The Old Man of Storr is a popular but beautiful Isle of Skye hike! Read on for details.
Isle of Skye Hike: Old Man of Storr
Scotland’s Isle of Skye is a playground full of otherworldly features. Pinnacles of volcanic rock jut up from the earth in seemingly random places, fairies flit around pools tucked into verdant glens, waterfalls spring from treeless moors and tumble across highways, and craggy, forbidding mountains create an imposing skyline. It isn’t just beautiful; the Isle of Skye will make you say “I can’t believe this is real, and I can’t believe I get to be here.” It’s no wonder this far-flung landscape is one of Scotland’s most visited places and can’t-miss part of any Scotland road trip.
With so much natural beauty, Skye is a hiker’s paradise. Sure, you can take it all in from the seat of a car, but why not explore a little deeper by taking an Isle of Skye hike? (Plus, if you’re if concerned about how much a trip to Scotland costs, hiking is always free!) There are multi-day treks through the Cuillin mountains, casual walks through glens, and lots of options in between, like visiting the Old Man of Storr.
A number of Skye’s features have become famous instagrammable landmarks, either because of their aesthetic appeal or the legends attached to them. One formation in particular is well-known for both reasons; the tower of igneous rock acts as a sentinel on the island’s northeastern coast, along what’s called the Trotternish Ridge. For who knows how long, the Old Man of Storr has been greeting settlers, farmers, Vikings, Scotsmen, and modern-day tourists to the bonnie green shores of Skye. Today, it’s one of the best (albeit most popular) hikes on the island.
Isle of Skye Hike: Old Man of Storr
What’s with the name? Scotland is a land full of myths and legends, and the tale behind this rock formation is another example. Surprisingly, no, it doesn’t look like an old man. The Norse people occupied Skye during much of its early history, and some of the current placenames reflect their influence. “Storr” is the Norse word for “great man” and is the name for a cluster of volcanic rocks that includes the “Old Man” that the hike visits. Legend has it that the Old Man of Storr was a giant that lived on the Trotternish Ridge. When he died and was laid to rest, his thumb (the “Old Man”) remained partially aboveground. Why it isn’t called “Storr’s Thumb” or something like that is anyone’s guess. They didn’t leave the naming to me!
With only a short amount of time to explore the area, I wanted to choose an Isle of Skye hike that was more than just a walk through a meadow but not a strenuous trek, but one that visited one of Skye’s quintessential sites. Everything I had read about the hike said it was exactly that: not easy, but anyone could do it. Plus, the views were incredible. I was sold, my parents were game, and so I made the hike a non-negotiable part of my Scotland itinerary.
Was it worth it? Can anyone do it? Since it’s so popular, what were the crowds like?
To make things easier for those who are here just for the facts, the need-to-know section is first, followed by my family’s honest experience hiking to Isle of Skye’s Old Man of Storr.
Things to Know Before Hiking to the Old Man of Storr
- The trail is steep but short. Roundtrip is only 3.8km, 2ish miles.
- As someone in their mid-twenties who lifts weights, dances, and is in generally good shape, I found this trail to be pretty easy.
- My parents are definitely not couch potatoes, but they’re also not gymaholics like I am. They’d probably rate this as moderate for how steep it is and it’s numerous slick and kind of dangerous sections.
Time to Complete: 1.5-2 hours
- It depends on your speed, how many breaks you take, how much time you spend taking pictures, how many side trails you explore, etc. BUt straight up and back down can easily be done in the given time frame.
Where to park
- The trailhead is located 7 miles north of Portree on A855. You have 2 options for parking your car:
- There is a main parking lot at the trailhead. However, it can fill up early in the day if you’re visiting during peak tourist season (July-August)
- A quarter-mile before reaching the trailhead, there’s a parking lot for a bus stop on the left side of the road (going north). If the other lot is full, park here.
What to bring/wear
- Since it’s a short hike, you don’t need to bring much besides water, snacks, and a camera
- Be sure to dress for the changeable Scottish weather:
- Waterproof jacket (even if there’s no rain the forecast)
- Hiking boots with good traction
- Layers (it was much windier and colder at the top than at the parking lot, even though we didn’t gain a lot of elevation)
Hiking to the Old Man of Storr
For all the same reasons I picked the Old Man of Storr as our Isle of Skye hike, it is one of the island’s most popular hikes. Which means that the limited parking area gets full pretty early. Fortunately, our AirBnB host warned us about this the night before and told us about a lesser-known car park a quarter mile down the road from the trailhead. (As you drive north on A855 out of Portree, a quarter-mile before you reach the Old Man of Storr lot, there’s a gravel lot by a bus stop on the right. It was basically empty when we arrived at 10 AM, while the other lot was already packed. Cheers to our awesome host for the tip!)
