If the weather gods are on your side, it’s very easy to spend over a week in Scotland’s Northern Highlands. Between Assynt and the Isle of Skye, you’ll have picked up your jaw so many times you might just opt to keep it open for the duration of your trip.
Scotland’s Highlands are extremely beautiful (I mean Torres del Paine level, and that’s as high as you can get in my book) and I hate to say it, because I hate hippie BS calling obscure places off the beaten path, but Assynt really felt like a gem!
But if you are out of luck, all you are going to see is fog and snow. I mean it, it even snowed when we visited in the middle of July!
The Highland weather is cold, but the people are extremely warm. The further north you go in the UK the nicer the people are. Really! We weren’t fond of the people in London, in Edinburgh they are generally nice, and in Assynt—super kindness! I believe there’s a correlation between latitude and kindness. You don’t need a degree in statistics to see the pattern.
The best place to base yourself? I say Ullapool. Check out the accommodations options and reviews on booking.com. We were 30 minutes away from Ullapool in Aultguish Inn and got some of the best sleep of our lives. Don’t expect fancy! This is Scotland. So expensive but clean and simple it is!
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In this article, we’re focusing on the Northern Highlands, so way, way up there. If you want tips on what to see in the more southern areas, including mystical Loch Ness, head over to our Glencoe Guide.
Is Isle of Skye part of the Northern Highlands? Yes and no, depending on which website you read and which type of division you are asking about, but since we have an entire Isle of Skye Guide and even an Isle of Skye Itinerary already cooked up, we won’t delve into the details of the best spots there in this article.
In the Northern Highlands, Assynt is where it’s at (though we list other places, too!). This small area is packed to the brim with amazing scenery, from beaches to mountain tops and every level in between. Here’s what we think you shouldn’t miss in the Northern Highland of Scotland:
Check out the details of each place, including my own personal experience from visiting it, below.
Looking for views like this? Head over to Quiraing on Isle of Skye
As for the highlights on the Isle of Skye, you can’t visit the island without seeing:
There are many spots on our list if you want to explore Isle of Skye more. Read the full article here, or try this one for the best hikes on the Isle of Skye.
As for our list…
Our top tips for visiting Scotland’s Highlands:
Length: 7 km (4.3 miles) (or 4.5 km/2.7 miles if doing the circuit)
Hike time: 3–4 hours (or 2.5 hours for the circuit)
Difficulty level: Hard (quite steep and muddy)
Starting point: Stac Pollaidh parking lot
Weather: Be prepared for rain and mud, try to choose the sunniest day possible
The Stac Pollaidh hike is our no. 1 best hike in Scotland and even topped our list of the best places to see in Scotland. It’s just THE BEST. A must-see. I think you get the picture.
My tip: The standard direction to hike the trail is a counter-clockwise circuit, but I would definitely go clockwise. The path there is better and has the best views. You would walk about ¾ of the path and then turn back. This way you avoid the muddiest/marshiest part of the trail (the western part).
We visited on a really windy day and it was snowing. It was Scotland at its best. This is the place where you’re going to see those little lochs and green mountains and will feel proper Scottish weather.
I’ve hiked some of the most beautiful places on the planet—Las Torres in Chile, Nevada Falls in Yosemite, Grossglockner in Austria, Cape of Good Hope in South Africa—and Stac Pollaidh is up there with them. My favorite in Scotland. The hike went like this: take a step, take a photo, take another step, take another photo. Repeat endlessly.
The hike starts at the Stac Pollaidh parking lot–20 minutes from Ullapool. It’s quite steep and hard, because of the rain and muddy paths (especially in the west). You will also gain about 450 m (1470 ft) elevation on the circuit, or you can summit and you can add another 150 m (490 ft)—but be ready to scramble!
Hike Length: 5.5 km (3.5 miles)
Hike time: 3–4 hours
Difficulty level: Hard
Starting point: Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve Car Park
Weather: Be prepared for rain and mud, try to choose the sunniest day possible
This was the first hike we did in Scotland and it was the rainiest day we had during our entire trip—boy were we lucky it was this particular hike! The Beinn Eighe circular hike has the best signposting on any hike we ever did in the UK. There’s a proper hiking path (that starts right by the parking lot) with good signs and directions and it’s rock solid (not sliding or disappearing into the mud).
And the views? Just breathtaking. These are the true Highlands! Lochs everywhere and lush green vegetation that for some reason reminded me of the Araucaria forests in Huerquehue NP in Chile.
Be ready for almost 600 m (2000 ft) elevation gain over 5.5 km (3.5 miles).
Beinn Eighe is also the place where we encountered the highest number of frogs in a day, and we’ve been to quite a few jungles before. They could literally build an army of frogs, like the newts from Karel Capek’s novel.
