Weak sunlight peeped from behind the smoke-gray clouds and I surmised that today, like everyday for the past four days, was another classic Scottish day—damp and cold. Although I had hoped for perfect weather when I tackled one of the most famous hikes on the Trotternish Peninsula, the northeast area of the Isle of Skye, the time had come to suck it up and hike The Old Man of Storr anyway.
The sunny photos I had seen of the Isle of Skye truly made it appear one of the most gorgeous regions of Scotland, and although I didn’t have those views as I explored Portree, even in the rain it was atmospheric and pretty. Taking advice from those who had finished the hike in the previous day, I opted for layers—jacket, scarf, and raincoat—and my sturdy hiking boots, even though it was mid-August and seemingly could be warmer if the sun ever appeared. Then I headed to the bus stop to catch one of the four daily buses heading out that way, hoping the entire time for just a few sunny minutes when I got to the top—after hiking through the Himalayas in Nepal and seeing the peaks only for a tiny glimpse, I learned that I just need a bit of views and vibes to make the struggle of a steep hike worthwhile.
Hiking the Old Man of Storr
The Old Man of Storr is a signature sight not only in Skye, but it’s one of the top walks in Scotland. Rocky, jagged pinnacles (these are the Storr) jut into the sky from the hilly land on the Trotternish Ridge. These are ancient volcanic plugs (magma derived gabbro) from the Tertiary period that have eroded over time, likely because of an ancient landslide. If all of that sounds bizarre, that’s exactly why this hike is so popular, the landscape is otherworldly!
Hiking to the top is relatively short considering the height you gain, and although it’s classed as medium difficultly, it’s really quite steep at the end, and then compounded by vast swaths of mud that even the well-maintained trail can’t help you avoid. I imagine there’s no time of year when it’s truly dry—does Scotland ever see enough sun to dry out the mud? Other travelers and the hostel owner indicate that it is, in fact, always muddy. I was grateful for my hiking boots, but it was the gray rocks peeping from the mud that kept me from sinking calf-deep into the trail as I carefully made my way up the nearly 700 meters, to the sweeping panoramic views from the top of The Storr.
As I hiked, the weather seemed confused. It was damp and overcast, until it wasn’t. The sun would creep from behind the cloud cover, warming the land and forcing me to continually mess with my layers. T finicky weather also encouraged me to I pushing myself so I would reach the top while there was still intermittent sunshine illuminating the shimmering blue lakes in the Sound of Raasay.
The view from the top was incredible.
I picked a sloped spot just off of the trail and pulled out the lunch I had packed. It was peaceful up there. The poor weather meant it was less crowded than some had reported, and I was content to enjoy the bleating sheep munching on grass nearby.
Reinvigorated by food, I tacked the final 100 meter ascent to the base of the Old Man of Storr. This path is even steeper than what came before, but it’s the final push. I could not have timed it better, because although I had enjoyed the muted sunlight that had filtered through during my hike, a dark fog rolled over the land within mere minutes. Fingers of fog claimed each of the jutting peaks one by one, my fellow hikers disappeared from sight, and the world became dark and almost eerie.
It was seriously neat. The woman at the tourist information office in Portree had recommended this as a hike ideal in any weather, and she was right. The view of the Sound of Raasay is gorgeous, it’s absolutely something I think everyone hopes for on the hike, but it was also special to see the Storr through dense fog—it felt like I had entered the set of a Hollywood thriller.
Although I could hear disembodied voices meters away, they were muted and distant. A lovely quiet settled over The Storr.
I sat in the calm fog until the chill forced me hike back down the hillside.
Once I got back to the base of the hill, the forest cocooned me in its mossy green world as the damp permeated every breath and heartbeat. I made quick work of the forest trail—maybe too quick. The midges struck as I waited for the bus, and they were as intense as advertised by locals. These wigged, mosquito-like insects travel in clouds and they tried to infiltrate my nose, mouth, and ears, so I spent the long wait with my scarf completely around my face.
As I settled into the warm and midge-free bus, I watched the misty gray fog deepen and settle onto the hillside. The information woman was right—The Storr are beautiful and strange in any weather!
Quick Tips: Plan Your Hike to the Old Man of Storr
What to wear: Wear layers even if the sun is shining when you leave Portree. The weather changes quickly not only in Scotland as a whole, but on the hillside as well. You’ll be glad for waterproof boots and a raincoat, and I was grateful for the travel umbrella that I carried with me around Scotland—it made waiting at bus stop more enjoyable, so I highly recommend bringing one if you’re backpacking the area and not renting a car. Bring a scarf as well so you can protect yourself from the midges if they’re out in full force. And if you’re bringing nice camera gear, heed the warnings that it can be wet—bring your camera’s rain jacket and even consider a small dry bag.
What to bring: Although the weather may make a picnic lunch impossible, I deeply enjoyed sitting and snacking when the weather cleared and I had uninterrupted views of the Sound of Raasay. Consider packing one, especially if you’re taking the bus option since you are at the whims of public transport and it will take a bit longer round-trip than those with cars or shuttles.
When to hike: The hike busiest in high season between 10am and 4pm. If you have a rental car, it’s very easy to avoid these times and it’s highly recommended that you go either early or late. Note that the weather changes quickly during the hike, so you may face sunshine, rain, mist, etc. Lots of the hikers will leave once it starts raining—if you’re well prepared then you can usually wait out bad weather. If you’re keen on sunrise and sunset views, although the rainy mists mean there are no guarantees, the potential photos are spectacular. This photographer shares her tips on making that happen.
How to get there: Located just seven miles north of Portree, you have three options:
- Bus number 57 leaves from Portree throughout the day (generally 7am to about 5pm, but with abbreviated hours Sunday and Thursday). It drops you at the parking lot at the base of the hike. There are four return buses as well—check the seasonal timetable before leaving for the hike.
- If you’re driving, the carpark is on the A855 and will surely be full unless you’re there early or late—note that you can park your car in the grass along the road.
- Go Skye runs a seasonal shuttle service from Portree—it fills quickly, so book well ahead of time in high season. The fare is £10.00 each way to the Storr, and Go Skye has reasonable prices to the Fairy Pools and Quiraing as well.
Plan your route: You’ll see the hike listed as either 3.8 or 4.5 kilometers, and it all depends on if you take the slightly longer route on the way back down—you should! It’s not noticeably more difficult, just 20 minutes longer. In good weather, those 20 minutes are memorable. Either route is easily achieved in under two hours and every hiker starts at the trailhead (pinpointed here). It’s a well-marked path up through a forest (veer left when the path forks half-way up) and then up to the Storr as you ascend 288m. On the way back down, veer to the left instead of retracing your footsteps so that you come down via that fork in the road that you did not take! (Note: Do not hike around the back of the Storr, this route is unsafe with potential rockfall. That said, there is actually another more difficult hike to the summit of the Storr. It’s 719m at the summit and is best suited to experienced hikers—it’s outlined here.)
Onward travel: Check out my guide to top things to do in Portree, and consider buying the Scotland Lonely Planet before backpacking the area—I found the transportation advice invaluable in helping me backpack Scotland.