The North Coast 500
The North Coast 500 is a route around the north coast of Scotland. Since its launch in 2015 it has become an iconic route for motor vehicles, cyclists, walkers, or any mode of transport you care to use. It links many features of the north of Scotland from the barren east coast, through the unspoilt beaches of the north, down through the dramatic coastal landscape of the western highlands.
There is much written about the North Coast 500, also referred to as the NC500, both in guide books and numerous sources on the internet. Having visited the official website, I even became a fully paid up member for the year thus gaining an official route map, card for the wallet and sticker for the bike. I’m not saying I’m obsessive but if you are going to do something you may as well do it right?
The NC500 initiative’s aim was to work with all aspects of the tourism sector and bring a boost to the businesses around the route. The guides reflected this with many opportunities to explore the areas off route. However, our goal was to seek out the best roads on the official route, and to seek out the best that could be seen from the roadside while we stretched our legs. For those following our footsteps I hope that I can highlight the places that we enjoyed, and the places not worthy of a visit since we were enjoying the ride.
All four riders were setting off out from the northwest of England. The official NC500 starting point regardless of whether you are doing the North Coast 500 clockwise or anticlockwise is Inverness, so this would be the first leg of the journey from home. You could start anywhere but we were starting at Inverness and staying faithful to the official route.
From Inverness we would head up the east coast on an anticlockwise loop to Bettyhill via John O’ Groats taking in the northern coast. Dropping down to the western side of the run where the route slows with many single track roads breaking up the A-roads to Ullapool. A short day to gather our thoughts at Poolewe then leads onto a run to Applecross via a trip to Loch Ness. It is at this point that we would have all but covered the official route, so our extended run (the beyond in this story) takes us around Skye and then down to Oban.
Day 1 – Home to Inverness
It had been 90 days ago that I set a countdown clock on my laptop’s desktop and it had been many weeks prior to that when the planning had started. As the days counted down I ran out of plans to make and was left with nothing more but to nervously keep checking the weather reports, which varied wildly by the day. I was teased with reports of good weather, before being shown the reports of rain. It became fait accompli that we would get what we would get. After all, it was Scotland and Scotland does that to you. The packing list did include my trusty Motorrad Rainlock jacket and pants, so I knew I could take whatever was thrown at me.
The morning of departure came. It was an early 6am start and I was greeted by the thickest fog I have ever ridden in. This was something that hadn’t even featured on the weather reports. If it was not for the moisture that clung to every surface, making it impossible to see though, I would have just tucked behind the screen for this part of the journey. The plan was to meet at Forton Lancaster Services and I soon arrived with time to spare, and while I was waiting for my companions the sun started to break through and burn off the residual mist.
Anticipation and excitement carried us through to Gretna where we had planned to have breakfast. Having just passed the Scottish flag signifying the border we pulled into the services and parked up the bikes. I was travelling on my R1200GS Triple Black, Nick on an S1000XR, Brian on a K1300S and Ben on an S1000R. Having toured the west coast some years back on the S1000RR I knew how Ben would be feeling and, as expected, he was more than ready for this stop.
After the slightly surreal experience of a full English, in Scotland, in a Harry Ramsden’s service station chippy we departed for the final stretch of motorway travel.
By the time we arrived at Glasgow it was glorious sunshine. We stopped for fuel at Hamilton services and I was rethinking my decision to leave all the layers in my RST Pro Adventure II suit. I decided against stripping down to my trollies to remove a layer or two, deferring the decision to when we arrived at our evenings accommodation.
Our initial plan was a direct route up the A9 mindful that this was the longest leg of our trip. Having made good time we opted for an alternative route that I had stuck in the Motorrad Navigator V. This avoided a tedious run of average speed cameras. Pulling over at Gleneagles I brought up the route that would have us head up from Perth to Blairgowrie, through the Spittal of Glenshee and Braemar on the A93. As we proceeded into the Cairngorms the rolling hills rose to a majestic valley. This is what we had come for! Fantastic scenery and a great road. We pulled off the A93 at a suitable spot just beyond Glenshee to sit and absorb the road we had just ridden and the backdrop of the landscape.