Because of rain and fog (and frogs!), it’s a place of great imagination. Sometimes it was so foggy that we could let our imagination run loose, because you literally couldn’t see what was hiding in it—there could be a loch, the sea or maybe Mount Everest—who knows!
I think Beinn Eighe is the only hike in Scotland where you don’t need to worry about the rain. Not that it won’t rain, but the path is so good you don’t have to be afraid of it getting crazy muddy.
Knockan Crag is the place where it was discovered that Scotland was originally not anywhere close to being a part of England, only floating together a relatively short time ago (in Earth years). I guess they were destined to be together, even geology wanted it. Jokes aside—due to the unique geology you can actually see the crag where two tectonic plates meet.
Visit the open-air interpretation center—the Rock Room—and then take the trail up above the crags to get amazing views.
There’s no entrance fee. It will take you about 2 hours to explore the center and the educational trail which is immensely interesting and probably the best educational trail I’ve seen in my entire life. There are 3 walks to choose from depending on fitness level and length. We did the longest one, which is roughly 2 km (1.2 miles) long.
People of any fitness level can visit Knockan Crag, just don’t underestimate the weather. When we started the hike it was blue skies—lovely, t-shirt weather at last! I’m glad I didn’t get pneumonia from that hike as during the hike it started to f#cking snow! The temperature dropped by like 15°C in 20 minutes.
We finished the trail looking like two ice cubes. Nice try Scotland! We never made that mistake again!
The Knockan Crag Geopark is also where you can see the oldest rocks on Earth—I mean 4 billion years! Or, if you think God created Earth, then a whopping 6,000 years!
Hotel tip: Aultguish Inn near Ullapool was the first place we’d stayed at in Scotland, so I didn’t think it was anything that special. In hindsight, I know it was spectacular! The location is so scenic, the rooms were very clean and comfortable, even large for Scotland.
It’s owned by Romanians, which added a nice flare to the food at the restaurant. There’s a coffee machine in all rooms, which you gotta love.
Overall, I’d stay there again in a heartbeat!
Prices from GBP 140 (USD 160) for two people with breakfast.
The Falls of Measach are located in the Corrieshalloch Gorge, very easy to find and access.
There’s parking on A832, use the QR code on the donation box to pay for it. The trails start right from there. It’s a very good path that should be easy enough for everyone to take (very slight elevation gain), plus if you just want to get to the bridge, take a look and go back, you can be done in 30 minutes or so.
But when you do get to the bridge…wow, it’s a very dramatic drop of about 70 m (230 ft), with a limited number of people that can be on the bridge at any given time. And there, in the middle of the gorge, is the spectacular waterfall!
After the bridge, you can (and should!) keep going to another viewing platform, sort of hanging in the middle of the gorge. It’s awesome, a little scary for the faint of heart, but I definitely recommend it.
You can go back to your car the same way or take another path that’ll make your trip slightly longer.
All in all a great stop. And to think we visited almost by accident since we had time before our dinner reservation. It would’ve been a shame to miss this place that so much reminds me of the beautiful Klamms in Germany and Austria. The Falls of Measach and the Corrieshalloch Gorge are even bigger and better!
Achmelvich is a very nice, tropical-like beach in Assynt. There’s an optional 5 km hike in the area around the beach that includes views and a hermit’s castle (that’ll take you about 2 hours to complete), OR, you can skip the walking and go straight to beaching, since the parking lot is right there.
We already had 25 km under our belts that day from Suilven (see next item on this list), so we opted for the lazy version.
At the parking lot, use the parking machine to pay (by card). It’s just GBP 1 per hour.
Achmelvich is a very pretty and cold beach. For some reason there were locals swimming there, probably because it was the height of summer… I mean sure, 18 °C outside, who wouldn’t want a dip in the North Sea to cool off!
Length: 20 km (12.5 miles) out and back
Hike time: 6–7 hours
Difficulty level: very hard (due to length and elevation gain)
Starting point: Glencanisp Lodge
Parking: On the road 800 m (0.5 miles) before reaching Glencanisp Lodge (map link)
You’ll feel like it’s the end of the world at Suilven! At least this is how I imagine it. Or that it looks like the views in Game of Thrones.
So we’ve established the views are fantastic. You’ll also see rocks that are 500 million to 3 billion years old, so pretty darn cool… Do you feel a ‘but’ coming on soon?
You’re right! Yes, amazing views, this is Scotland, after all, and Scotland does some seriously fabulous hikes (so much so that we even have a separate article on the best hikes just on the Isle of Skye!).
