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One of the most impressive attractions in the Northern Highlands is the magical Smoo Cave and Waterfall.
It is a place of natural beauty on the coast and one of the most popular activities in Scotland on the NC500.
Smoo has the largest sea cave entrance in the UK and is quite unique as it was formed by both sea and fresh water.
It has so much history, legends and myths associated with it that it looks like something out of a fairy tale. I highly recommend adding this to your Scottish travel itinerary.
Here's a complete guide to the Smoo Cave Walk and Waterfall in Scotland, including the history, where to visit and what to expect!
What is Smoo Cave?
Smoo Cave is a beautiful spot in the North West Highlands of Scotland. Both a marine cave and a freshwater cave, it is one of the most popular stops on the NC500 trip.
There are three chambers that make up this beautiful cave. A large main cave that you can enter and explore and a smaller cave that contains a beautiful waterfall.
There is also a third inner chamber that you can only access by boat. They can organize a boat tour of the Smoo Cave and a tour of the geological cave to explore in the summer!
It is close to the village of Durness and accessed via a steep staircase leading down the cliffs and a footbridge.
Why is Smoo Cave called Smoo Cave?It is believed to be a Norse term, coming from the word 'smjugg' or 'smuga', meaning hole or hiding place.
How did Smoo Cave come about?
A natural wonder in Scotland, Smoo Cave was formed from sea and fresh water over thousands of years.
It is part of the Durness Group and was formed by natural erosion in the early Ordovician Dolomites. The cliffs are made of limestone and therefore the main cave was formed by the erosion of sea water.
It is the largest sea cave entrance in the UK and is an impressive 40 meters (130 feet) wide and 15 meters (49 feet) high!
Smoo Cave is unique in the UK in that the inner chambers that house the waterfall were formed by erosion from freshwater rainfall.
History and Facts of Smoo Cave
Some of the earliest human settlers at Smoo Cave are believed to date back to the Stone Age nearly 5,000 years ago.
The large cave and easy access to the sea provided the first communities with the perfect shelter and source of food.
Later, the Vikings chose this secret location as a place to repair boats or fish for herring. They would sail through the small bay to remain undetected.
The name 'Smoo' is believed to come from the Norse term 'smjugg', which means 'hidden place'.
Many myths and legends surround this cave. Some say it was a gateway to the fairy world, while others say it was associated with the devil.
It was also the site of a series of highwayman murders in the 16th and 17th centuries. It's been proven that Donald McMurdo used to throw his victims down the vent! You can visit his grave at Balnakeil Cemetery.
Sir Walter Scott visited the cave in 1814. He was both fascinated and disturbed by the glowing stalactites and dark water in the chambers.
In his diary he wrote: "A seaweed or an evil spirit of aquatic tendencies could not have chosen a more suitable abode."
Today, Smoo Cave is a popular tourist attraction in Scotland and is visited by thousands every year as part of the NC500!
Where is Smoo Cave and how to get there?
This magical sea cave is situated just outside the village of Durness, a very remote area of Sutherland in the North West Highlands of Scotland.
Driving to Smoo Cave is the easiest, and many people include this stunningly beautiful spot in their NC500 travel itinerary.
Durness is a 2.5-hour drive from John O' Groats. It is also 2 hours' drive from Thurso and 2 hours' drive from Ullapool.
Once you enter Durness on the A838, it is easy to find Smoo Cave as it is the main visitor attraction. There are several brown tourist signs for this.
Smoo Cave's address is Durness, Sutherland, IV27 4QB.Click here for a Google pin!
Is there a bus to Smoo Cave?
You won't find any railway lines here, the closest ones are in Thurso or Lairg an der'north end line' which you can access via Inverness.
But there is a bus company that stops in Durness in the summer (May-September) and that'Bus in the North End' (formerly called Durness Bus).
Durness Bus has services from Inverness, Lairg and Ullapool. They are often fully booked in the peak months (June to August) so I would try to book as early as possible.
Observation:If you plan on using public transport in the Highlands, planning ahead is essential! I always recommendTraveline Schottland.
Parking at Smoo Cave
Free, convenient parking is available at Smoo Cave, located next to the steps where the Smoo Cave walk begins.
These also have some free public toilets that you can visit before heading down to the sea cave. There are no facilities when you are downstairs.
Right next to the car park you will find some information boards about the history of Smoo Cave. You can read about how it came to be, the history and the wildlife here!
Smoo Cave opening hours
I was surprised to see that Smoo Cave is open 24 hours a day and is open year round. This makes it much easier to fit a visit into your NC500 itinerary.
Personally I arrived around 8pm in the summer and thought it was a fantastic time to visit as it was just for me.
I think I met the family the entire time I was here, which was over an hour. I wasn't planning on spending that much time in the cave, but the cave, waterfall, and cliff walk are really impressive, so I extended my visit.
There are some artificial lights in the cave, so even if you visit a little later at night, it's lit up - the chamber with the waterfall was lit up too! It looked so dramatic.
Despite being a marine cave, Smoo Cave remains accessible even at high tide. But sometimes heavy rain, melting snow, or thunderstorms can cause occasional flooding.
