Walk, hike, climb, scramble… the choice is yours. No mountains anywhere have a greater ratio of reward for effort than the Assynt hills. Have you bagged Scotland’s most northerly Munro yet, Ben Hope, or climbed to share the Duke of Sutherland’s spectacular view from the summit of Ben Bhraggie.
Hop on a bike or e-bike and get stuck into some cycling. Either on- or off-road, it’s arguably the best way to travel. Fast enough to cover some decent ground, slow enough that you’ll not miss a thing.
Of course, there’s adventure in the water too. Our coastline is spectacular and dramatic, and our waves are a magnet for surfers from all over the world. If that’s too much of a challenge, and how will you know till you try, you can swim and dive, snorkel and paddle, row, and sail. Pull on a wetsuit and hard hat and try coasteering. Pitting yourself against the might of the sea will leave you feeling vital and so, so alive.
From the top of our mountains the vistas are spectacular. Looking down, you’ll see that in some places there’s more water than land, and on a clear day you can see for miles.
Hamlet Mountaineering, based in Assynt and Coigach, will take you to new heights, with courses on scrambling and rock-climbing, and lower-level walks too. They’ll help you gain the skills you need to stay safe and savvy in our wilds.
If drops and skinnies are more your thing, challenge yourself as you twist and turn, climb and tumble round the Wildcat Mountain Bike Trails at Golspie and Balblair Forest Trails near Bonar Bridge. With tough, graded climbs and the second-longest, man-made descent in the UK, you’ll have earned your evening beer.
Road biking more to your liking? Pack your paniers and get some serious miles into your legs, but don’t be fooled, these contours can be challenging! Turn off the A9, wave good-bye to the region’s perimeter roads, and head inland, where the roads are quieter, the scenery just as spectacular and, you can thank us for this later, the winds are less fierce. Because as we cyclists know to our cost, that wind is rarely at our tail.
Once you’ve exhausted your legs, check how steady your aim is with an archery or clay pigeon shooting lesson with Connell Outdoor Pursuits near Dornoch. Archery, fishing, and clay-pigeon shooting are on offer there; they’ll even pick you up from your accommodation and design a day that allows you to experience all three. And all in the stunning centre of Sutherland.
Planning something a little less adrenaline-fuelled? We have our share of excellent low-level walking too, although even some of that needs nerves of steel, have you seen the height of our Caithness cliffs?
The John o’Groats Trail hugs the east coast all the way from Inverness to the iconic fingerpost at the ‘top of the world’. Put one foot in front of the other for all 147 miles or pick and choose from day-long or half-day sections as time allows.
Don’t forget the Northern Pilgrims’ Way. Follow in the footsteps of medieval devotees who walked from Orkney to the shrine of St Duthac in Tain, or north to pay honour to the remains of St Magnus in Kirkwall. There are three braids to the Northern Pilgrims’ Way, so choose your route from coastal to quiet in-land estate tracks through the heart of Caithness. Learn about the county’s early Christian history as you travel.
And while we’re talking beaches, GET IN THE SEA!
You don’t have to wear a wetsuit, it’s entirely up to you, but from cold water therapy ‘skinnies’ dips to fully-neoprened paddle-boarding and swimming lessons.
Orca use the Firth as their playground. Will they be travelling through today? You might see seals, dolphins, or porpoises too. Crash on a hard hat and fling yourself off rocks with abandon, officially it’s called coasteering, but unofficially it’s the best fun you can legally have this side of Christmas.
And if surf’s up, the boards will be out. Forget Hawaii, forget California, forget Cornwall. The beaches of Caithness and Sutherland are where the action is when conditions are right. North Coast Watersports is run by two champions of the waves; they’ll teach you the basics, fine-tune your rudimentals, and get you forgetting that the water’s anything other than balmy. Live for the waves. Thurso, Dunnet and Balnakeil are where they hang out. You will too.
Sutherland Adventure Company will sort you out with paddle-boarding lessons and board hire, and they’ll meet you where you are. Their Mega-Sup, for up to eight people, is brilliant fun for kids’ parties and family fun. They can sort you out with bike hire too.
Rest and Recharge
You’ll need to sleep well if you’re going to be rested for another day of adventure again tomorrow.
Find everything you need for a comfortable few nights at Ben Loyal Pods. There’s space on the decking to store all your outdoor gear, and you can watch the sun set over a hard-earned beer from here too. After a shower and change of clothes, the on-site hotel is the perfect place for a game of pool, a couple of pints and a bar supper.
After a day on the surf at Thurso, pitch your tent or hook up your van at Thurso Bay Camping and Caravan Park. The site overlooks the water, so you can check the surf as soon as you wake. Banter about the day’s best waves as you watch Orkney gently fade into the horizon at dusk.
Dinner is sorted with burgers from the on-site Blue Door Coffee Shop and Diner.
Further west, you’re guaranteed to sleep well at Lazy Bed and Batbox, two eco-friendly holiday homes just south of Lochinver. Each sleeps two. The views are stunning, as is the vegan welcome pack and the quality of the linen on the beds. The Assynt Hills are literally on the doorstep. There’s nothing not to love.
After a wild day on the Wildcat Mountain Trails, refuel, and enjoy top trad tunes and great craic too, at MacGregors at The Ben in Golspie. Well-kept local beers will help you, ahem, rehydrate after your exertions. Enjoy fresh Highland food, including the best haddock and chips cooked in crisp, local beer batter.
Enjoy more local brews at John o’Groats Brewery. They serve all their ales in their Tasting Room in The Last House, the tiny historic property which now is now home to their award-winning brewery. Stock up with supplies to take home, then wander over to the Seaview Hotel for what they call a ‘hearty meal for hearty souls’. Their chef smokes his own salmon. Do you need to know more? Thought not.
‘Great food, great wine, great sangria, great ambiance’ is the promise from Capilla Tapas Bar in the old chapel in Scrabster, and we can’t argue with that. Their Spanish small plates are meant for sharing, and there’s a daily-changing dessert menu, if you’ve worked up a big enough appetite. Is that a challenge?