The North Coast 500 (The NC500) is an official route created by the North Highland Initiative to “bring together the best of the north Highlands of Scotland in one iconic tour”. Officially starting and finishing at Inverness, the route sends you on a 516-mile (830km) loop of some of the wildest and spectacular paved roads, on a journey following Scotland’s rugged far-North coastline.
This summer, Chris and three friends loaded their bikes and headed up to ride the NC500 over six days, starting out on a clockwise loop from Inverness via Muir of Ord, Applecross, Gairloch, Ullapool, Durness, Thurso, John o’Groat & Wick before riding south along the east coast back to Inverness…
I couldn’t think of a group I’d rather get together to join me on a week-long cycle tour around the Scottish Highlands. Sam, Hamish and I go way back; back to our days as students at the Glasgow School of Art where we all developed a love for the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Those two, now architects living in London, love nothing more than geeking out over the nitty gritty details of planning a trip like this. Then the third guy, Ginger Matt, and I are very old friends from Harrogate (North Yorkshire) – he is a guy that has cycled across continents at crazy speeds, and covered hundreds of miles running ultra marathons through places I’ve never even heard of. He’s now working as a physiotherapist and coffee importer (/snob). The four of us had been talking about riding the recently branded North Coast 500 route for long enough, and thankfully we finally committed ourselves to tackling the ride earlier this year…
We chose to take a week off in order to do the journey justice – six days was fast enough to be a challenge for our level of riding but slow enough to really enjoy it. For us, deciding to take heed of the official route and ride clockwise from Inverness around the Scottish coastline was a no-brainer as it would mean tackling the mountains of the west coast whilst our legs would be at their freshest. Being a circular route, you can obviously start from whichever point you decide, but for us the train connections to Inverness proved to be the most practical and straight forward.
Despite what I said about Hamish and Sam, we didn’t really do much planning apart from booking a couple of our accommodation stopovers just in case. The route was already planned for us. What the weather would do was our main concern – it had the potential to be a hellish week. What my legs could manage was my main concern – I’d never ridden these distances day-after-day before. Whatever was in store, we all knew it would be one big adventure for the four of us – a six-day escape away from our domesticated lives; nothing to do but ride.
Our first and only real planning job was to break up the 800kms into six realistic chunks. The key was allowing ourselves a short day on the Applecross Peninsula for the infamous Bealach Na Ba pass, which we imagined might be a highlight of the route…
Inverness – Shieldaig
The picturesque castle at Inverness seemed to be the place to start and finish the ride – sited on a hill above the River Ness. Transport links into the city were good and the Castle Tavern pub was just a stone’s throw from the impressive red sandstone building. However, we didn’t waste any time and the four of us were soon out of the city, spinning easily along the shoreline of the Beuly Firth heading to Muir of Ord. The roads were big, flat and mostly quiet but after a quick run for the first hour or two, we saw our first distillery: Singleton of Dufftown, just outside Muir of Ord which slowed us down. A giddy set of idiots, we stopped and enjoyed a complimentary dram or two as we searched the shop for a few small bottles to stow in our panniers to save for a couple of the ride’s special moments – most likely opening the first bottle after summiting the Bealach Na Ba pass the following evening.
From there, we steadily climbed to the highest point of the day before turning south-west at the Achnasheen roundabout. Open, bleak and craggy moors quickly give way to thick shady forest and tree-lined roads back towards sea-level. We really sped up on the pristine surfaces, descending fast to the west coast at Loch Carron. The extra weight of my rear-loaded bike made it feel more like a boat, but it glued to the road and handled much better than I thought it might. As a side note, there is a shop at Lochcarron open every day of the week, the only one we saw since Contin.
After the ascent out of Lochcarron the skyline changed dramatically – big peaks closed in and surrounded us – and it took a while to dawn on us that we were looking at Bealach Na Ba and Beinn Bhan, both huge lumps that looked every bit as daunting as we’d expected and, to be honest, had hoped…
In the planning stage, we knew we needed to allow ourselves a full day to cover this section of the route because we had heard the hype about the Bealach Na Ba Pass, or ‘The Bealach’ as the locals say. Quickly rising to 625m from sea level over five glorious miles that included the iconic switchbacks, there must be a reason this road is on most cyclists’ to-do-list and we couldn’t wait to ride it.
Excitement filled the AirBnB as we woke up to pin sharp, clear skies and warm sunshine; it was on. Leaving from Shieldaig back the way we had come into the village the night before, we took on the Applecross Loop in a clockwise direction via Tornapress – a recommendation from Pete, whose AirBnB we were staying at.
