As a long-term Harry Potter fan, I was insanely excited to see the Hogwarts Express train at Glenfinnan Viaduct in Scotland.
You know when you build an experience up in your mind, and it ends up being disappointing because it’s not what you thought it would be in real life? I was a little worried that this would be one of those experiences, but watching the Jacobite steam train make its way over Glenfinnan Viaduct was every bit as magical as I hoped it would be!
As soon as I spotted the hints of steam billowing in the distance, I nearly squealed in excitement. The train came through the valley and tooted its horn on approach, and then slowed down as it crossed the bridge to let everyone at the viewpoints snap a few photos. All the kids (and some adults!) on the train waved at us as they passed by, then the train disappeared behind a hill as it journeyed towards Glenfinnan Station for its next stop.
When researching activities for our Scotland road trip, I struggled to find useful information on the best way to see the Jacobite steam train as it crosses Glenfinnan Viaduct. Here’s a rundown of my experience along with tips on how to see it for yourself!
How to get to Glenfinnan Viaduct:
Glenfinnan is easiest to access from the town of Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. If you’ll be driving, the journey from Fort William takes about 30 minutes.
You can also catch a public bus from Fort William to the Glenfinnan Visitor Center, or a train from Fort William to Glenfinnan Station, though do keep in mind that these options are fairly infrequent.
When to be there:
The Glenfinnan Viaduct train timetable changes depending on the season, so be sure to check the schedule before you go. Throughout the summer months (June to September) there will usually be two daily services – a morning service and an afternoon service. In the shoulder months (April, May, and October), it might be just a morning service.
As per the current timetable, the morning service departs Fort William at 10:15 AM, and the afternoon service departs at 2:30 PM. The train should cross the viaduct around 30-40 minutes after it departs Fort William. You can also see the train cross the viaduct on its way back from Mallaig – this should happen about 45 minutes before the train is due back in Fort William.
To ensure you have time to find a parking spot and walk to one of the viewpoints without missing the train, plan to arrive at Glenfinnan at least 30 minutes early.
Where to park:
There are multiple parking lots to choose from, which I’ve marked as P’s on the above Glenfinnan Viaduct map. Some are paid parking, and some are free. If you’re driving from Fort William, the first one is the Glenfinnan Visitor Center car park, which is on your right as you drive in from Fort William. This car park is also closest to viewpoint 2 on the map. I’d suggest trying this one first, but if there are no spots, keep driving along the main road.
There will be another small car park on your right which is located at the trailhead to the viaduct and viewpoint 1, but this one will fill up first and is very small, so you probably shouldn’t bother attempting to get a spot here unless you plan to arrive super early.
The parking lot that we ended up using was about 100 metres further along the road on the left. It was a small gravel parking lot for a local church that could fit around a dozen cars. It did have a sign out front requesting that people keep the car park clear, but it filled up with people like us who wanted to use it for an hour to see the train. We walked back down along the road to the trailhead from here.
The last two parking options are at Glenfinnan rail station. This is a lot further away from the viewpoints, but if you’re interested in incorporating a short hike into your Hogwarts Express experience, then there’s a walking path from here to viewpoint 1. I’m not entirely sure how long it takes, but I think I read somewhere that it’s about 45 minutes.
Getting to the viewpoint:
The parking lot at the bottom of the valley has a gated driveway at the back which leads to the base of the viaduct. It’s about a 10 minute walk, then you’ll come across a signpost pointing left to a dirt path (which can be muddy so bring appropriate footwear). It’s another 5 minute walk uphill.
The Glenfinnan Viaduct viewpoint is not defined as a particular spot along the path, so you can settle anywhere. There will probably be a few tourists already waiting for the train to come by, but luckily there’s plenty of space so you shouldn’t have trouble finding a good viewing spot.
The walking path does continue up the hill, so if you want to avoid the crowds, you might come across a few more good viewing spots if you walk a bit further. Rob explored up there and said he had a slightly more elevated view of the viaduct.
We were aiming to see the train on its morning service, so we arrived at the viewpoint around 10:30 and waited 15-20 minutes for the train to come by. It appeared in the valley around 10:50 AM, then took a few minutes to slowly make its way over the bridge.
Other Glenfinnan viewpoints:
There is a second viewpoint (number 2 on my map) located near the visitor center. I’ve seen photos that were taken from this viewpoint, and while the viaduct still looks lovely, I’d argue that the view is not quite as good as you’re further away from the action. If you do end up choosing this one, it would be a good idea to take a telephoto lens for your camera.
Riding the Jacobite steam train:
Of course, you can also choose to ride the Jacobite steam train instead of seeing it from the viewpoints at Glenfinnan. I chose not to do this as the return journey from Fort William to Mallaig and back takes a good 6 hours, but if you have the time, I’m sure this would be a great experience! A standard return ticket costs £35.00 per adult and can be booked through the West Coast Railways website.
Other experiences at Glenfinnan:
Glenfinnan Station has a totally adorable dining car cafe. We drove up here afterwards and stopped in at the cafe for coffee and scones, arriving just as the steam train was pulling away from the station.
There is a small museum and gift shop inside the station itself. While we didn’t go in, it might be worthwhile if you want to learn more about the history of the viaduct and train.
You can also do a short cruise from Glenfinnan to see the Harry Potter filming locations and get an explanation of the area’s history.