As we carried on our ride through the Cairngorms the thoroughly enjoyable roads didn’t disappoint and we headed up the A939 through Lecht before dropping down into Tomintoul for welcome refreshments at The Old Fire Station Tea Room.
The run had not been without incident. The sun had brought many bikes out on that fine Saturday afternoon and on the A939 I noticed a bike travelling at speed on the road ahead towards us. I recall thinking that he was carrying more than enough speed into the corner as he approached, and sure enough he failed to scrub off enough before tipping into the bend. As he rounded the corner on my side of the road I saw insurance claims, broken legs and a ruined holiday flash before my eyes before he made the decision to abort to my left and ventured off road. As he narrowly passed me, skimming the two riders behind, I was unsure whether I should have been critical, or impressed by his ability to keep the bike upright.
We soon arrived in Inverness having rejoined the A9 and its traffic, reminding ourselves what a great decision it had been to change the route despite the unwanted excitement.
Day 2 – Inverness to Bettyhill
We woke early the next morning to rain. Gone was the sunshine, although it wasn’t particularly cold. I took the opportunity to ditch some layers from the adventure suit but added the Rainlock gear.
We were in no rush to set off so took our time loading the bags back on the bikes. It was Sunday after all. At just before 10am we left Inverness. This was it now, this was the start of the North Coast 500, this was the aim of all the months of planning.
From Inverness we headed up the A9 and crossed the bridges over the Moray Firth, Cromarty and Dornoch Firth. The bridges were the only highlight of this early part of the journey. We had been told that the east coast run was rather uninspiring and on this miserable wet morning we pressed on anticipating better.
As villages past us by it was obvious that this east coast of Scotland was shut for the day and it was not until Brora before we found a cafe where we could stop for a coffee. Linda’s Cafe was pleasant enough but after greeting another group of bikers heading south and seeking similar shelter we left and got back on the road.
Signs for uninviting tourist attractions came and went, beckoning for us to turn off our route. The east coast is going to have to up its game if its going to get more of the North Coast 500 pie. It was not long before we arrived at Wick with desires on fuel for the bikes, and food for our stomachs. Wick was a dreary shade of grey not dissimilar to the skies overhead. Even the fuel station attendant, when asked where we could find food, suggested we push on to John O’ Groats. And so we did with the A9 becoming the A99.
Bleak, wet, windy. I don’t suppose that John O’ Groats would be much better on a good day. If it wasn’t for the fact that none of us had visited the place, then we would have found a better route and better roads, but we were there for a photo with the pole and a photo we were going to get. With the bikes parked up we strolled up to the sign with a steady stream of similarly wet travellers who were there for the same photo opportunity. Some were on motorcycles and some on foot. ‘Click’ went my camera. We could have left at that point, but we were hungry.
The Stacks Coffee House and Bistro was a strange affair. A misplaced hippie eatery full of tofu and cous cous. We had little choice so we got seated and scoffed down our Bhudda Bowls and hummus. Apparently, the signs informed us, it was international hummus day. I can’t imagine what keeps them busy the other 364 days of the year.
We left John O’ Groats behind to the elements after rolling the bikes up to the famous sign for a final photo opportunity. In doing so it seemed only to prove we hadn’t walked and that we were only wearing helmets to protect us from the constant rain.
We got onto the A836 with the aim of ticking off another box on our tourist trail. The most northerly point of mainland Britain. This was to be had at Dunnet Head which was a short single track journey form the main road. We soon approached the car park at the end of the single track. The Dunnet Head lighthouse stood majestically against the horizon surrounded by sheer cliff drops down to the sea breaking on the rocks below. We enjoyed this more than our previous stop and better still, it had stopped raining.
As we left Dunnet Head the sun was just starting to peek through the cracks in the clearing skies. Things were looking up and we were on a march to our evening’s destination of Bettyhill.
