Things to do in and around Ullapool
Back in 2016 I spent a fantastic week in Ullapool and always promised myself I would go back for another stay. When I first visited some of the attractions were closed for the winter so I decided that my return visit should be during the summer.
This year I finally managed to return for another week long stay. So many people quickly pass through the village on their way around the North Coast 500 or make a short stop before boarding the ferry to the Hebrides. I think this is a real shame as there are so many things to do in and around Ullapool that it makes a great base for exploring this part of the North West Highlands.
Below I've put together a list of all my favourite attractions, walks and activities in the area. I've also listed a few things that I've not managed to do yet but are on my list for next time. If you are visiting Ullapool for a day, a week or longer and looking for things to do, then this blog post should give you plenty of inspiration.
If you are travelling to across to Stornoway from Ullapool you might also like to read my recommended things to do on the Isle of Lewis
I always find museums a good starting point when you are visiting a place as they give you an insight in to the local history and culture. Ullapool Museum is housed within the old Thomas Telford church and there are some interesting original features inside.
The collections include agricultural and fishing exhibits, two of the main industries that existed after Ullapool was founded as a fishing station back in 1788. You can also research through local archives and genealogy records.
There is a small fee to enter and the museum is currently open on Monday to Saturday from April to October.
Summer Isles Cruise
One of my highlights from this year's trip was a cruise around the Summer Isles on the M.V Shearwater. We were lucky enough to sail on a sunny albeit choppy day but the boat felt very stable and comfortable.
There are plenty of outdoor options to sit and take in the views as you sail down Loch Broom, around the Summer Isles and back along the Coigach Peninsula. There is also live commentary so you know exactly what you are looking at on your tour. At the start we were told we might be lucky enough to see some nesting white-tailed eagles and to be honest, I was slightly sceptical. However, sure enough we did see one of the pair of eagles flying overhead which was pretty exciting and we passed plenty of seals too.
Although we didn't stop at any of the islands, we did sail to the mouth of Cathedral Cave on Tanera Beag. It is quite a dramatic feature and the captain had a chance to show off his skills as he manoeuvred around the bouncing waves at the entrance.
The cruise departs from Ullapool Pier and lasts just over 2 hours. At the time of writing payment had to be made in cash and the tours run through late spring and summer.
For a fantastic view over the village and Loch Broom, head to the top of Ullapool Hill. There are two options to get there, the first involves a short but steep walk and the second involves a steep drive.
If you fancy the satisfaction of undertaking the more strenuous option then you will find the start of the walk signposted next to Broom Park. The highest point is 270 m at the summit of Meal Mor. The total return walk is just under 5 miles and there are a few benches along the route if you want to enjoy the view (or get your breath back!).
If that sounds like too much hard work then an easier option is to drive south along the A835 and turn left, following the road up the Braes of Ullapool. At the top there is some room to park at the transmitters and from there you can walk to Meal Mor or just take in the views from the path.
Rhue lighthouse isn't particularly big or impressive but it does sit in a lovely location at the entrance of Loch Broom. It is also one of the best places around Ullapool to watch the sunset.
From the rocks around the lighthouse you can look across to the distinctive Beinn Ghoblach on the other side of the loch and out towards the Summer Isles.
There is a car park nearby and from there the lighthouse is about 3/4 mile walk. To reach the car park, take the A835 road heading north out of Ullapool and turn off at the sign for the Rhue Art Gallery.
If you are really adventurous, you can walk the 6 1/2 miles from the centre of Ullapool and back along the shore.
If you are looking for a gentle stroll, then a network of paths along the riverside is a good option. The first time I did this walk the river was a rushing torrent, however on my most recent visit, the river had mostly dried up which made for a very different experience.
The short walk is a peaceful escape from the village when it is bustling with other tourists. It is also a pleasurable way to enjoy the seasonal flora and fauna, while watching out for some of the local wildlife.
Ardmair is a pretty pebble beach on the outskirts of the village and the surrounding Highland and island views are worth savouring. If you are able to visit in the evening this is also a good place to catch the sunset. Keep an eye out across the water too for seals and if you're lucky you might even spot otters.
There are car parking spaces just adjacent to the bay making it an easy stopping point and the local campsite makes a good overnight stop with a view.
Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve
The landscape around Ullapool is breathtaking and if you want to learn more about how it was formed then a visit to Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve is a must. You can find out more about the local geology which includes some of the oldest rocks in the world. There is also an explanation about the Moine Thrust, a feature that was created when natural forces caused older rocks to be thrust up on top of younger rocks.
There are three walking trails to follow from the visitor centre which feature sculptures and poetry. They are a great way to immerse yourself in the mountain scenery and offer some fantastic viewpoints.
Stac Pollaidh is an iconic mountain about 14 miles from Ullapool which always reminds me of Close Encounters! At 612 metres high it is not quite a Munro, which makes it a more accessible climb for many people. However, that doesn't mean it is easy going as the path is relentlessly steep in many places and reaching the true summit involves a scramble which should only be attempted by experienced climbers. Proper outdoor walking equipment is also needed.
If you have a reasonable level of fitness then the circular trail should take you around 3 hours on average. There is a car park at the starting point but it is worth noting that spaces are limited and it can get full quite quickly. I arrived early, before 7 am, and the car park was mostly empty. When I arrived back down just after 10 am it was full and cars were queuing for spaces so my top tip is to arrive as early as you can. Another bonus is that we had the mountain all to ourselves for a couple of hours.
Achnahaird Beach regularly features on lists of the best beaches in Scotland and it is easy to see why. A large expanse of clean golden sand surrounded by rugged mountains make it a special place.
Although this beach is off the normal tourist route, there were quite a few people there when I visited. I put this down to the fact that it was a particularly sunny day and being the best beach in the area it tends to attract both locals and the few adventurous visitors that make it to this part of Scotland.
However, the beach and surrounding bay are both large enough that it is easy to find a quiet spot. It feels both wild a remote, a combination which means it should never get too busy, even on the sunniest of days.
While Ullapool and the surrounding area can get very busy with tourists at certain times of the year, thanks in part to the NC500, Coigach has remained refreshingly peaceful. On my first visit to Ullapool, the drive around the Coigach Peninsula was the highlight of my trip.
Not only will you see Stac Pollaidh and Achnahaird Beach mentioned above, you will also pass through some of the most spectacular scenery in Scotland. There are many pretty settlements in the area including Reiff and Polbain, although my personal favourite is Achiltibuie. From here you can sail to the Summer Isles or wander around the many ruined of crofts that scatter the landscape. Lunch at the Piping School Cafe is a must.
Coigach is naturally beautiful and rugged. It feels like a place where time has stood still and it is one of my favourite 'off the beaten path' escapes in the country. Lack of tourist attractions, facilities and a taxing drive along a single track road will hopefully ensure that this little corner of Scotland remains a quiet oasis.
About 30 minutes north of Ullapool is one of the most unique walks in the area. The Bone Caves sit high on a cliff face and were the location of some interesting discoveries. Animal bones belonging to many species including Arctic fox, wolf, lynx, brown bear and even Polar bear have been found inside. It is fascinating to think of the wildlife that once roamed this area.
The walk to the caves involves a scenic trail through a limestone valley. The route is easy going for the most part, however the last stretch involves a short but steep uphill section to the cave themselves. The rocky terrain also requires some good supportive footwear.
The return route is just under 3 miles and takes around 90 minutes to complete. The valley is a dramatic location to visit and I definitely think this is a really rewarding walk for the effort required.
Even though only a fraction of Ardvreck Castle still stands, its setting on the banks of Loch Assynt with a mountain backdrop attracts many visitors and photographers. The first time I visited it was really quiet, however this year it was bustling with tourists. I'm sure its popularity has grown even more thanks to its location on the North Coast 500.
The tower house dates back to around 1490 and was built in 2 phases, with an extension added in the 16th century. It was built by the MacLeod Clan, however they lost ownership after a 2 week long siege by the MacKenzies of Wester Ross. The new owners decided the austere castle was unsuitable and abandoned it a few decades later. The castle was later struck by lightening and much of the building was destroyed.
The MacKenzies decided to build a more modern mansion nearby and used some of the stone from the castle in the construction. They couldn't keep up the costs of their new luxury home and fell in to financial ruin. With such a turbulent and unfortunate past, the fact that any of it remains today is a miracle in itself.
