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Cycle Touring in Northern Scotland and the NC500

Written by Fiona

November 25 2019

The North Coast 500 is a road route around the north of Scotland promoted by the North Highland Initiative, a charitable institution. The steep gradients and busy traffic make parts of the North Coast 500 (NC500) less than attractive for leisure cyclists.  Now Mike Wells has created an alternative 528-mile route from Inverness to Inverness. It has been published as a Cicerone guidebook.

Mike says: “When I write guidebooks, I always visit the area twice. On my first visit in spring 2018, I cycled the full 516 miles of the NC500 but I found a number of problems, including the steepness of gradients on the narrow roads in the Applecross and Assynt peninsulas and the speed of traffic on the busy A9 east coast main road between Wick and Tain.

“As a result, when I revisited the area in late summer 2018, I followed a different route with the aim of avoiding these problems. This proved to be an attractive way of cycling around Northern Scotland, most of which I decided to make the main route in my new Cicernone guide.”

528-mile Northern Scotland cycle route

The circular cycling route from Inverness Castle back to Inverness Castle is 528 miles, 12 miles longer than the suggested NC500 route for motorists.

It is divided into 16 stages, 10 of which follow the same route as the NC500 and six that follow an alternative route. They vary in distance from 15 miles (Tain‒Cromarty ferry) to 55 miles (Gairloch‒Ullapool) with an average of 33 miles. This variation occurs as a result of Mike ensuring that every stage ends at somewhere with a choice of places to overnight.

There are five main differences to the NC500 route:

1. Leaving Inverness at the start, quiet roads are used along the north shore of Beauly Firth rather than the busy A862 along the south shore.

2. The gentle gradients of the A896, which runs directly from Lochcarron to Shieldaig, are used to avoid the ultra-steep Bealach na Bà pass and the narrow undulating coast road around the Applecross peninsula. I recognise that some readers will want the challenge of Bealach, so I have included this and Applecross as an alternative route.

3. An alternative route is offered to avoid the narrow, frequently undulating Assynt coastal road between Lochinver to Kylesku.

4. The main difference is the use of National Cycle Route NCN1 south from Melvich on the Pentland Firth, using quiet country roads through the Sutherland flow country, then south up Strathnaver and down Glen Shin to reach Tain. This avoids the fast and busy A9 east-coast main road. For cyclists happy with the main road, I’ve included it as an alternative, although I do not recommend this.

5. Between Tain and Inverness, the route again follows NCN1, using the Cromarty ferry and cycling across the Black Isle to avoid the very busy A9. An alternative is offered via Dingwall for times of the year when the ferry is not running.

Table of cycle route stages

stagestartfinishviadistance (miles)   distance (KM)ascent (metres)descent (metres)
1InvernessGarve24.539.5237189
2GarveLochcarron36.558.5214281
3Lochcarron Shieldaigdirect route15.524.5301302
3ALochcarronShieldaigBealach na Bà42.56812921293
4ShieldaigGairloch36.559597589
5GairlochUllapool5588.510781081
6UllapoolLochinver35.557.5606611
7LochinverKylesku24.539770749
8KyleskuDurness3556.5714699
9DurnessTongue29.547596591
10TongueMelvich27.544744781
11MelvichJohn o’Groatscoast route35.557396399
12John o’ GroatsMelvichinland route36.559432429
13MelvichAltnaharra48.578445371
14AltnaharraTain46.575299354
12AJohn o’ Groats LybsterA93048.5345282
13ALybsterBroraA93353618675
14ABroraTainA92540.5229213
15TainNigg (for Cromarty)using ferry1524.5112134
16CromartyInverness2641.5416397
15ATainDibgwallavoiding ferry2337255272
16ADingwallInverness14.524201187
[Altnaharra5288497957
TotalInvernessInverness [Boroa A94817747901
[Applecross5558938948

Overview of the stages

Stage  1:  Inverness city centre, Beauly Firth, Glen Ord Distillery, Rogie Falls

Stage  2:  Strath Bran, Strathcarron lined on both sides by Munros

Stage  3:  Bealach na Bà pass, Applecross peninsula (both on alternative route)

Stage  4:  Torridon, Loch Maree, Gairloch

Stage  5:  Inverewe gardens, view of An Teallach, Corrieshalloch gorge, Loch Broom, Ullapool

Stage  6:  Knockan crag, Stonecrubie bone caves, Ardvreck Castle, Loch Assynt.

Stage  7:  Assynt, Quinag, Kylesku

Stage  8:  Scourie, Strath Dionard, Cape Wrath ferry, Durness

Stage  9:  Smoo cave, Loch Eriboll, Tongue

Stage 10: Bettyhill

Stage 11: Dounreay, Thurso, Castle of Mey, John o’ Groats

Stage 12: View of Orkney, Castletown

Stage 13: Flow country, Forsinard RSPB reserve, Strathnaver, Altnaharra

Stage 14: Crask Inn, Lairg, Falls of Shin, Carbisdale Castle, Glenmorangie Distillery

Stage 15: Hilton of Cadboll pictish stone, Nigg‒Cromarty ferry

Stage 16: Cromarty, Black Isle, Inverness.

Cycle Touring in Northern Scotland by Mike Wells is published by Cicerone and costs £14.95.

  • Mike and other cycling experts will be hosting workshops and talks at The Adventure Travel Show, London, Olympia on January 18-19, 2020. See www.adventureshow.com

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