The Best Places To Wild Hike In Southern Scotland

Best Hikes in Southern Scotland

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While we would like to say that we have personally explored the best trails in the world, we haven’t even scratched the surface.

Yet, we want to make sure we leave none out in our endeavor to introduce our readers to the best outdoor adventures.

So we turn to guest authors from time to time to share their experiences with us.

We are privileged to have Alex Tiffany contribute his post on the best places to wild hike in Southern Scotland.

Alex recently returned from an epic camping and hiking trip there and wanted to share his description of these trails. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

As you’ll see, Southern Scotland will be on your bucket list places to hike.

The Best Places to Hike in Southern Scotland

Guest Post by Alex Tiffany

When most people think of hiking in Scotland, they think of the Highlands.  However, southern Scotland has some similarly gorgeous scenery, with a fraction of the number of visitors.

If you want to get outside and hike in some of the most beautiful, untouched wilderness the UK has to offer, southern Scotland should definitely be on your list.

Where are the best places to hike in southern Scotland?  There are many, but the following are among the very best.

Galloway Forest Park

Hiking in Galloway Forest Park Southern Scotland
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Many of the best hikes in southern Scotland are found in Galloway Forest Park, in the south-western region of Dumfries and Galloway.

Spanning over 300 square miles (770 square kilometres), the park encompasses the largest forest in the UK, as well as a large section of the Galloway Hills.

Galloway Forest Park has been designated as an International Dark Sky Park.  It’s one of the best places in Europe to see the night sky, largely due to its remoteness and lack of light pollution.  This also makes it a fantastic place to go hiking.

Hiking here is really special.  There are many well-marked trails to choose from, taking in a range of stunning scenery: rugged uplands, ancient woodland, lakes (called “lochs” in Scotland), rivers and glens.  You’ll find something for all ages and abilities here, from easy family-friendly strolls to strenuous multi-day hikes in the mountains.

The park has three visitor centres, located at Glen Trool, Clatteringshaws, and Kirroughtree.  Each of these is staffed by helpful rangers who can provide you with loads of helpful information on the various hiking trails, local wildlife, weather conditions on the peaks and in the valleys, and more.

Check out this article for more information on hiking in Galloway Forest Park.  

Similarly, see here for where to camp in Galloway Forest Park.

Coastal Hikes In Southern Scotland

Coastal Hikes in Southern Scotland

As well as mountains, glens and ancient forests, Scotland is also known for its stunning beaches and coastal scenery.

The Mull of Galloway Trail

The Mull of Galloway is the southernmost point in Scotland and a real hidden gem.  Here you will find dramatic cliff top scenery, panoramic views, and miles of sandy beaches.

A popular semi-long distance trail runs from the Mull of Galloway to Glenapp, via Stranraer and the Loch Ryan Coastal Path.  Along the way you’ll pass by attractive coastal villages, sandy beaches, jagged cliffs and green rolling countryside.  Dolphins, seals and porpoises are common visitors, and you’ll see large colonies of seabirds.

The trail is 37 miles (57 km) long, and typically takes around 2-3 days to complete.  There are accommodation options in Sandhead and Stranraer, or you can camp along the route.

Alternatively, for a shorter day walk, there is a 6.5 mile (10.5 km) circular route that starts and finishes at the Mull car park (near the lighthouse).

The Whithorn Way

An excellent long distance hiking trail, the Whithorn Way runs 143 miles (230 km) from Glasgow cathedral all the way to the Isle of Whithorn.  Much of it lies on the ancient pilgrimage route to Whithorn, trodden by pilgrims for over 1,000 years.

The route is divided into thirteen easily-walkable sections, some of which follow the coastline, others venture inland.  Along the way, you’ll pass a number of important historical sites, including medieval churches and abbeys, ruined castles and ancient standing stones.

One of the most popular sections with day hikers is the final 8 miles leading up to the Isle of Whithorn itself.

The Southern Upland Way

If there’s one hike that best showcases the varied scenery and raw beauty of southern Scotland, this is it.  One of Scotland’s iconic Great Trails, the Southern Upland Way is as challenging as it is rewarding.

This 214 mile (344 km) coast-to-coast hike runs from Portpatrick on Scotland’s south west coast to Cockburnspath on the east coast.

Most people typically aim to complete the hike in anywhere between 12-16 days.  It’s a fairly strenuous hike, with some rough terrain in places, a number of peaks to cross, and sections of wild backcountry.  

The trail itself is well-managed and clearly waymarked, so navigation shouldn’t be a problem.  That said, it’s always a good idea to bring a quality topographical map and compass with you when hiking in the wilderness (i.e. an OS map – see below), in case of poor visibility.  Certain sections cross rugged terrain and remote stretches of moorland, so it’s important to be well equipped.

Even if you don’t want to tackle the entire long-distance route, there are many beautiful day hikes along sections of the Southern Upland Way.  The section between Bargrennan and Dalry, which passes through Galloway Forest Park, is particularly scenic.

Grey Mare’s Tail and Loch Skeen

Southern Scotland Trail leads to Grey Mare's Tail

In the heart of the Moffat Hills, the Grey Mare’s Tail is a beautiful waterfall that cascades 60 metres down from a hanging valley into the main gorge below.

There are several hiking trails in this area, but the most popular (and the one which offers the best view of the waterfall) is the trail which begins at the bottom of the valley and runs up to the tranquil and picturesque Loch Skeen.

The whole route is well maintained and signposted.  As you climb up the steep sides of the gorge, keep an eye out for wild hares, mountain goats, ospreys, eagles and nesting peregrine falcons.

At a little over 5 miles (8 km) roundtrip, the Loch Skeen hike is not particularly long, but the first half is quite steep.  It’s definitely worth the effort though, the views are fantastic.

