|Via:||Bealach na Ba, Ullapool, Lochinver, Durness, John o Groats, Tain|
|Distance:||518 miles (833.6 km)|
The NC500 (North Coast 500-miles) is a comparatively new addition to the tourist routes in the Scottish Highlands, and whilst it has not been classified as a national tourist route, in the short time since it was launched it has proven popular, and press reports suggest that businesses along the route are already benefiting substantially. The route is targeted at the tourist market as a way to encourage visitors to explore the far north and west coast of the Scottish Highlands. First launched in 2015, it has already gained a selection of high profile media stories as cyclists endeavour to set record times for completing the route, the record currently stands at under 36 hours.
Starting and finishing in Inverness, the route makes a grand loop through some of the Highlands most stunning landscapes as it heads west first, then follows the Wester Ross Coastal Trail north, before picking up the North and West Highlands Route from Ullapool to John o Groats. The latter route is followed exclusively, as a detour is taken to explore Lochinver. From Caithness, however, the route follows the A99 and A9 south, along what can at times be a fast changing coastline of cliffs and beaches, where the vast sky over the North Sea can become mesmerising. Finally, after a detour through Dingwall, the route returns to Inverness.
Inverness - Ullapool
We head out of Inverness on the A862, following the Beauly Firth to the pretty town of the same name. This is part of the Moray Firth Tourist Route, and follows the old line of the A9, the main route north until the Kessock Bridge opened. Beauly has a ruined priory and there is a distillery at Muir of Ord a couple of miles north. Here the inward and outward routes diverge, with the outward route taking the A832 to Contin - a short detour to the Victorian Spa of Strathpeffer can be made now or on the return leg. Contin has some fine forest walks to enjoy, and it is also possible to lose yourself deep in the glens of Strath Conon to the west, with minor roads heading up past the dams.
A short distance beyond Contin, lie the Falls of Rogie, and another set of falls lie at Silver Bridge just beyond Garve. This is a short detour from the route, but a pleasant riverside walk leads down to Little Garve Bridge - a military bridge built on a soon abandoned military road in the 1760s. The NC500 however, has resumed the A832 from Gorstan junction, and heads west on a stunning run to Achnasheen. This is the start of the Wester Ross Coastal Trail, and that page gives more details on the delights of the route. To summarise, however, that the NC500 turns left onto the A890 at Achnasheen and runs down scenic Strathcarron to the pretty lochside village of Lochcarron. The Isle of Skye is just an hour away if you have the time, but if not head west to the car park at Ardaneaskan beyond Strome Castle for a fine view of the island.
Back at Lochcarron, the NC500 heads north to Kishorn, and then tackles the fabulous Bealach na Ba over to Applecross. It is well worth spending the time to explore the coastline to the south of the village before taking the coast road north. Sandy bays, ruined villages and amazing views abound before the A896 is rejoined at Shieldaig - another village worth a linger. The new road from Shieldaig to Torridon was built in the 1960s, and connected the two communities. Torridon is famed in the climbing community for its mountains, which even to those less inclined to leave the road are a magnificent sight. The A896 then turns inland and heads north east to Kinlochewe at the head of Loch Maree.
At Kinlochewe, the NC500 meets the A832 once more, and follows it as it meanders around the northern part of Wester Ross to its end at Braemore Junction. Along the way, there are pretty villages and harbours to explore, stunning mountain scenery to enjoy and plenty of detours along the dead ends that stretch out along the headlands. Again, full details are on the Wester Ross Coastal Trail page, but the highlights include waterfalls and forest walks along Loch Maree, the useful stopping point of Gairloch, with shops, cafes, a beach and harbour to enjoy. A drive out along the B8021 to the lighthouse is worthwhile, whilst the B8056 and B8057 are also very scenic.
The Wester Ross trail eventually comes to an end at Braemore Junction, above the stunning Corrieschalloch Gorge. From here, it is a quick blast up the A835 to Ullapool, the largest town on the western coast of the NC500 route, with a supermarket, shops, restaraunts and many other useful services. Ullapool is also the start of the North and West Highlands Route, which again gives more detail on the route beyond the town, but before we set off, take some time to stroll along the shore, watch the ferry come in and savour the local fish for your tea!
Ullapool - Durness
The NC500 continues north up the west coast from Ullapool on the A835. After a few miles, the pretty village of Ardmair is reached, with a row of whitewashed cottages staring out to sea. Isle Martin provides some shelter to the bay, but it can be a wild place when a storm is blowing in! The route then turns inland, through Coigach to Laxford Bridge. However, the more adventurous might welcome a detour out to Achiltibuie, where the Summer Isles provide a stunning panorama. Another minor road then leads north to Lochinver, with some grand views inland at the strange shapes of the mountains.
The NC500, meanwhile, has some fine scenery of its own, and when it joins the A837 at Ledmore Junction, things only get better, with Ardvreck Castle providing a splendid sight on the shores of Loch Assynt just past Inchnadamph. The route sticks to the loch shores, diverging from the NW Highlands Route, and eventually runs into Lochinver - where the route from Achiltibuie also arrives - where accommodation and a good meal can be found. If you have time, there are also some forest walks to enjoy either side of the village.
