Written by Lynsey Oxton
The ‘North Coast 500’ is often referred to as Scotland’s answer to America’s Route 66, taking in just over 500 miles of the fantastic North Highlands coastline. It starts and ends in Inverness so, since we had based ourselves there, it made absolute sense to venture onto this popular route and see a snippet of it.
The NC500 may be best known as a coastal driving route, but there’s much more to its long and winding roads – you’ll see mountains, lochs, wilderness, wildlife….
Apparently, in the Summer months, the route is usually crammed full of tourists in cars, camper vans and caravans, causing frustrating hold-ups and long tail-backs. Luckily, we visited in September when it was relatively quiet and the open roads could be enjoyed as they should be.
The NC500 comprises six regions to explore, each with its own charm – Wester Ross, Easter Ross, Sutherland, Caithness, Inverness and the Black Isle. We headed off in the direction of Wester Ross – having heard from multiple sources that both Torridon and the road to Applecross were ‘must sees’.
What you’ll notice when driving on the Wester Ross is the ever-changing landscape; from barley fields ready for harvest, to silent lochs and vast shoreline, to imposing mountains that darken the sky. The roads are bendy, windy and great fun – but watch out for red squirrels running out into the road! This happened to us twice (we missed them, fortunately) – they are known for their skittish behaviour and evident death wish!
After around an hour and twenty minutes of driving the NC500 from Inverness, we reached Torridon, a relatively small community set in between a loch and the hills (munro’s).
An interesting fact for those of you who are fitness fanatics: Torridon hosts an annual ‘Celtman’ event, which comprises an extreme triathlon of a 3.4km swim, a 202km cycle and a 42km run. I feel exhausted just writing about it!
There is a lovely shoreline to explore in Torridon, provided you don’t mind stumbling across rocks, striding over seaweed and avoiding stepping in the rock pools. All of which makes it more fun, obviously. It’s easy to reach by foot if you park up by the General Store in Achnasheen and follow the footpath.
You’re guaranteed to spot shells, jellyfish and perhaps a crab or two – but those fortunate enough may also encounter the wildlife that Torridon is known for – otters, eagles and deer. My luck was definitely not in on that score. That said, the beach was a little treasure trove in itself so I didn’t mind missing out on the wildlife too much.
Once we had tired of walking (and had a hydration refuel at the General Store!), we jumped back in the car to drive the scenic route to Applecross that we had heard so much about!
The Bealach Na Ba
To get to Applecross, you can choose who go over the Bealach Na Ba – meaning ‘Pass of the Cattle’ in Gaelic – or take an alternative route if you don’t quite fancy it….
The sign at the foot of Bealach Na Ba helpfully covered in stickers reads ‘This road rises to a height of 2053 foot, with gradients of 1 in 5 and hairpin bends. Not advised for learner drivers, very large vehicles or caravans after first mile’.
We opted to do it, after all, the Bealach Na Ba is known as one of the UK’s toughest and most challenging roads – so why not?
The road was built all the way back in the early 1800’s and has featured in both television and film due to its winding, steep single track and magnificent views. It is also commonly compared to the mountain passes that you find in the Alps. You can understand why this is a favourite for serious cyclists and bikers!
The sharp hairpin bends and steep climbs definitely require a lot of concentration, but inevitably some of the fun is removed by the constant stop/ start/ reverse as you allow other vehicles to pass. Even out of tourist season, this made the 11 or so miles to the top seem to last all eternity! I can’t imagine what it would have been like in July and August!
As a road named ‘the pass of the cattle’, be sure to keep your eyes out for some of Scotland’s famous Highland Coo’s too – just keep those eyes on the road too!
We made Applecross – but did we miss something?
Maybe it was the threatening skies, or the knowledge that we had to make the torturous trip back down the Bealach Na Ba – either way, we didn’t stop long in Applecross. There didn’t appear to be much to see aside from a pop up cafe, a row of motorbikes, a pub that was semi-closed and an art studio that was shut. Again, it might have been a different place in the height of Summer….
Not all was lost; we did manage to grab a nice take-away latte and use the ‘public convenience’, so it wasn’t entirely a wasted journey!
Of course I’m kidding – despite some frustration, to drive the Bealach Na Ba can easily be classed as bucket list material in anyone’s book.
We said goodbye to that days adventure and headed back to Inverness – a journey that took a little over two hours back along the NC500, this time taking a slightly different route and passing through new villages. Of course, just driving the NC500 is one big adventure in itself and it’s easy to see why tourists flock here year after year.
Are you planning on doing some – or all – of the North Coast 500? You’ll love it! You can’t fail to! Here’s a short 20 seconds of our mini road trip to whet your appetite!