The run along the north coast of Scotland on the A836 can be bleak across barren landscape, but with the sun now shining and the occasional sight of the coast we headed on through Thurso. As we approached Bettyhill our spirits were high, and it was a beautifully sunny evening. The hotel overlooked a beautifully calm sandy beach. With bikes unladen of luggage we sat quietly and absorbed the view.
Day 3 – Bettyhill to Ullapool
There was a Route 500 sign outside the hotel. It was a fitting reminder that the best lay ahead of us. I woke early and at 5:30am I was loading up the bike. It had all the signs of a great day, and the sun had risen high enough to give the view over the beach a golden glow as I tightened the last of the straps on the Lomo dry sack.
With wet weather gear packed away we left Bettyhill rejoining the A836 towards Durness. We stopped at Tongue, if only to search out an “I Love Tongue” sticker which we found just beyond the smallest of villages, so small it could easily be missed. The sticker was found at a small store and fuel stop where a lone biker sat at a pump before departing just after we arrived. He had been told, as we were about to be informed, that there was no fuel and the tanks were dry. Luckily, we had no need for fuel and would be good until Durness. This does act as a reminder to plan your fuel stops.
We headed out from Tongue after ‘loving it’ and skirted the shores of Loch Eriboll on the A838 which had by this point turned into a single track. The paced had slowed but the scenery of the North Coast 500 was the reward. We were in no rush and we were all enjoying the journey.
A few miles before Durness we arrived at Smoo Cave. This was the next of our roadside destinations. As we pulled into the carpark the lone rider from our previous encounter at Tongue arrived. We exchanged greetings and found that the guy was from Maryland, US and was doing the North Coast 500 solo on a rented GS. We exchanged pleasantries with Jordan and while he had been given a pre-loaded GPS with his route, we had the opportunity to pass on some of the knowledge from our planning. With an chance to stretch our legs we headed down to see what the Smoo Cave was all about.
Smoo Cave whose name is thought to derive from the Old Norse Smuga which means “hiding place” is a large sea cave. It is accessed from the car park from a series of stairs which we briskly descended. As we approached the bottom and crossed the small wooden bridge to the cave entrance the air cooled. While we opted not to take a tour we appreciated the opportunity to rest up and step into the cool shade in our full bike gear. We took our pictures and enjoyed the majesty of the geological features while we contemplated the climb back to the car park. Many steps and three pauses to catch our breath later, we were back at the bikes.
Everyone had told us that Durness is one of the finest locations in the north. We arrived expecting to spend a hour or so and perhaps pick up some lunch. We arrived to find a Spar shop and a single unattended fuel pump. Surely we were missing something? While the bikes were being filled I took the opportunity to scout out the location. I spotted a Durness visitor facilities sign that seemed to suggest that there was more to Durness than what we were greeted with upon arrival. We followed the sign that seemed to point to the treasures that Durness was about to bestow upon us… and found a beach. Now, don’t get me wrong. I like a beach as much as the next guy but at this point we were a little underwhelmed.
This serves as an illustration as to knowing what to expect from the North Coast 500. If you are a walker you’d love the beach, but we were here for the roads and more interesting distractions to be found by the roadside. We took our photos and left.
Back on the A838 we followed the Kyle of Durness and followed the single tracks at a fair pace. Travelling through wilderness, skirted by distant mountains, towards Scourie which had turned into the A894 passing numerous roadside Lochs. We passed through Scourie enjoying the now faster roads towards Kylesku.
At the Kylesku Bridge there is a pull off and parking area which is well worth the stop. The location offers excellent views of the bridge over the Loch a’ Chairn Bhain in one direction and dramatic scenery in the other. If you are lucky, as we were, you may even see an otter chilling in the waters.
At this point we were extremely hungry and we had learnt that you could not rely on the approaching place names shown on the map to have a suitable lunch stop. We pressed on with empty bellies.
We approached Loch Assynt on the A894 and took a right onto the A837. This was a good fast and very enjoyable road, and it wasn’t long before we arrived in Lochinver. Lochinver was the most built up civilisation that we had seen for some time. It is a very picturesque and clean village, and our eyes were immediately drawn to a shop that declared that there were pies to be had. This was like finding an oasis in the desert and we were soon parked up and in the shop. If you are ever passing through Lochinver I can wholeheartedly recommend the Lochinver Larder.
