5 days and 500+ miles of self supported adventure road riding around the Scottish Highlands.
Billed as Scotland answer to the famous US road touring route Route 66 the NorthCoast500 takes in just over 500 miles of the best the Highlands has to offer, from views, roads, beaches, lochs, climbs, cafes, hospitality and campsites.
All of which help to make this one of the countries newest and pre-eminent cycle touring route.
After returning from my last international cycle tour in Thailand I had vowed to explore more of the UK and was on the hunt for inspiration when I saw this video of Mark Beaumont riding the NorthCoast500 non-stop in just 37hrs!
With an average of over 100 miles a day for 5 days this was still more riding than any of us had ever done and with the added fact that it was most of the teams first cycle tour it was bound to be one to remember.
After much faffing, planning, injury’s and a widely varying amount of training miles the team was 6 strong as we loaded our bikes into the back of a rented van and started a long day of driving up the length of the country from Portsmouth to Inverness.
As luck would have it my uncle and aunt run an idyllic B&B (Founders House) on the banks of the Beauly Firth in North Kessock overlooking Inverness and after getting some local advice on the route we left the comfort of our warm beds and headed off in the sun on the north bank of the Firth.
Easing into the tour the first day was not only the shortest but also the flattest. However, what the stats don’t show is that for virtually the full 121km we were heading into a stiff headwind and once the rain started about 1km in it didn’t stop until we arrived in Applecross.
Despite suggesting on numerous occasions over the weeks leading up to the trip that we should all get out for a shake down ride with our bikes fully loaded this never actually happened. The result was a rather wobbly and unstable first few k’s as we all got used to the weight. This was particularly true in my case as it turns out the handling on a 30 year old steel racing frame isn’t the best when loaded with weight so high on the bike. In fact as the week wore on I could still feel the constant wobble from my spaghetti bike like a type of motion sickness as I lay trying to sleep in my tent.
The other thing the numbers don’t highlight is that 626m of the climbing came in just 9.1km right at the end of the day in the form of Bealach na Bà pass, boasting the greatest ascent of any road climb in the UK and with section as steep as 20%! To add to the imposing nature of the climb we had met a group of fellow tour’s earlier in the day who were cutting their tour short after buckling a wheel during their decent of the pass and then in the Waterside cafe Lochcarron we were told to “take care” as a car had lost control earlier in the day, crashing and closing the road for the last few hrs.
The site of the wrecked car on the back of a flatbed recovery truck driving past the cafe made us all question just what we had in store…
Dan and I were in no rush and stopped for probably to many photos as by the time we completed the last of the switchbacks we could only see a 100ft or so ahead and not wanting to hang out in a damp cloud any longer then necessary we headed down the other side. The good news on the decent was the headwind had gone, the bad news was it had been replaced with a side wind that was playing havoc with my already wobbly bike. We continued down gingerly while keeping an eager eye out for more dears and stags on the roadside.
Ingrid and Jo were still someway back and by the time they hit the hairpins the visibility was down to arms length. Luckly a friendly French family were passing in their van and offered to give them a ride to the campsite. The pair realised they had no option but to accept, if only to try to make it to the pub before the kitchen closed. A feet they missed by only a couple of minuets and were able to sweet talk the staff into knocking them up a few sandwiches.
Applecross is a tiny little place with lots going for it. The campsite is ace and we had pre-booked two wooden huts at £10 a head. They came with mattresses and plugs, but more importantly an electric heater that was instantly set to max in an attempted to dry out our soaking wet kit. Welcome to summer holidays in Scotland!
The Applecross Inn is a supper friendly and welcoming pub with views out to sea and an extensive menu including a couple of decent vegan options in my case this delicious Thai curry. The staff even offered Minda some warm dry cloths after taking pity on him shivering in just a bright orange survival bivvy bag!
Our second day started with a trip to the only other thing in Applecross, The Potting Shed Cafe, and after a wrong turn that had us seeking in through a secret door at the back of the walled garden we arrived just in time for breakfast, double vegan porridge with extra maple syrup.
Right from the off the terrain was amazing. With the pass behind us what lay ahead seemed isolated, rugged and full of forboading.
