Scotland’s answer to Route 66, the North Coast 500, is being hailed as the new must-do cycle route. SNH staff member Gill Agnew headed off to experience its spectacular scenery and thrilling ups and downs for herself.
Genius! Recognise the beauty of what exists; brand it; suggest it can be cycled…and folks like me (enthusiastic adventurers of sorts) are game. It’s about the journey right? No need to try and beat the record. And what a journey it was. If the aim was to cycle 500 miles in 7 days around Scotland’s northern coasts in awe of the scenery under blue skies and sunshine then we succeeded – just, clocking 500.8 miles. We didn’t stick strictly to the official route – preferring to venture through Strath Halladale at the expense of a large chunk of the east coast A9 – but surely that can be forgiven in pursuit of a quiet single track road to see The Flow Country?
It was a challenging but achievable timescale for cycling 500 miles – colleagues have cycled it much faster but we knew we needed time for faffing, refreshments and photographs. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Bealach na Ba would be the toughest part of the cycle. It was tough, and the views from the top are breath-taking – but by no means the toughest. The journey from Applecross to Sheildaig en route to Aultbea on day 2 was tougher, but the area around Upper Loch Torridon for me was the most scenic part of our route so made the leg burn worth it. The journey from Lochinver to Kylesku en route to Durness on day 4 was torture. Give me a Bealach any day.
The west coast in particular has truly magnificent views and landscapes, many of which I’d only over ever seen in other people’s photos. To be able to pull on the brakes, see the colours for real and experience the vastness was a privilege, even if the schedule didn’t allow for a quick dip.
One of the downsides of cycling a route like this (apart from the odd mouthful of flying beasties) is that the relief and excitement at being able to freewheel downhill, fast, overrides the desire to stop at all the places you would want to. Knockan Crag NNR fell into this category (so no photo) and was but a blur – but high on the list of things to return to, with or without the bike.
At every café, tea room and accommodation stop there was no surprise that we were doing the ‘NC500’ – “everyone who comes here is doing it”. We found the roads relatively quiet, always got a table at the restaurants (though twice having to sit in our cycling gear after arriving too close to last orders) and had booked our accommodation months in advance. We also booked a week of fantastic weather – like you do. Recommend it? Absolutely – whatever the means of transport. Do it again? Yes – already being planned for the significant birthday of a (non-cycling) friend on tartan scooters.
If you’re inspired and would like to do the route yourself you can find out all about it on the North Coast 500 website.
All images by Gill Agnew.