In my travel planning experience, scenery-based road trips are often the most rewarding itineraries, but also often the most challenging to plan. I definitely found this to be true for our Scotland “Highlands and islands” trip, including the two days we spent on the stunning Isle of Skye.
We were spoiled for choice on Skye, which was part of the problem—the tendency is to try and fit as much as possible in, which doesn’t mesh well with the pace of travel and logistics in this more remote area. But ultimately, the Isle of Skye itinerary we ended up with really nice mix of the iconic Skye sights, complemented by a few more under-the-radar ones.
This post covers:
- Should Skye be on your itinerary?
- When to visit the Isle of Skye
- Tips for driving on Skye
- What should be on your itinerary
- Where to stay
Should the Isle of Skye be on your Scotland itinerary?
In general, my answer would be “YES!”, but there are a few things to take into consideration. Of all the Scottish isles, Skye is probably the most accessible—it’s pretty easy to get to, fairly big and diverse, and so has more of a tourism infrastructure (hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, etc.). Note, it still largely shuts down in the tourist off-season, and in the peak season places will book up well ahead of time.
I really don’t think you can get around effectively on Skye without a car, so if you don’t plan to have a car then getting out into the Highlands and islands may not be best for your itinerary. I do believe there are a few bus tour-type things available if you really want to go that route.
Additionally, Skye has absolutely amazing natural beauty, from fascinating rock formations, to dramatic cliffs and crashing waves, to ethereal misty lakes, to verdant green rolling pastures. But really seeing the best of Skye—in my opinion—requires a more active sort of itinerary, including hiking, quite a bit of regular walking, etc. So if mobility or fitness are a major concern you may want to do some deeper digging before deciding to visit.
When to visit the Isle of Skye
The main tourist season is early spring through early autumn, with the peak season being July and August. Typically that time is going to be the best weather and the biggest crowds (though “biggest” is still somewhat relative in my opinion vs. places like Ireland).
But, as I’ve mentioned in a few of my other posts, the weather for our trip was generally quite miserable—a bummer and a definite handicap on a trip with so much scenery and outdoor activity built in. We were there in late August/early September, but that summer happened to be a particularly cold and rainy one, to the point that the locals were complaining about it constantly (which really takes some doing).
Ultimately, you never know what you’re going to get in places like Scotland and Ireland, and you have to make the most of your trip regardless. I wish we’d had a few more blue skies for photography purposes, but tried to capitalize on the “moody, atmospheric” aspect of the gray mist and rain 🙂
Here is info on our entire Scotland road trip!
Tips for driving on the Isle of Skye
The most important thing is that as you’re planning your Isle of Skye itinerary, know for certain that everything will take longer than you think! You’ll see a distance and think, “Wow, 20 km isn’t that much!” And you’re technically right, but that 20 km might take you an hour—especially if you’re stopping off for photos, or get caught behind a slow vehicle. And make sure you’re watching carefully for sheep, they’re everywhere!
Other things to consider:
- One tip that someone gave me years ago for international roadtrips is to use AA Route Planner to estimate driving times, and probably add 25% onto whatever it says for places like northern Scotland and the islands.
- The main roads on Skye were well-maintained, but since most tourists aren’t used to driving on the left you should always be careful. And then some places will have bumpier or unpaved roads (or parking lots), so I was always very cautious with the rental car.
- Also note for rental car purposes, most cars are manual (stick shift), so if you need an automatic—I do—you’ll need to choose that intentionally and it’ll cost more. But even for a skilled stick shift driver, getting an automatic removes one of the variables to figuring out how to drive on the left and staying focused.
- In general the drivers in Scotland were patient and considerate, and it’s very common on narrow roads for a car or a whole line of cars to have to pull over so the opposing traffic can pass by. Make sure you’re patient and considerate as well 🙂
So what has to be on your Isle of Skye itinerary???
This is a very rough map I made myself to try and get a sense for how close different sights were to each other. Obviously you’ll want to map things, but this helped me understand how to group elements within my itinerary.
Stop at the famous Eilean Donan Castle
This is one of those iconic Pinterest images that had captured my imagination for years. And the great thing about Eilean Donan is that it’s a super easy stop if you’re driving onto Skye—it’s basically right by the bridge before you leave the mainland.