It was now only a short run to our evening destination of Ullapool, but on recommendation we were told to detour off the A835 at Drumrunie and visit Achiltibuie. The village is reminiscent of a secluded Scandinavian fishing village with views out to the Summer Isles and lies at the end of a very long and undulating single track. We sat on a verge the side of the road and absorbed the views while reflecting on the day.
Dropping down into Ullapool on the A835 we were blessed with a breath taking vista of Ullapool and Loch Broom. Our accommodation sat on the Loch side and we immediately sat on the harbour wall enjoying the sunshine and views before unloading the bikes for the night.
Day 4 – Ullapool to Gairloch/Poolewe
We said goodbye to Ullapool on another morning of glorious sunshine, but with showers forecast we were happy that we had planned a short route which would allow us to regroup and review our travel plans.
We left Ullapool on the A835 and took a right onto the A832. A short climb later we were greeted with a spectacular view back to Ullapool and Loch Broom through the Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve. This was one of the unexpected treasures that lay on our route, and the places that we set out to find. It is 1.5 km long, 60m deep, formed at the end of the last ice age and can easily be enjoyed from the lay-by at the side of the road.
Heading towards Gairloch we were directed towards a breakfast stop just outside of Aultbea at the Oran – Na – Mara. It is a pleasant little cafe with elevated views of the surrounding landscape that offered us the cooked breakfast we were looking for. On entering we were a little taken back to be told that helmets were not allowed on the tables. We placed over £2000 worth of motorcycle helmet on the floor near the entrance and sat down to eat.
It wasn’t far to Gairloch on the A832 overlooking Loch Ewe, and we passed though Poolewe on the way that would be our stop for the evening. By this time the showers had started and after taking refuge at the cosy Coast Coffee shop for a drink we headed back to Poolewe for the night.
Day 5 – Poolewe to Applecross
We had up to this point stayed faithful to the North Coast 500 official route. We had not planned to return to Inverness, but today’s route would give us the opportunity to cover the roads of the return route as we visited Loch Ness and Urquart castle.
Leaving Poolewe we picked up the A832 and followed the shores of Loch Maree with its many little Loch side pockets of sand. While we would have liked to pull over for a closer look we didn’t find a suitable pull off area so carried on to Kinlochchewe. We enjoyed a blast along the A832 to Garve where we turned right onto the A835. Rejoining the A832 we headed south turning right onto the A862 and stopped off for coffee at Beauly. From here it was only a short run onto Drumnadrochit and Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness.
This was not our first visit to Urquhart. Our previous visit had been on a miserable wet day some years prior, but we were blessed today with perfect weather. The castle looked picturesque under the beating sun, but perhaps it wasn’t a day to be walking around in heavy textile adventure suits and motorcycle leathers while the tourists beside us enjoyed third and shorts. Still, this didn’t stop our enjoyment of the visit and we left having had our fill of history.
After enjoying a spot of lunch in Drumnadrochit we retraced our steps to Garve. We enjoyed another blast on the A832 to Kinlochchewe, where we turned left onto the A896 and rejoined the single track route of the North Coast 500.
The road from Kinlochchewe is part of the Wester Ross Coastal Trail and it’s a real treat. It takes in the road past Torridon and around the Applecross peninsula. We had a clear run on the single track through scenery that rose either side of the road. For the most part the other vehicles on the road are very courteous towards bikes and will pull over at passing points to allow faster traffic to pass. We were rarely frustrated by the numerous motorhomes that were encountered on any part of the North Coast 500 route.
The sun was lowering in the sky and the light was sparkling off the Lochs and pools of water that lay along the roadside towards Torridon. We were desperate to stop and enjoy the view, but initially the only opportunities were passing places until we spotted a pull off area on the Torridon Estate. While enjoying the mountainous scenery it was here that we had another wildlife encounter as a deer emerged from behind a rock, completely unfazed by our presence. I’d like to think it had approached to check out the bikes, but maybe it just wanted a look at the strange overdressed humans.
