An Alternative Guide to the NC500 for Cyclists - Part One: Inverness to Garve

NC500 Cycling blog October 2016

Welcome to the third NC500 cycling blog, written by local cyclist, Karen Newman, where you will find useful and interesting information to make your cycling holiday more enjoyable and safer.  We hope that the blog can be added to on a regular basis so keep an eye on this spot.   Please feel free to leave a comment – it lets us know that cyclists are accessing the information and finding it useful … or otherwise!
Blog history
June 2016 - Level Crossing Dangers and Cycling Safely on Single Track Roads
August 2016 – Bike Shops, Workshops and Mobile Repairs, plus Applecross Ideas!

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Route descriptions and Recommended NC500 Alternatives for Cyclists – Inverness to Garve
The nights are drawing in, the trees are heavy with berries and there is a bright fresh autumnal feel to the air here in the Highlands so here’s some food for thought over the winter months to help you plan your NC500 cycling trip. 
To some, it may seem rather odd that we are recommending some alternative cycling routes to the now well established NC500, but not everyone has the same cycling or holiday goals or enjoys cycling on the same sort of roads.  And then there is the weather and your fitness to cope with the hills.  As a cyclist, I am not in the first flush of youth, but I like to travel fast and efficiently through our spectacular mountain landscape on quiet roads or by mountain bike.  I have recently become aware of the ‘over-training’ phenomenon that can hit you after 3 or 4 days of hard riding (yes, even on holiday!) and I would rather find a nice quiet mountain road than visit a castle for a day off.  I hate cycling on busy roads and in urban areas (they frighten me far too much), but I do love the challenge of a good hill and the changing weather.  So if I was planning my own NC500, it may look slightly different to, say, someone younger who doesn’t want to lug a loaded touring bike up and over mountain roads and who lives and cycles in the city, so doesn’t get that uncomfortable feeling that every white van bearing down on you from behind is going to plough into your back wheel!
So we thought we would put together some Recommended Cyclists’ NC500 alternatives that you can pick and choose from so you can go home saying that you had a great cycling holiday, tailored to your needs and wants … and still wear that metaphorical (or real) NC500 t-shirt with pride!
Over the next few blogs, I’ll describe the route clockwise as that is how most people choose to tackle the NC500 with the prevailing south-westerly winds.  If you are planning a spring expedition, you may want to consider that we often get northerly winds at that time of year when planning your route.
Inverness to Contin.
There are a number of routes out of Inverness but basically all routes need to lead to Contin on the A865 Inverness to Ullapool trunk road.  Here, I describe three routes via:
  • Beauly (A roads)
  • Beauly Firth route (single track and A roads)
  • Sustrans National Cycle Route 1 (tarmac cycle track along A9, minor roads and trunk road)
You can also take the train to get you started further west, avoiding the busiest roads altogether.

Via Beauly

Inverness to Contin via Beauly
From your starting point in Inverness, head to the west side of the River Ness and to the A862 Beauly road.  The next map shows a reasonably straightforward way from the railway station (green marker), crossing the river by the foot bridge.  Then take the residential Fairfield Road to the Caledonian Canal which is crossed by the lock gate footbridge, and then on to the A862 (red marker).  This avoids the busy town centre roads.
Inverness city centre to A862 Beauly road
The next map shows the onward route, following the A862 to Beauly and on to Muir of Ord where you cross the railway bridge at the traffic lights and take the immediate left onto the A832 to Marybank.  This is a bit wriggly at first past the Glen Ord Distillery, but soon opens out to lovely farmland.  At Marybank, turn right, cross the river, then turn left onto the main Inverness to Ullapool A835 road which takes you through to Contin (red marker).
There is a shortcut on the B9164 before Beauly which avoids some of the main road and takes you through the village of Kirkhill on a pretty tree-lined road, with some single track back to the A862 - see map below (ignore the cycle info box).

Kirkhill road

Inverness to Contin via Kessock Bridge and Beauly Firth minor roads: 

Inverness to Contin via Kessock Bridge and roads along the Beauly Firth
This option avoids main roads as much as possible and takes the pretty single track unclassified road alongside the Firth from the Kessock Bridge meeting the A832 about 3 miles east of Muir of Ord.  It is also the most direct route being 18 miles from Inverness to Contin, about 3.5 miles shorter than the Beauly route.  Come off the Kessock Bridge on the cycle track and follow the blue National Cycle Route signs left onto small roads down to the Firth. Follow the single track road west to the junction with the A832.

Beauly Firth road looking east.

