Skiing in Scotland sometimes gets a bad rap, for reasons that even its greatest advocates would have to concede are valid. There's no way around the fact that Scotland's ski resorts are small compared to those in the Alps, the weather can be crap (if you'll excuse our French), and there's sometimes not enough snow for them to stay open, especially at the beginning and end of the ski season.
Anyone who's ever been skiing or snowboarding in Scotland will have tales of hopping over patches of heather on the piste, or simply having to sit out a few hours because it's started raining—horizontally—out of nowhere. And yet those same people (including us here at SNOW) will often tell that there's also something really special about skiing in Scotland.
It's not just the novelty of not having to leave the UK—there's a vibe to Scottish ski resorts that's unlike anywhere else on the planet. On a practical level, English speaking ski schools and affordable equipment hire make learning to ski in Scotland easy. And when it's on, and the weather is good, the skiing in Scotland can be genuinely world class. There's excellent ski touring, with extensive tracts of largely empty backcountry, and terrain that gets pretty steep and gnarly in places.
Plus, there's an après scene that rivals any in the Alps. Who wouldn't, if they were completely honest, rather raise a glass of whisky at the end of the day than grappa or genepi?
In any case, comparing Scotland's snow sports facilities to the best ski resorts in France, Italy or Austria is like comparing apples to oranges. They're not catering to the same market—their appeal lies elsewhere. If you're expecting long leisurely blue runs under perfectly blue skies, the continent has got you well covered.
But if you want the adventure of exploring some of the wildest, oldest, and most stunning mountains on Earth, all for a fraction of the price you'd spend in the Alps—and with fraction of the carbon footprint—then we'd highly recommend a visit to one of the five main ski resorts in Scotland.
Nevis Range Mountain Resort
The western-most ski resort in Scotland's ski resorts, Nevis Range Mountain Resort, as the name implies, is part of the same range as the UK's highest mountain, Ben Nevis. The relatively modern Nevis Range Mountain gondola carries skiers up from the carpark to the Snowgoose restaurant beneath the peak of Aonach Mòr. From here, button lifts, T-bars, and a quad chair, carry you to the blue, red and black pistes that run down the north face of the mountain. At the top, the terrain flattens out a bit and the summit button—from where you'll get stunning views over Loch Linhe and Loch Eil on a good day—accesses a couple of mellow blues, and the terrain park.
The main attraction at Nevis Range, however, is the eastern flank of the Aonach Mòr, in the area known as the Back Corries. Here, several off-piste itineraries snake down towards the Braveheart chair, offering tight couloirs and some of the best backcountry skiing in Scotland. Get here the day after a dump and you'll have a true taste of what ski resorts in Scotland can offer.
Most people riding at Nevis Range stay in the town of Fort William, on the shores of Lake Linhe. Officially known as 'the outdoor capital of the UK' (and less officially as Fort Bill), Fort William has a bunch of great pubs, some vibey restaurants and several climbing and skiing shops. We'd recommend the recently-opened Rain Bakery for coffees and pastries in the morning, and the Black Isle Brewery bar, for craft beers pizza at night.
Glencoe Mountain Resort
Like Nevis Range, Glencoe Mountain Resort, on the west coast of Scotland, is easily accessible from Fort William, and most visitors choose to stay in town. But the first thing you'll notice when you pull up into the carpark is the row of miniature, Hobbit-like huts off to one side, which can be rented out by the night. If you're keen for an early start, and not bothered about a lack of après ski atmosphere (or happy to create your own) it's a great place to base yourself.
Glencoe is the oldest ski resort in Scotland, having opened its first permanent rope tow back in 1956. (Before that, downhill skiing in Scotland was the preserve of clubs operating temporary lifts). These days, the ski slopes are accessed by a main chairlift, which takes you up to a high plateau, where a series of smaller buttons and T-Bars whisk you off to a variety of different green, blue and red runs. The difference here is that unlike Nevis Range, you can ski all the way down to the car park (snow permitting) and the lengthy un-pisted red trail which turns off Rankin's Return (a green) towards the base station is arguably the resort's best run.
The beginner slopes are mellow, easily accessible and varied and like all Scottish ski centres, Glencoe Mountain offers equipment hire and ski lessons for beginners. As ski centres go, Glencoe isn't the largest, or the highest, but it's a great jumping off point for backcountry adventures, and on a clear winter's day, the view from the top, looking out over the eponymous glen and beyond, is one of the most stunning anywhere in the UK.
Cairngorm Mountain, the ski resort outside the highland town of Aviemore, is the proud holder of the title of highest ski resort in the UK, with a top lift that carries skiers up to a lofty 1,230m above sea level. Located in the middle of the Cairngorms National Park, the resort has a wide range of runs to suit all ability levels, from easy greens and cruisey blues right up to some serious off-piste itineraries.
There's a beginner area near the bottom, with a snow factory to ensure decent coverage and a couple of magic carpet lifts. But most skiers will want to hop on the funicular railway which takes you from car park up to the Ptarmigan Café, where you can ski to a range of different poma lifts and T-bars. If they're prepared to hike a bit, advanced skiers can find fun lines off the head wall.
