Another fantastic day awaits…though really, this area is best enjoyed over several days or a whole week.We used to spend 2 weeks every summer here and never ran out of places to see and enjoy.
There are many superb options in terms of detours off the main (but wildly scenic) A 838/A894/A837 route. Tolkien was said to have based the idea of Middle Earth on the Assynt landscape and it’s easy to see why! This is an often surreal landscape with breath-taking scenery round every bend of the road.
It’s only around a 90 minute drive between the two villages but there is so much in between.That said, the drive alone is a stunner in itself.
1. Cape Wrath
It’s takes a full half -day to visit this famous, most north – westerly point of the British mainland. Not an easy trip to make happen as weather and the numbers wanting to make the trip, make it hit or miss whether you will actually be lucky enough to get out there.
For our experience of getting out to Cape Wrath: Cape Wrath and Kylesku
When exactly the boat goes out can vary depending on time and tide. Too low and the boat will hit sand on the shallow crossing – it mildly scraped the sea bottom when we made the journey across. More on the timetable and costs here:
The skipper also takes cash only. Leave your car at the parking area at Keoldale, a few minutes’ drive from Durness. Then wait for the little boat (I mean little – ours took 5 people max) which in 10 minutes, putt-putts across the beautiful Kyle of Durness to the other side. From there, a minibus makes the 1 hour, bumpy 11mile journey out to the Cape. It’s an experience!
You pay separately for the minibus part of the trip.
The bus allows everyone 50 mins or so at the Cape – plenty of time to explore it. You CAN stay longer but will have to speak to the driver about arranging this. You can of course also walk to or from Cape Wrath (22 miles return, 11 miles one way) after being dropped at the minibus parking spot, making your way along the broken tarmac road (no other vehicles) with a chance to walk down to beautiful, remote Keoldale beach where there is a bothy. Some people camp out here overnight especially if they have just completed the magnificent Cape Wrath Trail, a long distance route of 240 miles which starts in Fort William.
The Cape itself is wild and remote, with some of the Clo Mor being the highest cliffs on the mainland, rising nearly 1,000 feet sheer and lashed by a wave whipped ocean.
But do bear in mind that there are other opportunities to see great cliff scenery at various points along this route and which involve less time and effort. For more on my on day out here:
A warning or two:
There can be BIG queues for the boat and the minibus only takes around 17 people so it can take several boat journeys before the lucky few get over and underway. If you don’t get on the morning run, it’s a LONG wait for the afternoon excursion – 3 hours or more. Arrive MUCH earlier than the sailing time advertised, to get in the queue for the boat – we were a good 45 mins early and luckily got on.
It needs a good weather day too or it could be pretty miserable. There are few facilities at Cape Wrath; a small, limited café, no toilets and the journey out and back in the shaky old minibus is a bone rattler through fairly uninteresting moorland (I say that as someone who normally loves moorland.)That said, the guy that drove us out was a hoot with lots of stories and chatter about the military ; they close the moorland when firing practice is on so that’s another potential time that the place is off limits.
All that said – I’m very glad we made the trip! At the café, you can queue to get postcards stamped with the Cape Wrath logo.
TO GO OR NOT TO GO….?
With limited time and unless getting to this famed point of the mainland has really caught your imagination, I’d skip this trip. Get a fix of great cliff scenery by driving to Stoer Lighthouse further south and perhaps walking out to the Old Man of Stoer rock pinnacle; or even better, take the short boat trip out to Handa Island and spend a few magical hours there.
2. The Oldshoremore Beaches
At Rhiconich, turn right off the A838 and take the B801 single track road to Kinlochbervie. Continue on past this little place with its BIG fish processing plant and continue on to Oldshoremore. A turn off is signposted to the beach car park beside the cemetery.
This is a gorgeous stretch of sand! If you are up to a bit of extra walking, you can clamber onto the rough moorland at the end of the beach and walk across to an even lovelier strand where very few people venture – Polin beach. It is also possible to reach Polin via a rough track from the neighbouring settlement of Oldshorebeg where a small parking area exists.
On a fine day, even the drive out here gives wonderful coastal views and vistas over the classic Assynt landscape. When I’m here, it’s another place in Scotland that I just never want to leave.
For beach connoisseurs (or anyone keen to get a good 8 mile hike under their belts) this a real stunner of a beach, very wild. No houses, no facilities. Just nature in the wild.
To get there, continue along the road past Oldshoremore to Blairmore where there is an the obvious large parking area with Info boards. Here begins the 4 mile easy walk (one way, on an excellent track) to glorious and remote Sandwood Bay, considered one of the finest beaches on the mainland.
The walk is mostly flat with a gentle downslope at the end of the track, taking you through the impressive and very beautiful dune system to the huge, orange/pink sands.
I love a wild , lonely beach and Sandwood – which does take a bit of effort to reach – is simply a glorious place to be. Life affirming.For more on my walk to Sandwood, check this link:
We also walked in here with the tent a couple of years later and wild camped above the shore – a superb experience. No facilities of course, just the surf and the cold Atlantic. There are often many cars parked at the walk start yet the landscape is so big, people seem to disappear! I’ve never found the beach busy. Away to the north on a clear day are the cliffs which culminate in Cape Wrath.