The Tweed Valley

Tweed valley hikes take you to some forests in the wilds of south Scotland

The Tweed Valley, in south-eastern Scotland, features gentle rolling hills and thick pine forests.  The scenery here is not as dramatic as in Galloway, although there are still many excellent hiking trails and opportunities to escape into nature.  It’s also only an hour’s drive south of Edinburgh, making it an easy day trip from there.

Thornielee Forest is one of the quietest and best places for hiking in the area.  There’s an excellent trail which runs from the main car park up through the forest to a lookout point on top of the hill.  It’s very peaceful and a perfect place for a spot of forest bathing.

Other great spots for hiking in the Tweed Valley include the area around Peebles, Innerleithen, and the Glentress Forest.

Practical Information For Hiking In Southern Scotland

Best time of year to hike in Southern Scotland

Scotland is an amazing place for hiking year-round.  The climate is generally fairly moderate; however, the weather can be very changeable.

Southern Scotland gets far less snow than the Highlands – although in the wintertime, there will probably be snow on the hills and in the mountains.  If you’re planning to go hiking then, prepare accordingly.

The most popular season for hiking is between May and September.  These months are generally the driest (by Scottish standards… it does still rain quite a bit!).  

Unfortunately however, this is also the time of year when you are most likely to be bothered by midges.  These tiny bloodsuckers thrive in mild, still, humid conditions and can be a menace, especially if you’re camping.  Use decent insect repellent (Smidge is a popular brand), and try to avoid pitching your tent right next to still bodies of water, which are their absolute favourite places.

What to pack

Have you ever heard the old saying: “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes”?  This is particularly true in Scotland.  

Pack a decent waterproof jacket year-round, as well as a pair of good waterproof hiking boots.  If you plan to camp, you’ll need to bring the obvious gear, including a tent that’s properly water- and wind-proof as well as a sleeping bag suitable for the time of year.

For hiking in the mountains in winter, be sure to bring enough gear to keep you warm and safe.  The weather in the mountains can change quickly and without warning.  People die in the Scottish mountains every year as a result of not being prepared for the conditions.  Don’t let this be you.

In the more remote regions, facilities are few and far between.  Pack enough food and water, as well as bags to carry away your rubbish.  It’s a good idea also to bring water purification tablets (or a device to purify drinking water), especially if you’ll be wild camping and/or embarking on a multi-day trek.

If you plan to do much hiking in the wilderness, you should definitely pick up an Ordnance Survey map (OS map) of the area.  These are some of the most detailed topographical maps in the world, and show the landscape in an impossible amount of detail.  Contour lines, streams, patches of woodland, buildings, footpaths, coastal trails, even fences and picnic benches.  They are things of true beauty and make navigating a whole lot easier.  A million times better than GPS, plus they never run out of battery!

Where to sleep

This entirely depends on your budget and your preferences.  There is a wide range of accommodation options, from 5-star eco-lodges to simple family-run B&Bs.  

If you have camping gear, why not spend a few nights under the stars.  The remoter parts of southern Scotland have some of the darkest night skies in the UK, with fantastic opportunities for stargazing.  There are decent campsites in all of the areas listed in this article.  Facilities can vary though, so check online and/or call ahead first.

Bothies are basic unlocked shelters – usually old abandoned buildings – which are found in the remote, mountainous areas of Scotland.  They can be a welcome alternative to sleeping in a tent, especially if the weather takes a turn for the worst.  Bothies are free to use, though usually have zero facilities.  Take all rubbish out with you and leave the place as you would wish to find it.

Wild camping

Unlike in the rest of the UK, wild camping in Scotland is legal in most circumstances.  The Scottish Outdoor Access Code sets out some rules which you must comply with, although most of these are common sense.

In essence, they are: 

  • be responsible and respectful, 
  • don’t camp in fields of crops or farm animals, 
  • keep well away from buildings and roads, 
  • ideally don’t light a fire (if you must, be very careful and ensure it’s fully extinguished afterwards), 
  • leave no trace bury all human waste, and take everything else out with you.

Check out this guide for more information on wild camping in Scotland.

Transportation

Much of Scotland is fairly remote – especially the areas that are best for hiking.  As a result, public transport options can be limited.  Most places where there are roads are connected to bus routes, although services often run infrequently.

Having (/hiring) your own car is generally the most straightforward option.  This way, you can either plan circular routes to and from where you park, or park somewhere on a bus route, hike to somewhere else also on the route and take the bus back to your car.  It’s generally fine to leave your car overnight in rural parking spots, though do check for signs to the contrary.

Hiking is a popular pastime in Scotland, and some accommodation providers will offer to drop you off and/or collect you from various points (especially along well-defined trails like the Southern Upland Way) – sometimes for a fee, sometimes not.   A few even offer transfer services to help you move luggage to your next accommodation, though it’s best to check this in advance.

Author Bio

Alex Tiffany is the founder of Just Go Exploring, the ultimate resource for adventure and off-the-beaten-track destinations.  When he is not exploring the hidden-away corners of our beautiful planet, Alex is a keen violinist, hiker, reader, and daydreamer.

Alex’s favourite place in the world for hiking is Sikkim, north-east India.  Check some of Alex’s other hiking-related pieces over on Just Go Exploring.

Wrap Up

We want to thank Alex for such a great overview of wild hiking in Southern Scotland. This gets us excited to explore these areas as thoroughly as he did.

Be sure to check out more of his hiking and outdoor adventures on his website.

In the meantime, while we have you here, we have some great hikes all over the world. Check out our hiking page where we cover some of our own adventures and some that we will be tackling very soon.

And be sure to download your own wild camping checklist. These are the essentials anytime you want to spend some time in the great outdoors. Get away from it all without missing a thing.

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