Day 4: Durness to Isle of Skye
Our main article – Driving Scotland’s North Coast 500: Our 7 day Road Trip – has links for each day.
Day 4 was the longest day of the trip but also one of our favourite days. We had challenges finding and booking accommodation and had to drive longer than expected – about 4 hours longer. Google maps calculated our approximate journey from Durness to Isle of Skye at 7.5 hours and 248 miles (400 km). Our driving time was closer to 9 hours. We stopped for about 3 hours in total so our total travel time was 12 hours from 9 am to 9 pm.
The first half of the day was full of quiet, elevated roads with panoramic views of the Highlands and the Atlantic Ocean. We arrived at Ullapool at about 2 pm, grabbed some supplies at a supermarket and had lunch at a local chippie while speaking with some Aussie tourists (from Melbourne and Kyogle). We couldn’t find accommodation in the area so we kept driving.
We decided to stay on the coast road as it was beautiful and full of surprises around every bend. There were lots of bends. And blind crests like roller coasters. You know when you are going up a roller coaster at about 45 degree angle? You’re looking at the sky and know when your car flattens out it will then head nose first down the other side, perhaps into a loop? Some of the coast roads are like that. Except the road is so narrow that you think if there is a car coming the other way, you won’t have time to do anything except ‘bang’. We had a few close calls. The coastal road is narrow, winding and with steep elevations. It is not caravan or motor-home friendly. If you are new to UK roads I suggest you read up – Know Your Traffic Signs and The Highway Code.
After a day of sightseeing, we arrived at Applecross. We drove along the beach-front on high-tide, seeing deer and cows and sea birds. There wasn’t much in the way of sand to speak of. The wind had picked up and was blowing salt water onto the car because the distance between the edge of the road and the ocean was about a metre. We looked for a place to stay the night. There were others on the road doing the same so we were on high alert for vacancy signs and popped in and out of a few places to check in-person if there were any rooms.
After driving around Applecross for 20 minutes we still couldn’t find accommodation. We filled up with fuel, watched the deers eat on the water’s edge and looked to the sky. The weather had turned nastier, with scuds of rain, gusts of wind and thickening fog. So with fading light and no other options, we started up the Bealach na Ba – the third highest road in Scotland. This road is generally one lane wide with very few passing places. We made it up and over without incident and when we finally arrived into Isle of Skye at 9 pm, the only accommodation we could secure was at a local backpackers.
Durness > along the A838 to Rhichonich > turn right at Laxford Bridge along A894 to Scourie > Kylesku Bridge > Unapool > turn right onto the B869 and drive part of the Wester Ross Coastal Trail > Nedd > Drumbeg > Clashnessie > Clachtoll > take left onto A837 towards Little Assynt > Loch Assynt > Ardvreck Castle > Inchnadamph > Stronechrubie > after Ledbeg, turn right onto A835 (before Ledmore) > Elphin > Drumrunie > Ardmair Point > Ullapool ..
Ullapool might be the best place to stay along this route. It has many accommodation choices, good facilities and attractions and some beautiful walks.
STAY OVERNIGHT or CONTINUE DRIVING?
Option 1: Overnight in or around Ullapool
We recommend you book accommodation and stay in or around Ullapool. We tried but were unsuccessful. If you haven’t pre-booked anything, you might find it difficult to find anything between here and Isle of Skye.
If you’re on a budget, this means you still need to drive another 5-7 hours and about 160 miles (260 km). So you might want to spend a little more on accommodation. If you still can’t find anything, go to the Tesco supermarket, grab some food you can eat in the car and top up your fuel before you continue your drive.
Option 2: Continue driving to Isle of Skye (what we did)
Ullapool > Loch Broom > Loch Glascarnoch > Garbet > Gorstan > after Gorstan turn right onto the A832 coastal route through Achanalt and Achnasheen > Kinlochewe > turn left onto A896 towards Torridon > Torridon > Shieldaig ..
FAINT-HEARTED Vs BRAVE SOULS
This is where you’ll need to make another decision.
Option 1: Shieldaig to Isle of Skye via Tornapress
If you don’t like driving or being a passenger on long, narrow, winding, soft-edged, sheer-drop roads – do not go to Applecross. You then won’t have to drive over Bealach na Ba. This will also save you 1-2 hours and 20 miles (32 km).
Shieldaig > continue along the A896 to Tornapress > Ardarroch > Strathcarron > continue onto Isle of Skye.
Option 2: Shieldaig to Isle of Skye via Applecross and Bealach na Ba
The Bealach na Ba rises up to 626 metres (2,054 ft) above sea level. It runs from Applecross to Tornapress.
