On the north coast of Scotland lies the incredibly impressive Smoo Cave. This hugely vast cavern is one of the most outstanding natural wonders in Scotland. In addition to the sheer size and wonderment of this mega grotto, you’ll be delighted to discover a spectacular waterfall cascading within one of its secret chambers. Smoo Cave is the largest sea cave opening in the whole of the UK. And, along with exploration of its rocky beach inlet, Geodha Smoo, Smoo Cave is easily one of the best things to do in Durness and on the entire NC500 (North Coast 500).
In this guide, we’ll provide information on what and where Smoo Cave is, as well as how to get there. We’ll give a brief description of the walk and what to expect within the cave itself. Afterwards, we’ll cover accommodation options, answer some FAQs and provide ideas for other things to do in the Durness area.
To see footage of some of the incredible places you’ll find along the NC500, please watch our NC500 Hikes YouTube production below.
For other great attractions and hikes in Scotland, check out our guides on The Bone Caves, Sgurr a Chaorachain and the Whaligoe Steps. Otherwise, read our Complete Guide to Hikes Along the NC500 post, where we talk about 18 fantastic NC500 hikes.
What is Smoo Cave?
Smoo is a large sea cave. Its huge opening, some 40 metres wide, has been carved out by years of sea weathering and erosion. But, within the cave itself, you’ll find further hidden chambers. Incredibly, these were not carved by the sea, but by fresh water. You’ll see evidence of this as you witness the incredible waterfall that runs from Allt Smoo inside one of the inner chambers. This mixture of fresh and seawater erosion makes Smoo Cave in Scotland rather unique.
History of Smoo Cave
Smoo Cave in Durness is an archaeologist’s dream. In fact, many artefacts have been found dating back to the Norse/Viking era, as well as the Neolithic, Stone and Iron Ages. These include the discovery of fish, mammal and bird bones. Also found within the cave entrance chamber were bits of boat paraphernalia, like iron nails. This likely means the cavern, and its epic natural harbour was used to repair and/or build boats.
Of course, Smoo Cave was used for centuries, on and off, by smugglers. Just one look at the place and you can appreciate the appeal, such is its naturally hidden location. Legend also has it that the large opening is the gateway to the faerie world. It’s easy to see how romantic stories like that have been dreamt up.
The name ‘Smoo’, likely comes from the Norse word ‘smuga’ or ‘smjugg’, which means a hole or hiding place.
Where is Smoo Cave?
Smoo Cave is located on the northern shores of Scotland, just east of Durness. As such a remarkable natural landscape, it’s no wonder Smoo has become such a popular thing to do in Durness and a fantastic stop along the NC500.
How to Get to Smoo Cave?
Smoo Cave, with its pebbly inlet beach, sits on the A838 road within the Sutherland region of the Scottish Highlands. The giant cavern is easy to reach whether travelling the NC500 in either a clockwise or anticlockwise direction, with ample parking and facilities nearby.
Ullapool to Smoo Cave
If travelling from the west, and the Ullapool area, the journey will take just under two hours with a distance of 68 miles (110km). Of course, it would be easy to visit Smoo Cave in Durness as a day trip from Ullapool. But, there are so many amazing hikes and attractions to see along the way, like Quinag, Eas a Chual Aluinn and Wailing Widow Falls to name just a few. Don’t miss them!
Inverness to Smoo Cave
If you’re not driving the NC500 at all, then you might choose to shoot straight up to Smoo Cave from Inverness, Scotland. As the gateway to the highlands, transport links are pretty solid from this fantastic city.
The drive from Inverness takes a little under three hours and is 106 miles (170km) long. You’ll head north towards Lairg, before joining the A838 along Loch Shin and following this all the way to Durness.
If you want to get to Smoo Cave via public transport, to enjoy this incredible natural wonder and rocky beach, as well as check out other things to do in Durness, you’ll find it’s a bit of a shlep. Still, you can do it by either taking a bus or the train.
The bus option leaves Inverness for Leirinmore, from where you can walk down to Smoo Cave. The journey time is around three hours and you can check the timetable here.
Alternatively, you can take the train. You will need to take the train from Inverness to Thurso. Once at Thurso, you can catch a bus to Smoo Cave. It’s a long train ride at almost four hours, but you can check the timetable here. The bus from Thurso is an additional two hours – you can check the timetable here.
Getting to Smoo Cave, or any of the attractions along the NC500 in Scotland, is certainly easiest with your own vehicle. If you don’t have access to your own car/motorbike/camper, then we really recommend hiring something. If hiring a car on a trip, we always get the ball rolling with a search on RentalCars.com. Booking a car with Rentalcars.com is easy and stress-free, plus they offer an unbeatable free cancellation policy too.
Smoo Cave Parking
Once at Durness, you’ll find the car park on the west side of Smoo Cave. Here, you’ll find public toilets as well as a few places to grab a bite to eat and a coffee. The parking is free and a decent size to be honest. Dan and I visited in August, during peak season, and didn’t struggle for a parking spot.
Additionally, from the car park are some fantastic views out over Geodha Smoo and down towards the pebbly beach at the opening to Smoo Cave.
Smoo Cave is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In addition, it’s also free to visit. Don’t you love it when you don’t get charged for the cool stuff?
Smoo Cave Map
Smoo Cave Walk
From the car park, you’ll first follow the trail and steep steps down into the geo (sea inlet). At the base, the path turns right and crosses a bridge to the opposite side of the inlet, across the top of the pebbly beach.
Geodha Smoo and Caves Beach
From the bridge, views through the narrow inlet are quite superb. Dan and I even ventured down off the bridge to take a walk across the rocky Smoo Cave beach and enjoy even better views through Geodha Smoo.
Incredibly, the inlet of Geodha Smoo was once part of the cave complex, many moons ago, but weathering and erosion by the sea caused it to collapse.
Smoo Cave, Sutherland
After crossing the walkway you’ll reach the formidable Smoo Cave entrance. This giant opening is quite breathtaking. This first chamber is 40 metres wide, 15 metres high and some 60 metres deep. You’re free to explore this main chamber, with its mossy green walls and framed windows out to Geodha Smoo.
Next, you’ll cross a covered walkway that leads into the second chamber, also known as the Waterfall Chamber.
Smoo Cave Waterfall
You guessed it, inside this second chamber is a spectacular waterfall. This breathtaking cascade drops 20 metres into a dark pool below. A low lighting system helps to illuminate the cavern and the whole experience is mightily impressive. Scotland might be full of excellent waterfalls, but you’ll be hard-pushed to find many inside a cave!
The water that drops into Smoo Cave runs from Allt Smoo (or River Smoo) above ground, dropping through a hole in the ceiling. On a very wet and stormy day, the ceiling gap is said to make quite an impressive blow hole from above. Also, the waterfall is weather-dependent and so less rain will mean a less dramatic cascade.
Return Views of Smoo Cave Beach
Once you’ve enjoyed the cave, you can return by taking a small trail that leads up the eastern side of the cave entrance and rises sharply up the cliffside. It’s a long path that offers more incredible views of Geodha Smoo and the pebbly beach outside the cave below.
Once back at the top, turn right to follow the trail back to the car park. As the trail cuts across the top of the cave opening, you’ll have some of the best views of the surrounding landscape and coastline of Smoo Cave in Scotland.
There wasn’t really much opportunity for Dan and I to speed hike on this quick visit to Smoo Cave. That’s best reserved for some of the exceptional hikes along the NC500 like Suilven and Stac Pollaidh.
What’s speed hiking? It’s a great way to cover a trail faster, for the thrill of it! Find out more about speed hiking here.
Smoo Cave Tours
Although there are two chambers you’re free to explore yourself, there is also a third chamber. But, this one requires taking a tour. Specifically, a boat or geological tour. If you want to venture further into the cave and listen to some expert knowledge on its history and evolving formation, then this might be a tour you want to consider.
Smoo Cave Boat Trip
Smoo Cave tours typically run from April to October. But, if the weather is particularly horrid and wet, then tours can be cancelled last minute. This is due to the risk of flooding.
Despite being described as a boat tour, that only sums up part of this short 20 minute trip further inside the cavern. Some of the tour is on foot, so a ‘geological’ tour better sums up the experience. Safety equipment, such as hard hats, is provided (it’s compulsory to wear them). The tours typically start with a quick boat ride into the furthest reaches of the cave, past the waterfall. Then, it’s time for some intrepid exploration on foot to see parts of Smoo Cave not reached by the everyday visitor.
To find out more about the Smoo Cave Boat Tour, you can click here.
Where to Stay Near Smoo Cave
Below, we’ll take a look at some of the best accommodation options for proximity, as well as within easy reach of other things to do around Durness.
Hotels Near Smoo Cave, Durness
- Budget – Durness Youth Hostel: whether you opt for a twin room, family room or dorm, you’re sure to love the excellent location and facilities at Durness Youth Hostel. There’s even an on-site bar to relax in after a day of exploring.
- Mid-range – Wallaby’s: the beautiful Wallaby’s apartment in Durness has three bedrooms, two bathrooms and includes free private parking. A real home away from home vibe here.
- Luxury – Bae Seren: this fantastic holiday home is spacious, well-equipped and within excellent distance of all the Durness attractions. Bae Seren is dog-friendly and has a large garden for furry friends and their owners to enjoy.
Smoo Cave Campsite
In Durness, you’ll find a great camping option that puts you within excellent proximity to Smoo Cave as well as other great things to do in the area. Sango Sands Oasis is a beautiful cliff-top campsite with wonderful north coast views, which provides guests with an electric hook-up, as well as a modern shower and toilet block, camp kitchen and laundry facilities. If you’re in a tent and don’t need electricity, then the campsite operates a first come first served policy, in which, no reservation is required.
