Galloway Forest Park is in Dumfries and Galloway, south-west Scotland. Because of its rugged, beautiful terrain, this part of the country’s known as “the Highlands of the Lowlands”. Dumfries and Galloway even has its own version of the Highland Games, and if you’re travelling up from England it’s easier to access than the actual Highlands. To get there from the south, you head north from Carlisle, cross the border into Scotland, and travel west for just over an hour.
At over 300 square miles (75,000 hectares), Galloway is the largest forest in the UK. Although the Forestry Commission established it in 1947 as a ‘managed’ forest for the harvesting of timber, it still has the wild, slightly spooky feel you only get in larger swathes of woodland. Over the years visitor attractions have sprung up in and around the forest, so it’s slowly turning into a tourist destination – but one with a very unspoilt feel.
Here are some suggestions on what to do in Galloway Forest Park, as well things to do in Dumfries and Galloway that are close to the Forest.
Go wildlife-spotting in the forest
There are scores of established walks in Dumfries and Galloway. Some of the most interesting routes take you through, or along the borders of Galloway Forest Park. The Forestry Commission has some suggestions of picturesque Galloway Forest Park walks here. The more gentle ambles stop off at one of the three Forestry Commission visitor centres.
You don’t have to go far into the forest to see and hear evidence of wild creatures. Rustlings, and the sounds of small animals skittering through the undergrowth, are almost constant when you take a quiet stroll.
It’s not just wild rabbits, red squirrels and kites, which you can see along the red kite trail in the Park. Red and roe deer roam freely, and it’s not uncommon to see stoats. Ospreys nest in the vicinity. One place where they recently nested, and where visitors can watch them through binoculars, is Threave Castle. If you’re lucky, you might even see a white-tailed sea eagle. The area in and around Galloway Forest Park really is a haven for some of the finest wildlife the British Isles can offer.
Our favourite was the family of rabbits, whose babies regularly hopped out to nibble grass and shrubs just outside the window of our forest cottage.
Try a spot of wild camping
In Scotland the Right to Roam allows people to camp responsibly on any land (with some exceptions – people’s gardens, for instance). Wild camping is permitted in the Galloway Forest, although campers must be responsible, and follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. So: bury your waste when you go to the toilet, don’t use the forest’s wood for fires (take a stove instead), and always take away your rubbish.
If you’re daunted by the thought of Galloway Forest Park wild camping, there are plenty of ways to make it more comfortable. A decent tent, and airbeds always help. There are bothies in the Forest, which offer basic shelter. If you want something a little less wild, several campsites nearby offer running water, showers and even caravans to sleep in. There’s a list of caravan and campsites here.
Check out the best Dark Skies in the country
Galloway Forest Park was the first area in the UK to be named a Dark Sky Park. This means there’s little or no light pollution, so you can see the stars better than in other parts of the country. On a clear night, almost 3000 stars twinkle overhead. Any of the Park’s three visitor centres give great views, especially Clatteringshaws, which is furthest from any light.
The Scottish Dark Sky Observatory, close to Loch Doon, off the A713, near Dalmellington, offers star-spotting sessions and astronomy presentations. Visitors have to pre-book these sessions at the Observatory, which received a certificate of excellence from Tripadvisor in 2016. A 90-minute evening session of star-spotting and astronomy presentations costs £16 per adult and £10 per child.
Make chocolate at the Cocoabean Company
You can read my full post about the Cocoabean Company here. It’s on the outskirts of Twynholm, a small town about a 20-minute drive from Galloway Forest. At Cocoabean’s factory they run regular chocolate-making workshops for children aged three to eighteen, as well as special sessions for adults. In the 45-minute sessions, children take molten chocolate and pour, swirl and pat it into into moulds of their choice. The Cocoabean Company also has a cafe and a large outdoor play area, as well as an indoor soft play space for youger childen.
Let off some steam at Cream O’Galloway
Cream O’Galloway (Cream of Galloway) is perhaps the largest family-friendly visitor attraction in this area, and it’s one of the best places to visit in Dumfries and Galloway if you want to wear out active kids. Cream O’Galloway’s a 40-minute drive from Galloway Forest. There’s a huge outdoor play area, including a woodland adventure playground; Go Boing, a large playpark with netting where children can bounce among the treetops; and go karts, zip lines and a slide with a 5-second drop.
As well as all the exhilarating play, visitors can go on a tour of the working Finlay’s Farm, where Cream O’Galloway ice cream’s made. We tried cranachan, vanilla and toffee flavours when we visited – they were scrumptious.
Cream O’Galloway is at Rainton, Gatehouse of Fleet, Castle Douglas DG7 2DR. It’s open at weekends, and daily during school holidays. The centre closes down in December and some of November.
Visit some lochs
Galloway Forest isn’t all trees. 250 lochs hide within its 300 square miles. Loch Trool is perhaps the most picturesque, and is near the trailhead for the world-famous 7 stanes mountain bike trails. Fishing enthusiasts will find several places to catch pike, perch, roach and other fish. You do need a licence, though, and fishing’s restricted to certain times of year. Not all lochs are open for fishing. You can find out more here.
Challenge yourself at the Galloway Activity Centre, Loch Ken
If you want to take the loch-based adventures even further, then the Galloway Activity Centre at Loch Ken is the place to go. Loch Ken activity centre runs family activity days with sailing, windsurfing, archery, SUP, climbing, biking and more. Visitors can stay on the beautiful banks of Loch Ken, in the centre’s campsite or in one of its yurts, eco bothies or lochside cabins.
The Galloway Activity Centre is near Parton, Castle Douglas, Dumfries & Galloway DG7 3NQ
See some flora and fauna
The majority of Galloway Forest Park’s trees are evergreen, but you’ll also see birch, beech and larch trees on the hills and moorland. If the Forest’s one million trees don’t make you gasp, there’s also the comforting, subtle beauty of heather, gorse and broom. As the seasons change, snowdrops and then bluebells spring up. One thing to watch out for is the thistles. They’re pretty enough, but fierce and prickly when picked.
Look out for midges
Ah, yes. There had to be a downside. Midges (or midgies, depending on where you come from) are the scourge of Scottish summers. Depending on the climate and where you are in the Lowlands, you might need to think twice about taking off your jumper and exposing your arms, especially in the evening. Avon’s Skin So Soft is renowned as a repellent, although Avon deny deliberately using any bug-repelling properties. But rumour has it that even soldiers buy the stuff to keep midges at bay.
Have you heard of the Galloway Forest Park?
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