- It is not for learner drivers, souls not 100% competent reversing great distances, caravans or wide vehicles. It has limited passing places – which means you may have to reverse great distances without being able to see behind you on curves – if you don’t have a reversing camera this can be difficult if not dangerous. Also, watch out for cyclists!
- Be aware that some people with large vehicles and motor-homes will still try and drive this road. The signs say don’t do it but dingbats do anyway. As a result, the road gets blocked several times a year, making it impassable both ways.
Shieldaig > take the road to the Applecross Peninsula > take the first right turn after Shieldaig – after the shores of Loch Shieldaig / Upper Loch Torridon > there may be signs for Kinloch B&B and Aurora B&B > Fearnmore > Kalnakill > Applecross > continue up Bealach na Ba to the viewpoint on the right >
Last chance to change your mind! If you’re not comfortable with the road so far, be aware that it only gets worse.
FAINT-HEARTED > Bealach na Ba viewpoint > turn around at the viewpoint and go back to Applecross and onto Shieldaig where you can rejoin the A896 > turn right and head for Strathcarron.
- The road only goes downhill to sea level after this – from 626 metres (2,054 ft).
- Low gear and sensible use of brakes is essential.
- Don’t expect to get over 15-20 mph (15-25 kmh).
- Ask yourself: ‘Do I need to go above second gear? Why?’
- Watch out for cyclists who for some reason love to ride on this narrow, steep road.
- There is a drop of around 450 feet to the valley floor from where the road passes the waterfall (on the right), just before the first hair-pin turn. This is where your passenger starts to pump their brake pedals (if only they had some).
BRAVE SOULS > Bealach na Ba viewpoint > down to Tornapress onto A896 > Lochcarron > turn right on A890 > Strathcarron
- Strathcarron is where the faint-hearted reunite with the brave souls (who have just changed their nappies).
Strathcarron > Auchtertyre > right on A87 > Kyle of Lochalsh > cross the Skye Bridge > take the first left at the roundabout to Kyleakin > Skye Backpackers (try and find somewhere else to stay).
Driving time (including stops)
- 12 hours – 9 am to 9 pm
- About 248 miles (400 km)
Skye Backpackers, Kyleakin, Isle of Skye
Not the best experience of our trip. We had a choice of two hostels and chose this one. We were put in bunks with 8 other people. The bunk was inside a ‘caravan’ at the back of the main building. The bunk was made of ply. If you’re 6′ tall your head almost touches the roof when standing. It also makes climbing into the top bunk interesting. We couldn’t sit on the bunk for fear of shoving our heads through the roof. Worst of it was when we laid down, our feet hit the wall at the bottom and our heads were slammed against the wall at the top of the bunk. With wood on 5 sides you feel like a vampire, sleeping in a coffin. If you’re on a bottom bunk, there is the fear that the bed base above might collapse onto you during the night. We didn’t risk the old, suspect bed linen and slept in our sleeping bags like everyone else. No opening windows. No ventilation. Condensation dripped down the walls and windows the morning after. The humidity intensified the room’s aromas. The single shower and toilet are in an ‘outbuilding’. Do yourself a favour; although its cheap, stay somewhere else.
- Breakfast – Bacon and egg and sausage and egg rolls from the breakfast caravan at Sango Sands Oasis campsite. Cheap and tasty.
- Lunch – Sausage supper (battered pork sausage with chips) at Ullapool. Delicious.
- Dinner – Pizza at Saucy Mary’s with two pints of Guinness beer each. One pint to get over driving Bealach na Ba and a second to prepare for our night at the backpackers. During dinner, considering the standard of the Sky Backpacker’s caravan room, we decided to book our second night’s accommodation at Saucy Mary’s Hostel.
Sango Sands to Drumbeg
Ullapool to Applecross
Sheep and cows share the road. Rainbows and double-rainbows are everywhere. Look for waterfalls and deer.
Applecross to Isle of Skye via Bealach na Ba
You can fill up with fuel at Applecross. Look for deer grazing. If the tide is in, the beach is engulfed by the ocean and the salt water laps on the green grass.
If travelling anti-clockwise like we did, travel from Applecross to Tornapress with the view down the steep mountain. For those doing the NC500 clockwise, the steepest drive is up the mountain with the view behind you. Beware the soft edges and the other warnings. Stop at the viewpoint at the top. Remember this is where you can change your mind and turn around. On a clear day, the view from Bealach na Ba is spectacular.
We enjoyed a delicious pizza and a couple of pints of beer at Saucy Mary’s before going back to our dodgy caravan/hostel bunk bed for a well-earned sleep.
Our Photos of Scotland’s North Coast 500
We included some of our favourite photos in this post. You can find the rest over at Flickr.
Our main article – Driving Scotland’s North Coast 500: Our 7 day Road Trip – has links for each day.