I was hoping for *this* version of the castle, but you take what you can get. The tide was out and so my pics looked a little more drab than I would have liked, but I’m still glad we stopped. I hadn’t even thought about tide times affecting the water around the castle, so make sure to check the tide tables if this is at the top of your “must” list. And while we didn’t actually go in the castle, you definitely can (and even stay there if you’re so inclined), so check opening times and prices at the official website.
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Climb up to the Old Man of Storr
We really did try, but this one wasn’t in the cards for us. We got an early start from our B&B, driving into the gray but fairly clear morning. Then as we rounded the bend and caught a glimpse of the rocks, a fog and rain squall rolled through. We even started up the path, but ended up abandoning it due to having no visibility.
Storr is probably the most famous walk on Skye, with amazing views from the top (you can see what we *should* have been experiencing here, at the bottom). It’s about 4 km round-trip, and most people take 1.5-2 hours total (depending on your stops). I’m still bummed we didn’t get to finish the hike, as these views are to die for!
Make a quick stop at Lealt Falls
Stopping here was a happy accident, since we actually thought we were stopping at Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls. But we were so happy we found Lealt Falls and it’s a fast stop that you’ll feel like you have pretty much to yourself.
It’s an easy walk along a narrow canyon to the cliffs, looking out over the water. The cliff views themselves are worth the short walk, but the waterfall running along the canyon makes this extra special.
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Make sure to see Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls
Did you know that Kilt Rock is actually the name of the rock formation at the back of the photo (toward the horizon)?? I had no idea. It gets its name from its kilt-like shape. The falls itself is called Mealt Falls, and is beautiful!
I was glad that the weather cleared up for this stop, because it really made the greens and blues pop nicely. It’s challenging to get a great view of the rock and the falls, particularly with the crowds (I had to lean way out over the railing and hope I didn’t drop my camera), but I’m really happy with how my photo turned out.
There’s no question that Kilt Rock has to be a stop on any Isle of Skye roadtrip itinerary! It can be a short one, but the biggest mistake most people make is just getting out, fighting their way to the front of the crowd to see the falls, and then driving off. But if you go to the other side of the walking path you’ll get this awesome cliff view!
And then we got tiny, teasing glimpses of blue sky as we drove toward the Quiraing for a few hours of hiking.
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Hike the famous Quiraing
I had SO been looking forward to this hike—especially after the Old Man of Storr fog debacle earlier—and it did not disappoint! There is something otherworldly about the landscape, the colors, the lighting, the ambiance. I felt like I was in some prehistoric place.
We started from the parking area and it was misty and a bit foggy, but not too bad. In true Scottish fashion, we cycled through about a year’s worth of seasons in the few hours we were hiking. As you’ll see from the pics, we went from the misty fog to pouring freezing rain to blue skies to pouring warmer rain. Always an adventure!
As I kid (but really tho…) in the longer post on this hike, our time there could have been called “Mud and Mayhem”. The trails were mudddddyyyy. There were massive puddles we had to navigate around, but other than that the trails weren’t too difficult. It was just slow going, and we ended up having to turn back rather than complete the loop, as the weather turned on us yet again as we were hitting the sheer drop-off portion.
Despite the weather though, this was one of my favorite things from our entire Scotland trip! I’d love to go back in better weather and do the whole thing, but what we saw was completely breathtaking!
Soak in the view at Neist Point
Hahaha j/k, Mother Nature once again thwarted our plans. After the Quiraing hike and finally finding some food (had to go all the way to Dunvegan), we really wanted to see the stunning views of Neist Point at sunset. Sadly, the rain that had settled in while we were hiking didn’t really go away this time, and so my dream of a glorious, bright sunset was much colder and damper.
And photobombed by a sheep.
Oh well 🙂
Take a boat tour to Loch Coruisk & the Black Cuillins
Atmospheric. That’s the best word to describe our boat tour over to Loch Coruisk. This is one of those under-the-radar things I mentioned at the start…I can’t even remember how I found it, just poking around on blogs I guess. It’s not easy to get to and I had the devil of a time working it into our Isle of Skye itinerary, but it was completely worth it.
I’ve written an ode to how amazing this trip is (with WAY more adorable seal pics), so make sure to check that out if you’re thinking of adding this to your itinerary!
First we had to get to Elgol, which is fairly out of the way. Then we boarded the Heather Grace and took a boat ride over to Loch Coruisk, completely tucked away and only accessible by boat or a fairly strenuous, famous hike over the Black Cuillins (the mountains that overlook the lake).
