The drive to Durness is next on your Scotland road trip. But that’s only if you’re following our Alternative North Coast 500 Route, heading anti-clockwise. You’ll now be leaving the Tongue area, hopefully after a beautiful Ben Hope climb.
After our climb we were back in the car and heading west. The drive from the Kyle of Tongue Bridge and Causeway to Durness is spectacular, and to really do this north-west corner of Scotland justice you’re going to need 3-4 days.
- Things to Do: Tongue – Durness
- Ard Neakie Lime Kilns Viewpoint (from Heilam)
- Ceannabeinne Beach
- Smoo Caves
- Sango Sands Beach
- Balnakeil Beach
- Balnakeil Craft Village
- Faraid Head
- Cape Wrath
- Kearvaig Bothy
- Shops in Durness
- Bars, Cafes, Pit Stops and Restaurants around Durness
- Wild Camping Around Durness
- Official Accommodation
- Tongue to Durness Budget Breakdown
Things to Do Tongue – Durness:
This remote north-west corner of Scotland, including Durness, was one of our favourites on the whole trip. It’s difficult to describe the sparseness of the landscape here. There’s nothing, nobody. A few small smatterings of croft cottages and fishing boats dot the highland terrain and coast. Apart from that, it’s glorious, unspoilt scenery as far as you can see.
It had been a childhood dream for a few of our group to reach remote Cape Wrath. Incredible Kearvaig Bothy, on the way, was one of the highlights of the whole trip. Along with taking in spectacular Ceannabeinne Beach and wild camping on Balnakeil Beach, this area really deserves to be taken slowly. If you blast through Durness in a day, what’s the point in road tripping Scotland? You see nothing. Stop off, explore the area properly and you’ll be glad you left the long-distance drives for a few days.
Ard Neakie Lime Kilns View (from Heilam)
Leaving Tongue and heading for Durness, the views you’d dreamed of on your Scotland road trip suddenly begin to appear.
After crossing the bridge and causeway, you’re heading straight for Loch Eriboll. You’ll know when you see it, because you’ll find the iconic inlet of Ard Neakie Lime Kilns. Find out a little more about Loch Eriboll and the history of the kilns here. To be honest, we were only interested in the views.
Now, lime kilns themselves may not be particularly interesting. Don’t worry, you don’t have to pretend to be excited about any tours or museums here. Stop off at some point on the highest part of the road (picture below). You’ll have spectacular views of the inlet from Heilam. You’ll also get some great, sweeping views of lovely Loch Eriboll.
Your next stop, if you’re aiming for Durness in the north-west of Scotland is, is Ceannabeinne Beach. Do not miss this one. Trust us.
Ceannabeinne is a spectacular beach, exposed on Scotland’s rugged north coast. There’s a slightly gimmicky zipline you can ride over the beach too. It’s £12 and lasts about 30 seconds. We didn’t bother –we’ll leave the choice up to you.
The parking area for the zipline is for customers only. However, drive a little past this and pull up on the grassy verge. Park here and you’ll be able to walk to the top of the cliffs on the eastern extreme of the beach. This is a phenomenal viewpoint, and you can see the zip line, the road behind the beach and all of that gorgeous turquoise water.
When you’re done with the views, hop back in the car and drive to the free car park at the beach. It’s a couple hundred metres walking down to the perfect white sands. There’s also a large waste bin in the car park – please, PLEASE use it.
Go for a wander on the beach, feel the sand between your toes and have a splash in the water. Ruth, keen as always, even managed to do a wee bit of climbing on the rocks at the western side of the beach.
WEE TIP: Ceannabeinne would be a great wild camping spot. There’s loads and loads of space, a bit of wind (to keep the midges away) and a car park nearby. We were happy with Balnakeil, but if you’re on a different timescale this is a great alternative. Follow the rules and don’t start fires on any of the dunes or grassy area.
The Caves and Boat Ride
Now. Everybody that’s been following our WITRAG Travel adventures will know how much we despise caves. Smoo Caves didn’t quite provide the ‘we’ve been wrong this whole time’ eureka moment. We still hate caves.
