The Skye Trail: Everything you need to know
The Isle of Skye holds a special place in many people’s hearts, its romantic history, majestic mountains, stunning coastline and the Gaelic language and culture all drawing people back time and time again. Many rush around the best known sights of the island in a few days, but for those who wish to experience Skye properly, there can be few better ways than by tackling a long-distance walk. A multi-day trek forces us to see the landscapes we pass through in a more complete way. The long-distance walker soon gets into a rhythm of walking each day then heading for food and shelter, and has time to discover the people, wildlife and history in a landscape, as well as absorbing its physical beauty.
The Skye Trail is an unofficial week-long route snaking from the northern tip of the island and extending to Broadford in the south. It offers a unique opportunity to tap into the real spirit of the island on foot. It should be said that walking this ‘trail’ is nothing like the West Highland Way or other formal routes. There are no signs and there is not even a path for some of the way. Self-reliance, fitness and good navigational skills will all be called upon. Whether making use of island hospitality or opting for the freedom of a tent, completing the continuous route represents a real challenge and a fitting match for the epic landscapes found on Skye.
How long is the Skye Trail?
The 80-mile (128km) trail begins with a spectacular and relatively undiscovered coastal section before taking to the Trotternish Ridge – regarded by many as among the very finest ridgewalks in the UK. After another coastal section the route takes in the picturesque capital of Skye – Portree – before running through the sheltered Braes district. Soon the route continues in the shadow of the mighty Cuillin – the most Alpine mountains in the UK – to reach Elgol, celebrated for its view across Loch Scavaig. There follows an atmospheric section through two deserted villages – a reminder of the Highland Clearances and the darker side of the island’s history – before arrival at Broadford and journey’s end. The route has been designed so that, with some careful planning, it is possible to have somewhere to stay each night; but it also makes a superb backpacking expedition with plenty of opportunities for wild camping as well as the option of a couple of campsites and a bothy.
How challenging is the Skye Trail?
The Skye Trail is a tough, uncompromising week-long route requiring self-reliance, good equipment, navigation skills and previous experience of hillwalking and backpacking. If you have previously completed other Scottish long-distance routes such as the West Highland Way or the Great Glen Way then do not expect similar facilities or terrain. This is an un-waymarked trail – often on pathless ground – passing through some fairly remote areas, and the weather is notoriously unpredictable. However, good preparation can make these challenges part of the attraction, allowing you to reach parts of the island very few people visit, and providing a profound sense of achievement.
When to walk the Skye Trail
Unpredictability is the one thing you can be sure of when it comes to Skye weather. However, generally speaking the spring and summer are likely to be the best months for walks on Skye, with early May being popular to avoid the midges. The long daylight hours from June to the end of August make it possible to cover large distances. Accommodation can get booked up in July and August and peak weekends throughout the year.
Although not impossible, walking on Skye in winter is likely to be extremely challenging given the very short daylight hours, closure of some accommodation and facilities and the probability of winter storms. The wind – with frequent storms – in particular can become a major problem as well as the possibility of snow and ice on the hills.
How to prepare for the Skye Trail
A lot will depend on whether you are backpacking the route and need to carry camping equipment, but in general your enjoyment of the route will be enhanced by getting the balance right between carrying as lightweight a pack as possible while still having enough gear to be safe and comfortable. Using a baggage transfer service to move your bags between accommodation is also an option.
What to pack for the Skye Trail
Typical gear will usually include a rucksack, waterproofs (jacket and overtrousers), layering system of clothes including wickable base layer, hat, gloves and sunhat, walking boots, water bottle, torch, whistle, first aid kit, compass and map, survival bag or emergency shelter, rucksack liner or dry bags.
Optional extras include mobile phone/GPS, midge repellent (essential if camping in summer), walking poles, camera, binoculars, sunglasses, suntan lotion.
Backpacking the Skye Trail
The Skye Trail makes a great backpacking route, with official campsites at Portree, Sligachan and Flodigarry, and innumerable wild camping options for the experienced backpacker.
