Lochinver to Torridon
Firstly , some thoughts on Torridon which is now looming at the end of Day 4.
To many, Torridon is THE most magnificent area of mainland Scotland though it’s probably too close to call with Assynt. We have spent many holidays in Torridon/Applecross and it is simply an amazing place.
We had to cut short a holiday in Lochinver a couple of years ago due to family pressures and make immediately for Skye (hardly a hardship I know but…) Leaving Assynt’s iconic mountains and that unique coastal scenery behind, I was trying – unsuccessfully – to hold back the sniffles as we raced down the Wee Mad Road to Ullapool wanting to get the mileage in.
My mood matched the weather. The skies were gloomy and dark clouds covered the summits. The car’s windscreen wipers were working overtime, fighting a losing battle at times against the incessant rain. Every so often the car was buffeted by a gust of wind as the gale grew to storm force. ‘Welcome to summer in Scotland,’ Chris rolled his eyes, also dumped, though mostly by the silent, brooding presence beside him. I wanted to be back in Assynt, no matter the weather!
We drove past Ullapool and ignored the NC500 turn off at Corrieshalloch Gorge; the coast road round by Gairloch was too long for us today.
Instead we headed at speed towards Garve where a quick right turn took us along the fast, empty road to Achnasheen. The sensible route from there was to continue on towards Kyle of Lochalsh and the Skye Bridge, the quickest way to reach the island coming from Lochinver.
The weather was still rubbish. But as the junction to Torridon grew nearer, a patch or two of blue forced itself through the scudding grey skies. Torridon was calling us – it was a sign!
So the quick, sensible route was tossed out of the window and we took another hard right turn towards Kinlochewe, the area just too much of a lure.
Landscape has a powerful effect on me and the minute we drove down the Glen Torridon road it felt like I’d consumed a powerful drug, woes and ills banished miraculously and joy returned. There is so much to appreciate on the Ullapool – Kinlochewe section of the NC500, but it’s one I would forego to spend more time between here and Applecross; it’s a major highlight of the NC500. No matter how often we are up here – and we have spent many holidays in this area – it continually thrills.
I always think that when you look at the areas in Scotland which the professional photographers take clients to for expensive weekend/week long workshops, the same names come up – Glencoe, Harris, Skye, Assynt and…..Torridon.
It is simply out of this world; a Mecca for those who love the outdoors and photography, wildlife watching (plenty otters, eagles, pine martens and red deer) or just want to ‘be’ in a ruggedly beautiful place, then make enough time for this wonderful place. If you need a dose of shops and other distractions, then move on!
The Wee Mad Road
My preference heading south from Lochinver would be to follow this minor single track road all the way to Loch Lurgainn via Inverkirkaig, rather than take the main NC500 via Loch Assynt. That said, a detour to see Loch Assynt , if you have not been there, is well worth it.
It is VERY hard to choose really between the main fast road to Ullapool and the coastal route; they are each superb! If time is pressing and you don’t like narrow, winding, single track, avoid the Wee Mad Road (as it is called locally.) It’s about an hour from Lochinver to Ullapool on the main, fast road, a superb drive in itself with iconic mountain views.
More stunning up close coastal scenery awaits on the WMR; it’s an incredible drive. Wild, lonely country on an impossibly winding, narrow road, but oh….those views.I am always drawn to the coast, rather than inland, so it pulls me constantly.
At Inverkirkaig is much loved Achins bookshop, well worth a stop for coffee and home made cakes and soup and a browse.Brilliant wee place though it has recently been taken over so I can’t vouch for food at present.
At the junction where the turn off to Achiltibuie appears, left takes you to Ullapool, a beautiful drive past Loch Lurgain and iconic mountains such as Stac Pollaidh. But if the day is clear and time is going well then a minor detour of 15 mins or so to Achnahaird Beach is well worth it. The beach is a stunning spot showcasing the iconic Assynt peaks as a backdrop. The Summer Isles hotel in Achiltibuie has long been renowned for good pub grub if lunch beckons. Boat trips from Polbain go out to the deserted Summer Isles too.
For those who enjoy a hike consider the excellent track up onto Stac Pollaidh’s ridge or simply do the circular route which tracks half way up the mountain and gives astonishing views too.For our experience of this walk:THE HILL I THOUGHT I’D NEVER CLIMB – STAC POLLAIDH
I avoided this hill like the plague for years – now I can’t wait to go back!
The ridge itself is narrow but safe though vertiginous so not for everyone but a very popular walk.A landscape out of Jurassic Park lies before you.
Down to earth, attractive village/small town, with its row of handsome white painted houses along the harbour front. Busy fishing harbour and the Lewis/Harris ferry calls in too. I love being in Ullapool.