But I mean this is 20 loooong km (12.5 miles) of the same, albeit amazing, views. The fascination wore off a little for me after like 4 hours or so. Why not do two different 10 km hikes instead? Or am I just spoiled by now?
Still, I can be objective and say that Suilven is amazing. I probably liked the first part of the trail the most, because you see some really pretty lochs with those cute miniature islands in them that are full of lush vegetation and trees in an otherwise bare place. So that was a really nice contrast.
Beware the final section up to the summit is steep and you need to be ready to scramble. I think you can still enjoy the Suilven hiking trail even if you decide not to go all the way to the top of the mountain. Get the trail details on Alltrails.
I’m going to repeat myself for thousandth time, but please be ready for rain and possibly snow and wear waterproof everything. And layers. This path was the windiest of them all (except maybe Knockan Crag where we walked in the snow in t-shirts, see item 3 on this list).
The full hike takes at least 6–7 hours round trip. It’s not a circuit, so on the way back you get more of the same views, yay!
Bealach na Ba is a scenic road between Tornapress and Applecross, about 18 km (11 miles) long. It’s one of the best drives in Scotland, I absolutely loved it.
It’s single-lane in some places, so take your time. There are a lot of winding parts, especially in the beginning, but we always felt safe.
Make sure to take photos in the first third of the trip, because this is where you’ll get the best views down to Lock Kishorn.
Realistically, one way takes about 30 minutes, though I bet you’ll take at least an hour getting there just because of all the stops you’ll be making in order to take in those views. You’ll be faster on the way back (same route).
There are also a few hikes along the way, which might be worth it to extend your enjoyment of the fantastic scenery. We opted out because we had just hiked Beinn Eighe and just didn’t have the energy (see item 2 on this list).
The end of the road is in Applecross with the famous fish bistro Applecross Inn with fish ice cream, homemade beer and some of the best seafood in England. We went and liked the food, but not so much the super slow service. Be sure to make reservations as this place gets crowded in top tourist season.
Applecross gets bonus points for the dolphin playing near the pier.
Another day, another Scottish drive. The Lochinver to Ulloapool drive only takes about 1 hour, but it’s well worth it because of the incredible views. It topped my list of Scotland’s best drives (check out that article for not only great drives, but also tips on driving in Scotland).
Not only does this scenic drive have great scenery, it also connects some of the best places in Assynt, so you’ll be driving on it anyway if you’re heading to these parts of Scotland. You just need to know beforehand that it’s gorgeous so you factor in enough time to take in all the scenery.
On one end you’ll have the Suilven hike and Achmelvich Beach (both items on this list). I also recommend stopping at Ardvreck Castle which is really photogenic and it’s also nearby a tomb that’s 2000 years old. Then there’s the Bone Caves, great for a slightly exhilarating little hike.
You’ll then drive right past Knochen Crag (item 3 on this list), a mandatory stop.
The road ends in the pretty city of Ullapool which has a cool name and is probably the best base for exploring Assynt as it’s reasonably big. The Arch Inn is simple, clean, and has a good restaurant and live music in the bar in the evenings. Some rooms have sea views.
The advice I wish someone would’ve given me (and strongly insisted I take it) in preparation for a Highlands visit: Pack very good (!) waterproof clothing! We had to buy all new jackets and shoes in Scotland after the stuff we took was deemed utterly insufficient about 7 minutes into our trip. And we had good gear! Just not Scotland-ready gear. That’s a whole other level.
To drive the point home: up to 3500 mm precipitation per year, that’s like 10x times California precipitation and basically constant rain.
And weather changes fast—from sunny and warm to snowing and freezing in a matter of minutes. See our very memorable account of this feature in the Knockan Crag section below. I’m cold just thinking about it!
Then again, Assynt would be packed by tourists if there were no rain, so lucky for us and for the destination, it rains a lot.
Assynt, a small parish in the northwestern corner of Scotland with just 1,000 inhabitants, is basically a huge national park and there’s nobody there. I think it’s because of the weather.
On the other hand, the Isle of Skye is also very rainy and absolutely packed with tourists. When we were there, we tried getting a table at 15 restaurants before we found a place to eat! That’s how packed theIsle of Skye is. But also amazingly beautiful.
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In this article, I focus on day hikes, meaning no overnight treks. Some are only a couple of hours long, some will take all day but all deserve their spot on this list… except for the last one. That one is more of a warning.
Some hikes you might know aren’t on this list. Why? Because if I haven’t been there, I won’t be writing about it, pretending to review something I have no clue about. So here is my list of hikes that I've experienced.
Edinburgh’s huge benefit is the city's perfect location in the southeast of Scotland. If you’ve already discovered all the nooks and crannies of this city, you should take a look also outside its borders. Let's go!