Hiking to the end of the world: the Skye Trail

This article was first published on UK Hillwalking.


There are a few places in the world that, even after one short visit, have the ability to steal a little piece of your heart. The Isle od Skye is for sure one of them: a remote island off the coast of North-West Scotland, connected to the mainland only by a thin road and immersed in a special, almost magical, atmosphere.

The first time I went there it was right at the end of winter, four years ago. The highest peaks were still wearing their winter coat, but down by the sea the air was definitely trying to tell me that spring was on its way. I had been wanting to visit the place for a long time, but the opportunity never came until then. I spent two days on the island with a friend, we slept in a bothy on the northernmost point of the island and combined hiking with some beach exploring and a little whiskey drinking. I was hooked, and I left knowing that I was going to be back soon.

I only had to wait a few months before I was able to go back, but this time it was going to be a different experience altogether. I would have had the chance of discovering the island on foot and at a slow pace, leading a group of clients along what’s known as the Skye Trail, one of Scotland’s many long distance trekking routes. Want to know more? Here’s how it went.

Following the coast on the way to Elgol

About the trek

The Sky Trail is a relatively new entry in the list of long distance trails in Scotland, and unlike many other routes it is not waymarked. This makes it slightly more complicated than others, as decent navigation skills are necessary to be able to find the right way, and not so appealing to beginners. The trek covers 128 km (80 mi) from the southern town of Broadford to Rubha Hunish, the northernmost point of the island. It crosses all sorts of different terrain and landscapes, from the coast to the mountains and remote glens, connecting some of the most iconic spots.

As I already mentioned above, the trek is not waymarked and it requires good navigational skills. In certain sections the path is not obvious, if not absent altogether, making the hike more challenging but also more interesting at the same time. There’s only a couple of sections of the trek that are totally committing (Glen Sligachan and the Trotternish Ridge), whereas everywhere else there’s always an escape route, and the hiker is never too far from a road. The maps needed to cover the entirety of the trek are OS Explorer 1:25000 n. 408, 410, 411 and 412 or OS Landranger 1:50000 23 and 32.

Logistics and equipment

Logistics wise, the best and easiest way to walk the Skye Trail is with a tent, and camping along the way. Wild camping is allowed in Scotland, as long as common sense is used and certain unwritten rules are followed (such as avoiding to camp directly on the side of the road or in someone’s garden, and abiding to the Leave no Trace principles), but there’s also a few campsites along the way that can be used. If you’d rather not camp, however, it’s also possible to use hostels and Bed&Breakfasts, but this would require some more planning. There are a couple of stages where accommodation is not available at the end of the day, so a pick up and a drop off for the next day would have to be arranged either with the accommodation owner or a taxi company.

In terms of equipment, what you need will depend on the type of accommodation that you choose. If you’re camping you’ll need a tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat, cooking equipment and food. This could be topped up as you walk through some of the towns and villages on the trek, but it would have to be planned in advance. If you choose not to camp, on the other hand, all you’ll need would be your personal equipment for a day hike and some food for lunch. It’s always a good idea to carry some emergency equipment such as a first aid kit and a group shelter, as well as some extra food and warm layers. And of course a waterproof jacket and overtrousers cannot be missing from the bag of anyone who’s embarking on the Skye Trail.

In terms of footwear I would recommend good waterproof boots with ankle support, so that you’ll be protected in all kinds of weather and on different types of terrain.

The small village of Elgol in the distance

The trip

Day 1 – Broadford to Torrin

Distance: 20 km

Have you ever heard of the infamous Scottish weather? Well, my group and I didn’t have to wait long before we could experience it first hand. Our week started with heavy rain, mist and wind, but this was not enough to discourage us. We set off from Broadford and walked south to the shores of Loch Eishort, and then continued along the coast to the small village of Torrin. Today’s route was a good introduction to the trek, with rough and faint paths over breathtaking sea cliffs. The spirits were high and the group strong, and we couldn’t wait to discover more.

Day 2 – Torrin to Elgol

Distance: 16,5 km

The weather seemed to promise something better for today, and we started our walk with a glimpse of sunshine: a true rarity in the north-west Highlands. We walked from Torrin to Loch Slapin and all the way around to the Bla Bheinn car park. From here we cut through forests and fields around the headland, and joined a minor road which led us to the small village of Elgol.

Eager to see some wildlife, we kept our eyes open today and managed to catch a glimpse of a red kite, one fo the many birds of prey that inhabits the island’s skies. But the highlight of the day was another, and it didn’t have anything to do with wildlife. Towards the end of the day we came across a house with a sign which couldn’t be ignored: fresh homemade ice cream. We stopped, and a lovely couple gave us all a tub of their amazing ice cream, which gave us the energy to finish the walk for the day.