We had about an hour and a half there to walk around, take pictures, and soak up the atmosphere. While a sunny day would have been amazing, this is one instance where the fog and rain really lent a moody air to the experience.
And the seals were SO CUTE! We saw tons and tons as the boat brought us there and back. I just want to squish their little faces!!!
There are two companies that offer tours that I’m aware of, Misty Isle Boat Tours and Bella Jane. We used Misty Isle, but both get great reviews. We had been on the Isle of Harris & Lewis the previous day (breaking up our Skye itinerary), so arrived on the ferry at Uig and then it was about a 2-hour drive down to Elgol. They don’t sail year-round and there are a few different types of trips, so check their websites and then email to get more info.
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Just enjoy the drive
Scotland—and particularly the Highlands and islands—is one of those places where the journey IS the destination. If you’re just trying to cram in as many things as possible and tick things off your list, you’ll end up missing some of the most amazing sights and moments.
Make sure to build plenty of breathing room into your itinerary for unplanned stops, pulling over (safely!) onto the side of the road to capture a rainbow, or because the view around the corner took your breath away, or to have a Mexican stand-off with some feisty sheep. Stop at an adorable tea shop because it caught your fancy. Eat a scone.
Chill at your B&Bs and try some Scottish faves
Speaking of scones…
B&Bs are really the way to go up in the Highlands and islands (see “Where to stay” below), though you’ll get an occasional hotel as well—and pay a pretty penny. B&Bs are great because you will typically get some home-cooked traditional Scottish treats like tea and shortbread, scones, porridge, smoked fish, eggs, and more. Make sure to try lots of different foods and also enjoy seeing a slice of local life.
Other ideas for your Isle of Skye itinerary
You’re never able to do everything you want, and that was definitely true of this trip. Here are a few things that were on my list but we had to skip for time.
- Fairy Pools – Allow minimum of an hour here, the walk will take at least 40 minutes round trip, but you’ll need more time if you go beyond the first waterfall to explore the different pools. There’s a Forestry Commision gravel carpark signposted ‘Glumagan Na Sithichean’, and below in smaller writing it does also say Fairy Pools.
- Claigan Coral Beach – Near Dunvegan Castle, this beach is made of the skeletons of crushed Coralline seaweed, giving it a pretty gleam. The walk down to the beach is easy and takes about 25 minutes (one-way), but make sure you check tide times to make sure you’re going at the right time.
- Fairy Glen – Need at least an hour to experience, and an easy walk or hike. Some people do this as a picnic to enjoy the scenery. It looked nice but also not significantly unique relative to other things we were seeing.
- Dunvegan Castle – Looked cool but some of the reviews indicated it wasn’t maybe as cool as some of the other castles we’d see on our trip.
- Sligachan Old Bridge – Our route just didn’t take us this way, but the nice thing about this is it can just be a photo stop, not something that takes time.
- Talisker Beach – A 2-hour walk each way and you have to really work the tide times right. Plus, if you go for sunset (which looks stunning), then you’re effectively walking back in the dark.
Where to stay on the Isle of Skye
We stayed 2 nights at Hillside B&B in Kyleakin (or Stein, the lines are all fuzzy). It had a nice location for our one full day exploring the Trotternish Ridge and Waternish Peninsula, clean and comfortable. The view is beautiful as well. The hosts themselves weren’t super warm—this was more of a place to stay than anything (to be fair, we weren’t there a ton), but was great for our itinerary.
We also stayed 1 night at Coille Challtainn in Isleorsnay, down on the south part of Skye. This was close to our Elgol boat trip, and positioned us well to take the ferry back to the mainland the next morning. Mrs. MacDonald welcomed us with some tea and homemade shortbread, and we had a delightful and very filling breakfast the next morning while watching the sun rise. If you stay here, make sure you walk down to the local pub in Eilean Iarmain and have dinner or a pint!
WHEW! I know that was a lot, but this type of trip takes a lot of planning, and hopefully the information I’ve provided inspires you and helps you plan your own adventure on this stunning Scottish island. I’d love to hear from you in the comments if you have any questions!
If you’re planning a British Isles trip:
- A Perfect 7-Day Ireland Road Trip Itinerary: Hidden Gems
- 11 Tips for the Best 24 Hours in London
- Abbeys, Castles, & Coast: A Day Trip to South Wales
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