It was summertime and my roommate and I were about to embark on the trip of a lifetime. Ten days in northern Scotland, 16 hours of flight time, five modes of transportation to our arrival point, and, finally, countless hours to explore the best day hikes in Scotland.
The trip took us through some of the most scenic spots throughout the north, with stays in Inverness, Glencoe, and Skye becoming immediate highlights. Each day our bodies arose early, pushed to the max, and found themselves settling into bed alongside the sun after 18 hours of light.
The adventures were boundless. The smiles wide. And the memories are still unforgettable.
Best Day Hikes in Scotland
When it comes to Scottish hiking, you can’t go wrong. The country is chock full of amazing places to explore by foot and offers a wide variety of landscapes to hold one’s interest.
For the sake of this article, I’ve narrowed in on three day hikes and a backpacking trail that will surely not disappoint.
The Three Sisters (Bidean nam Bian)
Distance: ~6.75 miles
Elevation Gain: ~ 4,000 feet
For my roommate and I, this hike was very spontaneous. It was prompted by a roadside pull off and it simply looked too good to pass up. Traveling up highway A82 towards Glencoe, we noticed multiple cars pulled to the side of the road and decided to see what this area had to offer.
From the road, a dirt trail ran through a small valley and across a gentle creek. It then continued to the base of a mountain cluster known as The Three Sisters, or Bidean nam Bian for those familiar with Scottish Gaelic.
The steep trail made its way up the large mountain directly in front of us. It was composed entirely of loose pebbles compacted only by the feet of previous travelers. A quick elevation climb made for hard work. But we enjoyed stunning views within a matter of minutes.
The trail continued to steepen and narrow the higher we climbed. The view from up high, and perhaps the lack of oxygen, left our heads spinning. A thin thread of the West Highland Way backpacking trail, a 96-mile trek, could be seen winding through the valley below.
Though we would have loved to complete the entirety of this trail, time restrictions limited us to only a couple of miles up the initial face. Regardless, the minimal mileage was still enough to satisfy my roommate and I before we continued our trip north.
According to my research with Walk Highlands, this trail runs for a total distance of about 6.75 miles. If planning on completing the entire trail, click here for more information.
Tips for this hike:
Parking is very limited. Plan to start the day early to avoid crowds.
This trail gains substantial elevation over a short period of time. Hiking poles are recommended for extra traction.
Pro tip: Check out The Meeting of the Three Waters, a waterfall situated just down the road from the trailhead.
The Quiraing (A’ Chuith-Raing)
Distance: ~4.2 miles
Elevation Gain: ~1,350 feet
The Quiraing is one of the most scenic hikes in all of Scotland. Located on the Isle of Skye, this hike provides breathtaking views throughout the entirety of the trail. If any drive served as an indication of what was ahead, we should have picked up on the hint of this place’s beauty.
Walk Highlands warned us that the road up would be a little hairy and confusing. So we had spent the prior evening making sure we had the correct GPS coordinates as indicated on their site.
All Trails also provided seasonally relevant updates so we could be best prepared for current conditions.
The drive up the narrow, winding road to The Quiraing spurred excitement with each bend. Each hairpin turn revealed new scenery and increased anticipation. Sheep flooded the road from every direction and our compact car carefully dodged those brave enough to challenge the caravans coming through.
Our arrival at the car park called for an immediate sprint to the viewpoint, which provoked jaw-dropped gasps as we stared out onto the vast landscape before us. After a quick trip back to the car to grab our gear, we were ready to set off.
The beginning of the trail, with ample beauty and magnitude of its own, only increased our excitement. Within the first quarter-mile, we landed at an opening that gave clear views of the road below, which was surrounded by massive mountains clothed in deep green hues. It seemed as though the entire Isle of Skye could be seen from this height.
The next leg of the trail took us down into the valley. Miles passed quickly as we meandered along the trail beside water masses and rock stacks. Sharp, spiraling peaks could be seen in front of us and encouraged us to continue onward.
Leg three of the trail was the most difficult with a steady ascent of 1,500 feet over a mile or two and a resulting dropoff that left our stomachs queasy (definitely not for those with fear of heights).
The trail continued along the cliff’s edge and eventually dropped us on top of a plateau. As grazing sheep encircled us in this seeming meadow, we found it hard to believe that just meters to our side was a sheer cliff and monumental dropoff.
Yet again, wide-stretching views that gave access to the magnitude of the surrounding mountains left is in a dream state. The reality before our eyes was too good to be true.
The final stretch of trail strolled through the plateau and back to the car park. Our legs tired, water bottles empty, packs weightless, and smiles wide, the awe factor of Scotland reached an all-time high on The Quiraing.
Tips for this hike:
Though I’d highly recommend completing this entire hike, there are alternative options for those limited in time or ability. The first quarter-mile will take you to an overlook with stunning views out across the Isle of Skye. It’s worthwhile to carve out time for this alone.
