North West Highlands Geopark is a UNESCO Geopark situated in the north west of the Scottish Highlands. The c. 2,000 km2 (770 sq mi) Geopark has coastal cliffs, beaches, mountains caves and waterfalls and a variety of unique geological features.
The North West Highlands Geopark is a European and UNESCO Geopark. A geopark is a region with a great geological heritage and various ways by which the geology is explained to the visitor, for instance by visitor centres or geological trails. 81 European Geoparks have been endorsed by UNESCO. See the website of the European Geopark Network for other European Geoparks.
The area was awarded geopark status in 2004.
The North West Highlands Geopark is a geological wonderland: the rocks range from the 3 billion year old Lewisian Gneiss to the Torridonian Sandstone which makes up the spectacular mountains such as Ben More Coigach, Suilven and Quinag. White quartzite caps many mountains and the largest area of limestone in Scotland occurs in the Geopark. For geologists, however, the most famous feature is the Moine Thrust, a large geological fault that attests to the vast forces that built the Caledonian Mountain Range, some 400 million years ago. Much more recently, during the Ice Age, vast glaciers sculpted the mountains and valleys as we see them today.
The geological history and the way that geological processes shaped the landscape is explained in various visitor centres and road side panels. The visitor can also learn more on guided walks during the summer months.
Flora and fauna
In common with much of the highlands, much of the area has a relatively thin layer of soil on top of rock. The main vegetation is heater and grass, with few trees. There are some areas of peat bog (marsh).
There are several villages inside the geopark:
- The Summer Isles
The North West Highlands Geopark is between 20 and 50 km north of Ullapool. Ullapool can be reached by car or bus from Inverness. Inverness can be easily reached by train, car or plane. There are buses from Ullapool into the Geopark, but these are infrequent.
Fees and permits
There are no entry fees or formalities.
A car (or motorbike) is probably the best way of exploring the park. The scenic North Coast 500 route passes through the park, going between Ullapool and Durness.
Durness Bus have several routes in the park, although most services only run once (or maybe twice) per day.
- 1 Knockan Crag Visitor Centre (13 miles north of Ullapool on the A835). is situated in the Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve, all managed by Scottish Natural Heritage . The Visitor Centre focuses on the Moine Thrust, a large geological fault responsible for the build up of the Caledonian Mountains. In the Rock Room the Moine Thrust and other geological features are well explained, and there are trails with various explanatory boards that takes the visitor along the Moine Thrust. The Visitor Centre is always open. There is no shop or catering, but there are toilets. In summertime, there is sometimes a Ranger who can explain more about the geology.
- 2 Smoo Cave. A large combined sea cave and freshwater cave.
- 3 Bone Caves (5 km south of Inchnadamph). One of the largest cave systems in Scotland, consisting of Fox's Den, Badger Cave, Bone Cave and Badger Cave. Unless you are and experienced caver with the right equipment only the first few metres of the caves can be explored. The caves were first explored by geologists in 1889 when bones were found in the entrance to the caves. There were excavations in 1926 which found bones which were between 8,000 and 47,000 years old, including bones which might be from a polar bear. See the SNH leaflet on Inchnadamph.
Many hikes can be made in the Geopark. Challenging walks are the ascent of Conival and Ben More Assynt, Foinaven and Suilven.
The geopark as a great variety of birds. One of the best places is the Handa Island Bird Reserve which in the right time of year can host up to 100,000 breeding seabirds, such as puffins, shags, guillemots and kittiwakes. Handa Island can only be reached by open ferry from the hamlet of Tarbet.
Generally the best rock climbing is on the Torridonian Sandstone. Excellent rock climbing can be found on the sea cliffs near Reiff, on the Coigach Peninsula. Climbs on Stac Pollaidh are also well-known, but probably the best known climbs are on the sea-stacks of Am Buachaille and The Old Man of Stoer. Good climbs on Lewisian Gneiss can be found around Kinlochbervie and Sheigra. In Strath Dionard there are some good climbs on quartzite.
None of the climbing routes have bolts or pegs, so all protection must be placed by the climber. The best source of information is the climbers guide "The Northern Hihglands" published by the Scottish Mountaineering Club, available in outdoor shops throughout Scotland.
Smoo Cave near Durness is a huge cave entrance, widened by coastal erosion. In summertime, a small boat tour can be made deeper in the cave. Challenging caves - for experienced cavers only - are near Inchandamph and Elphin.
Fishing for trout is possible in many lochs, but permits are needed! Try the Inchnadamph Hotel.
A 9-hole golf course overlooking the Atlantic is at Durness; visitors are welcome. For info see website of the Durness Golf Club.
- Guided walks are organised by the Countryside Rangers during the summer months. See  for details or check out the Visitor centres / Tourist Information centres at Lochinver or Durness.
- Walking holidays There are local trekking companies that organise walking holidays in and around the geopark: North West Frontiers. The "Nor' West Trek" organised by North West frontiers crosses the entire Geopark in a six-day trek. Both companies use local tour guides with a wealth of knowledge of the local flora, fauna, history and geology.
- Outdoor activitites Outdoor activity holidays for adults, families and youngsters are organised by Ridgway Adventure. Activities include sea kayaking, climbing, abseiling and orienteering.
There are campsited at Scourie and at Durness, both on the coast.
The main risk is being caught out in the open in bad weather and not being suitably equipped. The weather can change rapidly.
For walks of any length take the following:
- good footwear: paths are often wet and boggy
- waterproof jacket and trousers
- warm clothing: a spare fleece or jumper, gloves and a hat
- and always tell someone responsible where you're going. Note that in large areas there is no mobile phone reception.
- Nearby towns and villages:
- Other geoparks in Scotland:
- Other parks in Scotland: