Parks Beyond Borders: It's John Muir Day—Perfect Start To The "Year Of Natural Scotland" in 2013

The wilds of the National Scenic Area of Glen Coe and Ben Nevis (top) are a perfect fit with a visit to either of Scotland's National Parks. The Glen Coe Visitor Centre (photos two to four) nicely orients guests to a place known as the heart of Scottish mountaineering (check out those cleated antique boots!) and clan culture. Nearby, the atmospheric ruins of Urquhart Castle are another moving stop with great interpretation. All photos by Randy Johnson.

Today is John Muir Day in Scotland. That makes April 21st, 2013 a perfect day to celebrate Scotland’s and the world’s national parks.

Yes, Muir was a Scot (though not a household name in Scotland) whose fascination with Yosemite and wild nature fed seamlessly into the now global phenomenon of national parks.

How appropriate that 2013 is the Year of Natural Scotland—and you’re invited! Visit Scotland, the country's National Tourism Organization, is rolling out the red carpet for anyone who loves national parks, the outdoors, wildlife—and the great food and drink tied to nature.

On that note, if you've ever marveled at "Scotch salmon" at home—you will be amazed when you try it in Scotland. And if you lift a sip of the single malt Scotch, Laphroaig, it's literally the taste of the country's peaty turf.

Beyond that, there’s a “packed programme of events” to add to the enticement!

Make Your Summer Plans

A lot of people find their way to UK in the warmer summer months just about to get underway as spring arrives. By plane, car, or the wonderful overnight Caledonian Sleeper train on ScotRail from London to Inverness, Scotland’s scenery is globally oustanding. Its national parks and other heritage areas are a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience (unless you’re like a lot of people and can't stop going back!).

Scotland’s national parks got their start in 2000 with the National Parks Act, passed a year after the Scottish Parliament was formed in 1999. The largest national park in the United Kingdom, and Scotland’s second, Cairngorm National Park was formed in 2003—which makes this nearly 2,000 square-mile, 4,500 square-kilometer park ten years old in 2013.

Capping Scotland

Caingorm National Park bulks just south of Inverness across spectacularly bulging alpine peaks that bear a wee bit of resemblance to parts of the Appalachians in the United States. The summits are cut by corries, glacial valleys, where the rounded but lofty terrain is sliced into cirque-like clefts. Four of Scotland's five highest peaks are here.

Not far from the town of Aviemore, Cairngorm well earns its reputation as a year-round “holiday centre.” There’s everything you’d expect in the way of trout fishing and trails, and in winter, the UK’s biggest ski area boasts awesome scenery and a modern funicular lift that takes skiers to the Ptarmigan Restaurant, a few hundred meters below the actual summit of Cairngorm. Warm weather visitors can climb the easy way too—the lift operates during the summer.

Yes, they’re still skiing at Cairngorm.

Cairngorm is a “living, working landscape with wild land at its heart,” says Visit Scotland, perfect as a multi-day national park experience (check out this itinerary).

Loch Lommond and The Trossachs

In south-central Scotland, the country’s first national park wraps around Loch Lomond and sprawls 720-square miles and 1,865-square kilometers around the hills and mountains of The Trossachs. There’s a national park visitor center at the Southern end of the loch.

This national park contains 21 of the 282 highest peaks in Scotland called Munros, including Ben Lomond, the most popular mountain climb in the country. Ben Nevis, near Fort William, is Munro numero uno at 1,344 meters, or 4,409 feet (and ... that's from sea level folks).

There are also other kinds of preservation designations in Scotland in addition to national parks, all under the umbrella of Scottish Natural Heritage. That includes one of the country’s premier natural settings, the National Scenic Area of Glen Coe and Ben Nevis.

A Scenic Slice of Scotland

Linking Cairngorm National Park, in the northeast, and Glen Coe, to the southwest, is an easy way to savor a premier piece of Scotland. From Inverness, a highly recommended route starts at the Cairngorms near Aviemore then wanders southwest to Glen Coe along the Great Glen where the long finger of Loch Ness cleaves the Highlands.

A Truly Grand Glen

No place in Scotland is more grand than this Glen. The visitor center south of Fort William is a one stop taste of Scottish history, human and natural. Engaging exhibits range from the famed 1692 Massacre of Glen Coe to mountaineering, wildlife to weather. Nearby, hike a half-hour to eye-popping Signal Rock. Then rise along A82 between soaring peaks to lofty, lonely Rannoch Moor. Pass the atmospheric Kings House Hotel and the bleakly beautiful setting of Blackrock Cottage. Turn around at Glen Coe ski area.

After looking up at dramatic mountains, look down from one. On your way back to Fort William, just beside Ben Nevis, you can take a gondola to 2,100 feet on Aonach Mor at Nevis Range, one of Scotland’s biggest ski areas. Vistas reach coastal islands. At the top of the gondola, there’s an eatery, interpretive exhibits in the Mountain Discovery Center, and gradual paths to viewpoints.

Added Stops Really Pop

The route of this drive from the Cairngorms to Glen Coe and back is a national park scenic jaunt that has other pay-offs too—among them classic Eilean Donan Castle on Loch Duich, Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness, and the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition in Drumnadrochit. The Exhibition is a fun, informative roadside attraction just 14 miles from Inverness where you can learn all about the loch’s monster even if you haven’t yet seen Nessie.

Time to Go

In a late March article in The Scotsman, Mike Cantlay, chairman of VisitScotland, said: “The Year of Natural Scotland is all about getting people out and about in our wonderful country. Whether it be experiencing the crystal clear waters of the Outer Hebrides or walking in the Cheviots in the Borders, the possibilities are almost limitless. When you factor in the stunning wildlife, it is no wonder that our natural environment is the number one reason why people want to visit here.”

I agree. Time to get those plans made...