The Isle of Skye sat out just off the coast reminding me slightly of the Isle of White back home, but that is where the similarities ended. The coastline here was wild, with steep climbs and exhilarating decent. The regular but light rain showers mixed with the salty sea air to leave our lips with the unmistakable test of the sea.
The few towns along this stretch of coastline where as welcoming as they were isolated and after the disappointment of arriving in Shieldaig to find the cafe closed we were elated to discover another just on down the road who were happy to fill up our waters and perk Dan up with an espresso.
Torridon was our scheduled lunch stop and once again we were amazed to find this small one shop town had one of the best cafe I had been to in a while! In fact the Torridon Stores & Cafe is the only thing in town other than the jaw dropping scenery and doubles as the village a store, full of fresh fruit and veg as well as our favourite health food shop stapes (very impressed). Fresh hot home-made soup and toasties were the order of the day, followed by cakes and coffees.
Full, warm and well supplied we left the coast line behind as we headed inland, weaving our way through a long valley with towering bare peaks on either side.
Hitting the bottom of Loch Maree the road snaked its way along its southern bank for a few miles before climbing and entering a totally new landscape.
The section of the route from Gairloch is like no other. Full of small lakes, sharp climbs and seemingly no road apart from the short meandering section right in front of you.
There is a real sence of wilderness out here I have not experienced anywhere else in the UK and I being there on a bike, carrying all your own gear just added to the intensity of the place.
As we descended along a long shallow decent towards the 150km mark and The Dundonnell Hotel we were all starting to feel the effects of the last couple of days. Luckey enough the Spanish guys running the hotel were awesome, if somewhat amused by our requests, including “have you got a couple of industrial bin bags we could have? It looks like it could rain tonight”. After tripping a waitress up when excitedly plugging in his Garmin to charge, Jesse relaxed with some of the other high-end hotel guest in the lounge while waiting for his dinner to arrive.
A couple of main courses and multiple side dishes later I finally finished my dinner and we all set out on the longest climb of the day with the sun slowly setting behind us.
Dusk as it turns out it the best time to see deer and there was no shortage of them this evening as a few family groups hopped the fence and crossed the road just in front of us as we slowly climbed the plato.
Tonight we had planned to wildcamp, which by the way is legal and fine to do up her in Scotland unlike in the South of England where people seem overly concerned with land ownership and keeping “their” land private. We had found what looked to be a cracking spot down a couple of km of gravel track by the shores of Loch A’ Bhraoin.
There was no denying the beauty of the spot, but despite its remote location we were not alone…the famous and much feared midges were already there in numbers!
Note to self, when your uncle and long time highlands mountain rescuse expert suggests camping by the river instead of the lake heed his advice!
As this was out first night of camping proper I feel we all learnt a lot from it;
- Check for rocks and diverts before setting up your tent
- Summer is Scotland is still bloody cold at night so bring a sleeping bad
- believe the hype, Avon Skin So Soft is an awesome midge repellent
- Bring a midge head net
- Any insulation between you and a cold stone floor is greatly appreciated, even if its a bit of weather beaten cardboard and some dry grass you found in a rats nest in the wall!
After checking Minda hadn’t died or caught hyperthermia during the night we packed up our various sleeping systems and beat a hasty retreat from the Midgies back to the road.
After all that climbing at the end of yesterdays ride today started with a huge decent down to the only ‘large’ town on the west coast, Ullapool.
Here we had the worst meal of the trip with The Seaforth Inn only offering one vegan option in the form of toast and jam… Out of both protest and necessity to eat some actual food I headed down to the only supermarket on the west coast to pick up juice, banana, dates and some fruit loaf and promptly sat about making and eating round after round of banana and date sandwiches.
There is also an outdoor shop in town which after careful investigation Ingrid had found stocked everyone favourite ride fuel Cliff bars, but on arrival found them to be sold out!!! They were also out of stock of emergency bivvy’s much to Jesse’s disappointment, but not to leave an unwashed and slightly bemused foreign cycle tour without options the shop assistant offered an emergency blanket instead.
Jesse’s face lite up and with a role of ductape added to the mix to improve a bivvy he was already dreaming of a good night sleep in Durness.
To fill the hole left by the lack of Cliff bars we all headed to the supermarket on the way out of town and stock up, before heading back out into the wilds.
