Journey to the Falls of Kirkaig

by Keith Savage

The River Kirkaig, Sutherland, Scotland

One of the great drives to be found along the North Coast 500 runs from Achiltibuie to Lochinver. This span is well off the beaten path on single-track roads twisting and kinking through the hilly terrain of northern Wester Ross and southern Sutherland. Mountains rise up through the mist, sun ricochets off lochs scattered in the glens, and red deer stand upon rocky hillsides looking over the odd car that finds its way to this distant corner of Scotland.

I found myself on this road because it led to a hike Sarah and I wanted to do: The Falls of Kirkaig. I’m a sucker for waterfalls and thankfully Scotland’s loaded with them. We decided to make a day of hiking to the falls, seeing Ardvreck Castle, and, time and energy permitting, checking out the Bone Caves of Inchnadamph before returning home to the Brochs of Coigach. This plan turned out to be a lot to bite off in a single day (it was accomplished with great exhaustion), but we awoke to beautiful blue skies and journeyed forth in the spirit of adventure.

Take care on this drive. There are many blind turns that require a slow advance and a quick blast of the horn to notify any oncoming traffic, which, while rare, isn’t unheard of. There were several points where we were glad to have taken such care as cars and trucks came rumbling around hillsides fit to cast us into the darkness. Survival is part of the fun, and we eventually descended into a narrow glen with a small parking lot at the trail head.

As the sign indicates, this is a five-mile round trip. The terrain starts out easy and level but rises up into the hills to become rocky and boggy in places. This hike is on the moderate to difficult end of the spectrum, and it will tire you out so bring water and snacks to keep your energy up.

After walking up a paved drive we crossed through a gate onto a dirt track leading through pretty woodland. Hazel, holly, birch, rowan, and aspen trees arched over the sun-dappled path as it led out onto a fern-covered slope interspersed with dog violet and primroses near the River Kirkaig. All kinds of birds nested and sang in the boughs, including redpols, willow warblers, and tree pipits. This is an easy-going, pleasant stretch suitable for everyone.

The path narrows as it cleaves to the river, and as we walked east deeper into the glen the path began to climb steadily up the sides of the hills. We stopped frequently simply to take in the beautiful river valley and remark on the gorgeous weather, and we encountered several other hikers, some with dogs, though we had the path largely to ourselves.

As the path and river diverged, we left the trees below and rose into gorse- and heather-studded hills with views to Suilven and other great mountains. You might be able to see it in the photos, but it looks like there’s a ruin or cairn on one of the distant hills. Here the path narrows and starts to become rocky enough that you need to watch your footfalls. Higher and higher we climbed to peaty, almost boggy, terrain where the path was difficult in places. The cool wind was a welcome respite from the sweaty ascent.

The change in altitude while not massive is certainly noticeable. You get a real sense of being up in the hills on this hike, and as we crossed over rocky stretches and spongy terrain we finally came to a small fork in the path. One path led to the Suilven ascent and the other took us to our destinations: The falls. This was a tricky bit. The path leads to a rocky eminence with only a partial view of the falls. However, you can make your way down to progressively lower shelves if you take great care. This is not for the clumsy or faint of heart as you need to get down and dirty using saplings to lower yourself. The second picture below is the reward for the descent: A clear view of the Falls of Kirkaig and its deep, cold pool.

We stopped for quite awhile to catch our breaths, eat a snack, and enjoy the view. It’s a peaceful spot all the more enticing because of the moderately difficult journey it took to reach it. The climb up from this wondrous viewpoint was a bit easier than getting down, and soon we were on our way back to the trail head.

We didn’t tarry long on the return journey. The best views are to be had on the way to the Falls of Kirkaig as those great mountains rise up above the hills. By the time we returned to the pavement leading to the car park we were both bushed and ready for a refreshment in nearby Lochinver.

If you need a reason to drive the gorgeous road from Achiltibuie to Lochinver, the Falls of Kirkaig serves admirably. The hike gives you a taste of true highland hill-walking with a stunning payoff at the end.

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