Inverness to Contin via the Kessock Bridge and National Cycle Route 1:  This follows part of the Sustrans Cycle Route 1 as described on their website:  Part of it follows the tarmac cycle path alongside the main A9 and A835 roads as far as Maryburgh, where you take the A835 itself to Contin.   Alternatively, you can turn off the route at Tore and follow the A832 to Muir of Ord and onward as described above.
The Kessock Bridge crossing is described in more detail by a local organisation, Transition Black Isle:
To get to the start of their directions you may need a little help to avoid the busiest roads so the map below may be of use. The red marker shows where the Black Isle directions start.
Inverness to Kessock Bridge

Contin to Garve and the A832 Achnasheen Road.
The main A835 is twisty, up and down and quite narrow between Contin and the A832 Achnasheen road.  It is a main road and can get busy with lorries, campervans etc.  If you are used to this sort of road, it may present you with no problems. However, note that you MUST dismount and walk over the level crossing in Garve (the yellow signs telling you this are not clearly visible until you move out towards the middle of the lane).  The railway lines cross the road at an accute angle making it easy to catch slim bike tyres, possibly throwing you off.  A number of cyclists have been patched up at the café at Tarvie this summer.
It’s not till you move to the middle of the lane that the yellow sign is visible
Friends who did cycle this section in the evening, in high season didn’t find it too bad but they do live and cycle in Leeds so are more used to traffic than me.  The only alternatives are the forest roads or taking the train from Inverness, Beauly, Muir of Ord or Dingwall to Garve.

Forrest roads: 

Off-road route - Contin to Garve
This is a lovely ride 6 mile ride through forest and natural woodland on a core path.  Core paths give the public rights of access, so if forestry operations are close to the path, you must be granted safe passage.  However, this route is only suitable for more lightly loaded touring bikes, mountian bikes with tyres which have good tread.  It took me about an hour to complete the 6 miles on a mountain bike, stopping to take photos, so undertake this if you have a bit more time on you hands and you are happy to get off and push over the rougher sections.
Just to the west of Contin village, turn off the main road and follow the signs for the forest car park.  Immediately after the forestry buildings, turn right to take the up-hill track for a short way before following it left where it continues, undulating gently with one reasonable hill. 

Forest road sign
The map here gives you an idea but the 1:50,000 OS maps (sheets 20 and 26) show it better as does the Trailmaps Highland Map 5, Strathpeffer (available from or from Square Wheels bike shop in Strathpeffer).  The first half, up to where the route goes under the railway bridge, is on a forest dirt road which should present most bikes with no problems in the dry.  In fact, most of it is smoother than some Highland tarmac you will encounter!
Smooth forest roads – but most is smoother still!
Once you pass under the railway bridge, turn sharp left and continue on somewhat rougher roads on which you may have to push for short sections, depending on your bike and luggage.
Open forest just beyond the railway bridge- a bit rougher.                   
The section which goes up a short hill, away from Loch Garve and then back again, would be a push with anything but a mountain bike, not because of the steepness but because the surface is loose with sharp stones.
The roughest section up to the top of the rise               Back down to the loch is steeper but still a little rough
The route crosses one small ford before you reach a sharp left turn onto the unclassified tarmac road into Garve, or alternatively carry straight on to continue on minor roads to the junction to Achnasheen.

The ford

Getting closer to Garve
Train – if you don’t like the sound of the main road and your bike isn’t suitable for the off-road tracks then the train which runs from Inverness via Beauly, Muir of Ord and Dingwall to Garve (then on to Achnasheen and Strath Carron) may be of interest to you.  It’s run by Scotrail and can take up to 4 bikes (no trailers or tandems) – it’s definitely best to pre-book the bike when you buy your ticket, or call Scotrail on 0344 811 0141.  To give you an idea, here are the 2016 times - but don’t rely on them for 2017.
2016 Times:                   Monday to Saturday:     leaves Inverness at 08:55, 11:00, 13:35, 17:54. 
Sunday:                         Leaves Inverness 10:59, 17:54 (possibility of an extra train in the summer)
Journey times:               Inverness to Garve about 1 hour, or Dingwall to Garve 20 mins.
Cost (full prices):            Inverness to Garve £10.30; Dingwall to Garve £4.40.

Garve to the A832: 

Garve to the A832 Achnasheen road
Even if you have taken the main road to Garve, you may want to cycle this lovely little detour on surfaced minor roads.  You cross the Garve river by an old military bridge dating from 1767 when the Jacobite clans were being ruthlessly subdued after the 1745 uprising, to get to the tiny settlements of Little Garve (Garve Beag) and Gorstan.
Take the unclassified road that continues from the end of the forest track and follow it to the bridge.  After crossing the bridge, turn left and head back to the A835 where you turn left, then right, onto the A832 Achnasheen road.  Continue on the usual NC500 route until the turning for the Bealach na Ba at Tornapress where you have your next route choice.  Look out for November’s blog for this!
Little Garve Bridge
In our next blog, I will describe the NC500 and reccommended alternative routes onwards from Garve in more detail.
Posted: 06/10/2016 14:30:40 by Kenny
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