Shortly after leaving Ullapool the road kicked up as we headed inland on the A835. The huge peak of Ben More loomed ahead of us in the distance.
Eventually the route took us to the west of the mountain offering dramatic views in all directions before bringing us to the edge of Loch Assynt. Here we passed for the 3rd time in 3 days a group of sports cars obviously doing the same route, before taking to opportunity to add a dramatic new vista to my epic wee spots.
Further up the loch there is a turning on the right which takes you north on the A894. This would cut of a chunk on the days ride, but even just a cursory glance at the map tells you this is not a shortcut you want to take…
The loop round from Lochinver along the coast to Drumbeg might just be the best road in the UK. In fact it is definitely the best road I have ridden in the UK and probably in my personal top 10 world-wide!
Go ride this road, go ride it now!
After an improvised lunch stop on an old brick bridge we started climbing. There is nothing particularly high on this section of the route, but boy is it steep! At the top of every climb the road just seemed to drop away out of sight like a rollercoaster, leaving nothing but jaw dropping views in its place.
Clachtoll Beach Campsite popped up out of nowhere and has been firmly added to my “I have to go back here with Alex” list. It has an awesome little blue shed store facing the road selling cold drinks and snakes. Which now the sun was out made for a natural rest stop.
Being on a beach there was only one way out of town and that was up yet another steep hill, but with these views no one was complaining.
Passing a number of small lochs we noticed lots of people fly fishing, including one guy who was seemingly in some sort of blowup armchair floating around the middle of the lake.
Entering the small town of Drumbeg we couldn’t help but stop for group photo of the lads, the girls were just behind, before re grouping once more at Drumbeg Stores. This was as good as any health food shop in the south of England and was run by the worlds nicest husband and wife team! We relaxed in the sun outside the shop tucking into a veritable feast of tasty treats, before we all popped back in to buy more.
As we were finishing up the owner came over to apologiesed that they had to shut early at 5pm this evening as he needed to take his wife to the hospital for a check-up. We said that was no problem and wish for good news from the Dr. At this point he asked whereabouts in town we were planning on spending the night, to which we replied “O no we are not staying here, we are going to Durness”.
A knowing smile appeared across his face as he explained its a long way to Durness and you have a few big hills between here and there!
We laugh this off and I told the group how whenever I’ve been touring people in small towns always say how the hill just outside their town is the biggest and steepest and how you’ll be walking that one… Well on this occasion the store owner was spot on! No sooner had got back on the bikes then the road kicked up to a staggering 25% and the only thing keeping me on the bike was the thumbs up and shouts of encouragement from the few other road users!
This brutal up and down continued for a few miles before we joined back up with the A894 and for the first time in a long time the road had two full width lanes. As my mum once told me “A roads in the highlands aren’t like A roads in England” and despite the increase in tarmac there was no increase in traffic.
The climbs continued, but luckily at a much more manageable gradient.
After experiencing a death wobble Minda was a bit concerned about his equipment and general wellbeing to bomb any more hills, opting instead to ease down them at a more pedestrian pace. Jesse on the other hand had had a second wind and was busy burning up the road. We found him on the outskirts of Scourie chatting to two Italian motorbike trousers who had driven up through Europe and were heading on over to the Orkney Islands. They seems amused and concerned about how little Jesse was carrying compared to them and asked if he was staying in B&B’s. Jesse explained that no he was camping.
The two of them looked confused as though something had been lost in translation and asked “do you have a tent?”. Jesse laughed as he answered err, sort of…
The last climb of the day was a long old drag up from sea level to just shy of 200m through a barren landscape who’s only sign of life was the peat cutting and sheep farming. As we looked back at the top we could see the hills behind us and knew that we had broken the back of the route.
The run down to Durness was fast and frantic as a headwind had kicked up and we worked out that if we pushed hard we might make it by 21:00 and what we assumed would be last food orders at the pub. As Minda and I screeched to a halt outside the pub at 20:58 I dashed in to place an order. Unfortunately this pub’s kitchen shuts at 20:30 so our effort had been in vain. The good news was next to the pub is yet another gem of a store. The place is no bigger then a large store cupboard and run by an extremely friendly chap with the thickest of Scottish accents, yet has everything a hungry cyclist could possibly need. By this point the others had arrive and we headed off to take a hot shower and eat some grub and setup out pitch, or in the case of Minda find cosy spot under shelter to hide for the night.
