Chasing Snow on the NC500
Despite arranging this mini roadtrip a couple of weeks in advance, and therefore having little clue of the weather forecast, it was hoped that some snowy mountains could be found. The planned route was therefore extremely vague, and could have taken us north, east or even south from the start point in Lochaber.
Chasing Snow around Northern Scotland! The fact that we followed a lot of the NC500 route was more by coincidence than intention!
Day 1 - A Winter Wonderland
Heading north through Fort William, there was little more than a dusting of snow in evidence at first, but as the A82 climbed up past Nevis Range, the landscape became distinctly white. After passing through Spean Bridge, the road climbed again and there was the first suggestion that the gritters had not managed to maintain a ribbon of pure black, and as the road dropped through the trees to the shore of Loch Lochy, it was like passing through a winter wonderland, with thick snow layered on the naked branches and pine needles overhead. It looked cold, and indeed was cold, hovering just below freezing. So mesmerised were we by the beauty of the view ahead that we continued up the Great Glen, through Fort Augustus, before eventually taking the A887 towards Skye.
There were occasional snow showers as we climbed up Glen Moriston, but sunny spells showed off the glory of the landscape. Joining the A87, the Cluanie Dam was iced over, creating a spectacular effect, but then another shower passed over, and at this slightly higher altitude, the cloud base was low on the hillsides. After plunging down Glen Shiel, we opted to take a risk and left the trunk road behind, instead turning north onto Highland Council's A890. Despite the climbs on the way over to Lochcarron, the road was clear enough, but as we climbed out of the village on the A896, conditions underwheel took a dramatic change.
Cautiously, we proceeded north, thankful for the 4 wheel drive, finding it difficult to identify where the road ended and the verge began on this single track road. However, as we dropped down to the shore again at Kishorn, the road cleared and the green vegetation was visible once more. A lunch stop at the bottom of the Bealach na Ba suggested that the pass was open, but shrouded in cloud, and we decided that as the amount of daylight was diminishing, we would press on. The mountains of Torridon were spectacular with a heavy dusting of snow. However, as we turned inland towards Kinlochewe, conditions deteriorated.
It was slow going up the A896 and A832 past Achnasheen to Garve. The scenery was stunning, but regular snow showers made the road conditions more and more difficult. For a mile or more at a time, the road was completely white, and fresh snow filled our wheel tracks almost as quickly as we made them. Traffic was light at first, but heavier on the A832. Our sure-footed Land Rover remained straight and true, however, and even when dipping into the deeper snow of passing places it had no difficulties. Darkness fell as we climbed up the A835 past the dam at Aultguish, and it was with relief that we pulled up in Ullapool, quickly finding some warmth next to the fire in the Ferry Boat Inn, as we watched the snow pile up on the road outside.
Day 2 - Northwards to Durness, and Thurso
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, it was north to Ledmore Junction, where we passed a gritter and took the A837 west along the coast. We have visited and explored this part of the Highlands almost every year since 2010, and yet never in such conditions. The white clad mountains changed form as we passed them, successively highlighted by the low winter sun against patches of blue sky, white cloud, or the brooding dark grey snow clouds, which suddenly enveloped the peaks. The side roads were worse than we had experienced around Kinlochewe the previous afternoon, so we stuck to the main road, taking it steady, and occasionally pulling up on the empty roadside for some dramatic photos.
The snow cover thinned as we dropped towards the coast at Kylesku Bridge, and by the time we reached Scourie, the landscape was almost back to normal, with only a light dusting of snow over the green fields and hillsides. We considered turning right at the end of the A894 at Laxford Bridge, thinking that the snow would be thicker again inland, but the lure of Durness proved strong, and we were rewarded. The snow was much thicker as we progressed north, and more was falling, but after Rhiconoch, the sun came out, illuminating the vast white wilderness. We enjoyed a well-earned rest at Cocoa Mountain in Durness - perhaps the best hot chocolate in the world, which tastes more like melted chocolate than anything you have ever tasted before. On the downside, no mug of hot chocolate will ever taste that good again.
The tour around Loch Eriboll was tricky in places, but it was not until we climbed up from Hope that the landscape returned that full 'wow' factor once more. With clearing skies and the sun breaking through, the distant mountains glowed against the dark sky, and to the north, a stiff wind was crashing the incoming tide against the cliffs and bays, creating vast white blankets of surf along the shore. After a brief stop on the Tongue Causeway, reminiscing about past roadtrips, we continued east as dusk closed in, arriving in Thurso as night fell.
Day 3 - All the way back again
Caithness is a place that we have often visited, but almost always stuck to the coastal route of the A99 and A836. As such, with no real plan, and time to kill, we decided to explore some of the cross-county routes. We therefore took the A882 from Thurso to Wick, then doubled back on the B874. The B870 took us south again, followed by the B876 back to Thurso. Finally, we headed south to Latheron on the A9. As we came out of Thurso the first time, the A9 was more-or-less clear, but it was very clear that maintenance responsibilities changed at Georgemas Junction, as the A882 ahead was almost completely white.
The B road were worse, but it was fine powdery snow, which created rooster-tails behind us as we zigzagged north and south. As such, there seemed to be plenty of traction, and little diminishing of stopping distances. As we headed south on the B870, we were just ahead of the snow, and there was a dramatic line in the sky where the weather front cut a clear division between the blue sky and dark grey snow cloud. The shower passed, however, and back on the A9, the improvement from earlier was dramatic, even on the A882 when we turned off, the road was black, and whilst wet, it offered fast running south.
Along the coast towards Helmsdale, the road was mostly black, but in places the wind had blown the powdery snow across the road, causing some interesting conditions around bends in places. Good progress was made, however, and as we crossed the Dornoch Firth Bridge into Easter Ross, it was normal running in free-flowing traffic. At Inverness, we decided we had just enough daylight to take the scenic route down the Great Glen, so we stayed on the A9 and turned off onto the B851 at Daviot. We hoped to see some of the road improvements made to accommodate the windfarm traffic, but with up to six inches of snow, this was not as easy as expected!
As we climbed out of Farr, the temperature outside dropped, reaching an indicated -12 near the River Nairn Bridge. But it was worth it! The clear skies were giving way ahead to an increasingly intense orange glow as the sun set, casting long eerie shadows over the white landscape. The trees were heavily laden with frozen snow, just like on the A82 two days before, and yet with little or no snowfall for many hours, the road was mostly visible as two black tramlines. It was a fantastic end to a very wintry weekend, but as we descended into Fort Augustus, the last of the daylight ebbed away, and it was time to head for home.
|Chasing Snow on the NC500|