Some marketing bright spark came up with the idea to promote tourism in the Highlands of Scotland by creating a 500 mile circular route following the coast. It has been very successful and studies have shown a 20% increase in tourist revenues. We have been travelling to this region for over 30 years and much has changed. Nevertheless, this region is probably my favourite part of Britain, if not the world.
A conventional starting point is Inverness, which is adventure to reach on its own. I’d follow the route clockwise, so you have the sun behind you to light the landscape where the most stunning scenery is found on the west coast.
Where once there were none, new campsites are popping up all of the time. The locals will encourage you to use them rather than to wild camp. It is an opportunity to meet others and they are usually close to facilities and restaurants. Notable sites can be found in Ullapool, Scourie, John o’Groats, Applecross, Fortrose and many other locations.
Before leaving Inverness, or perhaps as a highlight at the end of the NC500 circuit, visit Chanonry Point at high tide to see the Bottlenose Dolphins gorging themselves on salmon, it is quite a site.
If travelling clockwise you cross the highlands quickly to reach the famed Applecross peninsula and a steep ascent to the Bealach na Ba viewpoint. If it is clear, the views of the Cuillin Hills on Skye are superb, before descending, to what seems to be a mandatory meal at the Applecross Inn.
The route now hugs the coast and routes through mountain passes towards Ullapool, via Kinlochewe, Torridon, Gairloch and Poolewe. The scenery is extraordinary and it is worth while stopping and taking in the atmosphere and silence. Until, that is, a fleet of sports cars or motorbikes drive pass, such is the popularity of the NC500. For that reason we always like to travel early morning, when the quality of the light is exceptional. You can also venture along dead end roads to other locations, notable to see the Summer Isles.
Ullapool has most facilities and you can find great food and stock up on fuel and food for the journey ahead. Ceilidhs are often held and it is worth asking about, as these will not necessarily be advertised.
Further north, take the loop towards Lochinver and into the surreal landscape and Geopark of this far north west corner of the Highlands. This area is my favourite part of Britain. Late evening and early morning will be a photographers paradise during the golden hours, when the light and texture of the landscape is wonderful. Take time if you are a mountaineer to venture inland from one of the car parks.
After the Kylesku bridge the scenery like another world, almost lunar like. Trips to Alchmelvich and Kinlochbervie are worth the effort, but take time. Remember that a Scottish mile is much further than an English one. If you make the latter, then a walk to Sandwood Bay will be a highlight.
Turning east, past Durness, the coastal scenery and moorland crossings are impressive. A new Space Port will be built here. Continue to Melvich for another good site, with pub attached, but avoid the campsite at Bettyhill, which is in desperate need of updating. Thurso is the next major town, with ferries to Orkney, before driving to John o’Groats, the notional furthest point north and terminus for many a trans-British adventure starting in Land’s End in Cornwall, some 900+ miles away.
The route now south is often rushed, but there is a great deal of interest in Wick before joining the A9. Dornoch and other villages are worth the time as the east coast has a very different feel to it, compared to the west. If you stop and observe you will see much more than you expect. If you are brave, you can catch the ferry at Nigg to Cromarty, which is a short cut to the Black Isles. Be warned as the ferry is small and just takes a VW camper.
Shortly you will be back in Inverness, worth a stop to see Leakey’s 2nd Hand Bookshop, with its wood burning stove. Also seek out some local music, before planning your journey south, east or west.
1:250,000 Ordnance Survey Road Map 1 and 2 – Western Scotland and the Western Isles and North Scotland are in my view the best maps available.