Andy's EPIC Hikes in Europe Isle of Skye, Scotland
But you will not be alone! From June to September coach tour operators and private vehicles clog up the island’s narrow roads, in particular along the main drag from Broadford to Portree and on to Skye’s main attraction, the Old Man of Storr. To avoid the crowds, it helps if you are an early riser and to be site preferably when everyone else is still enjoying their breakfast. During the summer, you can also take advantage of extensive daylight hours until at least 10.00 pm, so an early evening hike is certainly not out of the question. By that time, most coaches and private vehicles should have departed.
For my visit, I stayed in the aptly named Skye Base Camp which - together with a couple of other hostels - is listed on Hostelworld.
This might just be the perfect introduction to hiking on the island. Hike might be too ambitious a term for a short 500 m altitude gain. Okay, getting to the base from where a group of rocky fingers point to the heaven, requires a short and sharp push along a very well-worn track. Once at the top, you might also want to traverse a little and take in the magnificent views across to the islands of Rona and Raasay, but all in all two hours should do the trick. The Old Man is arguably the island’s (if not Scotland’s) most iconic scenery. The views are nothing but spectacular and you will be snapping away. Yet, you will enjoy this visual feast together with many other visitors. When I got there in mid-May, just after the first Corona restrictions were lifted by the Scottish government, I found myself in the company of a small group of Chinese tourists, many of them beside themselves with excitement. I started chatting to two young couples, all fetchingly wearing the same shiny-white sneakers. The young men were running up and down the hills in a hugely impressive fashion, looking for that perfect photo angle, while their female counterparts had adopted a somewhat more sober and bemused facial expression. Apparently, Chinese tour operators are selling the Scottish Highlands as the land of ‘utopia’. Unfortunately, the crowds are for real. Hence, you might want to take the following suggestion on board: On your way up you will reach two forks, with all directions still going towards the jagged finger peaks. You might want to pick that option, with the least people on them.
From Broadford, I drove along the western part of the island in the direction of Dunvegan. Just before entering the village a small track leads south to the hamlet of Orbost (just a collection of houses, really) where a big sign advises motorists not to go any further. That’s where you park your car and embark on a straight out and back, signposted hike of 4 to 5 hours. On a cloudy and windswept morning, I had this hike practically to myself and only encountered the odd cross country runner. At the end of the trail, you will find three stacks that are sticking dramatically out of the sea, while you are standing at the top of a 100 m vertical cliff face. The hike takes you through pine forests, sandy bays, along cliff edges and over wild land overgrown with heather and ferns. And of course, there are wonderful views across Loch Varkasaig. If you are lucky, you will spot seabirds and maybe even otters, and might just get a real sense of solitude. For most of my time there, I was accompanied by a magical chorus of bird song. Not as spectacular a sight as the Old Man of Storr. But the Maidens should still make you gasp. And if you still have the energy, why not visit the village of Dunvegan with its cute, compact High Street and nearby Dunvegan castle (16£ entry), the oldest, continually inhabited castle in all of Scotland and seat of the MacLeod clan.
From Portree, you have two options to get to the Trotternish Mountain range where Quiraing is located. You can either follow the A855 to the Old Man of Storr and continue for another ten miles until you turn left in the village of Brogaig. Alternatively, you can take the A87 towards the fishing village of Uig, then travel for a short stretch on the A855 before turning right. Or you can do a loop as I did: up to Uig, and then down via the Old Man of Storr. This is a stretch of the island, that could also be featured in our EPIC drive section. The roads are winding and narrow, but the views are out of this world. Quiraing is often referred to as mini-Skye (and funnily enough, Skye is often referred to as mini-Scotland), as it packs in all those visual delights (craggy and spiky mountain tops, magnificent vistas, a dream-like landscape) into a relatively compact area. Once you reach the car park, you have the choice of two entirely different hikes. All Trails has referenced the so-called Quiraing Circular Walk, which ambles along the foothills of the range for some 12 km. It is pleasant, but really the reason why you are here is to get to the top of the range. Following the trail from the car park, you will first head in an easterly direction, walking right below the craggy and steep rock face. After about one hour, the trail turns into a sharp climb, at the end of which you will feel on top of the world, with far reaching views (weather permitting of course) out into the Atlantic, across the island and even over to the Scottish Highlands on the mainland. Even seasoned hikers will feel elated. The views are just too good to be true, and you will realise, why many people regard the Quiraing as the best hike on Skye. To get back to the car park, the trail follows a series of often steep and muddy sheep tracks, and I was glad to have brought along my hiking sticks. Still, a tough work-out for thighs and knees. Once you have completed the hike, you might want to spend some time on the beach (which in these parts has slightly different, less skin-exposed connotations when compared to its Mediterranean cousins). When descending the range, you will soon encounter the junction with the A855 leading you back to Portree. Beautiful Staffin Bay is right there (and you have probably spotted this wonderful stretch of sand during your hike). You might want to turn off, walk along the shore and take a look back at the Quiraing range with sunlight and clouds dancing on its sharp edges. You have just completed your walks in ‘utopia’.