Join us in this travel blog post as we enjoy the stunning scenery and interesting history of the Wester Ross stage of the North Coast 500, from Ullapool to Loch Ewe.
Over the years, we have explored the sections of the NC500 route several times, although not necessarily the complete route in one single journey. Indeed, our travels in this area began well before it had been called the North Coast 500. Our travels have opened our eyes to the beauty of the route and has given us the opportunity to also find hidden gems off the beaten track.
Commonly known as “Scotland’s Route 66”, the North Coast 500 has quickly become an iconic, must-do tourist route, having only been formally marketed as such back in 2015. The NC500 is actually 516-miles long, starting and ending at Inverness Castle, running along a mainly coastal route through the traditional counties of Inverness-shire, Ross and Cromarty, Sutherland and Caithness. It has become so popular that has been described as "Scotland's Route 66".
Leckmelm Shrubbery & Arboretum
Taking the road south from Ullapool, along the beautiful Loch Broom, it is only a five-minute drive to Leckmelm Shrubbery & Arboretum. The location of this walled woodland garden has a is surprisingly mild climate, with high rainfall, which encourages a number of exotic plants to thrive here. Leckmelm Gardens were first laid out in the 1880's by one A.C. Pirie of Aberdeen who, immediately upon becoming the owner, set about evicting his tenants in what turned out to be the last of the Highland Clearances. The gardens were effectively abandoned from around 1930 until 1985 when the property was acquired by Sir Charles and Lady Gillean Troughton, who restored them to some of their former glory and opened the arboretum to the public.
Lael Forrest Garden
Just a few minutes further down the road we came to Lael Forrest Garden. There are is a small car park signposted on the road on the left hand side, but don’t drive too fast, or you will pass it. Lael Forrest Garden is part of the National Tree Collections of Scotland. You'll find around 200 species from across the globe including New Zealand, Australia, North and South America, the Far East, Europe and Scandanavia. Native British species thrive here as well. In addition to the network of paths which wind through the Forest Garden, there is also a longer waymarked trail to explore, which take you past a thunderous waterfall.
By the time we had stretched our legs, we were ready for a little refreshment. We headed back on ourselves, just half a mile, to the Lael Crafts Gallery and we were treated to a well-earned coffee and delicious piece of cake.
Back on the road again, we continued three-miles south up along the A835 until we got to the junction with the A832, signposted for Loch Ewe. Turning right, we stopped at the Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve. The Gorge is easy to miss as you can’t see it from the road, so keep an eye out for the signposts. Corrieshalloch is a stunning chasm, cut into the rock by the 45m high Falls of Measach, which is fed by the River Droma. There is a zig-zag trail going down towards the waterfall from the carpark. At the bottom of the trail is a Victorian suspension bridge built by Sir John Fowler (one of the chief engineers behind the Forth Bridge), from which you get an amazing view of the waterfall. The bridge is a little ‘bouncy’, so maybe is not for everyone, but if you can get to the other side, there is another trail which takes you further down the chasm to a breath-taking viewing platform. Once back over the bridge, there is a nature trail that takes you on a longer walk through the rich flora, and you will be rewarded with beautiful views out to Loch Broom.
The Dundonnel Hotel
There are not many options to stop for a meal on the road between Ullapool and Loch Ewe. However, we can thoroughly recommend the Dundonnel Hotel for either lunch or dinner. This traditional hotel, in the shadow of the menacing An Teallach mountain, has a great restaurant and bar. Make sure you get a table with a view over the valley which leads into Little Loch Broom.
Continuing towards Loch Ewe, and only two and a half miles from the hotel, is the blink and you’ll miss it Ardessie Falls. Take a minute or two and park up off the road (there isn’t a carpark available at this point) and take in the small, but powerful waterfall from the side of the road bridge. If you would like more of a hike, continue along the road and park at the public works building on the left and walk up the path, cross country to the start of the waterfalls.
Our next stop was the stunning beach of Gruinard Bay, with its delightful views over the water to the Coigach Hills and to Gruinard Island. The A832 road runs straight past, so the beach is very easily accessible and is also served with ample parking. The beach can boast of crystal-clear waters, rock pools, and fine sands. Unfortunately, the area is more known for the scientific experiments that were conducted on Gruinard Island. During the Second World War, scientists tested deadly anthrax here, wiping out a flock of sheep in the process. After that the island was closed to visitors for 48 years until £500,000 was spent on decontaminating the area. Sheep were reintroduced successfully, but we were not tempted to swim over and check!
Mellon Udrigle Beach
Blessed with exceptional scenery and an intriguing name, Mellon Udrigle is a beautiful white sandy beach. The shore offers unparalled views of some spectacular Highland mountains, including Suilven, Stac Pollaidh and An Teallach. The beach is a little off the main road to Loch Ewe, but well worth the detour. While at the beach, check out the rocky shore for some interesting rock formations.
Russian Arctic Convoy Experience
The Russian Arctic Convoy Experience is a museum on the shores of Loch Ewe dedicated to the Arctic Convoys that departed this area during World War Two. The small, but interesting museum has many original items from these convoy ships and tells the harrowing story of the seamen who dodged the German u-boats, battleships and aircraft on the way through the inhospitable seas to Murmansk in Russia. After our trip to the museum, we also spent a little time exploring the gun emplacements and anti-aircraft batteries that dot the shores of Loch Ewe and which are easily accessible from the road.
Inverewe Gardens and Estate
We had reached Loch Ewe and the end of this stage of the NC500, but there was still one significant attraction to visit. Inverewe Gardens and Estate is a geographical anomaly – a vibrant, at times colourful, botanical garden set in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands. The garden was created in 1862 by Osgood Mackenzie on the 850 hectares (2,100 acres) estate bought for him by his mother. The Garden covers some 20 hectares (49 acres) and has over 2,500 exotic plants and flowers. We have had great walks through the gardens and the forested area, with the scenic glories of Loch Ewe and the surrounding hills framing this beautiful estate. Make sure that you also spend time visiting Inverewe Lodge, as it will whisk you back in time to how this country house would have looked over 100 years ago. Unsurprisingly, the estate has a well-stocked garden centre, so that you can recreate the flower beds at your own home. There is also an excellent café, which is ideal for a coffee or lunch.
Join us next time when our family adventures continue along the North Coast 500, travelling from Loch Maree to Loch Carron.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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