The Isle of Skye is one of the most beautiful and evocative places in Scotland. See some of her most impressive sights with this one-day driving itinerary for the Isle of Skye.
If you’re planning a trip to Scotland, no doubt you’ve heard of the Isle of Skye. The place is legendary, a land of idyllic lochs, stunning sea cliffs, rolling green hills, and craggy, barren mountains. Skye feels like a world unto itself, moody and brooding, frequently shrouded in rain or mist, with landscapes that could almost make you believe those stories about faeries are true.
There are so many wonderful things to do on Skye that you could easily spend a week here. The coastline is gorgeous, with plenty of opportunities for kayaking and boat trips. There are hidden glens to explore, cozy pubs to haunt, and some of Britain’s finest mountains to climb. Even just heading out for a drive is a pleasure on Skye, as the narrow, winding roads take you past idyllic farmsteads, shining lochs, and other jewels of this wild corner of Scotland.
To that end, today I want to share with you a driving itinerary for the Isle of Skye that will allow you to see some of her most popular attractions in a single day. That’s not to say that you should limit your time on Skye to one day or that all the best experiences are listed here. You need at least two to three nights on the island to do it some small semblance of justice, and there are lots of other great activities listed at the bottom of this post that are also well worth your while.
Rather, what you’ll find here is a circuit of the northern reaches of the island. It includes a number of excellent stops – including one of the absolute best on the island, the Quiraing – that are all easily managed in a single day. They’re far from off the beaten path, but you’re missing something special if you don’t go.
An Important Note Before We Begin:
The driving itinerary below mostly focuses on the northern part of the island, in particular the Trotternish Peninsula and other spots north and northwest of Portree. This is the most heavily trafficked part of Skye, with some of her most popular attractions. While there’s good reason for the crowds – the scenery is spectacular and easy to access – this is also an area that has suffered the painful effects of overtourism over the past few years.
While I do feel that the sights below are well worth seeing during your time on the Isle of Skye, I encourage you to take the following tips to heart to avoid contributing to the island’s tourism woes:
- Plan to spend at least one night on the island rather than making it a day trip from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness, or elsewhere. Not only will you have more time to appreciate this incredible place, but you’ll inject more money into the local economy and have more of a positive impact on the areas you’re visiting.
- If possible, consider traveling outside of the summer months, which is the peak tourist season. We had a great experience in mid-September.
- Be respectful of local people and environments. Regardless of what you’ve seen on social media, do not move rocks or create “natural” designs in places like the Fairy Glen. And, for goodness’ sake, don’t litter. (How is that still a thing, anyway?)
- Drive slowly and carefully, and obey all posted signage.
One-Day Driving Itinerary for the Isle of Skye
Portree is the biggest town on Skye and a convenient base for exploring the island. Many people choose to stay here, but even if you don’t it’s a good starting and ending point for your driving tour. Admire the view of the colorful houses along the harbor from the viewpoint on Bosville Terrace, then grab any last-minute snacks and fuel before heading north to your first stop: The Old Man of Storr.
Stop 1: The Old Man of Storr
As you leave Portree, you’ll notice the dramatic scenery of the Isle of Skye starting to embrace you. This is the Trotternish Peninsula, one of the most famous and well-traveled parts of the island – for good reason. Less than fifteen minutes’ drive will bring you to the car park for the Old Man of Storr, a striking basalt rock formation perched on the hillside. While you can certainly admire the landmark from the foot of the hill, it’s worth taking some time to make the two-mile roundtrip hike to get an up-close-and-personal look.
Stop 2: Lealt Falls and Lealt Valley Diatomite Mine Railway Ruins
Another five minutes north brings you to Lealt Falls and the ruins of the Lealt Valley Diatomite Railway. It’s tucked in between the more famous attractions of Storr and Kilt Rock, but it’s still worth a couple minutes’ pause. From the car park on the right side of the road, follow the path along the hilltop for beautiful views of the falls, the coastline, and the small patch of ruins below.
Stop 3: Kilt Rock
So named because the rocks of the cliff face are folded and textured like a kilt, Kilt Rock is another pretty photo stop on your driving tour of the Isle of Skye. It’s three and a half miles from the Lealt Falls car park, and you get the added bonus of Mealt Falls in the foreground cascading over the cliffs to the sea below.