Thoughts: The Oldshoremore beaches are glorious too and take less effort to reach. That said, Sandwood Bay is incredibly special with a wilder feel overall. If you’re a collector of great beaches, I’d make the effort. There are few better places for a picnic!
4 Loch Stack detour
The drive south over Laxford Bridge to Scourie is magnificent with the great mountains of Arkle and Foinaven rearing out of the endless moorland. The pyramid of Ben Stack looks terrific above Loch Laxford- in fact, it is well worth detouring down the minor road to Loch Stack which after 10 mins or so, presents some iconic images of Assynt. Even just sitting in the car or by the side of the loch with a picnic lunch makes a great stop. Big, lonely, magnificent country.
4. Handa Island
Off the A894, a few miles north of Scourie, a signpost indicates the turning for the Handa Island ferry which leaves from the tiny harbour at Tarbet. There is a small parking area at the end of the very winding but beautiful single track road.
There is also an excellent café/bistro here, worth the short drive in itself. Super fresh shellfish and other delights, it’s a family run place.For more on our drive here and a lovely lunch:The North West Highlands and Skye : Deserted White Beaches and a Seafood lunch
It’s a gorgeous, 20 min or so trip across to Handa, where you land on a white sand beach with turquoise water and are met by the island’s Ranger, who outlines the do’s and don’ts when visiting this spectacular Nature Reserve run by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. More on it here in this link.
The ferry does not operate on Sundays. Always check in advance if travelling a long way, in case it is not operating for weather or other reasons.
There is a small Nature Hut with interesting info on the island’s wildlife (good for kids with birds wings, shells and various bits and pieces which can be picked up etc.) Then you are off on your own to walk the duck-boarding up to the cliffs for a picnic lunch and – I would recommend – continuing with a walk right round the island. It’s only around 5km/3 miles and the views all the way are just sensational.
Or just sit at the cliffs to watch the endless action and cacophony of noise amidst the vast colonies of seabirds (including puffins). The cliffs are fantastic and are of course a breeding ground for guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, puffins – the noise (and smell at times) is incredible. It’s a wow, the whole place. And of course all around is that amazing coastline of Assynt with the shapely outline of the Inselberg mountains that make this area of Scotland so unique. It’s Lord of the Rings territory up here alright.I might be biased but they should have filmed the series here rather than New Zealand – far less need for computer generated graphics!
Look out for whales and dolphins offshore too.
On a hot day, a swim off one of the pristine beaches would be gorgeous, if Baltic. Our sea never really heats up – this is the North Atlantic after all. I invested in a wetsuit a few years back and THAT is the way to enjoy our crystal clear, unpolluted water without suffering hypothermia.
You must keep to the paths on Handa as the island is also a protected nesting site for Great and Arctic Skuas which patrol their territory fiercely. They will not bother you at all on the paths but venture off and they are extremely intimidating sea birds, slightly larger than gulls and aggressive. Having one fly directly at you at head height is not for the faint hearted!
I’ve also seen Black and Red Throated Divers on the journey out to Tarbet (on the inland lochs) as well as on the island itself; these are some of our most magnificent birds and have a lonely haunting cry. Sea eagles too are not uncommon.
The cliffs are sheer and unfenced so keep a wary eye on children.
5 Eddrachillis Bay
There are tantalising glimpses of this beautiful island dotted bay from various spots on the main road south. Best of all, stay in the attractive little hotel of the same name.
6. Kylesku Bridge/Inn
There are various pull off parking areas giving great views over the elegant bridge which spans the big sea inlet here. The views over the mountains and especially to Quinag are wonderful – ethereal in certain light.
I rarely miss a stop in tiny TINY Kylesku itself where the Inn comprises most of what constitutes the village. It’s an excellent small hotel serving very good food in a truly beautiful spot. Their Hot Garlic Langoustines (served on a skewer) with a portion of chips, makes a great lunch. Usually traditional home made puddings to follow too. I love being here!
A mile or two before the Kylesku turn off, a minor road leads left. It is possible to park the car near an impressive Scots Baronial house and walk on a good track out along Loch Glendhu. This gives a chance to enjoy the gorgeous scenery here for longer. There are usually big Atlantic Grey seals on the hunt – most likely your only company.
7. Eas a Chual Aluinn Waterfall Boat Trip
Britain’s highest – higher than Niagara Falls. However, it is a thin trickle in comparison, not wildly gushing. You can also walk to it (a LONG, rough but beautiful walk, see below) Even from the boat trip it’s quite a distance away and needs binoculars to view properly. If you’ve been to Iceland, then it’s not on the scale of that great country’s waterfalls by a long way though the scenery is more impressive overall. However, it’s a lovely boat trip, sailing up rugged Loch Glencoul. It leaves from Kylesku.More here:
North West Sea Tours – Kylesku Boat Tours
8. The Coast road or Hill Road?
There’s a choice now beyond Kylesku/Unapool – which to take?