Additional gear for backpackers should include tent, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, stove, fuel (re-supply possible in Portree), pans, cutlery, knife, water sterilisation tablets, and don’t forget the matches or lighter.
The Skye Trail
A challenging backpacking route from Rubha Hunish to Broadford
This guidebook describes The Skye Trail, a challenging week-long trek across the largest island in Scotland's Inner Hebrides, the Isle of Skye. From Rubha Hunish in the north, the Skye Trail heads along the Trotternish Ridge and past the Cuillin to Broadford in the south. Suitable for experienced backpackers and mountain walkers.More information
The Skye Trail has been designed so that there is access to accommodation from the end of every stage however, in the peak summer months that accommodation can be full to capacity and therefore booking ahead is advisable.
Bed & Breakfasts are a good option; with rooms and breakfast provided in the owner’s house, it's a good way to meet locals and get a real feel for modern-day life on the island. Not all B&Bs serve evening meals and you may have to ask in advance if you want a packed lunch for the next day. Hotels provide the opportunity to mix with other travellers and provide an evening meal. Within the B&B and hotel sector there is accommodation to suit a wide range of budgets, although you may find steep single supplements are imposed in the high summer.
There are hostels at Flodigarry, Portree, Sligachan and Broadford and these, too, often need to be booked in advance.
Citylink buses ply their way direct to Portree from both Glasgow and Inverness. These are an excellent option for those attempting the Skye Trail as you can take the Citylink bus to Portree and then use the local bus which loops around the Trotternish peninsula to reach Duntulm at start of the trail. The Citylink bus can then be picked up from the end of the trail in Broadford for the return trip.
All the roads crossed on the route are served by local buses, some with more regular services than others – check timetables with Stagecoach Highlands.
There are banks (with 24-hour ATMs) in Portree and Broadford and post offices in Staffin, Portree, Elgol and Broadford. Some B&Bs, campsites and cafés do not take card payments so it is useful to have a good supply of cash.
Please note that mobile phone reception is patchy and should not be relied on to book accommodation or taxis. Accommodation providers on the island increasingly offer WiFi, but connections can be slow and there are some areas without broadband at all so its best to check before booking if getting online is important to you.
Skye Trail Overview
Stage 1 - Rubha Hunish to Flodigarry
- Distance 11.5km (7½ miles) (excludes detour out to the point)
- Total Ascent 290m
- Time 5½–6½hrs (plus 1½hrs to explore the Rubha Hunish Headland)
Rubha Hunish is one of the most magical spots on Skye – a scenically spectacular haven for seabirds and marine mammals. Every visit to this most northerly tip of the island rewards with different sights, sounds and windy blasts. The hardy can wild camp right out on the headland or use the tiny old coastguard lookout turned walkers’ bothy, but others may prefer to start after catching the morning bus from Portree which loops around the Trotternish peninsula (the Duntulm Hotel and B&Bs are also nearby). Either way make sure you leave plenty of time to enjoy this special place before beginning the long walk south in earnest.
After the visit out to the headland, the majority of the walk follows the clifftops of the dramatic coastline, crossing croftland where sheep will be your main companions. The stage ends at Flodigarry, once home to Flora MacDonald, and now boasting a walker-friendly hostel and plush hotel.
Stage 2 - Flodigarry to the Storr
- Distance 28.5km (17¾ miles)
- Total Ascent 1750m
- Time 8½–10hrs
This is the most challenging stage of the Skye Trail as it climbs from Flodigarry through the astonishing rock formations of The Quiraing before heading up onto the great escarpment that is the Trotternish Ridge. Often rated as one of the best ridgewalks in Britain, the tough going is rewarded by fabulous views. However, it should be borne in mind that the route is long, very exposed to the elements and difficult to navigate on in poor conditions. There are very few escape routes so do consider alternatives if the forecast is poor and be sure to carry a map.