Outer Hebrides add on
Ullapool is the port for the 2.5 hour super-scenic sail to Stornoway. I can’t recommend highly enough, a day trip if possible to the magnificent Outer Hebrides. Of course, there’s enough out there for multiple trips, they equal the mainland for splendour in my opinion. Stornoway is a workaday town not worth the trip in itself, but 12 miles away are the Callanish Standing Stones, older than Stonehenge; atmospheric Gearranan Blackhouse village, a beauty, and in a stunning area; Arnol Blackhouse ; a Norse Mill and Kiln and an Iron Age house at Bosta. Plus, it’s an introduction to Outer Hebridean scenery and a sense of being in a much further flung, remote place again.Strong Gaelic culture throughout too.
Then there is Harris, offering some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve seen anywhere in the world , a match for anything on the mainland.Luminous. Beaches that would make the Caribbean blush.
The Ceilidh Place in Ullapool is a good coffee/lunch stop; it sometimes has live music at night. Small bookshop.
Impressively deep gorge with a wobbling iron bridge, perfectly safe but doesn’t always feel so! Free and worth a look.
One of the most beautiful bays on this stretch of coast. Various pink sandy coves for strolling and Gruinard Island offshore. We spent a week in May at the ‘House with the Red Gates’ a few years ago, a traditional Highland croft house in tiny Second Coast and were lucky to enjoy wall to wall sunshine for the whole 7 days. So much to explore – the beach and coast at Mellon Udrigle was especially lovely. Absolutely beautiful area.
Mighty An Teallach mountain (which translates as The Forge) dominates all.
Don’t miss pulling in at the top of the road out of Gruinard as it climbs high above the coast. The views back are quintessential North West Highlands. The road winds up and down through the quaintly named settlements of First and Second Coast then through Laide and on towards Gairloch.
The Perfume Studio
I love this little shop/café a few winding miles out on the single track road at Aultbea. The huge range of handmade soaps are the best I’ve ever tried, their perfume really does last as long as the soap does.£4 or so per bar and they do mail order. Nice café too.
I’ve never been a huge fan of this very scattered community though the beach is lovely and the Mountain Café is excellent for browsing interesting books There’s a good butchers/deli too.
We took a boat trip out into Gairloch Bay, on a warm sunny day, looking for otters and dolphins. It’s a great way to see the whole area. Longer RIB trips also go out towards Harris and the Shiant Isles for more cetacean watching with a higher success rate.
The Red Point beaches
Not a must and it’s a fair old drive out through not hugely attractive crofting areas but we have twice made our way out to Red Point.It is a very special place. After watching two golden eagles cruising the thermals, we finally reached a parking area at the end of the road, which gives easy access to these stunning pink sand beaches. It took us about twenty mins walk to reach the first one, using a mucky farmland track but oh, what a spot! Fantastic views to the Torridon mountains, Skye, seals offshore and pristine, quite unusual coloured sand. Aquamarine water.
We then headed across country, over very boggy ground to reached the even bigger second beach with heavy surf crashing on the shore. This beach is easily accessed from the road too. A great circular walk of about 2 hours.
Very famous gardens, but not my favourite on the west coast (Crarae, Argyll, are much finer.) Huge visitor centre, catering for tour buses, but in May the gardens were not particularly colourful, with the exception of one or two corners.We were both very disappointed in them. Hardly any rhododendrons either. Nice location though.
The Bridge Cottage Café in Poolewe
Great local café with excellent home baking.
Often called Scotland’s most beautiful freshwater loch, it is a stunning stretch of water, and the landscape around it is magnificent, dominated by Slioch, a hard slog of a Munro (mountain over 3000 feet or 914m).
There isn’t a lot in the Beinn Eighe Visitor Centre but there are some nice walks set out in walking trail leaflets. This area is too beautiful to just rush through.
The best easy hike is the Beinn Eighe Mountain Trail but you’ll need to be properly clad with walking boots, waterproofs etc.
The photo of the NC500 which I’ve seen the most is actually not on the route. A detour of 5 mins beyond Kinlochewe, on a good road heading uphill, reveals the famous scene looking down towards Loch Maree with layer upon layer of mountains providing a great foreground. Worth the detour if the weather is clear.
This is where the scenery really takes off again and you know you’ve reached somewhere ultra special. I have spent many holidays in this area, hiked several of its hills, big and small and explored it’s wonderful coastline.So much more still to enjoy (if I’m spared, to quote my Mum-in-Law’s favourite saying.) For recommendations of what to see/do in this area see – Torridon Favourites
Torridon would be my choice for an overnight before the final day’s drive.
Next final day: Torridon to Inverness via Applecross and Glen Shiel