North Coast 500 Roadtrip
With cheap flights becoming ever more prolific, it’s easy to forget that there’s a world of hidden gems right on your doorstep – and with a population of just over 5 million people in a vast landscape, Scotland offers some of the most remote and rugged wilderness in the UK. As summer draws to a close, we decided to try a North Coast 500 roadtrip to discover what secret spots Scotland still has to offer.
While the NC500 officially starts and ends in Inverness, we started out in Glasgow. The route is simple – there aren’t many roads in the nothernmost reaches, and much of the route covers single-track lanes through some of Scotlands most dramatic mountain passes. Having consulted the maps, and with only four days to complete the trip, we needed to cover a decent distance each day. A lot of folk cycle the route, which is on our bucket list, but with time a limiting factor we settled on a good old fashioned roadtrip. We took the seats out of the back of the Land Rover and knocked up a makeshift bed, so accommodation wasn’t an issue, but we broke the route into four rough sections.
Glasgow > Isle of Skye
The drive to Skye never fails to impress. After skirting the shore of Loch Lomond, the road cuts through Glencoe, winding through the mountains all the way up to Mallaig. While it’s probably quicker to drive over the bridge to Skye, the view from the ferry across to Knoydart is spectacular, and you can’t beat the fresh air out at sea. We’ve been to Skye a few times now, so this time we took the chance to explore the south of the island, catching up with jeweller Heather McDermott for some inside knowledge. As light began to fade, we pulled up at Ord and slept on the edge of the beach, with the jagged ridgeline of the Cuillins silhouetted in the sunset.
Isle of Skye > Ullapool
Scotland seems to get more and more beautiful the further north you go. The highlight of this section was surely the Bealach Na Ba – one of the highest roads in the UK, ascending to 2053ft over six miles. The last time we were here, we were with a renegade bunch of fixed gear cyclists who braved the long climb for the rush of spinning down the straights and skidding around the bends with no brakes; and while this time was slightly more sedate, the views were just as breathtaking. Dropping off the back of the climb, the winding road leads into Applecross with views out across the ocean and a bloody good pub lunch at the Applecross Inn. With a full belly, it would have been easy to stay here, but we continued north, through Ullapool to a quiet spot off the road with an incredible view of Stac Pollaidh. It would have been idyllic, if we hadn’t set up camp in a cloud of midges…even our top-tips couldn’t fend off the more hardy highland midge!
Ullapool > Dunnet Head
Passing through both Assynt and Sunderland, this section of the trip was perhaps the most impressive. Tall mountains and winding roads opened out into wide moorland vistas, with the drive punctuated by herds of sheep crossing the road ahead. The purple heather and auburn bracken added some vibrance to the otherwise barren and rocky landscape, and the low mist added a real sense of drama. We were tempted off course to visit the Stoer lighthouse, perched atop an exposed peninsula before heading on to Durness to visit the famous Smoo Cave. The final destination for the day was Dunnet head – the most northerly point on the mainland (yep, we thought that was John O’ Groats too…). We parked up as the sun set over the endless horizon, and after whipping up some Chorizo and rice for dinner, sat up on the roof rack to watch the sun go down.
Dunnet Head > Glasgow
We left the longest drive for the last day. Waking early with the sunrise, we made a pot of hot coffee from the Aeropress and began the drive south. We called in at John O’ Groats, for the sake of completeness, but it was overrun with tourists as we expected, with little to redeem it apart from the promise of a bacon roll. Now, the drive south began. While incredibly beautiful, the east coast didn’t have the rugged charm of the wild west coast, and with wider roads and more people, it felt like we were returning to civilisation again.
This time, it was a whirlwind tour. Over 700 miles in four days. Next time, we’ll give it a couple of weeks and turn down each and every winding road we can find, venturing into the unknown at every turn.