There is no doubt Scotland’s Isle of Skye is a magical destination. While most people visit the island during the summer months when the days are long and (sometimes) sunny, the off-season is also a wonderful time to visit.
Visiting the Isle of Skye in winter is something that not many are brave enough to do – shorter daylight hours, rainy days and icy roads can make this a logistically challenging destination during the coldest months.
However, those who make the journey will be rewarded with fewer tourists, more wildlife and the chance to catch the Northern Lights. If you’re considering a winter Isle of Skye trip, you’re in the right place. With a couple of winters now under my belt, I’ll reveal everything you need to know to get the most out of your off-season trip to Skye!
Read more: (opens in new tab)
- Seeing the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) on the Isle of Skye
- Recommended Hostels on the Isle of Skye
- Fascinating Facts About the Isle of Skye
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What to Expect from Visiting the Isle of Skye in Winter
Exploring the Isle of Skye in winter will provide you with a completely different experience to visiting during peak season. The island has a population of around 10,000 permanent residents but around 650,000 people visit every year, most of them in the summer season.
There are numerous benefits to visiting the island during winter but everything from driving, parking, hiking and camping all require a different rulebook and a more savvy outlook. You’ll need to get clued up before you head north!
- Fewer tourists
- Wilder experience
- No midges
- Northern Lights
- Starry Nights
- Journeys are quicker
- Easier to park
- Much colder
- Wet/icy driving conditions
- Reduced daylight hours
- Some facilities are closed
- Certain activities are not possible
- Camping conditions are not ideal
Isle of Skye Winter Weather
The weather on the Isle of Skye can be more than a little unpredictable, even during the summer. As you would expect from an island nicknamed the Misty Isle, Skye is famous for its foggy and rainy days which are common year-round. From my experience on Skye in the winter, it rains more often than not and dry good weather days can be hard to come by.
The lack of man-made drainage on the island means that the terrain soaks up all the rain. Although this is a factor year-round, it’s much worse in winter and you should be prepared for very boggy conditions outside of the towns. Considering that Skye is further north than most of inhabited Canada, its winters are warmer than you might expect. That’s not to say they’re not cold, (it will regularly dip well below freezing for days on end) but you probably won’t be needing a full-on snowsuit to explore. Despite this, the wind can get really wild and gusts over 50mph occur frequently!
The Isle of Skye does sometimes get snow but this mostly falls on the hills. However, icy roads are still something that visitors to the island will have to be prepared for.
Owing to Skye’s proximity to the jet stream, the weather is hard to predict (so never trust the forecast) and conditions on the island can change rapidly. Sometimes, you will experience all four seasons in just one day!
Isle of Skye Winter Daylight Hours
As the Isle of Skye is located so far north, daylight hours vary dramatically across seasons. In the height of summer, it’s rarely dark enough to properly see the stars. On the day of the Summer Solstice 2023, the sun rose in Portree at 4.36 a.m. and set at 10.09 p.m. That’s a whopping 18 hours of daylight!
However, during winter on Skye, you may get as few as six hours of daylight – or even fewer depending on where you are based – there are many days when the sun never fully rises above the mountains!
This is an important consideration for those visiting the Isle of Skye because it means that, unlike in summer, you will have less time in the day to get out and explore the island. While this can seem a big disadvantage on the surface, there are still plenty of great reasons to visit Skye in the winter.
One huge advantage of the shortened daylight hours will be a massive draw to photographers. As the sun rarely rises high in the sky, it massively opens the window of opportunity to snap photos during the famed ‘golden hour’ and truly showcases the island’s most magical attractions.
The reduced daylight also means super impressive night skies. The Isle of Skye is home to several dark sky areas great for stargazing. During winter, clear nights mean epic views of the Milky Way and it is even sometimes possible to see the Aurora Borealis, a.k.a. the Northern Lights!
Driving on Skye in Winter
The Isle of Skye is known for its epic driving and plenty come to the island just to road trip the Trotternish Loop. Although these single-track roads can be challenging for international visitors year-round, winter on Skye presents new obstacles.
Due to the sheer amount of rain during the winter, there is often a lot of water on the roads. In cold temperatures, this freezes, leaving the roads icy. Although most of the main roads will be gritted during bad weather, other more rural routes won’t be, so you will need to be confident driving in winter conditions.
Grit will often be left alongside rural roads in case of bad weather but this is not guaranteed. Furthermore, you will need to hope that the grit has not already been used during a previous cold snap.
