Planning a visit and want to know what to see on the Isle of Skye? Read on!
Skye is on many people’s list of places to visit in Scotland and it is easy to understand why. It is incredibly beautiful with a dramatic, rugged landscape: tall, craggy mountains; a stunning coastline; wonderful lochs; heather covered hills. Furthermore, it has historic castles, legends about Bonnie Prince Charlie and, of course, a whisky distillery! The Isle of Skye encapsulates the essence of Scotland in one small bite and is one of our favourite places in Scotland. I have set out here what I feel are the best places to see on Skye and how to experience this wonderful Scottish island.
Getting to the Isle of Skye
Access to the island is much easier than it used to be. When we were first up this way in the 80s, the only way to cross to the Isle of Skye was via the ferry. The ferry is still available and the main route is between Mallaig and Armadale. However, with the Skye Bridge at the Kyle of Lochalsh, there is an easy (and free) alternative. The ferry from Mallaig is not particularly expensive (follow the link above for details), however, and using the ferry may be all part of the experience of visiting Skye for many people. (There is another ferry route from Glenelg, but it only runs during the summer months).
Using the bridge when visiting the Isle of Skye has another advantage: the opportunity to check out Eilean Donan castle. The A87 to the bridge goes past the castle and it is definitely worth stopping to look.
So what to see on the Isle of Skye? What is there to do on Skye?
The answer to these questions is quite a lot, especially if you like to hike and enjoy exploring a beautiful landscape. It also helps if you are confident driving on single track roads!
The Fairy Pools
First on the list of what to see on the Isle of Skye is the Fairy Pools, one of the most popular landmarks on Skye. The Fairy Pools is a series of waterfalls cascading into small pools down the hillside. It is very pretty and just a short easy walk from the carpark. Some people go swimming in the pools! Most people just take photos.
It can be very busy at the Fairy Pools – and, when we last visited, also very midgy. If you have not experienced the Scottish midge, beware! They are tiny and vicious and get everywhere. There are numerous concoctions you can use to repel them, but when it is really bad, it is wise to cover up and don these wonderful head accessories as modelled by me here. The height of sartorial elegance!
It was noticeable, however, that once we moved beyond the Fairy Pools, the crowds thinned and then all but disappeared, as did the midges. Is there a correlation? Perhaps. If there are no people, there is no blood for them to feed on!
A Hike in the Cuillins
Hikers visiting Skye will definitely want to hike up into the Cuillins, the rocky mountain range on the island, but it is worth noting that these are serious mountains. There are various routes one can take to explore the Cuillins, but one of the most accessible leads up from the Fairy Pools. There is a low-level loop of about 4.5 miles, which is lovely and, although muddy in places, not difficult. It is also possible to leave this loop trail and hike up into the mountains, returning and then re-joining the loop trail to complete it. This extends the hike by about another 6 miles (much of it up!). I can also now confirm that it is one of the hardest hikes I have done in recent years.
When we did this particular hike, the loop path was quite muddy and waterlogged in places, due of course to the days of rain immediately preceding our trip. We left the loop path to climb towards Bruach na Frithe and at this point, the conditions underfoot change to really quite rough terrain. It is very rocky and hard going. It is also very steep. There are no switchbacks; it is just up….and up! There are two gradients: steep and steeper. The weather changed constantly when we tackled this trail. Sometimes we had lovely sunshine and amazing views; at other times the cloud swept in and we were climbing in fog. At one point we also had to don the waterproofs. On the plus side, the cloud did clear when we reached the top and we had some magnificent views.
Whether viewed from afar or up close, the Cuillins are spectacular: huge, rugged and beautiful. The craggy peaks have quite a mystical look to them: what could be living in there?! This was a very memorable hike, but even though it is billed as one of the easiest ascents in the Cuillins, it is not for the fainthearted. Or perhaps that is just me who needs to get a bit fitter……
The Old Man of Storr
The Old Man of Storr is one of the most popular landmarks and must feature on any list of what to see on the Isle of Skye. The Storr is a craggy hill on the Trotternish Peninsula on the north west of the island and the Old Man of Storr is a distinctive pinnacle which stands proud on the hill. It can be seen for miles around. The hike up to the Old Man of Storr is one of the most popular hikes on Skye.
There is a large pay carpark at the trail head for the Old Man of Storr. Motorhomes and campervans have to park in the parking bays on the road.
The hike up to the Old Man of Storr is fairly straightforward on a well marked path. In fact, there are two paths, one going off to the right and directly up to the Old Man and the other going off to the left and taking a slightly wider arc. Both paths join towards the top, the steepest part of the route, which is actually stepped. The right hand path, for reasons I cannot fathom, is always busy, a regular motorway of hikers. The left hand path, certainly when we have been there, is usually empty. We were there very recently and heading up the left hand side we saw only one other couple the whole way up and they were walking down!