This is also probably one of the most touristy attractions on the whole North Coast 500 circuit. There’s a good chance the official (free) car park will be full. If it is, there’s another lay-by slightly east, which is also free. From here you can walk the 100 metres or so to the original car park. You’ll pass a cool bridge on the way, which is actually the roof of the caves. This is as good as it gets.
Once you’ve walked down the wooden walkways to the caves, you’ll find a huge, dramatic opening. It’s obviously been battered by a ferocious sea over the years and admittedly, it’s pretty cool. There’s a box for donations to the team of volunteers working at Smoo Caves. They’re determined that there’s a huge underground cave network in Durness, and desperate to discover it.
Once inside the caves, you’ll find a stand for the ‘boat ride’. Let us explain. The ‘boat ride’ is a 10 metre journey across the water to an entry point. The guide on the boat will give you some spiel for 5 minutes and drop you there. After you’ve been dropped off, you’ll have a good 20 minutes to wander around inside Smoo Cave. £6 return.
And guess what? Smoo cave looked just like the other million caves we’ve seen. It was dark, wet and had some cave-like rock formations. It’s a cave. We weren’t spending £6 and 30 minutes on another one. If you do end up checking out Smoo Cave, leave a Comment below to let us know how it was. Or, don’t actually. We don’t really care about caves. Is that coming across?
Thankfully, you can leave the caves a different way you entered them. Another set of steps will lead you up from the beach up to the headland. You’ll get great views of the inlet, and see plenty of guillemots and other seabirds. It’s a lovely stretch of perfectly clear water – great for kayaking and paddleboarding.
Maybe we’re being harsh, but Smoo Caves wasn’t exactly a highlight for us. However, we couldn’t leave it out. If caves are your thing (what’s wrong with you?!) then you’ll probably want to check it out. They’re just not for us.
Sango Sands Beach
Sango Sands Beach is nice. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s just ‘nice’. Maybe we’d already been spoilt by the beaches we’d seen and we’re reviewing it unfairly. Maybe the super-crowded caravan park just behind it took away from some of the atmosphere.
Regardless, it’s still a nice beach and a useful place to stop off. There are some famous Sango Sands Steps (constantly featured on IG) you should look out too. There are plenty of signs in the official car park warning against overnight parking of cars and campervans. There’s also CCTV pointing down on to the car park, so it’s certainly not recommended.
WEE TIP: we think it would also be really difficult to wild camp on Sango Sands Beach. As with any beach that has an official campsite just next to it, it’s harder than usual not to attract attention to yourself. Our recommendation? Stay at Ceannabeinne or Balnakeil for less fuss.
Sango Sands is still a very useful spot for re-charging and replenishing water, but we’ll come to that later. Another good thing to know is that there is very good phone signal around the beach.
Contrarily, Balnakeil Beach is a beauty. When we pulled up in the car park and found dogs, paddleboards and camper vans, we knew it was the one for us. It’s a long, wide beach and a perfect spot for some wild camping. You won’t be alone, but there’s plenty of space for everybody.
If you’d like to know a little more about the do’s and don’ts of wild camping, check out our top tips for Wild Camping along the NC500. Balnakeil car park has plenty of bins and even recycling stations so please, please, use them. Don’t leave anything at all on the beach.
We camped just next to the sand dunes and had our campfire on the beach. We also spotted a wise camper that had his tent set up on the grassy headland at the far end of the beach, for anybody feeling more adventurous. Otherwise, you can expect perfect sunset swims, lovely sands and brilliant water.
WEE TIP: again, you’ll need to bring your own firewood. There’s none to be scavenged here.
Balnakeil Beach is also the start point for an apparently amazing walk to Faraid Head. Unfortunately for us, as we started walking the heavens truly opened. We quickly back-tracked to the car and promised to return another time.
It’s a 4-mile round trip. You can expect to find all sorts of sea birds (including puffins!), beautiful sand dunes and sea cliffs. Easy-going and with plenty of things to see, Faraid Head is a great way to pass a couple of hours. Be sure to read up on the route before you go. In the Durness area of Scotland, this is probably the easiest way to see sea stacks and seabirds nesting. The alternatives require quite a bit more effort.