The climbing was steady at first and no real issue at all. That is until you ride around a bend and enter the upper valley, when the road falls away hard to the left and leaves you exposed. The road then unfolds in a straight line before reaching the head of the valley when you are faced with the serious gradients up to the col; tough going on a loaded bike. Riding each switchback presented the first proper opportunities to see the views of the snaking road and coastline below. We’d earned those views.
As well as the amazing pass, we’d also heard about the Applecross Inn and had already thought about making that our stop for lunch. It was funny, we arrived feeling like we were in the middle of nowhere but the pub was packed, and it was full-on party time – we couldn’t believe it – maybe it was just because the sun was out, but there was a great atmosphere and plenty of folk getting stuck into an afternoon session! The food was incredible too; lots of local seafood straight out of the bay below us. Finding out there was a campsite, we all said that if we were ever going back to the area, we’d definitely stay at the campsite just to spend an evening in the pub. We really had to tear ourselves away to get back on the bikes, and back to Sheildaig.
Over lunch we assumed, quite wrongly, that the hardest part of the day was over; not in the slightest. The road up and around the headland rose up and down to sea level continuously all the way back to Shieldaig and, to make matters worse, Sam’s chain slipped and bent behind his cassette. Jammed tight, it took us forever to wrestle it back out and patch up. We’d begun to think we would have to try and flag someone down to give him a ride back to town, but it wouldn’t have done much good though; we hadn’t seen another soul for a long while. Luckily we were only a few miles out from our base and Sam managed to get his bike back to where we had half a chance of sorting it out properly.
Shieldaig to Ullapool
After another hefty breakfast at our AirBnB the next morning, and loads of great local tips from Pete about where to stop along the way to Ullapool, we were off. Again. We ended up replacing Sam’s chain overnight. Fortunately, Matt had a spare to give him – as it had become clear by this point that there were no bike shops along the route. I remembered one in Ullapool from a previous ride a few years back, but after a few phone calls, it turned out they had packed up and shut…
Poolewe was our intended lunch spot and there were quite a few options when we arrived. We found a cafe run by a fellow Yorkshireman which had a Twin Peaks vibe – a peculiar experience but lovely nonetheless: cheese sarnies, pots of tea and some high brow cakes sorted us out for the second half of the day.
After climbing up out of Poolewe to Aultbea, the Mellon Charles MOD naval base on the shores of Loch Ewe came into view. Sam and Hamish got super excited looking out and thinking they could see a Warship out at anchor. Turned out it was just a big fishing boat, and that this base is just used as an occasional docking station for nuclear submarines…
Thankfully the last few miles into Ullapool were all downhill; we were all absolutely knackered. Arriving into town later than expected was a continuing theme, mainly due to photo stops and the terrain, and this evening left us little time to find the place we were staying and get straight back out to The Ceilidh Place where we wanted to go for dinner. It is an amazing place we knew from previous trips; well worth poking your head in if you’re nearby…
Ullapool – Durness
With a long ride ahead, we were up early doors nursing slightly sore heads. Geez, we were up so early that we had to get supplies from the local shops in the town centre. Nothing like a cold car park breakfast to start the day. We were all feeling pretty excited for the day ahead, again, as the route included the Loch Assynt Peninsular. The cool sea breeze meant we had to dig out some extra layers for the first time on the trip, although the first hour’s ride out of Ullapool, on the A835, was all uphill so the layers stripped off pretty quickly as we hit the 500m climbing mark early on. It was then down to Elphin and the A837 to Ardvreck Castle.
The story goes that Ardvreck Castle was built by the Macleod clan in the late 1500’s – they owned the surrounding land and the Loch. In 1650 James Marquis of Montrose, a Royalist, was captured by the Laird of Assynt and kept prisoner at the castle. They took him to Edinburgh where he was hung, drawn and quartered; the consequences of fighting for King Charles. Anyway, turning off the main road signposted for Lochinver the road followed Loch Assynt and immediately, the landscape changed to small rounded mogul style hills and moorland dotted with tiny lakes and swampland. We’d been told about the pies at Lochinver; that they were to die for, so there was no chance we’d pass up on the opportunity to try a few even though Lochinver is just off the NC500 route. Matt and Hamish pushed on to get some while Sam and I took it steady; Sam wanted to be gentle to his dodgy chain and I was more than happy to take it easy.
The route after Stoer is where it begins to get really lumpy, nothing too bad until after Drumbeg and after a tiny village called Nedd where we found the first big climb, with a false summit after false summit. Then we were up high and looking out over the head of Eddrachillis Bay where we caught glimpses of the gorgeously Nordic Kylesku Bridge, a concrete monster so out of place in the natural landscape that it looks magnificent. Under the bridge on the sea shore is the Kylesku Hotel on the shores of Loch Glendhu which Hamish had heard a bit of noise about, in London. It is famed for its food and its setting. They stop serving food at 14.00, so we knew we’d probably not get the chance to eat there. Instead we sat on the terrace for a drink in the sun for an hour or two. Lucky to find a free table, we thought we’d better stay for a while. Turned out to be the best beer we found on the trip, a fresh cask of Isle of Skye IPA. While we were sat we watched the hotel’s boat, Rachael Clare, go out and back a few times, delivering brimming pots of muscles and lobster straight into the kitchen door. We now realise why people rave about it.