Stop 4: The Quiraing
If you stop for nothing else on this Isle of Skye driving itinerary, do not miss the Quiraing. Tucked into the interior of the Trotternish Peninsula is a landscape so otherworldly it would make Tolkein feel right at home.
Turn left off the main road (A855) near Staffin toward Uig. As you drive the two miles to the lookout point, the hills grow around you, with strange peaks and cliffs overshadowing the farms and fields below. Park in the parking area near the top of the hill, make the short walk to the viewpoint, and prepare to pick your jaw up off the spongy ground.
The Quiraing was formed by landslip, which explains why it looks like the earth just fell away and left craggy rocks and pinnacles behind. Walk along the paths admiring the place from all angles, or grab a seat on a rock and spend some time in quiet contemplation.
While I, like most people, generally hope for good weather when traveling, the Quiriang was one place that I felt really benefited from the fact that it was a rainy day. The low clouds, mist, and general gloom only made the landscape seem more moody, ominous, and otherworldly. Regardless of the weather, however, the Quiraing won’t disappoint.
If you can tear yourself away from the Quiriang, there are two options to continue your driving tour. We chose to return to Staffin and complete the loop up and around the top of the peninsula, but you can also continue across Trotternish to the town of Uig. The former route is a little less than eighteen miles and will take you at least forty-five minutes without stops, but the scenery is more than worth the time.
The more direct route is six and a half miles and around twenty minutes. Although there isn’t much to Uig by way of services, it’s a good place to stop for a snack or lunch. We ate at Bakur Bar (also known as Pier Restaurant), which had decent food and nice views of the ferry dock.
Stop 5: The Fairy Glen
An Instagram darling, the Fairy Glen is hidden in the hills outside of Uig. Like the Quiriang, it’s also a landslip, and thus also features some strange rock and land formations. There are cone-shaped hills and little ponds, all surrounded by vibrant green vegetation. True to its name, it’s the kind of place that could almost make you believe in fairies.
A quick note: while you may find rock designs and spirals like the one in the photo below upon visiting the Fairy Glen, these are made by tourists and considered vandalism by locals. Please be respectful and follow the age-old traveling adage of taking only pictures and leaving only footprints. The landscape is magical enough.
Stop 6: Dunvegan Castle and Gardens
Next up on your Isle of Skye driving itinerary is Dunvegan Castle, the home of the chief of Clan MacLeod. It dates back to the 1300’s, though most of the building is practically new by that standard, having been built between the 17th-19th centuries. It takes at least forty-five minutes to get there from the Fairy Glen, but once you arrive you’ll be greeted by an imposing fortress and beautiful gardens. The castle is right on the water, giving it a stunning setting that feels right out of a storybook.
You can explore on your own or take a guided tour, and there are even special tours for children! The gardens are the real attraction here, especially if you’re feeling a bit castle-d out by this point in your journey through Scotland, and you can visit them separately for a lower price than the combined castle/gardens tour.
Stop 7: Neist Point Lighthouse
Located on the far western edge of the Isle of Skye, the Neist Point Lighthouse is only twelve miles from Dunvegan Castle but feels a world away. The lighthouse is perched atop some high sea cliffs and stares out toward the Outer Hebrides. Apparently you can see those islands on a clear day, though it was dreary and gray when we visited so they were hidden from view.
The cliffs are still impressive, even in the gloom, and the remote location made you feel like you were standing on the edge of the world. The area is worth a visit in any weather, though I will say that it’s probably not worth trekking the whole way out to the lighthouse if it’s raining.
Two tips for your visit to the Neist Point Lighthouse:
- Thanks to Instagram, the lighthouse has become a tremendously popular destination, especially at sunset. Be prepared for crowds if you come at that hour, though the photo ops are admittedly pretty spectacular.
- Watch where you step! Sheep roam the rolling hills surrounding the path to the lighthouse, and they see little difference between walkway and grass when it comes to doing their business.
Stop 8: Talisker Distillery
It’s time to celebrate your successful completion of your Isle of Skye driving itinerary with a dram of whisky! One of the best places to do this is at Talisker Distillery near Carbost. The oldest distillery on the island – and, until 2017, the only one – Talisker’s whisky is delicious and its setting on Loch Harport is lovely.
It will take at least an hour to reach Talisker from the Neist Point car park, but it’s another beautiful drive that will have you thanking your stars that you made it to Skye. While the whisky is excellent, if you have to choose between savoring the journey and making it to the distillery on time, pick the former.
Please note that the distillery and its tours close at 4:30 or 5:00 PM depending on the season, so if your days’ adventures take longer you’ll need to grab your celebratory dram in a pub. (The one at the Old Inn next door will do nicely!)
End: Return to Portree
To complete your circuit of the Isle of Skye, make your way back to Portree after your celebratory dram. There are plenty of restaurants and pubs to fill you up after your day of exploring and lots of cozy places to lay your head. Wander the scenic streets, stroll along the colorful harborfront, and catch some traditional music in a pub. It’s a perfect way to end your day.
Tips for Planning Your Isle of Skye Driving Itinerary
- Try to get an early start. Not only is there a lot to see in one day, but many of the destinations listed above are very popular. The earlier you head out, the fewer crowds you’ll encounter on your way.
- Many of the roads on Skye are narrow, with room for only one car at a time. Make sure to drive slowly, be courteous, and utilize the passing places when you come upon other vehicles.
- Be prepared for your drive times to take longer than anticipated. The narrow, winding roads of Skye eat up time and make liars out of GPS estimates.
- Summer is high season on Skye, so to avoid crowds consider visiting in the fall or early spring. The busiest months are July and August.
- As the main tourist hub on the Isle of Skye, Portree can be quite busy. It’s best to make dinner reservations, if possible.
- Above all, take your time! While you may be tempted to rush through this itinerary to fit everything in, the joy of Skye is in relishing the views and reveling in the experience. Stop (safely) for photos when the scenery strikes you, drive slowly on the narrow and winding roads, and let the day and the island take you where it will.
Where to Stay on the Isle of Skye
We stayed at The Old Inn in Carbost (near Talisker Distillery) during our time on the Isle of Skye. The accommodations weren’t luxurious, but they were clean and comfortable. The included breakfast was tasty, the pub was fun at night, and the views when we woke up in the morning were divine.
In addition to the Inn, there are plenty of other places to stay on the island. If you want to be where the action is (relatively speaking) and get an early start on your driving tour of Skye, Portree is a great place to base yourself. Broadford is the other “big” town on the island and is conveniently located near the Skye Bridge and the turnoff for Elgol. Personally, I would recommend finding a small bed and breakfast or inn away from the hustle and bustle. Previous vacation planning clients of mine had a great experience at the more secluded Toravaig House Hotel near the southernmost part of the island.
If You Have More Time...
While this driving itinerary can show you some of the best of the Isle of Skye in one day, please don’t limit yourself to spending only 24 hours on the island. Skye is such a beautiful, captivating place that anything less than a couple of days is selling yourself short. Plus, with Scotland’s notoriously fickle weather, staying two or three nights on the island maximizes your chance to do everything you’d like to do.
Here are some other suggestions for things to do on Skye:
- Go sea kayaking. Skye’s coastline is rocky and gorgeous and ideally explored from the water. Hiring a kayak and guide is at the top of my list of things to do on the Isle of Skye when I (hopefully!) return.
- Speaking of getting out on the water, we absolutely loved our boat trip to Loch Coruisk. This little adventure leaves from the tiny village of Elgol and takes you to a hidden lake surrounded by the imposing and impressive Cuillin Hills. It’s a hiker’s paradise but equally worth a trip to just admire the scenery, both from the boat and on land. At the very least, take the drive from Broadford to Elgol; it’s stunning.
- Stop in and visit and of the many art galleries, artisan shops, and museums that dot the island.
- Hike, hike, hike. There are so many great hikes and walks all over the island, ranging from arduous treks into the Cuillin to short, easy walks nearer to the towns. There’s no better place to be on a fine day than in the open country on Skye.
- And finally, on your way to or from the Isle of Skye, make sure to stop at Eilean Donan Castle. This stunner, which is situated at the intersection of three lochs, was my favorite castle in all of Scotland.
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