If you're into ski touring (and have the right knowledge and equipment to head out of bounds) you can find some of the best backcountry skiing in the UK in the next bowl over. When they're on, Aladdin's Couloir and it's gnarlier cousin, Aladdin's Mirror (which requires near-perfect conditions) rival anything you'd find in the Alps.
Cairngorm Mountain might be famous for the wooden fences installed to stop the snow blowing away in high winds. But it's also one of the most reliable resorts for snow in the country. In good years, the ski season can run from December into late April or even early May. There's usually a good snow park at the resort too, with decent rails, and if the snow's good enough, some sizeable kickers. At one stage, the Ptarmigan snow park even had a full-blown, machine cut half pipe.
If nordic skiing is your thing, the area around Cairngorm Mountain is probably the best ski resort in Scotland to come to as well. There's a great network of cross country ski trails around Glenmore, and Loch Morlich, cut by Cairngorm Biathlon and Nordic Ski Club. Their mini piste basher has an attachment which can cut classic cross country ski tracks as well as the wider skating tracks.
Most people visiting Cairngorm Mountain choose to stay in Aviemore, which has everything you'd want from a proper Scottish mountain town. There are several outdoor shops (including a branch of Ellis Brigham), various places offering equipment rental, some decent pubs (the Skiing Doo is great for après) and even a brilliant, sticky-floored night club, The Vault.
The Cairngorm Hotel in the centre is a neo-gothic Victorian building with a decent restaurant and nice rooms. But the pick of the bunch for food, drink, and atmosphere in our book is the Old Bridge Inn, on the outskirts of town. They have rooms to rent in a bunkhouse on site, too.
The Lecht Ski Centre
On the eastern side of the Cairngorms National Park, the Lecht Ski Centre, or The Lecht 2090, to give it its full title, is the smallest of the Scottish Highlands ski resorts. But what it perhaps lacks in terms of size and vertical drop, the Lecht more than makes up for in terms of vibe.
It has a reputation as one of the best ski resorts in Scotland for snowboarding and freestyle skiing, with a terrain park that always punches above its weight, thanks to its innovative rails and well-shaped kickers. As such, Ski Lecht attracts a lively freestyle scene, with lots of freeskiers and snowboarders making the trek up from nearby Aberdeen. The UK's most promising young freestyle skier Kirsty Muir, who recently bagged top 10 finishes in both Big Air and Slopestyle at the Beijing Olympics, might have cut her teeth on the Aberdeen dryslope— but it was the Lecht where she first started trying her tricks on real snow.
It's a popular ski resort for people just getting into winter sports too, with slopes that are a manageable size, all feeding down towards the car park. There's a dedicated beginner area right next to the car park too.
If you're coming from further afield than Aberdeen and looking for somewhere to stay, the nearest options are the handful of hotels in Tomintoul, but you're probably better off heading a little bit further to Speybridge. Alternatively you could stay in Aviemore, and string the Lecht together as part of an extended Scottish highlands ski trip, with a day either side in Cairngorm Mountain and Glenshee. Either way, if you're heading to the highlands, it's well worth a visit.
Glenshee Ski Centre
The Glenshee Ski Centre boasts the largest ski area in Scotland. Spreading up the mountain from either side of the A93—the highest A road in the UK, no less—as it snakes over the Cairnwell Pass, Glenshee's three chairlifts, and 18 drag lifts offer access to some 40km of pistes, spread over 790 hectares of in-bounds terrain.
In terms of the altitude of its slopes, Glenshee isn't as high as Caringorm Mountain or Nevis Range (the highest peak in this part of the Cairngorm is Glas Maol, is 1,068m above sea level, some 300m lower than Ben Nevis) but reasonably reliable conditions ensure a similarly long ski season that normally runs from December into April. (As with all ski areas in Scotland, opening dates for each winter season are very much weather dependent, so be sure to check the website and web cams if you're planning an early or late season trip).
The best thing about Glenshee vs. Scotland's other ski areas is the variety on offer. On the western side of the road there are some really nice easy green runs (including the bunny run, one of the longest green runs in the UK). There are also a handful of fun reds and blues (check out the gully run, and the nearby gully drop) and a rail park for freestyle skiers and snowboarders too. There's even a short black run too, called The Tiger.
The bulk of the challenging skiing and snowboarding is on the eastern side of the pass, however. The Coire Fionn bowl and the runs off the Glas Maol chairlift boast some decent steeps, and when the snow's good, there's some really great, easy access backcountry skiing and snowboarding to be had around this zone.
As well as allowing other winter sports like sledging, the resort management have introduced a specific ski tourers pass, making Glenshee a popular destination for backcountry skiers and snowboarders from nearby Aberdeen and Dundee. The £15 ski touring ticket gives you three single uplifts, and permission to descend on the groomed slopes, should you wish.
There are a handful of hotels in Spittal of Glenshee, the small village that's a 10 minute drive away from the resort. Otherwise, both Aberdeen and Dundee, beyond the borders of the Cairngorms National Park, have tons of options.