top of page

Cycling The North Coast 500

A cyclist-friendly guide to Scotland’s NC500

By Mike Wells

Published by Cicerone, 2024 (Second Edition)

Gloss laminate soft cover


isbn 978-1-78631-219-8



Reviewed by Steve Dyster

The North Coast 500 (henceforth, the NC500) has become one of Scotland’s great tourist attractions. It has brought tourist traffic to the north of Scotland that dwarfs footfall prior to its promotion as the must-do tour of the Highlands (although it does not cover all the Highlands, by any means). The coast and mountains offer scenery, in my opinion, unrivalled, in the UK. It has brought more money into the towns and villages of the far north. Even so, not everyone has welcomed every aspect of the route’s popularity. So, who better to show cyclists the way than Mike Wells, a guide who encourages respect for the country he travels through and the people who call it home?

 To begin with a disclaimer. I love the far north-west of Scotland and have walked and cycled there many times, in fact, I have covered all the roads that the official NC500 follows many times. Of course, I did so before the NC500 became the phenomenon it is. The roads were beautifully quiet and there was barely another cyclist to be seen, let alone a campervan or classic car. Part of me, rather selfishly asks, why not just keep the whole thing quiet? Why am I writing a review that raises awareness of the NC500 to an even greater level? Well, I do so because the scenery is magnificent, it is an eminently cyclable route with surprisingly few tough climbs (and these can often be avoided), and, even though I always ‘bought local’ my few pounds could not rival the money now coming into local pockets.

As you’d expect, the guide follows the familiar and successful Cicerone format. The introduction offers background information; a bit of history, flora, fauna, and a route overview; what to take, when to go, remarks on amenities, accommodation, refreshments, and so forth.


Next, the main route. Note that Mike Wells describes a “cyclist-friendly” one. He takes more minor roads where possible and incorporates cycle tracks to avoid using main roads where possible. Mind you, it is not always possible to do so. Were it just road directions that formed a guide, many parts of northern Scotland would hardly need one. Many of the ‘main’ roads north of the Great Glen are single track, with passing places. As Mike Wells writes, learning to use these properly takes a little practice but benefits all road users.


On the safety front, it is worth saying, that many complaints from locals have been with regard to road users not allowing those on business rather than leisure journeys to get through. Campervanning has become extremely popular, but many campervan drivers have hire vans and find the roads challenging; speeding in classic cars and on motorbikes has become an issue in some communities; groups of cyclists on a ‘challenge” have also caused dismay to some.

cicerone north coast 500 cycling guide

Fortunately, if you follow Mike’s itinerary you will not be amongst the speedsters. In the pages before the introduction he offers schedules for 8, 10, 13, and 17 days. His route also offers alternatives. You can climb over the Bealach na Ba or head along the main road to Torridon; use the A9 (often an unpleasant traffic-experience, but with many sights of interest and more in the way of accommodation and refreshment, or follow an inland route through the empty straths of the interior; you can take the tiny Nigg-Cramarty ferry to access the Black Isle, or stick further from the coast).


Taking a leisurely itinerary to make the most of the scenery does not mean an easy ride on every section. Many newcomers will be surprised at how gentle most of the gradients are, but certain route choices give distinct challenges. The biggie is the Bealach na Ba, but the scenery is magnificent. On the coast route alternative, north of Stoer, comes what used to called “Breakdown Road.” Maybe it is my memory playing me false, but, having cycled that road a couple of times – the wonders of comparative youth – I feel the author understates the challenge (but the scenery is dramatic).


I’d also disagree with Mike about one or two other issues, but since disagreement is not an unknown phenomenon amongst touring cyclists, I won’t go on about those. In any case they are minor matters of preference – and, in my case, possibly, habit. However, as he points out, the NC500 may have brought more people to this neck of the woods, but much of it is still remote territory and you should be suitably prepared to deal independently with minor mechanicals, weather, midges (in my opinion, less of an issue in the far north than in the Western Highlands), and other situations. There are bike shops in several towns, and these are listed. However, there is only one on the west coast, at Scourie (repairs only). Usefully, Mike notes those that offer an out-of-hours service, and one that offers mobile repairs and another with bike hire.


There’s information on getting around on public transport with your bike – including the Durness bus company who will carry bikes (reservation necessary).


Accommodation information is now mainly on-line, with only four tourist information offices on the entire route – and two of those are commercially rather than Tourist Board run. The guide contains contacts, and also information about hostels, bunkhouses etc. There’s a list of campsites, and, as Mike points out, you may be able to camp elsewhere with the permission of the landowner. In reality, getting permission is easier said than done given the remote nature of much of the countryside in the west and north. Provided one is discrete, tidy, takes care of water, and respects the land use, then wild camping is a great way to get away from it all. Disgraceful behaviour – especially leaving waste of all kinds – by some wild campers and campervanners, has caused much displeasure and threatens the reputation of those that know how to camp in the wild and leave no trace.


As you’d expect from Cicerone, this is a very thorough and informative guide, really offering all you need to enjoy a journey around the NC500 (alright, it cannot guarantee sunshine and tail-winds, but who can?). This is a fascinating area, and I should be grateful, that Mike Wells has produced a route specifically for touring cyclists and introduced people who have never cycled in the far north to the joys of the wild open spaces. Updates are available on the book’s page on the Cicerone website.


So, buy the guide and go north!




Ryton On Dunsmore

Coventry  CV8 3FH


bottom of page