Even if you are not planning on venturing into the mountains with your car, it is worth knowing that Skye is full of steep roads which can be hard to negotiate in bad weather. Some roads are completely impassable in bad weather so make sure you pay attention to road signs – it is easy to get stuck on a narrow mountain pass!
Potholes are a real issue all over the island year-round and you will need to pay close attention to these when driving. Some of these monsters have the potential to rip off your tyres if you take them too quickly! Also, be wary of any particularly deep puddles as these could be hiding a pothole.
Parking on the Isle of Skye
To cater to the increasing tourist numbers on the Isle of Skye, the local authority has had to introduce additional car parks. There are now dedicated car parks close to the major attractions such as The Quiraing and The Old Man of Storr; all of which come with a charge.
The cost for the car park at the Fairy Pools and the Old Man of Storr costs £5 per visit and there is also a car park at the Fairy Glen. All of the money generated through car park fees is put back into maintaining local facilities (for example, the toilets at the Fairy Pools and Old Man of Storr).
Parking on the Isle of Skye during winter is not generally an issue as there are fewer tourists. This means that small parking places and village parking are much more accessible during the winter months. Be aware that while the car parks may be comparatively empty when compared to the summer, you will still be expected to pay for parking (if applicable).
Winter Wildlife on the Isle of Skye
While you won’t get the migrating seabirds that the summer brings, winter is still a great time to spot wildlife on the Isle of Skye. Seals are routinely spotted in winter as are Red Deer.
Although livestock roams freely on the Misty Isle year-round, they can pose a threat to drivers during the winter. As the island is so much quieter, the animals are bolder and tend to come closer to the road.
Sheep may sometimes run out in front of you and there is also an increased risk of hitting a deer in the winter months. Be aware that in bad weather, the animals may not always see or hear you coming – you should always drive sensibly to avoid accidents.
One huge bonus of visiting Skye in winter is that you can avoid the dreaded highland midge. These biting insects can make a summertime visit miserable, especially for campers. The good news is that they can’t survive in winter conditions.
Things to Do on the Isle of Skye in Winter
You’ll be pleased to hear that most of what you can do in the summer on Skye, you can also do during the winter. All of the most popular hikes are generally accessible (unless there is very heavy snowfall or treacherous icy conditions).
The main difference between winter and summer on the island is the need to be prepared for boggy and wet conditions. You will also need to dress for the changing weather. There is a recommended packing list at the bottom of this article in case you are looking for specific information regarding gear and clothing.
You can also get your teeth into some hillwalking during the winter. Three of the Munros in the Cuillin are classed as non-technical, Bruch na Frithe, Sgurr na Banachdich and Bla Bheinn. However, these should only be attempted by experienced mountain hikers on clear days with good weather.
Other parts of the ridge are accessible but they require technical hiking skills and should only be attempted alongside a guide. The weather can be unforgiving and diminishing daylight hours means that there is little room for error.
It is always good to have an offline copy of your trail map. After all, phone signal comes and goes, especially in more remote areas! To make sure that I don’t get caught out, I use AllTrails Pro. It allows me to download trail maps direct to my phone and also tracks my journey, compiling my stats at the end. I also love sharing my adventures with the AllTrails community! Try a 7-day free trial of AllTrails Pro here.
The best thing about any kind of hike on Skye in winter is that the trails are practically empty. Just before Christmas, I did the entirety of the Quiraing loop walk and met just a handful of other people. This is a world apart from the bustling crowds you can expect to see in the summer!
Bear in mind that most of the tours on Skye don’t run during winter. This includes boat trips to neighbouring islands and also day trips to visit the main attractions. If you plan to do lots of things like this on your trip, you may want to reconsider your timing.
Talisker Distillery and the nearby Eilean Donan Castle are open year-round. However, Dunvegan Castle closes for the winter. Many shops and cafes open seasonally too, (traditionally from April to October) so be aware of this. Owing to the short daylight hours and the comparative lack of tourists during the winter, a lot of the facilities close for the off-season.
Wild swimming on the Isle of Skye is very much still possible during winter, however, it will be very chilly! If you are braving a dip during the winter months, it is advisable to wear a wetsuit.
How to Get to the Isle of Skye
The best way to experience the Isle of Skye is to drive. Skye is connected to the mainland by the Skye Bridge. This links Kyleakin with Kyle of Lochalsh and is free to cross. Bear in mind that during strong winds, the bridge can close to traffic, resulting in delays. Driving is the only way to reach the most far-flung parts of the island, particularly in winter when there is a reduced bus service.