Stage 3 - Storr to Portree via the coastline
- Distance 14km (8¾ miles)
- Total Ascent 510m
- Time 5–6hrs
Leaving the Trotternish Ridge behind, the third day of the Skye Trail takes to the coast once more, crossing rough and pathless moorland above dramatic cliffs with breathtaking views. If you have plenty of time and the weather is fair you can include a detour via a steep descent to Bearreraig Bay, a perfect arc of pebbly shore favoured by fossil hunters and also good for a spot of otter watching. The stage ends at Portree, the main village on the island. Portree makes a great base for a rest day with plenty of places of interest accessible by bus, boat trips to view sea eagles during the summer season, and a range of eating and re-stocking opportunities.
Stage 4 - Portree to Sligachan
- Distance 19km (11¾ miles)
- Total Ascent 275m
- Time 5–6hrs
The fourth stage of the Skye Trail starts by skirting the salt marsh at the edge of Portree Bay before taking to the tarmac – thankfully a narrow, quiet ribbon winding its way through the fine scenery and small crofting settlements of the Braes. The final section follows a rough path along the shores of Loch Sligachan, with views to the Red Hills and the Black Cuillin. The stage ends at Sligachan. If you want to add more challenge to the day, the ascent of Ben Tianavaig provides a fantastic 3hr detour which gives excellent views back over much of the route covered so far and is a haunt of golden eagles and sea eagles.
Stage 5 - Sligachan to Elgol
- Distance 18km (11¼ miles)
- Total Ascent 310m
- Time 6–8hrs
The fifth day of the Skye Trail follows dramatic Glen Sligachan, a great trench dividing the forbidding mountain ranges of the Red and Black Cuillin, to reach the beautiful bay at Camasunary. From here the main route follows a vertiginous cliff path to reach the small settlement of Elgol. Classic views across the water to the main Cuillin ridge are your reward for the sometimes awkward path. As the jumping off point for boat trips to Loch Coruisk at the heart of the Cuillin, Elgol is another possible place to have a rest day, especially in good weather. An alternative route (Stage 6B) assumes you will spend a night at Camasunary (either wild camping or in the MBA bothy) before climbing Bla Bheinn the following day via the south ridge to descend to Torrin where the main route is rejoined.
Stage 6 - Elgol to Torrin
- Distance 16.5km (10¼ miles)
- Total Ascent 370m
- Time 5½–6hrs
This stage presents relatively straightforward walking. Hugging the coast for much of the way, there are views across the water to the Sleat peninsula as well as the Small Isles of Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna. After a brief road section a much rougher path leads to the remains of a cleared village before the route descends to rejoin the road around the head of Loch Slapin. The stage ends at the small village of Torrin where there is a popular café and a couple of B&Bs.
Stage 6B - Bla Bheinn alpine variant – Camasunary to Torrin
- Distance 11km (7 miles)
- Total Ascent 970m
- Time 7–8hrs
Terrain Bla Bheinn involves exceptionally rough and rocky walking, and very careful navigation and experience is required. There is a hard scramble between the two summits, particularly tricky with a pack and the descent involves loose rock and scree
This stage will appeal to very experienced hillwalkers who wish to climb one of Skye’s major mountain summits as part of the route. The route assumes that the fifth day is ended with a wild camp or bothy stay at Camasunary. This route omits Elgol (a useful re-supply point and a beautiful spot in its own right) but does offer the chance to include one of the Cuillin Munros in the journey. It rejoins the main Skye Trail on the road to Torridon. On a good day the views of the main Cuillin ridge from the summit of Bla Bheinn are unforgettable.
Stage 7 - Torrin to Broadford
- Distance 20km (12½ miles)
- Total Ascent 480m
- Time 6½–7hrs
The final stage of the Skye Trail follows the coastline through the atmospheric cleared villages of Suisnish and Boreraig where sheep now wander among the ruined houses. The path runs close to the water at times and there is the added chance that you may spot otters, or more likely seals and numerous seabirds, as you meander along Loch Eishort. The route turns inland from Boreraig to eventually pick up the remains of the Skye Marble Line, a light railway used to transport marble quarried at Torrin to awaiting boats at the quay in Broadford. This larger village has a full range of services and plenty of places to celebrate completing the Skye Trail.
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