What is it?
The North Coast 500 (NC500) route was launched in 2015 as a tourism initiative to promote the northern Highlands of Scotland. It’s a 500 mile circular route around the rugged coastline of Scotland, starting and finishing at Inverness Castle. The route is very popular with motorhomes and bikers, as well as cyclists. A publican we spoke to in Helmsdale said it had transformed the economy of the area with formerly closed hotels reopening and restaurants and cafés springing up along the route.
The GCN route
The official NC500 route is marked with road signs. We used GCN’s 'bike packing' route, which deviates from some of the major roads, taking in the smaller country lanes less used by the motorhomes and bikers. The GCN route can be found here on the Komoot website.
Our group for this ride are Gareth Harvey, Timb Hiscocks, Justin Belcher, Luke Souter and Chris Jackson who used to race together in the Shutt Ridley Race Team.
Timb, Luke and I made our way from our respective homes to Chris’ house in Birmingham, then we travelled together to Inverness where we met Gareth for supper, before retiring to Inverness Youth Hostel for the night.
Day 1: Inverness to Applecross. 137 km (85 miles)
After a simple breakfast in the youth hostel we were on the road just before 9am heading out of Inverness on reasonably quiet A roads.
Today’s route climbed gently to our lunch stop in Achnasheen, before dropping back down to Loch Carron. The Midge Bite Café was popular with other NC500ers in their various guises, including a few other groups of cyclists. We were lucky to get a table inside.
The main event of today’s ride was the Bealach-Na-Ba, one of the hardest climbs in the UK. In his book, 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs, Simon Warren scores it 11/10 for difficulty.
Starting from near sea-level it rises 626m over 9.1 km. The road features hairpin turns and resembles an Alpine pass with gradients approaching 17% as you approach the summit. The full climb took us 39 minutes. It’s fair to say, we weren’t troubling the Strava leader-board for this one. If you wanted to complete the Everesting challenge here, you’d only need to climb it 14 times to hit 8,848m.
Tonight’s accommodation is the excellent Hartfield House Hostel in Applecross. Comfortable rooms and a washing machine for our sweaty kit. Perfect.
Day 2: Applecross to Ullapool. 190 km (118 miles)
With over 2,500 meters of climbing, this was the always going to be the hilliest day of the trip and was also supposed to be our longest day at 250 km. However, by 7pm we’d only made it as far as Ullapool so we checked into a local hotel and called it a day at 192 km. The unrelenting climbs having taken their toll and slowed us to a snail’s pace.
The hotel in Ullapool is mid-renovation and wasn’t offering evening meals. They did allow us to eat a takeaway from the adjacent chip ship in the hotel bar. We weren’t alone in doing this.
Day 3: Ullapool to Durness. 137 km (85 miles)
The Ullapool to Durness leg of the trip was sparsely populated and is probably the quietest part of the NC500 loop. We actually had difficulty finding a lunch stop and ended up eating in the local post office/general store. There was a coffee machine and plenty of food on offer. Basic, but it got the job done.
The hostel at Durness reminds me of the YHA trips of my youth. Very basic, but a shower, washing machine and drying room is all we really need. Dinner was taken in the local pub where we had a very entertaining evening playing darts, pool and chatting with fellow travellers.
Day 4: Durness to Helmsdale. 161 km (100 miles)
It was raining as we loaded up the bikes outside Durness hostel and a strong southerly wind was starting to pick up. The forecast suggested the rain would be with us all day. We soon found ourselves riding in an echelon along the western shore of Loch Eriboll before the road turned back to the north after Polla.
Much of the NC500 route is lined with yellow flowering gorse bushes. They have a very distinctive coconut and vanilla smell, which I found to be quite pungent and will always remind me of this tour.
The threat of all day rain abated and it turned out to be a reasonable day weatherwise. The highlight of the day for me was the Lothmore climb near Helmsdale. At around 5 km with 300m of ascent, the appalling road surface made it an epic challenge. It’s almost a gravel climb.
Helmsdale Lodge Hostel is without doubt the nicest youth hostel I’ve ever stayed in. A converted school gymnasium, it had a recent makeover and the rooms are as good as any hotel in the Highlands. Highly recommended.
Our evening meal was the famous La Mirgae fish and chip restaurant. The website claims it attracts visitors to Helmsdale from all over the world. The portions here are huge, which suits us fine after 100 miles on the bikes.
Day 5: Helmsdale to Inverness. 193 km (120 miles)
Because the GCN route cuts off the top eastern corner of the official NC500 it makes up the lost miles by firstly heading inland to the southern end of Loch Shin at Lairg then looping around the Black Isle before dropping into Inverness via the Kessock Bridge cycle path.
Our lunch stop was The Pier café at Lairg which was a recommended by the waitress at last night’s fish and chip restaurant. A super little café with view across the loch.
We had a strong tailwind as we headed east on Black Isle and even managed a little sprint into Cromarty before turning south east back to Inverness along the southern shore. A very pleasant end to the day.
My packing list.
We tend to pack light for these trips with one change of clothes for evenings. We wash our bike-wear daily. All my gear fitted in an Alpkit Koala 13L seat pack.
- Evening wear: trainers, underwear, t-shirt, jumper and jeans.
- Bike wear: jersey, base layer, bib shorts, arm-warmers, gilet, rain jacket, cap, helmet and sunglasses.
- Folding toothbrush & toothpaste tablets (yes, these are a thing). One bottle of ‘wash-anything’ soap and a stick of deodorant.
- USB Plug, with cables to charge my iPhone and bike computer.
- Bike was a Ridley Noah SL. The second bottle cage held a spare tube, multitool, pump, emergency patches and a tyre lever.