Is Smoo Cave free?
Yes! I also couldn't believe that Smoo Cave and even the spectacular waterfall were absolutely FREE to visit. It is almost unheard of in Europe for something as impressive as this beauty spot.
Saying that donations are always welcome in their visitor box in the cave to help with maintenance.
There are guided tours and even boat trips in Smoo Cave that run all day, but they come at a cost. See below for details.
How long will it take me to visit Smoo Cave?
You can spend just 20-30 minutes visiting Smoo Cave or 3 hours here. It totally depends on what you want to get out of your visit.
If you just wanted to get in and out of Smoo Cave as quickly as possible, it's definitely possible.
I would take the shortest flight of stairs to the left of the parking lot (just past the public restrooms) down to the cave. Cross the bridge below, visit the waterfall and then head back the way you came to the parking lot.
If you want to do the whole Smoo Cave Walk, including the scenic cliff walk, I would recommend allowing at least 45 minutes to an hour.
This leaves plenty of time to walk down to the sea cave, see the waterfall, climb the long steps to the top of the cliff to capture the spectacular coastal views, then head back to the car park!
Directions to Smoo Cave
Here are some driving directions to the Smoo Cave Walk in Durness, Scotland.
Getting around the cave and waterfall is pretty easy, but these instructions should help you know what to expect when you visit.
1. Park in the Smoo Cave parking lot
On entering the village of Durness, take the A838 towards Thurso / John O' Groats for around a kilometer.
You'll find a brown tourist sign for the Smoo Cave car park and there are free public restrooms here.
Parking is free and right next to it you will find some signs with more information about Smoo Cave.
Observation:Use the restroom before going down, as there are no restrooms in Smoo Cave!
2. Take the steep steps down the cliffs
As the Smoo Cave Walk is a loop, you have the option of walking either way along the cliffs to the cave.
The shortest route would be to take the stairs next to the public restrooms down the cliff to the bottom.
These are steep steps to go down, so don't be in a hurry. Once at the bottom, head to the wooden walkway.
3. Cross the bridge to Smoo Cave
There is a long boardwalk you can walk down to cross the water and reach Smoo Cave.
From here, you'll have incredible views of the opening of the UK's largest sea cave, so get your camera ready.
On the other side of the walkway you will see a small hut where you can organize your Smoo Cave tour if you are visiting during the day and in the summer.
4. Enter the cave and visit the Smoo Cave waterfall
After crossing the bridge, turn right and head straight to Smoo Cave. The main cave is absolutely massive!
Here you will see many "skylight" openings and smaller chambers to explore. There is some lighting if it's a darker day. You can see (or hear) many birds and bats that live here.
Go to the wooden walkway or bridge in the middle to enter the second chamber. Walk to the end to visit the spectacular Smoo Cave waterfall.
The cave is well lit even at night, and the waterfall has a skylight that looked midnight blue when I visited.
I didn't do a lot of research and to be honest I didn't expect to see a waterfall. I actually gasped as it was such a pleasant and unexpected surprise for me!
The amount of water cascading through the cave entirely depends on the amount of rainfall. It can get super wet if it rains.
This waterfall makes a mighty roar and the spray here can be strong, so make sure you pack a raincoat.
5. Exit the cave and go up the steep steps to the right.
After exploring Smoo Cave and the waterfall, exit the way you came through the opening in the main chamber.
When passing the hut, continue straight ahead on the path. Eventually, you'll see a longer set of stairs ahead that will take you back to the cliff.
If you have time, I highly recommend taking this route as it offers the best views of Smoo Cave!
Once at the top, you will be greeted with a panoramic view over the coast.
6. Go back over the cliff to the parking lot
This section of the walk back to the parking lot was exceptionally beautiful, especially on a clearer day.
There are many bridges and viewpoints from where you can see the sea over the cliffs. Then again, I would have your camera ready for a photo.
Then end your Smoo Cave hike in the parking lot where you started! It's a beautiful bow.
Smoo Cave Boat Tour and Guided Tours
Although Smoo Cave is free all year round, you can join some guided tours from April to October. At the time of this writing, Smoo Cave tours cost £10 per adult and £5 per child.
The tour takes you to a third chamber, which is virtually inaccessible. To get to this hidden chamber, take a boat past the waterfall.
You will also have the chance to see the famous Scottish piranha! Yes, to my surprise there are piranhas in Scotland.
Although part of the tour is by boat, this is not just a 'Smoo Cave cruise' - so don't expect a leisurely cruise.
You walk on uneven, wet and rocky terrain and there are some stairs. So be prepared to explore the caves with proper footwear and waterproof clothing!
Advance bookings are not possible due to possible flooding during heavy rain.Click here for more information.
Is Smoo Cave worth visiting?
100% YES! I actually went out of the way for an hour to visit this cave, just knowing it would be spectacular and well worth the detour.
You can plan a visit for even the shorter NC500 route and I would definitely make it a priority while here in the North West Highlands of Scotland.