Smoo Cave Fun Facts
- You can find piranhas in Smoo Cave. Like, for real. I make no joke. Dan and I once fished for piranhas in the Amazon Jungle in Peru, which seems fair enough. But, we were not expecting to find out there are piranhas in Scotland. Apparently, this can be put down to continental drift some 300 million years ago, when Scotland and South America crossed paths, so to speak.
- Scottish novelist and poet, Sir Walter Scott, once described the effect his candlelight had on the many stalactites of Smoo Cave as like the ‘effect of ten thousand birthday candles‘ in an 1814 diary entry. That’s a pretty nice way to describe it, don’t you think?
- Smoo Cave has three off-shoots – Glassknapper’s Cave, Antler Cave and Wetweather Cave.
Below, we’ll answer a few of the most commonly asked questions in regard to visiting Smoo Cave in Scotland.
How Long is the Smoo Cave Walk?
Allow around one hour to walk and explore Smoo Cave, the beach and cliff-top lookouts. The length of the walk is a little more than 1km in total.
What is Smoo Cave Famous For?
The cave is most well-known for being the largest sea cave opening in the UK. The carved-out chambers by both seawater and freshwater, with the addition of an internal waterfall, make the cave quite unique.
Is Smoo Cave Dog Friendly?
You betcha it’s doggo-friendly. Just make sure to keep said fluff on a lead at all times and be a responsible owner if nature calls.
Can You Swim in Smoo Cave?
No, you cannot swim at Smoo Cave. The Waterfall Chamber even fences off access to the water to prevent people from trying to swim. It’s not safe to do so as currents are very strong.
Who Owns Smoo Cave?
The Highland Council owns and manages Smoo Cave.
Is There a Bus to Smoo Cave?
Yes. In fact, transport links to Durness and Smoo Cave are much better than in other parts of rural Scotland. Please see above for more details.
Is Smoo Cave Free?
Yes, it’s free to visit and you can visit any time of the year. But, if you want to delve deeper into the cavern, it is necessary to book a tour, which isn’t for free. See here for more details.
So, is Smoo Cave worth visiting? Absolutely! As a quick stop to stretch the legs on the lengthy drives along the NC500, you can’t go wrong with a visit to this outstanding natural attraction. In addition, it’s a nice change up from all the hikes I’m sure you’ll have crammed in, or will be cramming in, to the west coast section of your road trip. Also, this north coast of Scotland has some of the most outstanding beaches in all of Scotland, with those around Smoo Cave no exception.
The geology, history and freedom to explore this place are what truly make this a must-see attraction when passing through Durness in Scotland along the NC500.
Other Things To Do in Durness
- Smoo Cave Zipline: Britain’s most northerly zipline is found east of Smoo Cave in Scotland along the A838. The Golden Eagle Zipline shoots thrill-seekers across the stunning Ceannabeinne Beach, with excellent aerial views of just one of Scotland’s outstanding beaches.
- Beach life: there are plenty of world-class beaches in Scotland. Many of these are found close to Durness. Why not stop in at Balnakeil or Sango beaches?
- Longer walks please: it’s possible to combine a visit to Smoo Cave with a walk inland to Bhlar Duibhe. The walk takes around two hours in total and is a great way to get a little more off the tourist track. See here for trail information.
These are our five hiking gear essentials for the walk to Smoo Cave in Scotland! For a more extensive hiking gear list, check out our 66 Travel Accessories That You Must Travel With. Alternatively, for a general summary of everything you’d need for a trip to Scotland and the North Coast 500, visit our Ultimate Packing Checklist.
Why do you need this?
See it in action
These hiking boots are comfortable and well suited to the rugged terrain of walks on the NC500
This camera is hands down the best compact digital camera on the market. Lightweight, compact and durable, the Sony Cybershot RX100 VII takes fantastic photos and high-quality 4K videos
Don't even dream of going outdoors in Scotland without a rain jacket. Especially up on the north coast
A great backpack for hiking, which has plenty of storage capacity and a great size for carrying extra layers incase of chilly north coast winds
The DJI Mavic Air 2 is an awesome drone that takes incredible aerial footage. We had a small window to fly ours during windy conditions. The shots were worth it
- Arrive early: as with most popular attractions, arriving early inevitably means you’ll beat the crowds. Alternatively, sunsets are supposed to be rather special, so perhaps you’ll decide to rock up at the end of the day instead.
- Rain is good: to see the waterfall at its best, visiting after a heavy bout of rain is a great idea.
- Scottish surfing: why not take to the sea and learn how to surf in Scotland? I took a surf lesson in the arctic waters of Norway once and can highly recommend having a go in these less obvious locations.
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