We continued around the Applecross peninsula and fought the urge to stop every hundred yards or so. The views just keep coming and there was a breathtaking scene at every turn. As we rose over the peninsula at Sheildaig we would have been happy to ride this road for hours, but Applecross was approaching and our evening stop.
We were nearing Applecross when the road served up one last treat for the evening. As we rounded the corner near Lonbain we found a group of Highland ‘Coos’ and not wanting to miss upon this photo we jumped off the bikes and shared a moment with the locals. I’d take this spontaneity any day over a tourist attraction. It’s what we ride the roads for. Maybe it was only a cow, but it was adventure to us.
We arrived at Applecross and to the only hostel on our journey. Hartfield House was a pleasant treat and certainly not what you would expect from a hostel. Worth a honourable mention were the showers, and after a long day in the saddle in very warm conditions this was more than welcome. Refreshed we strolled down to the harbour to enjoy a fine meal in the Applecross Inn.
With views across to Raasay and tomorrows destination, Skye, our thoughts turned to the treat of the famous Bealach na Ba road and with that we turned in for the night.
Day 6 – Applecross to Kyleakin
We left Applecross with a short run to the sign indicating the start of the Bealach na Ba, Gaelic for Pass of the Cattle. We were closing in on the final stage of the official North Coast 500 route and we had saved one of the best roads until last.
Bealach na Bà is a winding, single track road through the mountains of the Applecross peninsula. The historic mountain pass was built in 1822 and is reminiscent of the mountain passes in the Alps, with very tight hairpin bends that switch back and forth up the hillside and gradients that approach 20%. It boasts the steepest ascent of any road climb in the UK, rising from sea level at Applecross to 626 metres (2,054 ft), and is the third highest road in Scotland.
The signage at the bottom of the pass was suitably forbearing with warnings to caravans and learner driver, and a note suggesting that you can forget taking the road in the winter. I took that as a good sign, challenge accepted.
We steadily climbed up to the top from Applecross and stopped at the viewpoint. The inlaid signs at the roadside were informative and pointed out the names of all the mountains that could be seen from the vista. After having our fill of the view we remounted and got ready for our descent. The Tournapress side of the pass is where you will find the hair pins, and there is no doubt in my mind that taking the road from Applecross is the best direction. We were served up a dramatic view of Loch Kishorn as we dropped down through the hairpins.
At Tournapress we turned right onto the A896 towards Lochcarron. The mountain air had given us an appetite and we were ready for a breakfast. Arriving at Lochcarron we found our needs suitably served by the Waterside Cafe boasting one of the best breakfasts in Scotland. So impressed were we by the breakfasts that Ben ordered the ‘challenge breakfast’ and was happy to claim his certificate of completion for his effort.
With full stomachs we pressed on to Skye and were soon at the Kyle of Lochalsh overlooking the Skye Bridge. We had no knowledge or expectation of Skye but had plotted a route to the top of the island and back to the bridge where we would be staying for the night.
We crossed the bridge and headed north on the A87 which is the main road that runs up the spine of the island. The weather was once again a treat with temperatures well up into the twenties. We stopped at Portree which is the largest town on the island. After a brief visit to the harbour we found a place for a coffee after failing to get a seat at our first choice. After so much time in the wilderness we had forgotten how busy places like this could be.
We left Portree on the A855 which was another road that alternated between two lanes and single track. We were surprised at the quality of the roads and had expected the run to be more of a procession of motorhomes, but we were making good progress and enjoying the run as we passed the Old Man of Storr. This is a large pinnacle of rock that stands high and can be seen for miles around.
For such a small road we had a clear, fast and very enjoyable run to the northerly point of Skye. Stopping off at the Duntulm viewpoint, we enjoyed clear views across the sea to the Outer Hebrides.
Coming back around the top of Skye, we headed south through Uig and rejoined the main A87 back down towards the Skye Bridge and to Kyleakin where we would stop for the night. The sun was lowering in the sky and we were treated to a sunset that framed the bridge in a warm glow with the light sparkling from the surface of Loch Alsh.