It's free, easy to access, the views are stunning, the cave is spectacular and even has an amazing waterfall at the end - what's not to love?!
Honestly, there are no photos or videos of Smoo Cave that can really do it justice! You have to visit it to really admire its natural beauty.
My top tips for the Smoo Cave Walk
- Wear proper footwear –Although it's an easy hike, there are a lot of steps and the cave can get slippery. This is important if you are going on a caving tour!
- pack a coat- When it rains, Smoo Cave can get very wet. Also, the spray from the waterfall can be very violent!
- Bring snacks and water– There are no cafes in the cave. But there are some cafes in Balnakeil like Cocoa Mountain.
- wear repellent– Mosquitoes can proliferate here when there is little wind! To loadSmidgeto protect against bites.
Frequently Asked Questions about Smoo Cave
- Are there bats in Smoo Cave?Yes, and I LOVE bats, so I was so excited to see them flying. But that means you must remain vigilant. Bats in the UK will not harm you, but in the unlikely event that you are bitten, call 999 immediately.
- Can I take my dog to Smoo Cave?Yes, but keep your furry friends on a leash. Dogs cannot participate in boat trips.
- Are there piranhas in Smoo Cave?Yes, a boat trip gives you the chance to see Scottish piranha!
- Can you swim in Smoo Cave?No. The water in the main chamber is very shallow and the waterfall chamber is sealed! Would you like to swim with piranhas?
Where to stay near Smoo Cave
If you're not traveling by motorhome, there are a few hotels in Durness where you can stop to visit Smoo Cave and explore the surrounding area.
Here are some of the top recommendations;
- Smoo Höhlenhotel –the original hotel in Durness. It's a traditional crofting house so the rooms are traditional and have character.Click here to book.
- Durness Youth Hostel –AND perfect for backpackers and there are male and female dorms.Click here to check availability.
Where next in Scotland?
If you're on the NC500, this coastal portion of the trail is a highlight of the trip.
In Durness you can go toTirolesa Golden Eaglethis is an adrenaline junkie's dream! You can zip line or free fall down the cliffs.
Tongue is worth a stop and you can visit Castle Varich and Moine House and the Flows. There are also many beautiful beaches nearby overlooking Ben Loyal.
If you are heading towards John O'Groats you must stop at Thurso. Nearby you will find the Castle and the Gardens of Mey.
John O'Groats is always worth a stop. It is not the most northerly point of Scotland, but it is the furthest point from mainland Britain.Land's End in Cornwall.
There is a beautiful port and you can take a picture there with the sign! You can also drive there.Duncansby's headwith headlight and batteries.
If you have a day, I recommend a trip to the Orkney Islands. I made itOrkney Islands Maxi Day Tripwith John O' Groats Ferry and it was fabulous!
we visited theItalian capebuilt by Italian POWs along with the Barriers of Churchill.
Kirkwall, Stromness, the prehistoric village of Scarra Brae, Skaill House, the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness all in one day.
If you are going to Inverness you can visit Wick, Lairg withthe little hoseECastelo Dunrobin!
Read more of my articles on Scotland
Where is the pink castle in Scotland?
How to Visit the Kelpies in Falkirk
Harry Potter locations in Edinburgh
Outlandish places to visit in Scotland
How to visit Lallybroch from Outlander
Where is Dumbledore buried?
Visiting the Fairy Pools on Sky Island
Fairy Glen Isle of Skye guide
How to visit the Corpach shipwreck
Magic viewpoint at Kilchurn Castle
How to find Balmoral Pyramid in Scotland
Activities in Blackhouse Village
How to Visit Castle Stalker in Scotland
How to Visit Dunrobin Castle - Scotland's Fairy Tale Castle
Why You Absolutely Must Visit Leakey Bookshop In Inverness
How to visit the Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis
Save the Smoo Cave Walk for later!
The cave entrance is accessible via a circular walk which starts and finishes at the car park. The path that descends from the car park to the cave is quite steep and rough-surfaced in places, so not suitable for anyone with walking difficulties.Do you have to book SMOO cave? ›
Do you have to book Smoo Cave? Smoo Cave is accessible without booking as the main chamber is open 24/7, 365 days a year.How long is SMOO cave walk? ›
Experience this 7.1-km circular trail near Kinlochbervie, Highlands. Generally considered an easy route, it takes an average of 1 h 52 min to complete.Is SMOO cave free? ›
Smoo Cave is fully accessible 365 days a year public access with a walkway into the waterfall chamber, free of charge. Should you wish to venture further inside and learn about the natural and human history of the cave, then you can join us for a tour.
Can you swim in Smoo Cave? The short answer is, “No”. When you enter the first chamber of the cave, there is a tunnel-like wooden pathway that leads visitor to a viewing point for the waterfall. This point is fenced off to stop people from accessing the water and taking on the strong currents.Can you go in the La Jolla caves without a tour? ›
Six of the seven caves can only be accessed from the water. Booking one of the La Jolla kayaking and/or boat tours is the best way to see those caves. The seventh cave, Sunny Jimmy's Cave, is the only one accessible from land.