From Lochinver, the NC500 takes the B869 north. This road is not a quick route, as it twists and turns, rises and falls, but it has some stunning views and is worth driving at least once in your life! A detour out to the Stoer Head Lighthouse is recommended, but it is still many miles back to the main road! This is finally reached just south of the magnificent Kylesku Bridge. Continuing north, the NC500 is now following the A894 through Scourie to Laxford Bridge, where it runs onto the A838. A trip out to Kinlochbervie is rewarded with an amazing view inland on the return, and then it is a long slog through the hills, although once the watershed is reached the view ahead can be bleak or breathtaking, depending on the weather.
The Road drops down to the Kyle of Durness, where there are places to stop and look across at Cape Wrath, the most north westerly point of the mainland. If you are early enough, you can get the ferry and minibus out to the lighthouse, before taking that last mile into Durness village, a place surprisingly well equipped to service the traveller considering its remoteness. Coastal walks are available around Balnakeil and Faraid Head, or a shorter stroll takes you down some steps to the beautiful Smoo Cave.
Durness - John o Groats
The north coast may not have the scenic splendour of the west coast, but it certainly has its moments, and there are some amazing places to stop and explore as we travel east. From Durness, the NC500 continues following the A838, soon turning south around the head of Loch Eriboll. On a grey day, this loch may seem dull, but there is something about the place, perhaps just the knowledge of where you are, that makes it a magical part of the country. The small promontory of Ard Neackie on the eastern shore adds to this, and is worth wandering out to explore the quarry and limekilns.
The road quickly climbs and falls to reach Hope, and then runs over a longer expanse of the great northern peatlands to Tongue. The causeway cuts off a lengthy detour around the kyle, but the adventurous can still follow the old road. A climb up to the ruined castle above the village affords some good views. The A838 gives way to the A836 in Tongue, with the NC500 continuing east across more upland peat bogs. Minor roads lead north to the coast for an intersting detour, and the B871 heads south down scenic Strathnaver.
The place names of this coastline - Bettyhill, Farr, Strathy, Portskerra, Melvich are evocative to those who have been there, and will often bring a warm glow and longing to return. Even if you have only passed through, you have a respect for the people who make a living in this wilderness, which allows you to travel through this fantastic landscape. All too soon, however, it comes to an end as the A836 passes the Dounreay establishment, and you know that [[Thurso is just a few miles ahead. The town is a useful stopping point, for a bed or supplies, and nearby Scrabster has one of three ferry services which allow travellers to cross the Pentland Firth to Orkney.
Beyond Thurso, the Highlands are very much behind us, as we cross the coastal fringe of Caithness. Away to the south, the Flow Country is a vast empty bogland which stretches for thousands of square miles, but the cliffs and rocky beaches of the coast are followed by the NC500. A detour up the B855 leads to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the mainland, and then it is just a few miles east to John o Groats, the world famous tourist destination and start (or end) of LeJoG. It is not, however, the most northerly or north easterly point on the mainland, and it is by no means the end of this journey.
John o Groats - Inverness
The NC500 now turns south - there are only a couple of miles out to Duncansby Head after all - and follows the A99 through Keiss and Reiss into Wick. Wick is like Thurso in many respects (although the locals fiercely point out the differences) and a good point to resupply. The A99 to either side runs through open country with expansive views out to sea, and offers a grand drive south. The road is often fast with free-flowing bends, but has enough variation to keep a keen driver interested, whilst the more leisurely motorists can be easily passed.
Beyond Wick, the A99 passes Thrumster, Ulbster and Lybster to meet the A9 at Latheron. Unlike the west coast, almost every village is large enough to support a shop, cafe or pub, and there are many side roads leading out to the coast, or turning inland for exploring. A few miles south of Latheron is the first of a series of sharp defiles that the A9 has to negotiate. Here, at Dunbeath there is a fine bridge spanning the valley, but at Berriedale beyond, traffic is not so fortunate, although the road has been improved. At both places, it is possible to park up and explore sections of the old road.
Helmsdale is the third of these sharp valleys, preceeded by the now tamed descent of the Ord of Caithness, and is again crossed by a bridge, but the town and harbour are worth exploring. Civilisation is now taking over once more, and the wild coastline of the north is behind us. The large villages of Brora and Golspie lie either side of infamous Dunrobin Castle, home of the Dukes of Sutherland - famed for their ruthless Highland Clearances. The Mound at Loch Fleet is one of Thomas Telfords masterpieces - he was responsible for much of this road as part of his commission on Highland Roads and Bridges.
The old Cathedral at Dornoch is a worthwhile detour, and rather than take the Dornoch Firth Bridge, a pleasant drive can be had by heading west over the Bonar Bridge. The old Royal Burgh of Tain is a good place to explore with some fine old buildings. The NC500, however, sticks to the A9 bypass, as it does with Invergordon and Alness, although a drive along the B817 is a far more enjoyable proposition, running down the coast and then through the two towns. At Ardullie Roundabout the NC500 leaves the A9 behind, and takes the A862 into Dingwall, another old town with fine architecture to enjoy.
The route isn't signed explicitly, but contains the entirity of two signed tourist routes: the Wester Ross Coastal Trail (from Garve to Braemore) and the North and West Highlands Route (from Ullapool to John o Groats). It also includes part of the Moray Firth Tourist Route (through Dingwall and Muir of Ord into Inverness). Most of the rest of the route uses trunk roads (A9, A99, A835).
The route is still new, so businesses are still learning about the new trade. However, the larger villages and towns all offer a good range of shops, accommodation and meal options. Many of the smaller villages, such as Durness, Scourie and Applecross have basic facilities and 24/7 pay at pump fuel. Electric car charging points can also be found along the route.