Ramble On: The Applecross Peninsula and Bealach na Bà

by Keith Savage · 3 comments

Driving around the Applecross Peninsula, Wester Ross, Scotland

Ramble On is a series highlighting some of the most beautiful and interesting drives around Scotland.

Applecross. I can’t tell you how many times people said that word when I told them I was going north. The Scottish highlands are a vast place with seemingly endless coastline, sea lochs, and peninsulas of all shapes and sizes, so why did almost everyone keep suggesting the Applecross Peninsula? The Bealach na Bà, a Gaelic phrase meaning “pass of the cattle,” usually followed that question. Sarah and I had intended to visit back in 2011 when we were holed up on Black Isle, but the worst weather you can imagine aborted that attempt. This isn’t the type of mystery I leave unsolved, and so a visit to Applecross continually hung around my plans for future trips. When I began hashing out a trip to encompass the North Coast 500 I knew I’d found my opportunity.

Applecross Peninsula has taken on a legendary status among Scots and Scotophiles for its great beauty and its position just off the tourist trail to Skye. It takes some effort and itinerary wrangling to make your way here because you can’t easily drive the Applecross Peninsula en route to another destination. Seeing Applecross the right way will cost you a day, but what a day well spent. The drive itself is mostly on unclassified roads along the coast of Applecross Peninsula and then through the interior and the Bealach na Bà to the A896.

Before I go any further, you should know there are two ways to make the drive around Applecross: Clockwise and counter-clockwise. Common knowledge is to go clockwise around Applecross, meaning you would first drive through Bealach na Bà and down into Applecross town before cleaving to the coast around the horn and then back south. Local wisdom, however, says to go counter-clockwise so that as you drive through Bealach na Bà you have the best views of the mountains.

We began our sojourn from the Torridon Hotel on the southeast shores of Loch Torridon and chose to follow local advice for a counter-clockwise circuit of the peninsula. The A896 led west through the hills on the south side of Loch Torridon to tiny Shieldaig, which can make a nice base in the region. The views even on this beginning stretch are simply gorgeous. Just after Shieldaig, as the A896 turns due south, a small road leads west to the Applecross coastal route.

This unclassified road is single-track for almost all its length, so be prepared to pull over and allow oncoming traffic to pass. Instead of annoyance, this just gives you the time and reason to stop and admire the blued hills in the distance. As we curled around the northwest horn of the peninsula I was pleased to find there exists a South West Ross Arts and Eats Trail. I love trails like Skye’s craft trail because they make an already enjoyable activity (driving in Scotland) even better by adding in reasons to stop along the way. As the photos show, we had incredible weather that gave us long-distance views across the water to the Isle of Skye, Raasay, and Rona and north to the heart of Wester Ross. Red Point beach lay out there somewhere.

But Applecross has red beaches of its own. Those little black dots on the red sand are people, so you have an idea of the road’s elevation along the coast. Had I known we would find such beautiful places along the way I would devoted the entire day to this drive.

The road south eventually led us to pretty little Applecross town, which hugs Applecross Bay on the other side of the River Applecross. We pulled into town — it has only one road — and found it extremely busy. There was literally no place to park, and when we squeezed into the Applecross Inn it was packed to the gills. We had arrived at the tail end of lunch and decided to stop back later. In the meantime, Sarah and I went on a hike (the province of a future post) and we all ate at the Walled Garden, which was also doing brisk business.

Applecross town is a peaceful and beautiful place that reminded us of Hobbiton not so much in looks as in feel. The vibe or energy just felt right, and I would definitely consider spending a few days in town at a place like the Applecross Inn. The secret’s long out, though, given how busy it was.

After a couple hours in Applecross we began our journey back to the Torridon Hotel, and that meant we were on the road to Bealach na Bà. That road begins immediately as you drive east from Applecross town, zig-zagging uphill on a single-track road climbing the side of a mountain. There are pull-off spots along the road, but you need to take this very slow, and if you’re afraid of heights do not do the Bealach na Bà. I can’t emphasize this enough. I didn’t know my mom was afraid of heights until we were halfway up the pass and she was greatly displeased by what was about to unfold. This is not the place to test your acrophobia, and even for me this drive was harrowing and easily the most challenging drive I’ve ever done in Scotland. The rewards, however, are worth it.

There really isn’t much to look at on the way up to the pass from Applecross town, but then you reach the pass and find a parking area with long-range views through the heavens of Scotland. It was very windy and cold up here, but such discomforts barely registered due to the sights in my eyes.

The drive down the Bealach na Bà into the Applecross interior is stupendous. The road is very narrow and kinked into a dozen switchbacks on a very steep slope where you might encounter people in forbidden caravans, as we did. Trying to reverse into a pull-off is not something I’d wish on anyone. The road is elevated so any straying from it will mean you are stuck. The descent is one long, jaw-dropping view to Loch Kishorn and the mountains of Wester Ross. Stop often.

Eventually and to my mom’s relief we returned to earth and rejoined the A896 northbound for Shieldaig and the Torridon Hotel. I was certainly a bit jittery from the adrenaline. I remember wondering why they had turned that into a road and how drunk must the engineers must have been. The Bealach na Bà really is the most incredible drive in Scotland, and its inclusion on a drive around Applecross Peninsula makes this one of Scotland’s most epic rambles. You can probably make the circuit in about 3 hours if you don’t stop often, but I’d dedicate a full day and give yourself the time and space to appreciate this incredible corner of Wester Ross.

KenNo Gravatar October 6, 2016 at 8:00 AM

Great post with some wonderful photos of this amazing part of Scotland. At times, it almost seemed another world.

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