My choice would be the A894 hill (main) road.But I’ll start with the coastal route:
8 a) The coastal route via Drumbeg:
The B869 coastal route via Drumbeg is famous – narrow, super winding and if you choose that, then it’s worth detouring out to Stoer Lighthouse if cliffs are a draw.The road often hugs the coast so much you’re almost in the water.
Clashnessie Falls are also worth a look if it’s in spate. Access from the car park at Clashnessie Beach; a 10-15min (often boggy) walk.
There’s a nice beach at Clachtoll and Stoer beach is a pleasant spot when the tide is out( though the latter was a bit scruffy on our last visit.)
There are the remains of a big Dun (ancient fort) at the far end of the beach. We stayed in a good B&B here – Stac Fada. But it is rather an untidy, straggly area overall around Clachtoll. The finest spot on the coast to me is further on at Achmelvich Beach (more easily accessed from Lochinver.)
8 b) The Hill Road (main road to Skiag Bridge)
The hill road is a cracker, a beautiful drive between the mountains with grand views over to Suilven too, the famous Sugar Loaf mountain. Then the road drops to Loch Assynt ; it’s well worth a stop to admire the remains of Ardvreck Castle. Wild country all around. I love this drive!
9 Climb Quinag
From the high point of the A894 beyond Loch na Gainmhich, there is a car park and if equipped with good boots and waterproofs, it’s possible to hike up to Spidean Coinneach, one of Quinag’s tops. What a view there is up there! About an hour to the top. Map required. Virtually no path.
10 Eas Chuill Aluinn walk (long and rough!)
It’s also possible to park before that beside the lovely dark waters of Loch na Gainmhich on the A894 and follow a boggy path which climbs up to another high lochan and into really wild country. On a good day, a great place for a picnic. The path continues beyond a small lochan, to an overlook of Britain’s highest waterfall –Eas Chuill Aluinn but you don’t see the whole drop.About 6 miles all in.For more on the walk:
Eas a’ Chual Aluinn – Britain’s highest waterfall (Walkhighlands)
11 Weeping Widow Falls
Spectacular when in spate.
Accessible from a muddy path head for the north side of Loch na Gainmhich (parking as above) and walk to the falls which plunge over the moorland.
The falls are also viewable close up from a pull in parking area at a narrow gorge before the A894 begins to climb. Follow the left fork where the rough path divides.
12 Loch Assynt and Ardvreck Castle
From Skiag Bridge , this loch now lies straight ahead. It’s one of my favourite lochs with Quinag towering over it and the atmospheric ruin of the castle sitting on its little sandy promontory.Well worth a stop just to take in the whole scene.
A very pleasant small fishing port– in fact, I love Lochinver. It has huge, happy memories of holidays when the boys were young.
Fishing boats land their catch very early at the main harbour.Not picturesque but workaday and interesting.
There are some good places to eat (listed below), a small supermarket and a good tourist info centre. Just outside the village is the lovely Highland Stoneware shop and pottery where the lovely crockery, sold all over Scotland, is made. Not cheap but handmade stuff of great quality.
There’s a reasonable choice of accommodation in Lochinver, but it gets booked up quickly.
14 Achmelvich Beach (accessible from the hill/main road or coastal route via Drumbeg)
One of my favourite mainland beaches, despite the caravan site at the back. Dazzling white sand, turquoise water, rocky headlands. We spent many happy holidays here when the boys were young. It gets busy! It’s well worth walking over the little headland to the second, smaller ‘hidden’ beach where very few people go.
The 6 mile winding, narrow drive here from just outside Lochinver offers some superb coastal scenery too with terrific views of the sugar loaf mountain of Suilven.
You can also (eventually) reach the beach if you’ve come down the coastal route via Drumbeg.The photo below is one of my favourite views of Assynt from the Achmelvich road.
EATING OUT ON DAY 3:
There’s a great choice of nice eating places, from casual to top notch.
Old Schoolhouse, Rhiconich. Lovely home cooked food.Book.
Kylesku Inn – good bistro style food, lunch and dinner.Book for evening.
Seafood Café, Tarbet (Handa ferry)- homecooked food, specialises in seafood as per the name.
Eddrachilis Hotel – haven’t tried it yet but looks good.
Lochinver Larder – excellent homemade pies as well as a full menu. Venison and Cranberry is my favourite pie.Book.
Inver Lodge – 4 star spacious, elegant hotel which sits high above the village, overlooking the bay. Lovely food, lunch and dinner. We didn’t need to book for lunch but probably best to. Great views over the bay and to the mountains.
Achins Bookshop, Inverkirkaig – this place was my go to place for great books, great homemade soup and cakes. But it’s been taken over .Fingers crossed the new owners keep it as good as it was.On the road out of Inverkirkaig, signposted beyond the Kirkaig salmon river.
For previous days on the NC 500 see: NORTH COAST 500 DAY 1 and NORTH COAST 500 DAY 2
For Days 4 and 5 see: NORTH COAST 500 DAY 4 and NORTH COAST 500 DAY 5
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