Day 7 – Kyleakin to Oban/Benderloch
We had planned a number of alternative routes for the day but had opted for a boat trip. The aim was to take the ferry from Armadale to Mallaig and take the brilliant A830 from Mallaig to Fort William.
We arrived at Armadale in good time having studied the timetable of crossings the evening before. As we pulled into the embarkation area we were pulled aside and told to go to the ticket office as there was little chance of getting on the ferry. With only a handful of cars ahead of us we had thought that we would be on the next crossing without a problem.
As we climbed off the bikes we realised where the problem lay. The area was swarming with lycra clad cyclists and as we walked over to the ticket office yet more arrived. The attendant in the office advised us that the cyclist had booked every crossing and that it would be late afternoon until we could get on a ferry.
It was only just 10am at this stage and there was no way that were going to stand around waiting. We were already sneering at the protein bar munching enemy, and tensions were high. Realising how much ground we could cover overland by the time we were granted passage we turned around and went back the way we came, crossing the bridge and leaving Skye.
Much as we would have loved to repeat the Mallaig run that we had enjoyed some years prior, it turned out to be a good turn of fate as we were about to enjoy some great roads that would have otherwise been missed.
We headed out on the A87 and after despatching a number of coaches, lorries and caravans we had a clear run to Dornie. As we hadn’t planned this route it was a complete surprise to me when rounding the corner, we spotted a very familiar castle jutting out into the Loch via a footbridge. It was Eilean Donan Castle and I recognised it as the home of Connor MacLeod, The Highlander. I could almost hear the sound of Queen drifting over the waters. Who wants to live forever? With roads and views like this, me for one!
Back on the A87 we continued our run to Fort William through the spectacular Glen Sheil. Another treat that would have been missed if fate hadn’t sent us this way. A brief forested run along Loch Garry had us arrive at Invergarry where we turned right onto the A82 and the run down Loch Lochy to Fort William. We speculated that the person naming the Lochs had at this point become bored. I think it may have narrowly avoided being called Lochy McLochface.
Fort William is as always a place to pass through and not to stop, but we had yet to eat so we stopped and sampled Fort William’s finest cuisine at McDonalds before quickly leaving.
Onto Ballachulish bridge and we took a turn off for Glencoe. With the sunshine highlighting the mountains either side of the glen it look as stunning as I’ve ever seen it. Even without its history of the massacre it’s a must see for anyone traveling in this part of Scotland.
Turning back the way we came we headed back to Ballachulish and joined the A828 on the run down to Oban, only stopping briefly at Castle Stalker for a photo opportunity at one of my favourite of all Scottish castles. Should you be in the need for refreshment there is also a cafe which is a good place for a drink and a bite to eat. We however, had our eyes on Oban and some fresh seafood.
At Oban we parked up on the harbour and claimed our prize at the seafood hut on the docks. We left Oban fulfilled and returned to Benderloch for a well earned rest at the Tralee Bay Holiday park with its views over Ardmucknish Bay.
Day 8 – Benderloch to Home
It was time to return home. We were up early and were on the road before 6am. I have visited Oban many times over the years having had family live in the area. My home destination was entered into the satnav, if only to check on what my time of arrival would be. I could do this run on autopilot.
We departed on the shores of Loch Etive and Loch Awe on the A85 before turning off onto the A819 for a run over the tops to Inveraray. This is a cracking road and much more enjoyable than the more direct run via Tyndrum and Crianlarich. From Inveraray we followed the shores of Loch Fyne and may have been tempted to call into the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar should it have been open.
The A83 rose up between Bein an Lochaine and Bien Ime, often referred to at the Arrochar Alps, and we rode through the mountain pass of Rest and Be Thankful. Before long we were dropping down and running along Loch Lomond towards Glasgow.
We crossed over the Erskine Bridge and rejoined the M80 motorway for the start of a long and tedious run home stopping only to fuel the bikes along the way.
Enjoy the pictures from the trip
Planned GPX Routes