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Circle Scotland: Cycling the North Coast 500

Guest blog by Mark Foster

There’s no doubt, The North Coast 500 (NC500) is a challenging ride. You are guaranteed to encounter relentless ups and downs across Scotland’s vast highlands. But almost everyone who attempts the ride says it was worth it for the beautiful scenery and feeling of accomplishment.

What is the NC500?

Created by the North Highland Initiative in 2014, the NC500’s goal was to encourage economic growth in the relatively unknown northern highlands. Often referred to as Scotland’s Route 66, the NC500 is a road trip circling the northern region of the country, starting and ending in Inverness. This does unfortunately mean there will be traffic along certain parts of the route. However, the occasional busy section won’t detract from the freedom and serenity you feel when you have the road to yourself. The Cyclist version of the route also misses the A99 and A9, opting to travel inland as opposed to following the east coast.

Why cycle the NC500?

You don’t need me to tell you why people choose to cycle such a challenging and scenic route. Every day will be unique and push you to the limit, making the feeling of accomplishment even more satisfying. By cycling this famous road trip, you can discover Scotland for yourself and learn about all the hidden gems of the highlands. We’re bringing you some of the top locations and some alternate routes to reach spots not on the normal cycle path. NO photos in this blog – you’ll have to see the sights for yourself.

The highlights

Applecross peninsula

Since this list is all about the best views and beauty of the NC500, the Bealach na Ba Pass, Applecross and Sands had to be mentioned. The Bealach na Ba is one of the greatest climbs found in Britain. The 9.1km uphill road rises 626m along winding roads that snake up to the top of the mountain. Depending on the weather, you might find yourself with stunning views or be deep in the clouds.

After completing the climb, you can enjoy the speedy decline (descent?) to the coast and Applecross Bay. Follow the path north to find Applecross Sands, a stunning beach with sand dunes, perfect for a break after such a tough section of the ride. This entire area from the climb to the sands is unmissable and on many people’s bucket lists to drive and ride. Road users have been known to be very patient and generous on the path up, even applauding the cyclists braving the climb.

North West Highlands GeoPark 

Looking for somewhere to pause and take a breather? The area surrounding the Geopark is ideal for nature lovers. If you’re in no rush to reach the finish line, or get to your next accommodation, spend the morning cycling around the local area. Visit the lochs or backtrack to Allt Chranaidh Waterfall. When you’re ready, move on to Kylesku Bridge – just don’t forget to take a photo, it’s stunning.

Dunnet Head to John o’ Groats

Dunnet Head is the most northern point of mainland Britain and a must visit when completing the NC500 in our opinion. Sadly, the cycle path will miss Dunnet head as it leads to the A99. If you’re willing to add a few extra hours to your ride, and backtrack to Melvich, you can see more of the North Coast before heading south. This will be the last of the coastal roads for a while, so can be well worth the trip for ocean lovers. Once you’ve taken a photo of yourself or your group at the furthest northern point, you do have the option to continue or return to the route straight away.

If you choose to head back immediately, you’ll only be adding 4 hours to your trip. Stay on the northern path following the coastline to John o’ Groats and you’ll see far more scenery. This path passes great spots such as the Castle and gardens of Mey and Scotland’s Haven. Both are incredible sights rich in history and natural beauty. Do keep in mind, the further East you travel the longer you must backtrack (unless you want to take the A roads south). To reach John o’ Groats adds approximately 6 hours of travel time to your trip, counting the journey there and back from Melvich.

Glenmorangie Distillery

Directly on the classic NC500 path is a whisky distillery with open doors waiting to offer you a bit of warmth before you complete your ride. Tasting a true Scotch whisky is an excellent prize for being so close to the finish line. We must emphasise we’re only suggesting a taster, not a full glass or bottle (we do not encourage people to drink and ride). That being said, if you’ve got the room, no harm in purchasing a bottle to share for when you’re finally off the road.

By following an alternate route, you can stop off at Glenmorangie without touching the A roads and explore the surrounding areas. You can happily avoid the A9 after Glenmorangie by circumventing the Hill of Fearn and follow the coastal path south through some beautiful villages. This route allows you to truly go your own way and discover Scotland for yourself.

Where to plan

If you’re thinking of braving the North Coast 500, then be sure to prepare and read through the advice of people who have completed the ride in the past. What bikes are best? Where are the nicest B&Bs and camping spots? Are there any particularly treacherous stretches? Where can I get a physical map for the journey? Once you can answer questions like these, you’ll be ready for your trip.