In this case it was the floor of the utility room, much to the surprise of the German lady who walked in on him later that night looking to retrieve her dry clothes!
After buying the shop out of vegan snack bars on the way out of town we faced our first steep and twisty climb of the day before heading south in to a super still block headwind for around Loch Eriboll. As we hit the end of the Loch the howling wind vanished and we were pushed back northwards over the rolling terrain.
We had planned to stop for lunch in Tongue and as the rain lashed down on us as we crossed the Kyle of Tongue Causeway, we were all a bit pissed that the town was not located on the shore and instead up a bit of a climb. Worse was to come as we were told we were to early and rather than wast time sitting around waiting to eat we pushed on a few miles up the road under recommendation heading for Weavers Cafe.
Disaster…Weavers was closed! and it looked like a proper nice cafe. Minda wasted no time hopping the fence and went in search of shelter out back, calling for us to join him. Moments later and in true tourer fashion we were soon all sat on the floor outside the toilets tucking into what little food we had left. In a change of fortune it turned out the toilets were luckily not locked.
As the rain stopped the old fella next door whipped out his mower and started cutting the soaking wet grass. Jesse got chatting to him as he tried to unblock the thing and was told to head to the hotel in Bettyhill and to tell them he had sent us…
It turned out that our new friend was a bit of a pianist and regularly entertained guest in the hotel.
The Bettyhill Hotel is a funny old place with a very dry humoured barman.
After a bit of banta regarding just what the fuck a vegan can eat I ended up with a couple of bowls of chips and some plain bread, or as we call it ‘a chip butty’. luckily getting our orders in before the coach party turned up, well all but Ingrid who had to wait an age for her lunch to turn up.
Jo was glad of the rest after her chains quick link somehow disconnected just outside of town and after thinking how on earth she was going fix it found the missing piece lying in the road.
ProTip; always carry a spare quicklink specific to your chain
As we headed out a wise old wizard looking hippy asked which way we were heading. When we told him east he shook his head telling us we were leaving the wilds and heading back into civilisation from here on in.
With the clear sky we were able to see the Orkney Islands off the coast to the north-west and joined up with Sustrans National Cycle Network route 1.
Later in the day and found the answer to a question that had been bugging us for a while, just what do people do for a living up here? It turns out most of them seem to work for Dounreay Site Restoration Limited (DSRL) who are in the process of cleaning-up and demolishing the UK’s former centre of fast reactor research on behalf of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. And no, the site does not ‘fit in’ with the surroundings!
The roads had become much more like we were used to i.e. flater and we enjoyed a rare avenue of overhanging trees on a steady drag up towards Thurso, the biggest town since Ullapool. We snoozed in the sun on some very comfy grass in the car park of a Lidl’s while we re grouped.
However, this was short-lived as when we left town the clouds turned black and the rain hit hard. Visibility was down to a few feet at points as the cold rain tried to dampen our mood.
With no possibility of a view and wanting to save something for the next time I was up there we bypassed Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on UK mainland and continued east instead to John O’Groats.
John O’Groats makes up the end point to the famous LEJOG (Lands End to John O’Groats) route which traverses of the whole length of the island of Great Britain between two extremities; in the southwest and northeast. However, that is all it is known for and as a town it has that same strange sence of abandonment you find at other forgotten seaside resorts.
The camp ground is basic and exposed, but has a cracking view out over the Orkneys.
With no real shelter save for the shower block Minda and Dan headed back up the road to book themselves a real bed for the night in the only hotel in town. After quickly throwing our tents up and without even changing we dashed up to meet them in the hotels restaurant just in time for last orders. In fact Minda almost missed last orders as he had fallen asleep on his bed already!
With the familiar sound of are Garmin’s turning on and off randomly while charing we tried to dry out the best we coud while wolfing down our dinner.
It was clear we would not be getting an early night, but we enjoyed the evening and tried to not be to jealous of the boys warm dry hotel beds…
Dan had been suffering from saddle sores the last couple of days and by the time we rolled into Wick was happy to call it a day and head off in the direction of the train station to catch a ride back to Inverness.
