North Coast 500 - Part 1

By Ian Palmer

Alpkiteer Ian Palmer and his wife Katie went on a trip around the North Coast 500 this summer. This is the first part of their adventure on the East Coast, written by Katie Palmer.

 

With ‘staycationing’ the safest option for a summer getaway this year, we decided to base our trip around the North Coast 500, a circular route hugging the coastline of Northern mainland Scotland. Starting and finishing in Inverness, it takes in some of the most awe-inspiring gems of this wild and rugged part of the UK.

But would it be a tranquil escape or an over-crowded tourist hotspot? We packed up the van with enough kit for 2 weeks of adventures and set off to find out.

 

The East Coast

We drove from the Lake District up to Aviemore and stayed for a night by the shores of Loch Morlich. It reminded me of summer holidays as a kid; not just the beach and the Canadian-looking landscape, but also the drizzle and the midges (insect repellent is a must).

The Cairngorms National Park is an amazing place and although it’s not on the official route, in my opinion it’s always worth a stop off for at least a day or two. There are loads of opportunities to MTB, camp, run, ski, kayak and walk. 

We spent the morning running one of our favourite routes; up past Glenmore Lodge to Ryvoan bothy, up again and left over 3 peaks before descending at Craiggowrie and returning along the forest floor.

The official start of the NC500 is at Inverness castle, but we decided we weren’t going to follow it exactly and would take detours to interesting and (if it proved too touristy), quieter places. 

Our first port of call was Fortrose on the Black Isle, famous for its pods of dolphins, which can regularly be spotted off Chanonry Point. As we made our way to Rosemarkie Bay we were greeted by the eerie sight of 20-30 people, stood silently on the rocks, staring at the water. It felt like the scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind as they waited for beings from another world to visit. We joined them and waited and waited and…nothing. We went to bed disappointed and were about to leave the next morning when we decided to give it one more try. 

Again, we waited and were just about to leave when we heard gasps from the onlookers and saw a dorsal fin pop up. Then another and another until there were so many, you didn’t know where to look. It was a magical experience to see so many, often just a few metres away.

After a quick stop for an MTB at the Learnie Red Rocks trails (short routes, mostly gentle but with a super-techy black loop), we headed North. 

Our bed for the night was at Brora campsite, nestled in the dunes behind a spectacular beach and a uniquely Scottish golf course complete with wandering Highland cattle! In the morning, we got out for a beach run, passing seals bobbing in the water, shags sat majestically on the rocks, swooping Arctic Terns and even a Highland calf paddling in the shallows! 

Leaving Brora, our next stop was the Whaligoe Steps. Easily missed as you drive past (look out for a phone box in between the hamlets of Bruan and Ulbster just South of Wick and turn right), it’s well worth the hassle of finding a parking place.  Descend the 330 stone steps carved into the cliff face, and you’ll find an ancient harbour surrounded on 3 sides by towering 250ft cliffs. From here, you can sit amongst the wild flowers, watching the waves crash onto the rocks to a soundtrack of echoing seabird calls. It’s really quite special.

Heading even further North, the plan was to have a quick visit to John O’Groats (tacky and touristy but it would have been rude not to at least see the famous sign as we passed) then stay the night by the Dunnet Head lighthouse (the actual most Northerly point of mainland Britain and home to colonies of puffins). 

Impressive as it was, the 57mph winds meant camping up there wasn’t an option so we headed off the point to a beautiful cove at nearby Brough. Hunkering down there for the night, we shared the vista with a pair of young seals and a huge ‘Goonies’ style rock which sheltered the harbour from the worst of the storm.

You can watch the first part of Ian's adventure on his YouTube

 

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