Smoo Cave is one of the most popular stops on Scotland’s NC500 route. The enormous sea-cave is thought to have got its name from the Norse word ‘smjugg’ or ‘smuga’, meaning a hole or hiding-place. This staggering natural wonder is pretty unique, not only is it one of the largest natural sea caves in the UK, but it also has a rear chamber created by an underground freshwater stream.
We made this the first stop of the day after an overnight stay in Bettyhill (a scenic one-hour coastal drive East of Smoo Cave). Give yourself at least an hour if you want to just explore the main chamber of the cave and the surrounding area. Those hoping to take a cave boat tour will need longer; we weren’t able to do this as the boats weren’t running the day we visited.
How do I get to the SMOO cave?
Smoo Cave is located right on the North coast of Scotland, carved naturally by the waters around the limestone cliffs. The roads in this area are simple and NC500 drivers should head for Durness (the most North-Westerly village in mainland Scotland). Smoo Cave lies just to the East of the village, under half a mile from Durness Village Hall on the A383.
Smoo Cave car park
It’s relatively easy to find the Smoo cave car park. If you’re coming from the East, both the cave and a youth hostel are signposted just before a small parking inlet on the left. We pulled over here, as the walk takes you right past the rushing burn that finally falls to create the freshwater cavern of the cave.
Continue a few yards further down the road and over a small bridge, and you’ll come across the main car park for Smoo Cave. This pull in point is clearly marked, with a small picnic area for people to enjoy views across the mouth of the cave and out to sea. Although the car park is free, it’s worth noting that there are only 20 or so spaces, which can make it difficult to grab a spot during high season.
There are a couple of ways to explore Smoo Cave, but all visitors must start their journey with a walk down the cliffs from the car park. Once at the water’s edge, you can follow the stream down the beach, or cross the wooden boardwalk to the mouth of the cave.
Smoo Cave waterfall
The cave is made up for three main areas: an enormous entranceway chamber created by the sea, a second chamber with a 60ft freshwater waterfall that drops into a sinkhole, and a third chamber that was also created by freshwater erosion.
Your first point will be a quick hop over the little wooden bridge in the first chamber to experience the thunder of the waterfall in the second cavern. You can only get so far into this inner cave by foot, but still close enough to the waterfall that you’d better be prepared to get wet!
On days when the river is low enough, you can gain access to the third chamber with one of the daily boat tours. If the tour is running, make time for it! The small inflatable boat brings takes you straight to the source of the deafening waterfall and guides provide interesting titbits around the cave’s natural features. If you catch the timing just right, you might be one of the lucky ones to capture the beam of light that shoots through into the waters from the hole in the ceiling.
Once past the waterfall, you’ll be asked to duck your head as the boat slips under the low rock and into the third chamber.
Can I visit Smoo Cave and the Smoo Cave tour for free?
Access to a lot of Smoo Cave is free. Unlike a lot of Europe’s natural beauty points, visitors can make their way down to the main chamber, explore the beach and even cross the wooden walkway into the second chamber without paying a penny. In addition, there are information boards at the main entrance to the cave that encourage younger children to look out for local wildlife and explore the surrounding geology.
At point of writing this post, the Smoo Cave boat tours (mentioned above) cost £6 Adult / £3 Child.
Smoo Cave opening times
Smoo cave is a natural scenic spot and, as a result, the mouth of the cave can be accessed at any time of day and any time of year. However, if you’re hoping to gain access to one of the daily boat tours, they run from April through to September (with shorter running times during the months of April, May and September).
Can you swim in Smoo Cave?
The short answer is, “No”. When you enter the first chamber of the cave, there is a tunnel-like wooden pathway that leads visitor to a viewing point for the waterfall. This point is fenced off to stop people from accessing the water and taking on the strong currents.
Can you take dogs to Smoo cave?
The paths down to the cave (and the area around the first chamber) are dog friendly. Your beloved pooch will have a whale of a time sniffing the rock pools and hidden crevices of the larger chamber, but please remember to bring poo bags as there are no waste bins. The boat that takes guests into the second and third chamber is an inflatable one, and so dogs are not permitted on the tours.
Hotels near Smoo Cave
We made Smoo Cave the first stop on day 3 of our North Coast 500 tour, as part of our journey between Bettyhill and Ullapool. As a result, we stayed in the Bettyhill hotel (prices and links here). It took around an hour to reach the car park from here. However, for anyone wanting to be the first (or last there), you can stay a lot closer to the cave.
The quaint, family-run, Smoo Cave Hotel in Durness is set unbelievably close to Smoo Cave and has 6 bedrooms. They boast a licensed bar and restaurant, though it’s worth noting that non-residents should book breakfast ahead of visiting. As with all accommodation on the NC500, make sure you book way in advance, the Summer season is always a busy one!