North Coast 500
When's the best time to attempt the North Coast 500?
By now you will have heard of the North Coast 500. Scotland’s answer to Route 66, a 500-mile circular drive from Inverness, taking in some of the countries finest coastline. Images abound of deserted windswept beaches, majestic lochside castles, and above all else, mile after mile of open tarmac, a road tripper’s dream.
Unless it’s Summer.
Then it can be a nightmare. Mile after mile of motor homes, campervans, cars and bikes. Scotland’s answer to the M25 on an August Bank Holiday.
Since launching in 2015, its popularity has steadily increased. In recent months there have been several articles highlighting issues, such as inexperienced drivers taking hired motor homes on the single track roads, panicking and mistaking a passing place for a parking spot. Others treat the circular route as a race track, which considering the size of the roaming stags this far north, is a very silly idea indeed.
So should you still drive the NC500? Of course you should, just do as we did and do it out of season.
Yes, you’re taking a gamble on the weather, but this is Scotland we’re talking about, the weather is always a gamble. In fact, we had several absolutely beautiful January days, the low sun across the snow-dusted, jagged peaks of the Torridon Mountains, a work of art.
The hills surrounding us were a patchwork of rusty brown, royal purple and emerald green. The Caribbean-esqe beaches of Sutherland in the far north, empty of footprints except our own. Sunsets flamed across the sky as we drove along narrow, winding roads, alone but for the odd herd of highland cattle or a few inquisitive grazing sheep.
Now cut to summertime, where every parking place is filled with motorbikes and cars, every epic view has the head of the person next to you, or even, shudder, a selfie stick in its frame.
The Bealach na Bà, a twisting single-track mountain pass, with the steepest ascent of any road climb in the UK, is not for the faint-hearted, or those that have a problem with tight hairpin bends. It was gloriously empty as we wound up and then down again, pausing at the top to take panoramic photos of the isles of Skye, Rassay and Rona. Meanwhile in summer, this same drive can take several hours to complete, mainly due to the sheer weight of traffic, and of course, the occasional caravan that fails to heed the warning signs at the entrance, blocks the road and has to be rescued.
There are disadvantages to doing this north coast trip in the winter months, particularly in January, when a lot of accommodation is closed for post-Christmas refurbishment. But for every ten places closed, there is a fire lit somewhere, someone always ready to welcome you in out of the cold.
Take the Tigh-Nan-Ubhal guesthouse in Tongue, for example.
Situated along the northern stretch of the North Coast 500, some 43 miles from Thurso, we approached it in the early evening twilight, after a slight diversion from the main route to photograph a group of stags grazing in the late sun. I had originally tried to book one of the larger hotels in the village, but unfortunately – or not as it turned out – these were both closed in January, but recommended I contact the guesthouse. The only place open in Tongue, and indeed for miles around.
Yes, they had a room, but what were we to do about dinner? Not a problem, came the reply from Angela, the guesthouse owner, if we wanted to she would cook us a meal? Was homemade pie okay? Or did we fancy curry? And it would be £10, but that includes wine. Does that sound alright? Absolutely, was our reply. And then for dessert, the chance to sit down and relax with Angela and her husband, drinking whisky and swapping stories late into the night. You don’t get that at a Holiday Inn.
Of course, if you are going to attempt the drive in Winter, you want to be prepared. Step forward our Heritage Land Rover Defender, hired from Aberdeen 4×4 car hire, and ready to greet us as we stepped off of our flight at Inverness. It, or Sven as we named him in a nod to the Norse heritage of the area- and also because his number plate started with SV- was made for this drive.
He ploughed his way along the “wee mad road’ with ease, a twisting narrow ribbon of tarmac, that runs from Lochinver to Alchiltibuie. He did not falter when the rain lashed against the side of his body as we wound past the sandstone mountains of Assynt, their spiky prehistoric peaks just visible through the swirling mist. He was our picnic shelter in a hail storm, our steady feet on the morning ice, and the perfect model for some absolutely epic photos.
Just like the NC500, he was built for all seasons, but in my opinion, winter is the perfect time to explore this wild north coast in all its untamed glory. So go on. Give the off season a go.
Unfollow the crowd.
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