Highland 500 Day 2: Lochcarron to Gairloch via Bealach na Bà

This post recounts the second day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 1, Inverness to Lochcarron

Bealach na Bà. Not quite at the top!

This was the big one. If any day’s cycling merited nervous anticipation, it was this. Talk at breakfast was a little stilted as we all knew what was to come: Bealach na Bà (the pass of the cattle), the greatest climb in Britain. And many more hilly miles on top.

This is it…

We set off from Lochcarron and were climbing almost immediately away from the loch. This was merely a warm up. I enjoyed the swoop down to Loch Kishorn, followed by an easy stretch along the river Kishorn. A quick left turn and there it was: the famous sticker-strew sign marking the start of Bealach na Bà. Another sign warned learner drivers not to attempt this iconic route, which opened 200 years ago in 1822.

The road over Bealach na Bà climbs 2,053 feet (626 metres) in around six miles (9 kilometres), but the initial section is not difficult: barely 2% for the first mile. But don’t be fooled – it gets far harder. Simon Warren, author of 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs, rated the Bealach at 11 out of 10 for difficulty. It is the closest Britain has to an alpine, hairpinned ascent.

Loch Kishorn from Bealach climb

The first few miles give excellent views out over Loch Kishorn. I enjoyed glancing out towards the sea as I climbed these early sections. The classic photos of Bealach na Bà are taken near the top, looking back down towards the sea. That’s when you realise how far you have ascended!

We did the climb on a misty morning – once or twice I thought it was raining but in the words of Paul McCartney it was just mist rolling in from the sea.

Unless you ride in mid winter, don’t expect to have the road to yourself. You may see cars, camper vans, traders’ vans – and motorbikes. The image above shows the moment when a line of motorbikes got moving after passing a van going downhill. I enjoyed the chance to take a breather and some photos as I gave way to the traffic.

Enjoying the climb – and not envying the cyclists with laden panniers…

As the road became steeper, we overtook two touring cyclists with laden panniers on traditional touring bikes. You can see them in the background of the photo above. They must have had good, low gears but I didn’t envy them.

Hairpin heaven
Over the sea to Skye

At last I reached the summit, and paused to reflect and to enjoy the view out over the sea to Skye. I put my heavy rain jacket on to keep warm on the descent but I was still cold going down as a result of the exertions on the climb. Reaching the welcome brew stop at Applecross I was shivering and grasped my mug of coffee in a futile attempt to warm up.

(When I first heard about Bealach na Ba, I was surprised to hear Britain’s greatest climb led to the bucolic and un-Scottish sounding Applecross. I should have guessed that the English sounding name was a corruption of a Gaelic original: Aporcrosan.)

Onward, and often upwards…

We had been warned not to underestimate the coastal road from Applecross to Shieldaig, our lunch destination. The greatest climb in Britain had skewed the gradient profile yet we had a very undulating route – as is often the case with coast roads. It was a slog at times, but the effort was rewarded with striking view across the sea in all directions, with a classic example below.

I was very glad to reach the lunch stop at the excellent Shieldaig Bar & Coastal Kitchen. We had an delicious, reviving lunch, which set me up for the afternoon session: a further 36 miles.

Views on Glen Torridon

I was thrilled to see that our route took us along Glen Torridon, I’d read about this dramatic part of Scotland in Alex Roddie’s The Farthest Shore, an account of his winter trek along the Cape Wrath Trail. The mountains were our constant companion on this stretch, notably Beinn Eighe as we headed towards Kinlochewe and then on to Gairloch. Having feared another punishing session, it was actually much easier, with gentle ascent to Torridon followed by a delicious descent to Kinlochewe, where most of the party were staying the night. The rest of us were pressing on for a further 17 miles. (Guide Julie, who was on my LEJOG19 tour, put me down for the longer route and I was too flattered to protest…)

Unlikely guest at afternoon brew…

This afternoon’s brew stop reminded me of the stop on the descent to Braemar from Glenshee on LEJOG19. We had an unexpected visitor: the splendid stag seen above. Wendy had quickly put the snacks out of his reach and only put them back on the table as we approached!

I cycled on my own for much of the stretch beyond Kinlochewe. I relished the solitude and peacefulness, looking over Loch Maree and up to ever-present Beinn Eighe. Curiously this peak’s altitude almost exactly matches the Bealach na Bà climb.

Loch Maree from the Kinlochewe to Gairloch road

Before long, I’d reached my destination, the Old Inn at Gairloch. Rarely had a pint and a steak been so welcome. Our small group enjoyed the conversation over dinner, Later, I edited a memorable day’s video, although I was only able to share it the following night, because of a rare lack of connectivity. I found 4G amazingly good the rest of the trip, rarely using accommodation wifi to upload video.

The day’s stats

77.8 miles, 5,850 feet climbing, 7 hrs cycling, 11.1 mph average speed

Read day 3, Gairloch to Ullapool

2 thoughts on “Highland 500 Day 2: Lochcarron to Gairloch via Bealach na Bà

  1. Pingback: Highland 500 Day 1: Inverness to Lochcarron | Ertblog

  2. Pingback: Highland 500 Day 3: Gairloch to Ullapool | Ertblog

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