The views of the Old Man of Storr are wonderful. It takes a little over 30 mins to hike up to the Old Man. Most people just head up to the pinnacle, but it is worth going around the back and seeing it from different angles. It looks different from every direction. There is a hill a short distance past the Old Man and again, climbing this gives another perspective.
We had allocated the day to this hike as Peter wanted to climb The Storr itself. Very few people hike the whole way; in fact, we saw only two other people on the summit when we were there and it was a lovely, sunny day. There are different routes one can take up The Storr, but we went up the ridge. It was challenging! Very steep in places with some scrambling required, but was well worth it. The views looking down on the Old Man are wonderful and the outlook across the island to the Cuillins is magnificent.
At the top of The Storr, we were surprised to find a grassy meadow, perfect for a picnic!
We chose a rather easier, shallower route down!
Hike the Quiraing
The Quiraing is another of the most popular hikes on the Isle of Skye, not as challenging as hiking up The Storr or into the Cuillins, but not to be dismissed as an easy stroll by any means. It is described as a “moderate” walk on the information board, but Skye operates a different scale of difficulty to the rest of the UK! I would say this is a moderate to challenging hike. The entire loop takes about three hours.
The Quiraing is a landslip on the Trotternish peninsular at the northern most tip of Skye. There is a large carpark at the trailhead and it seems to be always busy, although we had no problems finding space. Make sure you pay the correct fee and also park in the appropriate space for you vehicle; we saw several vehicles with parking tickets!
The trail around the Quiraing seemed to be quite busy for the first half mile when we tackled it recently, but then crowds seemed to disappear and there were far fewer people on the rest of the loop. The first section of the trail traverses the hill along a fairly narrow ridge.
The rocky terrain and the views back across Skye are wonderful. There is a fair bit of up and down but the steepest section is at the far end of the loop.
There is a bit of an optional detour here out to the cliff overlooking the coast or one can just stay on the loop trail and head up to the summit.
This section of the trail was quite muddy when we visited. It was tricky enough in hiking boots, but I did feel sorry for the young woman in the white flatties: they must have been completely ruined!
The path down the other side was also muddy and the trail had eroded in places. As it is quite steep, this made the downhill section quite tricky too.
I am not quite sure why, but I thought the hike around the Quiraing was aimed at casual walkers looking to enjoy the views and was going to be relatively easy. It is not easy, but the views are wonderful. It is a reasonably challenging hike and I would definitely recommend hiking boots.
It was a rather grey day when we decided to scoot over to the village of Elgol. One has to be prepared to do things in the rain on Skye! Elgol is on at the end of the Strathaird Peninsula, one of the most remote spots on Skye. It is very beautiful with stunning views across the loch to the Cuillins and even on this rather bleak, windy day, it was still possible to see how beautiful it is.
Most of Elgol was closed when we were there and the boat trips were not running because of the weather. However, the café behind the community hall was open and we had a very acceptable coffee and scone there. Then we had to brave the elements again and we got well and truly soaked!
Neist Point is an absolute highlight on any visit to Skye, but on the most westerly tip of the island, it is about as remote and as wild as can be imagined on a grey, blustery day. Several miles of twisty, single track road brings one to the point where the lighthouse is situated. When we visited a couple of years ago, the wind was howling! Not having a hat with me, I refused to take off my motorbike helmet as it was so cold and windy. Looking down to the point from near the carpark, I had to hang on to the railings to stop myself from being blown away. Wow!
Unfortunately, these conditions meant that it was not advisable to actually walk along the cliff to the lighthouse, but the coast and the cliffs here are spectacular, so it was by no means a wasted journey.
By contrast, when we visited Neist Point again more recently, the sun was shining and there was just a bit of a breeze. So different!
Neist Point really is a “must see” on Skye, despite the conditions and the challenges of getting there.
One of the campsites at which we have stayed (see below) is Kinloch and this is very close to Dunvegan Castle. It was our intention to tour the castle when we stayed at Kinloch, but when we arrived, the queue for admission tickets was incredibly long so we gave up, I am afraid. We visited the castle about ten years ago and really enjoyed it. For this reason, we wanted to visit again, but it was also the reason that we felt we could pass on this occasion.
Built originally in the thirteenth century and re-modelled several times since, the castle is very picturesque and certainly worth visiting. Like everything else on Skye, however, you really have to choose your time and book ahead. We now know that tickets can be booked online ahead of time.
Talisker Whisky Distillery
We love visiting whisky distilleries in Scotland and the Talisker Whisky Distillery therefore was definitely on our agenda on our visit to Skye a couple of years ago. However, we miscalculated! We cycled down to the distillery from where we were staying at the time. This was a good move as the carpark was very busy. We arrived early afternoon and the place was crowded. All the tours for the rest of the day were fully booked and the visitor centre was crammed full. We shared a dram of a very tasty, mildly peated whisky which had been finished in a port barrel, but there were no seats available to sit and enjoy it.