Cracking on again after the pub, we left the single-track roads behind for the time being, climbing and climbing up to and past Scourie. At Laxford Bridge, the weather turned nasty. Impossible Northerly headwinds whipped over the headland and smashing us straight on; the last few kilometres into Durness took a big effort. We were now on the very north coast of Scotland; we ticked the south and west sections off, just the north and the east left to go. We were late though … again … and had to blag last orders for food at Sango Sands. A rough and ready pub, that was also very busy with large groups of motorcyclists and other adventurers. We were sun burnt, wind burnt and absolutely exhausted but buzzing after a great day’s riding – a few drams were in order before getting our heads down at the Durness YHA.
Durness – Wick
Turns out the road along the north coast is relentless; the tarmac constantly drops up and down from sea level to the high cliffs as it cuts across the headlands and skirts around the bays. Minus the sea, it reminded me of the Yorkshire Moors somewhat – the expanses, the colours and dull tones of heather. The four of us wound our way down to Tongue, glad to see the bridge over the Kyle of Tongue which would save our legs from going up and around again like Loch Eriboll just before. Once over the bay, we made a beeline for a lunch stop at Weavers Cafe which had been recommended to us – the food was great and the gift shop interesting. I really regret not buying one of the ‘I love Tongue’ stickers. Maybe next time.
After lunch the sawtooth elevation route profile continued all the way up past Bettyhill. I’m sure if we were in the early stages of the trip it would have been an enjoyable ride, but at this stage, we were all beginning to fade a bit. A local lad caught our wheel and rode with us for a bit; we were pleased to hear from him that once we’d crossed from Sutherland into Caithness, the road levelled out a bit more. He wasn’t wrong; we cruised leisurely past the impressive nuclear power station, a landmark we pedalled towards for what seemed like an age, before rolling into Thurso. After a hot coffee and a good stretch, we left Thurso, able to look out north at the high cliffs of Dunnet Head (the real most northerly point of Scotland) where we had planned to ride out, but we couldn’t face the extra kilometres – a decision we might end up regretting I’m sure. However, we could also make out Stroma and the Orkney Islands beyond; Hoy and South Ronaldsay looming on the horizon.
Turning south at John O’Groats, we eventually caught a much needed tailwind that pushed us all of the last 30km to Wick – our finishing point at the end of a tough day out on the bikes. Once we’d made it there, we even begun talking to each other again, discussing that we should probably head straight to the harbour to get our bearings and find a place to stay. We settled in Old Pulteney Town with its age old blackened brick of terraced houses running down to the sea. It felt like going back in time. In the pub that evening, there were lots of old black and white photographs of the thriving Herring Days, providing an insight into how busy the harbour must have been back in the day; things had definitely changed.
Wick – Inverness
The mast flags and ropes on the fishing trawlers outside woke us up early on our last morning; the wind was-a-blowing, seriously. Luckily it looked like a northerly, so we’d have a tailwind so we figured we’d be in Inverness in no time. Our first checkpoint was Helmsdale and as soon as we made it out of Wick, the route turned to the A99, which is really busy; whilst the road hugs the coast and offers some nice views out to sea every now and again, it is not that interesting for a cyclist. It had to be done though, turning into more of a km-churning out process. Lunch in Helmsdale was cake. Lots of cake, at a cafe called Thyme and Plaice (cringe).
After Helmsdale, the road turned into the A9 and became even busier. We had a quick pause at Dunrobin Castle, where Hamish consulted the map – it was time to try an alternative route. We found a quieter road shortly after Golspie, signed for Littleferry and Skelbo which we took and were immediately glad for – riding on single-track roads again, and seeking sand banks full of seals at play. We popped back out at Dornoch, which seemed like a lovely little old town and is a must, just off the main road and NC500 route.
The Glenmorangie distillery, just after the bridge over the Dornoch Firth, was also visible on our map and we headed there making it our last distillery stop of the trip. It wasn’t long before we were charming our way into the tasting room and shop, where a lady gave us a heads up that Tain, the next town along, had a train line into Inverness. Tain – Train it was no coincidence, and there was a direct option soon for us.
Our special journey so far meant we didn’t feel like we had to prove anything by riding the last section back via Muir of Ord. We’d definitely recommend taking as many less direct roads back to Inverness from Wick as possible. In all, a challenging trip, but a real adventure discovering Scotland’s rugged coastal roads and lands…