The Whaligoe Steps is a human-made stone staircase leading to the natural harbour of Whaligoe Haven in Caithness, Scotland. The Whaligoe Steps walk descends some 365 steps, where views of this incredible geo, sheer cliff face and the rugged North Sea are quite incredible.
In this guide, we’ll tell you a little about the history of Whaligoe Steps, as well as where in Caithness, Scotland to find them. Then, we’ll cover a little about the walk down and what to expect, before answering some FAQs. Lastly, we’ll take a look at accommodation options in the area and other wonderful things to do along this section of the NC500 (North Coast 500).
The Whaligoe Steps are a fantastic stop along the NC500 road trip in Scotland. To see footage of the wild landscape of the Scottish Highlands and incredible attractions and hikes along the way, please watch our NC500 Hikes YouTube production.
For other great natural attractions along the NC500 in Scotland, check out our guides on Duncansby Head, The Bone Caves and Falls Of Kirkaig. Otherwise, read our Complete Guide to Hikes Along the NC500 post, where we talk about 18 great NC500 hikes.
About Whaligoe Steps
The small port of Whaligoe was first prospected by Thomas Telford in 1786. However, it was Captain David Brodie who had the steps cut into the rockface and which then transformed Whailgoe into a thriving little harbour, capable of serving at least 14 herring boats.
The incredible human-made staircase leads down to what is actually a naturally formed harbour between two towering cliffs. At the base, Whaligoe Haven has a spacious flat platform, known as the bink. The bink allowed larger fishing boats to be able to dock.
Fisherwomen used to haul the catches of the day, specifically herring, up the steps in baskets. The fish was then taken to nearby Wick and sold.
So, despite the tourist attraction it now is, Whaligoe Haven and the incredible steps down are steeped in fishing history. They were very much built for a much more everyday purpose. Volunteers now maintain the steps.
Where Are Whaligoe Steps?
The Whaligoe Steps are located in the small village of Whaligoe, on the northeast coast of Scotland. The steps fall within the Caithness region of the Scottish Highlands. Additionally, Whaligoe Haven is one of the best natural harbours to be found in the area. Whaligoe Steps are around 7 miles (11km) south of Wick and 28 miles (45km) north of Helmsdale.
Directions to Whaligoe Steps
Getting to Whaligoe Steps in Caithness is very straightforward. The trailhead to the walk down the steps to Whaligoe Haven is just a short detour from the A99 in Scotland. Whether travelling from the Wick area to the north, or Lybster to the south, you will need to turn onto a minor road towards the coast once you reach Whaligoe.
Directions to the steps are not well-signed. This is despite Whaligoe Steps being a popular stop along the NC500 in Scotland. As a waymarker, there is a BT phonebox on the corner of the access road you need to take. On the opposite side of the road is a brown sign pointing towards Cairn of Get.
However, a simple search on Google Maps should get you there okay, as you can see from the map above.
To get to Whaligoe Steps via public transport, it’ll be best to travel from Wick. Here, you should pick up bus 175 heading south towards Dunbeath. Be sure to alight at the stop called ‘Smithy Cottage’, and walk to Whaligoe Steps from there.
Of course, the easiest and most straightforward way to travel through the northern reaches of Scotland and complete the NC500 is with your own set of wheels.
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.
Whaligoe Steps Car Park
After turning onto the minor road, you’ll drive past a small row of houses before arriving at the parking area, next to Whaligoe Steps Cafe. The Whaligoe Steps Car Park is small, with room for perhaps eight cars maximum. Luckily, visits down the steps and to Whaligoe Haven don’t take too long and so the turnaround of visitors should be fairly quick. But, with that being said, it’s common for the area to become quite busy, with cars backlogged down the narrow streets.
Whaligoe Steps Map
Whaligoe Steps Walk
From the car park, you’ll head past the Whaligoe Steps Cafe, and continue a small trail that leads to the top of the steps. From here, there are glorious views across the North Sea and the giant cliff walls that fall away into the choppy waters below.