As with most distilleries, Talisker is set in a beautiful location looking out over the loch. The building itself is very attractive. The inside of the visitor centre is also really well appointed and the information boards are well structured. However, it is the busiest distillery we have visited – and we have visited many ( On the Whisky Trail and On the Whisky Trail again!). The advice has to be to choose your time, perhaps not on an afternoon in August, and book ahead if you really want to see around the distillery – or you could just sample the whisky as we did!
Portree is the main town on the Isle of Skye. It is built around a working harbour and the town itself is very pretty. The high street is characterful and the harbour area in particular has a wonderful vibe, just great for wandering around. Lots of people stay in Portree when visiting Skye and it is easy to see why.
The Three Chimneys Restaurant
The Three Chimneys Restaurant has consistently earned wonderful reviews for several years. Naturally, we wanted to see for ourselves. We were not disappointed. In fact, we have eaten there a couple of times now and can confirm that the food here really is wonderful.
From the outside, The Three Chimneys looks like a rather quaint cottage. The three chimneys, presumably from which the restaurant acquired its name, are clearly visible.
Inside, the cottage style is continued. The furnishings and décor are simple and in keeping with the building and the surroundings. It feels warm and welcoming,
The food is beautifully presented in a well-structured, imaginative menu. The flavours and textures of each course complement each other perfectly. The ingredients are all locally sourced and seafood features prominently, as one might expect. A word of warning: be careful not to fill up and the scrumptious breads and butters which are presented at the start of the meal!
We have thoroughly enjoyed both our visits to The Three Chimneys and can highly recommend. However, if you do wish to visit, booking ahead is absolutely essential. When we visited most recently, we booked a month ahead for lunch and had to be flexible with our dates.
Visiting Skye in a motorhome or campervan
I have visited Skye several times in the past, but most recently we were in a motorhome and on the last occasion a campervan. Motorhomes and campervans are extremely popular ways to explore Skye, but it is worth noting that some of the roads on Skye are single track and can be quite busy at popular landmarks. Manoeuvring a large vehicle can prove difficult at these times. When we took the motorhome, we also had Scooty MacScootface, the tiny Honda Vision scooter which fits in the back of the motorhome. This was perfect for the single track roads on Skye and meant that we did not have to take the motorhome out once we had made camp. The small VW campervan was this easier on the narrow roads.
Campsites on Skye
We have stayed at several campsites on Skye and certainly in the peak season advanced booking is necessary. Some people do “wild camp” but we have not done so on Skye. I imagine at busy times it could be quite stressful trying to find an appropriate place to make camp whilst observing the etiquette of wild camping.
We have stayed on three different campsites on Skye:
Merkadale CL (certified location)
Merkadale is a tiny, 5 pitch site near Carbost and only available to Caravan and Motorhome Club members. When we stayed there, it had everything we needed and nothing we didn’t. It has showers and toilets, but we were in the motorhome and did not use them. This site has lovely views down the loch and is very quiet. It is also situated just about a mile from the Talisker whisky distillery! At £16.00 per night including a hook up, we felt this was good value.
Staffin Caravan and Camping Site
Staffin is a small site at the north west of the island and just a few miles from the Old Man of Storr. The pitches are well spaced and most have hook ups.
The shower block is a bit tight – just three loos for women and two showers. The showers are very short on space so that the shower curtain sticks to wet bodies. When we were there there was no mat or soap holder and just one hook for clothes in the cubicles.
It is possible walk over the fields to the beach and see the dinosaur footprints from the site, but the round trip took about an hour and a half. (We were quite excited to go on the dinosaur footprint hunt, but to be honest, had it not been for a 7 year old local who had visited recently with his school, I think we would have been struggling to identify them!)
Kinloch Campsite at Dunvegan
Kinloch is our favourite of all the campsites we have visited on Skye. It is beautifully situated on the very edge of the loch with wonderful views. Kinloch is a larger site with amenities like a shower block and a laundry. There are plenty of showers which are well kitted out with soap holders and mats etc. The toilets and showers have always been clean when we have stayed. There are sites with hookups and sites without, as well as plenty of space for tents. On our most recent visit there was a food van situated at the entrance to the site and we had some very acceptable fish tacos!
Skye weather – in fact, Scottish weather!
We have been drenched more than once on Skye and been in the camper with the wind howling. However, we have also had blue skies and sunshine! In short, be prepared for all 4 seasons in a day!
Concluding comments on visiting Skye
Visiting anywhere in Scotland at any time of year requires one to be prepared for all weather conditions. This is especially true of Skye. There are plenty of things to do and lots of places to see on Skye in the rain if you have the right clothing. It is fantastic when the sun shines, but it would be a very lucky visitor who did not experience a range of weather conditions if on the island for a few days.
Skye is one of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world. I love it. But, (there had to be a “but”, I’m afraid)….. it has become a victim of its own success in recent years. The roads to the most popular spots can get very crowded and the trails likewise. Does this spoil the experience of visiting Skye? Perhaps. A little. No more so than other places on the tourist trail across the world. Everyone wants to experience these fabulous places, but does that spoil them? Is there a solution? I am about to explore this dilemma in a separate post. Watch this space!
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