The island was gifted to the community of Lochbroom and Coigach in 1999 by the Royal Society for the Protection of Brids (RSPB) who themselves had been gifted the island in 1975. Although no-one has lived permanently on the island since 1949, many people have lived and worked on Isle Martin over the previous centuries. In the distant past it attracted Christian missionaries and over the following centuries it has also housed a large herring curing station, crofts and a flour mill.
The population was never stable and declined steadily in the 18th and 19th centuries thanks to transient employment opportunities, changing ownership and emigration. Today, it provides a quiet sanctuary away from the bustle of Ullapool and the surrounding busy roads.
A community ferry runs from April to September and you telephone for it to pick you up at the jetty at Ardmair. There is a suggested minimum donation of £10 for an adult crossing. I made the 5 minute crossing and spent over an hour wandering around. There is a little museum in the old school and walking trails that take you over to a quiet beach that looks towards the Summer Isles.
To fully explore the island you would need at least a day as there is some proper hill-walking involved. There is also some basic accommodation on the island if you wish to stay longer. I found it interesting to stumble across remnants of old buildings and structures, thinking about the many people that once lived and worked on this now quiet island. The little museum has records of some of the previous tenants and it is fascinating to read more about their lives.
Visiting is only a short detour off the main road and it is a great place to enjoy a little bit of peace and quiet while learning more about a past way of life.
Lael Forest Garden
If you find yourself in need of a tree fix, head to Lael Forest Garden where you will find around 200 species of trees from all over the globe. Owned by the Forestry Commission since 1929, the land once belonged to tree enthusiasts who collected rare tree seeds from around the world.
There are a number of marked trails to follow through the arboretum, passing the many unusual trees in the collection. The routes vary in length but are mainly suitable for all the family. The gorge route which involves a climb up past a pretty waterfall is the only one that is a bit more strenuous.
With plenty of free parking, this is a nice little spot for some easy walking located around 10 miles south of Ullapool.
About 12 miles south of Ullapool is the Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve, a popular natural attraction in the area. The 45m high Falls of Measach is the main reason people stop here which is quite dramatic after a good downpour. The first time I visited it was during heavy rainfall and it was a spectacular sight, however on the second occasion it was during a dry spell and it wasn't quite so impressive.
A short walk from the car park brings you to a Victorian suspension bridge built by one of the chief engineers behind the Forth Bridge. The swaying crossing gives an excellent view of the waterfall and the River Droma far below as it runs through the mile long box canyon.
Those with a head for heights can cross the bridge and head further along to a viewing platform which juts above the gorge. Those brave enough to walk to the edge are rewarded with a great vantage point to appreciate the full drama of the canyon.
For a small entrance fee, you can enjoy a walk through Leckmelm Gardens which was first planted in 1870 and restored in 1984. Among the trails you will see exotic plants and impressive trees from around the world. It is a bit of a maze but a pleasant setting to get lost in!
There is also a pathway down to the shore of Loch Broom and it is nice to get a different perspective of the loch. The foliage changes throughout the year and when I visited in was full of autumn colours, however I can imagine it is even lovelier in the spring and summer when the flowers are in full bloom.
Lekmelm is one of many woodland gardens that were developed on Scotland's west coast in the mid-19th century as high rainfall and warm temperate climate from the Gulf Stream allowed tender specimen trees and shrubs to thrive.
Independent Shops & Galleries
I love wandering around all the independent shops and galleries within the village which are mainly quality businesses. The vast majority are locally owned and they are great places for picking up Scottish art and quality handcrafted gifts. There are many to choose from but some of my favourites are -
Highland Stoneware is another popular place and you can watch the artists hand paint the pottery there too.
Eating & Drinking
There are many places to eat and drink in Ullapool, however these are some of my favourites -
I've also written this blog post with my favourite places to get tea and cake in and around Ullapool
OTHER THINGS TO DO AROUND ULLAPOOL
I've not quite managed to do everything I want in the Ullapool area yet, so here are a few more ideas of things to do that are still on my list -
Ullapool also makes a great starting point for a road-trip around the west coast of Scotland and over to the Outer Hebrides.
HANDY MAP OF THE LOCATIONS MENTIONED
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