your insides with peaty whiskey while taking in the beauty of a Scottish loch.

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