The steps down to the natural harbour may be steep, but they are surprisingly well-kept and easy to climb down. Although, care should always be taken when using them. The stone staircase zig-zags its way down the steep cliff face towards the hidden inlet below.
At the base of the steps is Whaligoe Haven. The natural harbour is quite incredible. Rising up sharply and surrounding this narrow channel of water, are huge towering sea cliffs. The pastry layers of rock rise up creating a naturally sheltered haven.
There’s a large grassy platform on which to explore the harbour at the base. Here, you’ll see the crumbled stone remains of old fishing houses. Once you’ve enjoyed exploring, including the big cave down there, tide allowing obviously, then it’s time to hit the stairs again.
Of course, climbing back up the Whaligoe Steps in Caithness is much harder than climbing down. But, don’t worry, with a steady pace, you’ll be back at the top in no time.
As the steps are steep and can be a little precarious, Dan and I thought better of trying to speed hike around the Whaligoe Steps and Haven area. But, as the visit is so short anyway, it really wasn’t necessary.
What’s speed hiking? It’s a great way to cover a trail faster, for fun! Find out more about speed hiking here.
Whaligoe Steps Waterfall
Sadly for Dan and I, we didn’t have any clue about the existence of a Whaligoe Steps Waterfall when we visited on our trip to Scotland. So, let me enlighten you so you don’t miss out like us.
At the top of the steps, there should also be a faint trail that veers to the left, into the grass. The trail heads, somewhat precariously I might add, to the end of a small headland overlooking Whaligoe Haven to the right. From here, you should be able to spot a rather spectacular waterfall, dropping from the cliff edge and down to the sea below, on your left.
If you have a good head for heights and take the usual precautions when exploring exposed cliff tops, then by all accounts it’s well worth the effort of exploring!
Whaligoe Steps and The Cairn of Get
Of course, as big hikers, Dan and I usually like to make more of a walk out of something if possible. But, sometimes we don’t always have the time. So, although we were short of time during our visit to Whaligoe Steps in Caithness, you may not be. To that end, here’s a little information about combining the Whaligoe Steps and the Cairn of Get.
Back on the A99, instead of turning towards Whaligoe Steps, take the opposite road, signposted to Cairn of Get. At the end of this short track and next to Loch Watenan is a small parking area. After parking, the walk begins by heading a short distance back down this track, before turning left and passing through a gate between two farms. From here, you can follow black and white posts that waymark the route to Cairn of Get.
Part of the trail crosses boggy terrain. The installation of a wooden boardwalk happily counters this. Follow this until you reach the Cairn of Get.
The Cairn of Get is a chambered cairn, in the ground. It was once a burial site from the Bronze Age and would likely have had a roof over the top. The whole historical site is quite incredible.
To visit Scotland’s Whaligoe Steps from here, simply return the way you came, but, instead of returning to your car, continue along the minor road back down to the crossroads with the A99. Cross over, past the BT telephone box and onwards to Whaligoe Haven.
Nearest Accommodation to Whaligoe Steps in Scotland
As a popular stop along the east coast section of the NC500, there’s no shortage of accommodation options close to Whaligoe Steps in Caithness. Below, we’ll take a look at the best budget, mid-range and luxury options.
- Budget – Thrumster House: if you’re after excellent value for money, then look no further than Thrumster House. This Victorian manor house has thoughtfully decorated rooms and is set within 20 acres of gardens and woodlands.
- Mid-range – North Coast Escapes: for a cosy self-contained escape along the NC500, you can’t go far wrong with North Coast Escapes. The sea view is particularly good.
- Luxury – Claymore Cottage: to stay in the heart of Whaligoe then you’ll want to book Claymore Cottage. This holiday cottage comes with three bedrooms and features a modern kitchen and all the usual comforts. The sea views are superb and you can be enjoying sunrise over the Whaligoe Steps in Scotland in mere minutes from the front door.
How Long Does It Take to Climb Whaligoe Steps?
