The North Coast 500 which launched in the Spring of 2015 is a 516-mile scenic route around the north coast of Scotland, starting and ending at Inverness. The North Coast 500 (Also known as NC500) was created by the North Highland Initiative and was designed to bring together the best of the North Highlands of Scotland in one iconic touring route.
The route was named fifth in Now Travel Magazine’s “Top 6 Coastal Routes in the World”. It has been described as “Scotlands Route 66”. Whilst I have only driven a very small part of the “Route 66” over the years I have driven most of the roads now comprising the NC500. In fact, the only part I have not driven before is some of the East coast return leg to Inverness and I am certain that at least on scenery alone the NC500 can more than a match “Route 66”
Whilst I had already visited Scotland once this year on my trip to the Scottish Borders I never get tired of returning there especially when there is a reason to visit the West Coast and the remote North Highlands. My journey started with a 500-mile day drive to Inverness and a rest before starting the route the following day.
Leaving my overnight stop on a beautiful morning and entering Inverness the first thing I noticed was that there are no signs directing you to the route. Having negotiated my way through the rush hour traffic I very quickly found myself driving alongside the beautiful Beauly Firth eventually passing through Beauly and Muir of Ord. After twenty miles in the village of Contin, I came across the first and only signs of marketing for the NC500 and that was for a teeshirt and no I didn’t buy one.
My first photo stop was at Rogie Falls which are accessible by a short walk from a roadside car park. You can get up close to these impressive waterfalls on a new suspension bridge across the beautiful Black Water river. During August and September, there’s an excellent chance of seeing wild salmon leaping upstream although on my short visit in mid-September I didn’t manage to see any.
Slowly but surely the landscape started to open up and there became less and less traffic even though it was quite clear that I was not the only one following this already popular route. Passing by the shores of Loch Luichart and reaching Loch a Chuilinn and Loch Achanalt I parked up in a layby to take in one of the first of many wide expansive views that I will see on this trip. This is Loch Gowan looking across towards Moruisg. It is divided by an alluvial fan formed by the Allt Mhartuin. There is a bridge here on a path over to Scardroy in Strathconon.
My plan for the day was to reach the isolated village of Applecross which involved crossing the Bealach Na Ba – Pass of the Cattle, but first, there was the drive-through Glen Carron and then to the beautiful Lochcarron, a pretty village of white-washed cottages stretching along the shore of Loch Carron. A great place for a lunch break and time to stretch the legs with a short walk over the seaweed-covered beach and back along the main street. Nothing like the length of my usual photo walks but it was becoming clear already that this trip would be more about the driving between my many overnight stops with quick photo opportunities along the route. In fact, I am staying in 8 different locations over the 9-day trip.
Shortly after reaching Loch Kishorn, the turning for Applecross was upon me. I have driven this road before but this will be the first time crossing from this side. With a quick read of the warning signs, I start to make my way up the Pass with clear weather and magnificent views. The Bealach is an unforgettable drive up and along one of the most dramatic roads on mainland UK. The road is single track ALL the way and goes steadily uphill through a dramatic mix of mountain scenery to the summit at 2053 ft.
This is the view back down the Bealach Na Ba with Loch Kishorn, where I started the climb in the background and on reaching the summit there are some spectacular views across the Inner Sound to the islands of Raasay and Skye on which the Cuillins dominate the landscape.
The descent to Applecross is less torturous than the climb although there are still hairpin bends to negotiate but its the gathering speed that you travel at that needs your attention especially if vehicles are driving up towards you, so it’s a constant gentle prod on the brake pedal just to make sure they are going to allow you to reach the bottom safely. At the lower end of the pass, there are wonderful views out over Applecross Bay to bring my first day on the NC500 to a close. Applecross Bay is one of the largest sandy inlets in the Western Highlands. The River Applecross pushes its way seaward through a shallow red sandy bay forming interesting patterns.
When I first started writing this trip review I thought it may take two posts to complete the full NC500 route but having only got to the end of day one I feel that I have already covered enough for now. I will leave you to take it all in and post the next section shortly. Starting out from Applecross where do you think my next post will get us to? Find out by reading Part Two.