Balnakeil Craft Village
If you’ve come this far, don’t miss Balnakeil Craft Village. This is the most north-westerly community in Britain. A disused and abandoned military camp, it was converted in to an artistic collective in the 1970s. Nowadays, you’ll find a cluster of craft, ceramic and woodwork shops. Local artists and businesses have been operating in the village for years and developed something of a reputation for quality craft.
Most of the stores were closed when we visited. I suppose the opening hours are all pretty relaxed. We still managed to visit the ‘most remote chocolatier in Europe’, in Cocoa Mountain Café. The hot chocolate was decent, coffee was alright and the staff were friendly. We took some time to charge up electronics and use the very, very slow wifi.
And for Cape Wrath! The site of mystery, history and innovative engineering. We enjoyed Britain’s most north-westerly point so much we’ve written a separate post about How to Visit Cape Wrath. We’ll also share details about a walk you can do on your own, and a hidden wee gem which provides cover for the night.
The same goes for Kearvaig Bothy. Locally known as ‘Kerwick’, we absolutely loved this desolate, isolated spit of land. The beach, bothy and sea stacks are out of this world. If you’re staying in Durness and fancy standing on the most north-westerly point of Scotland, why not make a trip out of it and stop in Kearvaig? It’s impossibly pretty and surprisingly comfortable. Check out our Guide to Kearvaig Bothy.
Shops in Durness
Durness is a good place to stock up and make the most of the water and electricity re-charge points.
Mathers is a decent little shop with old sweets and even some alcohol too. Open 10:30 – 17:30 weekdays. If it’s closed when you arrive, fear not. It re-opens from 20:30 – 22:00. Firewood available for £5.50
Spar along the road is very well equipped. We even found some tasty avocados in store – how far have they travelled to arrive there? Open 08:00 – 18:00. 10:00 – 13:00 Sunday. Firewood available from £4.50.
There’s also a rather famous 24-hr petrol station in Durness.
Bars, Cafes, Restaurants & Pit Stops
Sango Sands Oasis Restaurant & Bar is a very useful addition to the Caravan and Campsite. The staff were incredibly friendly and let us charge our electronics with just about every socket going (even behind the bar). Good quality food at incredibly fair prices, and there was even a local-ish Lochinver Larder pie on the menu. The wifi was very quick, (signal in the area is great anyway) and the toilets were all very clean. Highly recommended for a quick refresh if you’re roughing it like we were.
You can also check out Cocoa Mountain Cafe in Balnakeil Craft Village. For simple, no-fuss food, there’s also a Burger Van just past Durness on the way to Cape Wrath pier. Open until 5pm.
Wild Camping Around Durness
We really wouldn’t recommend camping on Sango Sands. Apart from the CCTV, ‘no overnight parking’ signs and next-door caravan park, it isn’t even the best beach in the area.
Check out Balnakeil and Ceannabeinne for a fun, free night of wild camping.
For those less keen on roughing it, there are some good accommodation options in Durness. Any of these are likely to sort you out:
- Sango Sands campsite and caravan park (from £9 pp)
- The Lazy Crofter Bunkhouse (from £22)
- Durness Smoo Youth Hostel (from £26 in single-sex 12-bed dorm)
And that should be everything you need to know for visiting Durness on your Scotland road trip. If you’re following our North Coast 500 Alternate Route, then you’ll be heading south next. Find out everything you need to know about the area in Part 3 of our North Coast 500 Alternative Route.
Going the opposite way? Then you’ll want to check out Part 1: Around Tongue.
Have we missed anything out? Did you find any other treats around Durness or anywhere else in Scotland? Let us know by leaving a Comment below. Otherwise, you can get in touch through our Contact page.
Tongue to Durness Budget Breakdown
- (included in Overview costs)
- Balnakeil Beach wild camp x1N
- x2 meals in Sango Sands Restaurant £16
- x1 round in Sango Sands Bar £20
- x4 tins in Mathers £6
- firewood in Mathers £5
- Cocoa Mountain cafe £6
Total for 1D/1N: £53
The above budget is for x2 people. Food and alcohol prices are likely to vary. We drank our fair share, and had plenty of pub food.
This budget breakdown isn’t meant to be an exact record of what we spent, but should give you a rough idea of what you’re likely to spend.
*all currencies accurate at the time of writing (August ’19)
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