The North Coast 500 has been a remarkable success in bringing motorists to Scotland by highlighting the terrific scenery and historical attractions around the north. While it is certainly possible (and legal) to cycle the entire way, the differing priorities that cyclists have over motorists mean that a few diversions are advisable for two wheeled tourists to get the most from the route. Here are a few alternative suggestions for day trips and scenic detours to get away from the crowds while still staying on the road (watch out for our guide to off road cycling in the Highlands coming later in the year).
Dingwall to Dornoch
The A9, particularly the section between Dingwall and Dornoch is a very busy road, the shoulder at the side is narrow with little space for bikes as lorries and commuters speed pass. Fortunately there is a well mapped alternative, if you are starting in Inverness then a network of well signposted cycle paths and back roads will take you to Dingwall via Tore. From here you can then join the old A9 which is significantly quieter and a much more relaxing cycling experience. Commonly used for people cycling from Land’s end to John O’ Groats this scenic detour goes through Evanton then down the hill known locally as the Struie to Bonar Bridge. From here you can return to the NC500 via Migdale, thus staying roughly en route but bypassing the busiest section. It’s an extra few miles but worth it for the panoramic views from the Struie over the Dornoch firth.
North from the Black Isle with the help of a ferry
The Black Isle is a curious omission from the official NC500 route and that is a shame as it has a lot to offer, especially for bikers. There are quiet back roads that can take you to nearly all the attractions on this peninsula and during the summer a ferry operates from Cromarty to Nigg. Bikes are carried free and this service offers a terrific way to see more of the unexplored parts of this area. From Nigg the quiet roads around the coast are fantastic for cruising, with just enough villages that you do not feel too isolated. Hug the coast all the way round till you get to Tain and then you can re-join the official route or detour again by going inland instead of north.
South of Lochinver
Had the road from Lochinver, south to Achiltibuie and Drumrunie been able to accommodate caravans and campers then it would have been a certainty to be included in the official North Coast 500 route. The fact that it is so narrow and winding means it can’t handle large volumes of traffic, but that just means it is ideal for those of us on two wheels. The road twists and turns elegantly along the coast from Lochinver before turning in and sneaking past Loch Lurgainn and the car park that is the jumping off point for those wanting to climb Stac Polly. It eventually emerges back on the main road just north of Ullapool. For a detour within a detour then it is also recommended to go out to Achiltibuie where you can refuel or camp next to the beach. This is technically a dead end and will mean retracing your route but in a way that’s part of the attraction, the fact it is not so easily accessible means it is peaceful, relaxing and quiet. If you have cycled a long way seafood at the hotel is a must.
There are a number of roads that head north through the remote glens of the north highlands but my personal favourite ride is through Strathnaver. This area has a special place in highland history as it was the scene of some of the most brutal of the Highland Clearances. That history is remembered in a series of monuments along the route and also is evidenced in the ghostly quiet you experience. The derelict ruins that dot the landscape remind you this was once a thriving community. The scenery is gloriously bleak, flat but with enough variance in your surroundings that you don’t get bored. Just don’t expect any services, cafes or shops, in fact you would be surprised to see another vehicle at all.
It must be a frustration to motorists cruising around the north to find out that the perfectly good tarmac road that goes to the lighthouse at Cape Wrath is closed to normal traffic. Instead a small boat takes passengers across from Keoldale Pier to the west side of the Kyle of Durness and a mini bus then drives the 11 miles to the most north westerly point on the British mainland. It is possible however to take your bike across on the boat and ride. Although not the smoothest tarmac the surface is fine for those not in a hurry and the bus will be the only traffic you will see all day.
For all its fame as the starting and finish point of a thousand and one bike tours John O’ Groats often disappoints the casual visitor. A far more dramatic cycle is Dunnet Head, just to the west. It is quieter and greener than its more illustrious neighbour and is a haven for birds and wildlife. This is actually the most northerly point on the British mainland and the spectacular sea cliffs can give you some of the most extensive views in the area.
If a wavy line on a map, a road that goes nowhere, a curiosity that appears to have no reason to exist excites you, then the route up Glen Loth should be on your to cycle list. Bar a couple of impressive standing stones that can be clearly seen from the road there is very little evidence of human interaction with the landscape. Halfway between Brora and Helmsdale take a steep inland single-track road. A signpost points to Glen Loth but it’s easy to miss as it’s tiny, understandable as there is almost no reason for anyone to come here. The road itself is tarmac all the way and the climb sustained rather than steep. After skirting the shoulder of Beinn Dhorain you drop down sharply to the river Helmsdale and re-join the A897 going north to Forsinard. Definitely one for the connoisseurs of the desolate.
And one to take care on
The road that wraps around the shores of Loch Eribol requires particular care in the summer months. The strong winds that this area is notorious for can also mean that it’s difficult to hear traffic creeping up behind you. In addition it is a narrow single-track road which in places is only just wide enough for the camper vans that tend to base themselves in Durness just further up the road. Be patient, although you are not legally required to let traffic pass until you reach a passing place I would rather stop and pull onto the verge to let someone past than risk them trying to squeeze past anyway.cycle north coast 500, cycle routes highlands, nc500, North Coast 500, safe cycle routes highlands