The remote roads of Scotland stretch north from Inverness and skirt Loch Ness before careening towards the Isle of Skye, all popular tourist destinations that many Americans know. But there’s a world of wonder beyond the main roads where medieval ruins mix with Iron Age tombs and lesser-known lochs with their own mysteries to solve.
“Don’t go to Skye,” warns Nigel, the 50-something host of an Airbnb near the village of Balgy, Scotland, about two hours by car from the Isle of Skye. “It’s a traffic jam,” he reiterates. “Applecross is better.”
Two days later I arrived in Applecross with a hard-earned reminder of the number one rule of travel: always trust the locals. A traffic-mired slog through Skye had almost withered my Scottish welcome to nill. And as Nigel’s words echoed in my ears, my travel partner and I decided to learn our lesson. From Applecross forward, we would ditch the crowded highways of Skye and the Lower Highlands and head north, to the Upper Highlands and a labyrinth of asphalt that feels as deserted as any lonely highways in the American West.
The Wester-Ross Coastal Trail
Scotland’s most famous road trip route is the legendary North Coast 500. Visit Scotland bills the North Coast 500 as the British equivalent to Route 66 for good reason. Our journey weaved its way through a few of that route’s highlights, but in order to stay away from traffic, British local and driving enthusiast Andrew McDonald charted a different course. The first step? Crossing a cattle gate below the Torridon Hills that would take us on a backroad toward the Highland outpost of Ullapool.
McDonald’s white Mercedes had been decked out with Cannonball Run-like livery for the journey, and as the platoon of GoPro’s mounted on the outside bounced over the cattle gate, our lone company was a camper van slowly putting its way through the rain beneath the hills. Inside the Benz, McDonald and I downed the last of our morning coffees and talked about the journey to Ullapool.
The Road to Ullapool
McDonald and I linked up with the A832 after snaking our way along the farm roads of the Appleton Peninsula. The thoroughfare is a smooth, rolling ribbon of pavement that winds its way up the western edge of Scotland toward Ullapool, a village of around 1,500 that serves as a regional hub for the scattered rural communities that periodically pierce the evergreen landscape. After several hours spent bouncing along the farm roads, the A832 offered our first opportunity to put the pedal down and make up some time (and propel us toward more coffee).
A gallery of fishing boats bobbed in the rising tides of Loch Broom as we coasted into Ullapool. A quick glance at the map indicated this town would be our last outpost of real civilization for the day. From there, the A835 grows more narrow as it inches its way ever northward.
The dockside restaurants of Ullapool did indeed offer coffee. McDonald and I stopped to re-up our cups of caffeine. We browsed a village kilt store, its only customers, before moving on. Though we had arrived in Ullapool at the height of summer, the number of tourists idling about town appeared to be at a minimum. There were no Harry Potter train trusses or lake monsters this far north.
The Deep Freeze Mountains
Before our coffees could cool, McDonald and I ran into an astonishing site just north of Ullapool—The Deep Freeze Mountains, also known as Chan e fuar-bheann ach reothte. It was there that the latitude slapped us in the face. 25,000 years ago, the fields alongside the side of the A835 would have been great expanses of ice, flowing far out into the Atlantic, more than 60 miles westward toward Greenland.
The Deep Freeze Mountains are part of the North West Highland Geopark. Located 13 miles north of Ullapool, the Geopark offers picnic areas, hiking trails, scenic views, and a wheelchair-accessible visitor center that details the 500 million years of geologic history beneath the dramatic hills. Most of the park’s trails can be managed in about 30 minutes, making the park a perfect pitstop to stretch cramped legs.
McDonald and I soaked in the mountain views before continuing north, connecting to the A837 toward Loch Assynt. Eagle-eyed road trip enthusiasts will recognize the loch from the opening credits of Amazon’s The Grand Tour, starring Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond. “That’s no accident,” says McDonald. He purposefully followed the film crew’s route through much of the Highlands in search of its most scenic vistas. Like many Scottish lochs, Assynt is home to its own legends. But you’ll find no lake monster here.
Instead, stories tell of the Mermaid of Assynt, the terrified daughter of Clan Macleod who hid in the caves beneath the lake to avoid a forced marriage to the devil. It was the Macleod’s who built the lake’s signature feature, Ardvreck Castle, in the 16th century. Ardvreck Castle is little more than a ruin now. However, the portrait of its stoic figure paints a stark contrast to a more famous Scottish ruin, Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness. Instead of a throng of tourists and a parking lot full of busses, visitors to Ardvreck Castle will find a few small pullouts on the side of the highway. The ruins here offer an admission-free kingdom to explore. As a bonus, the 18th-century ruins of nearby Calda House serve as a second roadside mystery to investigate within walking distance of the castle.
A visit to Loch Assynt will knock out another iconic waypoint on the North Coast 500; however, its manicured route can be circumvented by taking a desolate shortcut nearby. Continuing west on the A837 just north of Ardvreck Castle will keep you on the main road, where you may encounter a smattering of RVs and the occasional broken down classic touring car; but a detour onto the seldom-used A894 slices a shortcut from Loch Assynt to one of the most dramatic views in all of the British Isles—Kylesku Bridge.
McDonald and I careened down the A894 shortcut, dancing the Benz around potholes. By that point, Scotland had left us stunned. The day’s run north from Applecross had already outshined our experience of idling through traffic jams on Skye. But the best was yet to come.
As we descended a final switchback back to the relatively smooth A837, Scotland’s most dramatic bridge came into view. Opened in 1984 by Queen Elizabeth herself, the Kylesku Bridge—now officially known by its Gaelic name, Drochaid a’ Chaolais Chumhaing—spans more than 900 feet over the turbulent waters of Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin. The water below is filled with fast, tidal currents that sink some 82 feet into the valley. The bridge spanning those waters has become a Highlands road trip right of passage.
For our crew, the bridge marked a turning point. Travelers bound for the rest of the North Coast 500 can continue to the A894 from Kylesku. Eventually, that route would land them at the northernmost point on mainland Scotland, John ‘O Groats, and wind along the crowded A9 back to Inverness. But signs of relative congestion were already apparent at the bridge. As a swarm of classic cars burbles by, McDonald and I pointed the Benz south toward Loch Assynt and the windy A837…toward the heart of the Highlands, Loch Ness, and an eventual return to civilization at Inverness.