It takes the average walker around 30 minutes to an hour to climb down to Whaligoe Haven and then back up to Whaligoe Steps Cafe. This of course depends on how long you linger at the bottom.
How Many Steps Does Whaligoe Have?
Whaligoe has 365 steps leading down to its natural harbour. The steps are steep and care should be taken.
Are Whaligoe Steps Always Open?
Yes. The steps are open all the time. 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.
Do the Whaligoe Steps Ever Close?
In short, no. As previously mentioned, the steps are open 24 hours a day. Having said that, sometimes there is repair work going on. If this is the case when you visit, then take extra care when accessing the steps, if access is possible.
Where to Park For Whaligoe Steps?
The best place to park for the Whaligoe Steps is in the designated car park. Although, as mentioned, this is very small with room for no more than 8–10 cars. Larger motor vehicles really should avoid trying to park in this small car park. Also, as this is in a small residential area, please be respectful of locals and parking places that are designated just for them, no matter how quick you think you might be.
When is the Best Time to Visit Whaligoe?
Whaligoe Steps and the walk to Whaligoe Haven is open 24 hours a day. So, you really can visit whenever you like. As Whaligoe Haven sits on the east coast of Scotland, a sunrise here would be particularly lovely. Also, visiting first thing in the morning or last thing in the day will likely be much quieter.
Given the steepness of the steps, I would not recommend visiting during snow or frost. The steps down to Whaligoe Haven would be extremely slippery and potentially dangerous. Again, you should take care in wet weather too.
Are the Whaligoe Steps Safe?
As with most things, if you exercise caution, take your time and consider others as well as yourself, the steps are quite safe. It’s not super safe to visit in wet, windy or icy conditions. But, if you do go, you should take extra care. Basically, don’t rush and consider your footing, whatever the weather conditions.
What Does ‘Whaligoe’ Mean?
The name Whaligoe likely comes from whale geo or inlet of whales. You’ll notice that the northeast coast of Scotland is littered with geos or small inlets. They are caused by weathering and sea erosion.
Nearby Attractions in Caithness
- Castle Sinclair Girnigoe: this castle ruin is definitely worth a stop along the NC500. Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is free to explore and super rich in history.
- Old Keiss Castle: a truly beautiful castle ruin. And one ready to be swallowed up by the rough North Sea at any moment. Old Keiss Castle is found north of Whaligoe.
- Duncansby Head: to experience more famous cliffs in Scotland, consider a stop off at Duncansby Head and marvel at the sea stacks here.
- Cairn of Get: if you like the look of the longer walk I described above, it really is worth checking out Cairn of Get. But, I guess it would also be possible to drive between the two to save time also.
- Wick: the nearest sizeable town to Whaligoe Steps is Wick. Why not check out the Wick Heritage Museum or Ebenezer Place, which is the world’s shortest street.
Hiking Essentials for the Whaligoe Steps Walk
These are our five hiking gear essentials for the Whaligoe Steps walk in Caithness, 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 great for coastal walks along the NC500
This is an excellent compact digital camera. You can take high-quality photos and 4K videos with this small but powerful camera
Always take a rain jacket wherever you go in Scotland
This is one of the best backpacks for day hikes and fits an awful lot inside
The DJI Mavic Air 2 takes amazing aerial footage. The NC500 never looked so good!
- Sunrise: sitting on the northeast coast of Scotland, watching a sunrise over the natural harbour of Whaligoe Haven is a fantastic way to start the day.
- Whaligoe Steps Cafe: as far as we know, Whaligoe Steps Cafe is permanently closed. But, do let us know in the comments below if that changes when you visit.
- Step Maintenance: at the start of the walk down Whaligoe Steps, you’ll notice a donations box. This goes towards the maintenance of the steps. Although visiting Whaligoe Steps and Haven is completely free, it’s always appreciated when visitors leave a small donation towards the upkeep.
- Discover Caithness: why not explore more of the extraordinary Caithness landscape and seascape with a tour of the Orkney Isles or a wildlife cruise from John o’ Groats? Certainly, Get Your Guide offer some fantastic excursions below.
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