As I mentioned, the Isle of Skye is characteristically windswept, barren, almost treeless. The upside is that means you can see all of its fascinating, beautiful features: no rock formation or glistening waterfall is tucked behind a row of bushes. The downside is that there are no illusions about how straight-up a hike will be. You can look and see that the whole trail is, in fact, straight up.
My mom has 26 years of experience with me dragging her onto trails I promised wouldn’t be so bad. Like last year, when I *accidentally* took my parents on a 16-mile hike on Glacier’s Highline Trail. So I’m sure she wasn’t entirely surprised when she looked up from the parking lot at the trail ahead and realized this would not be the walk in the park that I (or any of the articles I had read online) had advertised.
From the parking lot, you can see the whole length of the trail as it snakes its way over the moor and up the mountain to the Old Man. It didn’t use to be this way though. The first half of the trail once traveled through a pine forest, but the trees were cut down a few years ago. They were a non-native species brought to Skye for the purposes of logging, but now the government is rehabilitating the area and allowing native plants to grow. Now, that part of the hike follows a recently re-graveled wide path that goes through a series of gates marking the new vegetation areas.
Although we could see immediately that this was going to be a less-than-leisurely stroll through a meadow, we could also see that the “crowds” didn’t really exist. Yes, the car park was filled to capacity. But the owners of those cars were so spread out along the trail that it didn’t look packed. And, spoiler alert, no part of the trail ever felt crowded, something for which we were very thankful!
The trail changes dramatically once it leaves the previously-forested section. There’s one last gate to pass through, and then the trails goes from a wide easy-to-manage series of switchbacks to an almost nonexistent footpath straight up the ridge. It’s less a trail and more a “choose your own adventure, pick which way looks easiest” path. Because, with nothing blocking the view, you can see the end goal – the Old Man towers over hikers the entire way. It’s not as if you can get lost!
But while getting lost isn’t a concern, staying upright may be. While the first half of the trail would be fine to hike up in any kind of weather, the second would be really dicey in slick conditions – which, being Scotland, is very common. We were there on a rare, clear un-Scotland like day, but the path was muddy in spots from past rain showers. Some spots were extremely slick. My mom’s hiking shoes didn’t have much traction, and it was rough going for her, especially on the way back down. But she only slipped a couple of times, and popped right back up like a piece of toast!
Despite that, this is the part of the trail where the real fun begins. When you’re not picking your way over rocks and around mini-lochs and mud puddles, look behind you – you can see why doing an Isle of Skye hike is an amazing way to better appreciate the island. The views just get more and more amazing the higher you move up the mountain – sights unfold below you that simply can’t be gotten from the road.
There’s no real end to this hike, no signpost saying “you are here” (or cheerleaders congratulating the less-than-fit for making it to the top), or an obvious summit with the best view. Instead, you get to choose where your endpoint is. In the picture above, there’s a rock outcrop that many hikers choose to scramble on top of as their “end of hike” spot. This had been our original goal (ok, MY goal; my mom was less enthused about hiking MORE uphill than was necessary); at least, until a young man passed us on the way down with blood dripping down his legs, telling us how the wind had knocked him over while standing on top of the rock. Stubborn and not one to be deterred, I was willing to bet he was being a *tad* dramatic and wanted to push on. But when we got up to the saddle, the wind came pummeling over the ridge – my mom actually crouched down so that the howling gusts wouldn’t bowl her 5ft-even self off the mountain!
Not wanting to lead my parents to an untimely death-via-wind (because there’s got to be a more epic way to go than “wind”), I sought out a more suitable ending spot. Just past that rock outcrop is another gate, and from there the trail leads out to the edge of a massive cliff, where the Trotternish ridge abruptly ends. A truly stunning spot with clear views of Raasay Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, Skye’s epic greenness, and that super impressive cliff. And once we were past that saddle, we left both the wind and most of the other hikers behind us. Which meant we were free to take lots of pictures without getting in anyone’s way!
On the way back down, we had to pay a visit to the Old Man of Storr (after all, that’s who we came to see!). One of the many side trails leads directly to the base of the volcanic rock formation. Close to the rock jumble, there’s a sign that says not to go any farther because of the possibility of falling rocks. Or at least it did until someone with stickers decided to edit it. It’s up to your own judgment to either do what the sign says, or…do what the sign says.
We took the advice of the hikers who had gone before and read the edited version of the sign.
The Old Man of Storr is a great Isle of Skye hike. For seasoned hikers or anyone in shape, the Old Man of Storr is a breeze. It’s all uphill, but roundtrip is only 2ish miles. For everyone else, well…it’s only 2ish miles! The views were amazing, the time commitment was minimal (so we had more time to explore other parts of the island), and despite its popularity, the crowds were manageable.
If you’re thinking about checking out an Isle of Skye hike, I definitely recommend paying the Old Man of Storr a visit!
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