Those driving around the highlands in winter should make sure that they have adequate travel insurance, breakdown cover, plenty of de-icer, a scraper and new tyres. These don’t need to be brand new but will need to have a bit of life in them to cope with the rough island roads. The roads on Skye can get very icy so make sure you’re prepared for the conditions!
Alternatively, there is the option to hop on the ferry from Mallaig to Armadale. The journey takes around 30 minutes but there is a reduced timetable in winter, coming into effect around the end of October. I recommend checking the schedule in advance reserving a spot to be on the safe side.
Glasgow and Edinburgh both have Citylink buses which run to Portree. However, foot passengers should bear in mind that local public transport is infrequent at best and doesn’t venture as far as many of the main sights. In some parts of the island, there will be no public transport over the weekends. Hitchhiking is common across Skye but during winter, there will be fewer people to offer lifts.
Where to Stay on the Isle of Skye
Many accommodation options on the Isle of Skye close for the winter season, either at the end of September or October. The following places come highly recommended and are open year-round.
This traditional hotel is located close to one of Skye’s best castles, Dunvegan. The decor is cosy and there is a real log fire for those wintry nights. Breakfast is included in the room rate and there is also an on-site restaurant.
Cuillin Hills Hotel (££)
Situated with one of the best views of Portree, Cuillin Hills Hotel is conveniently located out of the hustle whilst still being close to the amenities. The on-site View Restaurant is said to boast some of the best mussels on Skye!
An Clamhan (£££)
For a taste of high-end luxury on the Isle of Skye, look no further than An Clamhan. This beautiful holiday home is of modern design with all the mod-cons. You’d be hard-pressed to find somewhere with better mountain views.
Camping on the Isle of Skye During Winter
All of Skye’s official campsites close for the season in September so if you choose to bring a tent, wild camping is your only option. Boggy conditions from excessive rainfall make camping logistically difficult as many of the popular wild camp spots are a washout. This includes those close to the Sligachan Bridge and the spots alongside the road leading to Portree.
If you are wild camping on Skye during winter, make sure you are travelling with a sturdy tent that can withstand the elements! High winds and very wet conditions can make camping a miserable experience – especially if your gear isn’t up to the job!
Those visiting the Isle of Skye in a camper van or motorhome should not have issues if they are planning to sleep in their vehicles. In Portree’s main car park, there are electric hookups for campers.
What to Pack for the Isle of Skye in Winter
When it comes to packing for a winter trip to the Isle of Skye, you can’t go far wrong if you remember the wise words from Scottish comedian Billy Connolly: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing, so get yourself a sexy raincoat and live a little.”
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, make sure you have packed the following items if you’re planning a winter visit to Skye.
- Waterproof jacket
- Gore-tex hiking boots
- Sweat-wicking leggings or waterproof trousers
- Hiking poles
- Buff or hat
- Waterproof socks
- Hand sanitiser
- Travel insurance
What is the Isle of Skye like in winter?
The island is much colder and wetter during the winter months, however, there are far fewer tourists.
Is it safe to drive in Isle of Skye in December?
Yes. The bridge is open year-round making the island accessible. The driving conditions may be wet and slippery but the roads are safe.
How many hours of daylight does the Isle of Skye get in the winter?
You can get as few as six hours of daylight on Skye during the height of winter.
Does the Isle of Skye get snow?
The Isle of Skye does get snow throughout the winter, particularly in the mountains. It can occur as late as April!
Do the Fairy Pools freeze in winter?
Yes. When the conditions are cold enough, the Fairy Pools freeze, offering visitors a very different kind of experience!
Is it Worth Visiting the Isle of Skye in Winter?
Yes! Although daylight hours are fewer and the weather can be wild, visiting the Isle of Skye during the winter months is a unique and magical experience. The lack of tourists means you can enjoy the enchanting landscapes and attractions, without constantly battling to lose the crowds.
Although the cold requires extra layers, it also means that the Scottish midges are in hibernation, providing a welcome relief from these pesky wee insects! Snow-capped mountains provide world-class scenery and dark nights showcase the incredible starry sky and even offer the chance to catch the Northern Lights.
You might have to be prepared to be a bit flexible but if you’re happy to change your plans on a whim (or just get wet), visiting the Isle of Skye in winter might well be the best trip you take!