If visiting during the wet season, good waterproof/water-resistant hiking boots are highly recommended. While this tip is relevant for all hikes in Scotland, The Quiraing particularly has multiple sections of wetlands to tread through. Proper gear will make this hike all the more enjoyable.
A word of caution to those afraid of heights. This hike has a few sections where the trail runs closely along cliff edges with large drop-offs. Footing along these sections is often loose and variable.
The Old Man of Storr (An Stòr)
Distance: ~2.5 miles
Elevation Gain: ~900 feet
Style: Out and Back
Towards the end of our stay, we were afforded the opportunity to visit one of Scotland’s most scenic destinations, Old Man of Storr. We heard many amazing stories about this well-known landmark and used All Trails to gather important details before setting off.
The Old Man’s vast views and massive surrounding mountains were enough to blow one’s mind and leave us jaw dropped for an entire day. The hike started out with rainclouds socking in the Old Man, leaving us in eager expectation for first sights of it.
We scrambled up the trail accompanied by tourists from all over the world, taking in accents and languages alongside greenery of every shade. Hikers, all colorfully clothed with rain-proof accessories, climbed steadily up the slope like ants marching their line.
Colored dots on the hill ahead of us gave scale to the magnitude of this magnificent structure. The higher we climbed, the more exposed the rocks became.
As we approached the bottom of the rock tower, the clouds cleared and revealed three magnificent structures spiraling high into the overcast envelope above. After multiple minutes of admiration, we deemed it best to continue our trek up the hill.
We marched onward to the final viewpoint, all the while glancing back over our shoulders to take in the scene unfolding as clouds continued to clear. The completed ascent found us staring back at familiar territory with a new set of eyes.
The once socked-in scene was now calm and clear. Words were insufficient in explaining the beauty before us, so we found ourselves standing in silence as we gazed at the earth below.
Time passed slowly as we wandered among the boulders at the top and examined the landscape, making mental images that our brains won’t soon forget. We breathed in deeply as we took steps towards the descent. Slow strides eventually landed us back at our car, still in silent disbelief at what we had just experienced.
Tips for this hike:
This is a very moderate hike accessible to hikers of all abilities. On a clear day, the Old Man can be seen from the road so hikers can choose their distance and destination for viewing it.
The trail is very clear cut and easy to follow with minimal obstacles or variations. Click this link for a more detailed explanation of the trail route.
Parking can be difficult as this is a popular destination. Make sure you park only in appropriate spaces and entirely off roadways to prevent ticketing, as this area is monitored regularly.
And One Long-Distance Hiking Trail in Scotland!
The Skye Trail
Distance: ~80 miles
Both The Quiraing and The Old Man of Storr are part of The Skye Trail, a 7-day backpacking trail that covers roughly 80 miles throughout the Isle of Skye. Formal campsites are available along the trail, as well as hostels and hotels that provide a more lavish style of backpacking.
Traveling north to south (SOBO) is the recommended route, though some have argued it best to hike in the opposite direction (NOBO) due to wind resistance.
The trail is best fit for experienced hikers who can navigate without clear cut markers and appropriately manage changing weather conditions.
Walk Highlands contributes pertinent information for trip planning. For those willing to go the distance, this trail undoubtedly will provide an unforgettable experience.
About The Author
Katey Hamill is a writer and photographer based in Truckee, Ca. Growing up a “mountain kid,” Katey developed a love for the outdoors at an early age and spent countless hours exploring her Sierra surrounded neighborhood throughout her upbringing.
In recent years, Katey has been fortunate to expand her travels to Iceland, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and multiple states within the US. She brings a camera and hiking shoes along on every trip with hopes to explore remote places. Check out her photography website www.kateyhamill.com and her Instagram page (@kateyhamill).
Hello Katey, what a brilliant article you laid out there on hiking. I am amazed at the graphics, pictures, and the entire design of your website. I used to hike but on smaller hills back then in my country but viewing these hills you portrayed, I would go for the Old Man Of Storr (An Stòr); first of all, because it is easy to pronounce, conducive for many and I may not get lost. However, I shall recommend a few friends who adore hiking on high hills like Bidean nam Bian to visit Scotland.
I wish to ask, do you have any idea why that hill was called Old Man Of Storr? For The Three sisters, I presume they appear in lumps of three, what do you think Katey?
Rumor has it that the Old Man of Storr is named so because the rock structure resembles the face of an old man.
You are spot on with the 3 Sisters, as the name refers to the 3 nearby peaks.
You’ll have to take a trip to check it out in person someday.
Great article Katey, I’ve not traveled to the British Isles (yet), reading your experiences leads to thoughts of “better do it”. I was friends with a guy from the Isle of Skye.
He and I shared a few bottles of “real” Scottish whiskey over the years, so my desire to visit Scotland and the surrounding countries is being planned as we sit out this pandemic thing.
Nice article thanks.
Thank you Michael. The Isle of Skye is definitely worth a visit and the whisky definitely worth a try!