Glenn Sligachan

Day 3 – Elgol to Sligachan

Distance: 18 km

Day three was by far one of the most scenic days on the trek as well as one of the longest. It started off on a pretty narrow path that cuts the sea cliff connecting Elgol with Camasunary: a beautiful section of the trail but not to be underestimated. Once at Camasunary we couldn’t skip a visit to the very well maintained bothy, and we took the opportunity to have lunch inside.

After lunch we entered what is known as Glen Sligachan, a long and narrow valley between Bla Bheinn and the Red Hills on one side and the Cuillin Hills on the other. This is one of the most remote sections of the trail and certainly one of the wildest, and we were able to spot many red deer along the way.

At the end of the valley our efforts were rewarded with a pint and a lovely meal: the perfect end to a beautiful day.

The Cuillin Hills from Glenn Sligachan

Day 4 – Sligachan to Portree

Distance: 19 km

After yesterday we needed a shorter day, and the walk from Sligachan to Portree gave us a chance to rest. We started off road, on a path that followed the shore of Loch Sligachan all the way to the village of Peinachorrain. From here we started walking north towards Portree, the main town of the island.

On the second part of the day, unfortunately, the trail followed some minor tarmac roads which gave us some pretty sore feet. But, as we reached the halfway point of our journey, we soon forgot about it and went to celebrate with a “wee dram” of whiskey, a tradition here in Scotland.

Day 5 – Portree to the Storr

Distance: 14 km

After a good rest in Portree, we left the town behind and started walking along the coast following the cliffs north. This section of the trail gave us stunning views over Rasay, Rona and the Torridon hills in the distance, as well as amazing views of the Skye coastline. The walk along the pathless clifftops was pleasant, and definitely easier underfoot than the previous day.

This was also another successful day on the wildlife front. First a buzzard started circling above our heads, easily recognised by its unmistakable call. But what really made our day was a sea eagle, which we could only see for a fraction of a second, flying off from the cliff side and around the corner.

The day then ended by the Storr car park and the incredible rock formation of the Old Man of Storr, where our transfer was waiting for us to take us back to Portree for the night.

Rubha Hunish, the end of the trail

Day 6 – Storr to the Quiraing car park

Distance: 23 km

And so, one foot after the other, we reached the most feared and challenging day on the trail: the Trotternish Ridge. This amazing ridge line is one of the best in Britain, it includes ten summits and it covers more than 20km of pathless and exposed terrain. “There must be great views from up there”, you might think. Well, the truth is I couldn’t tell you, as the clouds were down to valley level when we reached the car park, and we couldn’t see a thing for the whole day.

We started the walk in the rain, trying to come to terms with the fact that the weather was not going to change for the rest of the day. Nevertheless, we gained the ridge and continued along it with good pace, even though route finding was difficult in such conditions and required constant navigation. After reaching the seventh summit, as the weather gave no sign of improvement, the morale of the group started wearing off and both body temperature and energy levels started to go down. It wasn’t worth continuing along the ridge, so we decided to make our way down west instead, towards Glen Uig.

However, this turned out to be not the easy and straightforward way down that we had thought, with plenty of boggy ground and no paths in sight. After a proper river crossing (our feet were already soaked so we didn’t really care!) we finally reached the road and were happy to take our boots off and dry up a bit, and make our way back to Portree for a hot shower and some good food.

The Lookout bothy

Day 7 – Quiraing car park to Rubha Hunish

Distance: 16,5 km

After many kilometres we finally got to the last day of the trek. The weather was slightly better than the previous one, as we started walking through the stunning rock formations of the Quiraing. Rock needles and tall cliffs were our companions for a few hours, together with the many tourists that come to visit this popular place in the summer.

We reached the small village of Flodigarry just in time for lunch and a quick break by the youth hostel, and after this we started walking the very last section of the trail. A few more kilometres on pathless clifftops separated us from the end point, which we could now see in the distance together with the Outer Hebrides.

We were starting to get really excited, and continued walking on the headland in the direction of the Lookout bothy, at the most northerly top of the island. We reached the end right when the weather started getting worse, so after a few pictures and some dolphin spotting we started making our way back to Duntulm, the real end of the walk, where our bus was waiting for us to take us all back to the start point, in Broadford.

Walking the length of the Isle of Skye is a truly rewarding experience. It gives you the opportunity to discover some of the most remote corners of the island, as well as some of the more touristy spots. And the place is really breathtaking: a magical land halfway between the sea and the mountain tops, with some of the most beautiful natural environments in the UK and plenty of wildlife, as well as unique culture and traditions. I had a great time on this trip and I’m looking forward to going back, at one condition: it would be great to have some sunshine next time. But I don’t hold out too much hope for this though, it is Scotland after all.

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