As it turned out this was quite an eventful trip of its own and after managing to sweet talk the guard into letting him on the train despite not having a bike reservation he got pally with an old couple who had just ridden LEJOG in a very leisurely month long trip taking in all the country had to offer on the way.
A man down me, Jo and Ingrid set off south on the trail of Minda and Jesse.
The landscape here was very different again with long shallow climbs leading up to Ousedale. As I was taking a photo of the calm sea and the off shore oil rigs I got a message from Minda telling us all to stop at the Laidhay Croft Museum And Tearoom for some home-made soup and cake. This was a great shout as by the time I sat down the rain started tapping on the window.
Dodging that shower we soon hit the steepest decent then climb of the day with grades of up to 20%.
By this time Jesse had leapfrogged us and was somewhere up the road.
Minda and I headed to Brora for lunch and had no sooner stepped into the first shop we saw then the heavens opened something biblical and soon huge hailstones were thundering down flooding the streets.
We waited out the storm in the doorway of the One Stop with a bunch of locals. Turns out it was the first day of the school summer holidays…welcome to the summer kids!
Once the rain stopped we ventured into the town proper and found Jesse waiting out the storm in a lovely cafe enjoying his umpteenth coffee and cake. We joined him and ordered a few dishes ourselves. As we prepared to leave Ingrid and Jo turned up soaked to the skin, shivering and very glad to be in out the rain. They had been caught out in the storm and after nearly being hit by a truck, unable to see and with no shelter had pushed on regardless.
I couldn’t help but laugh out load at the site of them, although Jo admitted later she was so close to punching me in the face when I did!
Minda and Jesse opted to leave while the rain was only light, where as I hung out a bit longer and enjoyed another baked potato while the girls dried out.
Finally back on the road and the rain had stopped and we caught our first sight of a kilted Scot walking along the side of the road. A short while later we were glad to see the back on the A9 as we skirted the southern banks of Loch Fleet on an idyllic country lane. This was unfortunately short-lived as we rejoined the busy A9 in time for the both the wind and rain to pick back up as we approached Dornoch Firth Bridge. I think it was fair to say this was the worst 1km of riding on the route, but we just got our heads down and smashed it out as quick as we could.
Shortly after the bridge the A9 bypasses the town of Tain and this is where we finally left the busy road for good. From here the route winds its way along parallel country lanes slightly north of the A9 and the banks of the Cromarty Firth. This is a remote area in terms of shops and with my food supplies running empty I knew I had to find food soon or face a bonking.
Measuring my effort and aiming for Alness I left the girls exploring the facilities of a local hedgerow and was happy to find a co-op stocking their new vegan range of meals. I was way hungrier then I had thought and smashed in a bunch of food before continuing.
I had been keeping an eye out for the girls while eating, but hadn’t seen them pass. Although I was in the shop a while. receiving a text from Dan saying he was back at my Uncle and Aunts B&B and asking what curry’s we wanted for dinner I hopped back on my back trying to ignore the increasingly sore feeling in my right bum cheek and set my sights on finishing the ride.
It turned out later that the constant rocking of my caradice saddle bag and a 30 year old seatpost had combined to pull my saddle fully back in the rails.
This could have had something to do with my sore arse or it could have bene the 5 back to back centuries…who knows…?
The last 10km or so from Muir of Ord were on the same roads as the first 10km back at the start of the week. I was welcomed back on to the banks of the Moray Firth with a rainbow as osprey’s circled overhead and was soon rolling into North Kessock.
I was greeted by non other than Ingrid and Jo along with Dan and my Uncle and Aunt. I felt glad to have finished and a huge sence of accomplishment, although a bit gutted I was last. However, it quickly transpired this was not the case as Minda and Jesse were still nowhere to be seen. Where had they gone? When did we pass them? Were they ok? All was reveals half an hour later with a knock at the door. It turns out they had sort shelter from the rain in Tain where they had lost track of time enjoyed the best soup of the trip along with the beautiful local scenery 😉
The North Coast 500 is an amazing route and highlights some of the best roads in the UK with a backdrop of dramatic scenery. However, the west is best and I personally would focus on the ride up from Fort William to Durness and possibly cutting back through the centre of the Highlands around Tongue. That said the east does add a certain contrast to the whole ride.
For some alternative and more rugged route check out;