There are many routes for biking enthusiasts which criss-cross Scotland depending on what you want from the journey – fast twisting bends, long straights, ample stop-off points, or vast scenic views with mountainous backdrops, but very few can offer you all of them like the North Coast 500 (NC500) can.
This stunning route was first conceived in 2014 as a way of showcasing some of Scotland’s finest Highland scenery, and boy does it hit the mark in every respect. it’s been likened to California’s Route 66 by many biking journalists across the world, and its fame is starting to precede it.
Starting off in the Highland capital, the City of Inverness, this is in itself worth a few days of exploring. It’s jam-packed with history, from the castle to Culloden Moor, scene of the last battle on British soil in 1746 and the final confrontation of the Jacobite rising. Or how about popping along the A82 to Urquhart Castle, scene of the first sighting of the world famous Loch Ness Monster, Nessie.
Leaving the capital the journey will take you across to the west coast, following the A835, A832, A890, A896 passing through Achnasheen and Lochcarron and over the Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle) into the seaside village of Applecross. Now, a word of warning, the pass is not for the faint-hearted or new rider. It consists of hairpin bends, single track with passing places and gradients of 1:5, but if you’re up for it, this is quite probably one you’ll tick off your bucket list as a once-in-a-lifetime ride. I can vouch for it personally. While a lot may be tempted to get their ‘knee down’ – don’t. It’s too dangerous for you and other road users – and that includes the deer, sheep and other assorted wildlife, plus you’ll miss some of Scotland’s most stunning scenery.
Leaving Applecross the A896 takes you up the coastline to Shieldaig and Torridon before heading inland to Kinlochewe before turning left onto the A832 and then hugging the shoreline of Loch Maree to Gairloch (where you’ll find some of the biggest, whitest sandy beaches) and then Poolewe. It’s difficult to express the sheer grandeur and scale of what lies before you on this route, and, that in itself can be one of the biggest dangers – inattention to detail and road hazards. So do what I did. Stop at every village, viewpoint and open vista, get off the bike, stretch the legs and savour it all. Just don’t forget the camera and plenty of spare batteries. Believe me, you’ll need them. It’s a photographers paradise.
The next section of the journey follows the A832 to Loch Ewe and – across to Aultbea, cutting around the side of Little Loch Broom to Camusnagaul before heading inland to meet up with the A835 near Auchindrean to Ullapool by the shores of Loch Broom. Leave Ullapool on the A835 and travel to Ledmore where you will meet up with the A837. Stay on this road to Inchnadamph, along the side of Loch Assynt, passing Ardvreck Castle, through Little Assynt, turning right just before Lochinver onto the B869 to Clashtoll, Clashnessie weaving your way around and besides hundreds of small lochans to Drumbeg cutting back onto the A894 up onto the Kylesku Bridge through the Misty Isle to Scourie at its northern tip, before travelling over to Laxford bridge. Don’t forget the bridge is just one of the ‘must-do’ picture opportunities on this trip. The backdrop is one you won’t forget in a while.
Here you’ll pick up the A838 to Rhiconich, Durness, and Heilam before cutting inland once more to Tongue. Follow to join in with the A836 to Bettyhill, Strathy, Melvich, Reay, Forss and into Thurso. By this point, you’re going to need a break!
When you leave on the A836 again, follow this on a good straight section to sweep you around Dunnet Bay and sweep you around the side of St John’s Loch. Continue onto Mey passing the Castle of Mey, the Queen Mothers home, and onto John O Groats, the most northerly village in mainland Britain. Follow the coastal road to Reiss where you’ll pick up the A99 through to Wick and along the coast to Lybster, Helmsdale, and Brora, where you’ll pick up the A9.
Follow this down to the Dornoch Firth Bridge where you’ll cross back into Invernesshire at Tarlogie, passing Tain to Muir of Ord and back to your starting point at Inverness.
This truly is a route which gives you a bit of everything as you cross several county boundaries, including Sutherland, Easter Ross, Wester Ross, Caithness, the Black Isle and of course Invernesshire. Mountains, moorland, sea views, coastal roads, single track – little more than drovers roads, are just some of the delights awaiting you.
There are plenty of fuel stops covering your journey, but best play safe and simply fill up at the earliest opportunity. Accommodation is plentiful, but be aware this end of Scotland gets exceptionally busy in summer so it’s always best to book in advance, unless, that is, you’re taking your tent.