At the start of June, Craig and I headed off to explore the North Coast 500. Following the coastline, the route heads north from Inverness to John O’ Groats before heading west towards Dunress and looping back around by Unapool, Ullapool and Torridon.
While the roads and many of the places to visit en route have existed here for many years, the route was only officially ‘launched’ in 2015 with a strong marketing campaign. Since then, it has grown in popularity and was very quickly named as one of the best coastal routes in the world.
We didn’t complete the whole of the official route, choosing instead to follow the road anti-clockwise and then tail off at Applecross to head over to Skye. This seems to be quite a popular choice.
1. Smoo Caves
Near Durness, Smoo Cave has one of the largest openings of any sea cave in the UK. It opens out into a narrow, high sided sea inlet and proves an impressive scene.
Donning some helmets left at the entrance, we met Colin in the main chamber. Colin leads tours through the caves, and is also leading on the exploration and excivation at the site too! In a short half an hour, we were taken over a short lake and walked a little distance through the caves.
Colin was brilliantly informative, and it was fantastic to hear some of the human and geological history dating all the way back even beyond the Neolithic age. He has also been involved in explorations in other Scottish cave systems, and we were able to visit some of the other sites he spoke about on the rest of our trip.
Tours run from April – September but are weather dependent. Make sure you wear good shoes and take a wee jumper, as it gets cold underground! Check out Colin’s website for more information: http://smoocavetours.weebly.com/
After Inverness, Ullapool was the most ‘touristy’ towns that we went through. It’s a busy little place with the occasional cruise liner coming into port. With lots of little shops selling locally crafted products and beers, a book store, museum and several fish and chip shops, Ullapool is a great place to spend an afternoon.
3. Sandwood Bay
A 6 km walk taking about 90 minutes at an easy pace, the walk out to Sandwood bay was well worth it! Grassy green hills roll into large white sand dunes before flattening out into the blue of the sea. It’s a beautiful and quite dramatic view made all the more stunning by the view down to Am Buachaille. One of Scotlands most famous sea stacks, the walk out to the beach is often taken alongside heavily laden climbers heading out to take on this stunning challenge.
While this is a popular spot, the long walk and length of the beach makes it feel fairly quiet despite an always busy car park.
Handa is a brillaint wee island just off of the West coast. You get the ferry from Tarbet for £15 per person, and sailings are understandably weather dependant. On fair weather days, it can be busy so you may have to wait a little while for the ferry.
The whole island is a protected wildlife reserve, managed by the Wildlife Trust with many protected species of birds migrating past here and nesting on the sea cliffs. May – July is the best time to visit for the best chance of spotting puffins, guillemots and more. As well as seabirds, it is possible to spot whales, dolphins and otters too. Allow at least 3 hours for the walk around the island, and definitely take some binoculars (these can be hired for a small fee from the visitor centre on the island).
5. North West Geo-Park
This is very much cheating, as the Geopark covers a massive area from Durness down to Skye!
The Geopark has a huge number of things to visit. We spent a morning at the Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve (above) and an afternoon walking out to the Bone Caves (below)
The walk out to the Bone Caves is about 2.5 km. These caves are so called, predictably, because of the bones found here; reindeer, polar bear, lynx, wolf and more. Colin who took us around the Smoo caves was also involved with excavations here and recommended that we include this visit on our tour.
While this last entry is most definitely cheating, I have included it because Craig and I have both concluded that while we might not do the whole NC500 route again, we would love to spend more time in this area!