A 7 Day Road Trip Through Rural Scotland Day III

The Scotland Road Trip Map
The route, color coded by day, I took during my road trip through the Highlands.

In Part I of this series I shared with you the adventures and experiences of my first two days on the road. This included the trip from Edinburgh through Glen Coe to Ratagan before outlining my second day which was dedicated completely to the Isle of Skye.  In this post we pick up where I left off as I leave Skye and the most famous part of the highlands behind in favor of delving into Scotland’s far less known northwestern coast. You can also skip forward to the 3rd or 4th and final posts in this series.

The Road To Applecross - Scotland

Day 3 – Ullapool Bound

The folks at the front desk of the Ratagan Hostel suggested that (if I was up for it) I consider driving the switchbacks on the back road to Applecross. With two days of Scottish driving under my belt, I was a bit anxious about the concept of hairpin turns and a narrow winding one-lane road with two-way traffic but they promised the view would be worth it. So, what choice did I have? The lump in my throat grew and indecision struck me ever so briefly when I arrived at the turnoff for the road and was met by a giant sign warning off all but the most experienced drivers. With typical tourist bravado I paused to take a photo of the sign, muttered to myself, laughed, and pressed the accelerator to the floor. The first quarter kilometer was easy enough. That is, with the exception of the large trucks that came pummeling down the small paved road and left me more concerned that my little beetle would end up plastered to their front grill than stuck in a bog. With a death-grip on the steering wheel, I took a deep breath and pictured myself as Jason and the Argonauts dodging and battling the Harpies while pressing forward.

Mountains Draped in Clouds - Scotland

After a few blind turns the road jogged up the side of a small hill and wrapped towards a series of nearby glens. With each new turn new mountains emerged from the mists covered in the tree-free rich green and purple hues you’ll only find in Scotland. Over the course of a 7 minute drive I found myself seemingly transported back into time as is likely to happen when traveling Scotland’s remote roads. Through it all, I couldn’t help but expect some mythical beast or pre-historic pterodactyl to come gliding in my direction while prowling for tender morsels for its hatchlings.

The Falls - Road to Applecross

Luckily the road was well paved, albeit covered by a fine layer of gravel. Traffic was light, but just thick enough that when we did meet it left both vehicles skidding across the gravel before coming to a halt…almost always as we rounded a blind bend or invisible hilltop.

The Road To Applecross - Scotland

Just as I was starting to get a bit cocky about the drive and wondering if the switchbacks had been over-stated I rounded a final bend and was met with a naked green valley cut in half by the bright white thread of a rain-fed stream racing its way towards the nearby loch. With a cloud ceiling that hovered just below the top of the peaks the view reminded me of a more pristine, albeit ever so slightly smaller, Glen Coe. The only sign of man’s presence was the old old scar left by the road and a set of small, weather worn power lines as they it worked their way beneath the ever vigilant gaze of the old Scottish peaks en-route to the summit.

Lost In Time - Road to Applecross

The road was intense with barely enough room for the car in many spots: A steep drop on the left and the car-rending jagged facade of the water-worn crumbling mountainside to the right. Luckily, there were several viewpoints which gave me a chance to pause, relax, and enjoy the view while letting the occasional car pass me by. Something which added to the experience, as the view down the length of the valley, past the small waterfalls, and over the meandering stream was one of my favorite views of the trip. The soul-moving beauty of the place and the moment was magnified by the slow throb of adrenaline as I prepared to continue each new-leg of the drive … something made that much more dramatic by the sight of a thick fog slowly drifting down from the heights of the nearby peaks.

The Road To Applecross - Scotland

Within a matter of a few brief minutes the fog settled completely over the valley immersing it in a thick blanket of damp grayness.  After reaching the top of the switchbacks I continued along the road for about 1km before pausing to marvel at the alien sight of the Scottish countryside as it vanished into nothingness around me. It was deeply eerie, particularly because the fog dampened all nearby sounds leaving the road in absolute silence with the exception of the soft rustle of grass or tinkle of water dripping into one of the small nearby lakes.  While I often write about the power and beauty of expansive views that take the breath away, the intimate closeness of moments such as the 10 minutes I spent relaxing beside my car along the side of the road on my way to Applecross stand out in my memory as equally powerful and goodsebump raising.

Romantic Reflections - North Western Scotland

Moments of reverie concluded, I contemplated my next course of action. I had no clue what stood before me in the fog should I decide to continue on to Applecross, if there would be a lunch venue open, or how far off it was. I only knew that what had already been a rather thrilling drive up the switchbacks promised to be an even more harrowing drive back down now that the fog had reduced visibility to just a few feet. With a lot of miles to cover to Ullapool and the day racing by I flipped on some haunting Celtic music, turned the volume up, rolled down the windows and opted to every so slowly and carefully re-trace my steps. While challenging, the drive back down was every bit as beautiful as the drive up had been. Some 20 minutes later I once again sat before the large warning sign, a beaming smile of accomplishment plastered on my face as I re-joined the main road and continued along past small farm houses, B&Bs, and a mixture of tiny lochs and rolling green hills.

A Country Lane - Scottish North West

With an eye on the fog-turned clouds I decided to pick up the pace and to see if I could leave them behind. One of the great things about Scotland’s temperamental weather is that it is always changing and hyper local. Raining in the mountains? Head 15 miles to the coast nearby and you’re apt to find sun and dry beaches. The opposite true? Strike for the mountains and you’ll no doubt leave the bad weather behind. Following this approach I had just started to leave a light rain behind when I saw a gorgeous waterfall from the road. Curious if I could get close to it, I turned down a rural Scottish lane which turned out to be a road to what I believe was a small campground. My exploration turned out to be short lived as I rather quickly was forced to pause when I found my path blocked by a closed gate. With the path to the waterfall a no-go I snapped a few photos, enjoyed the view, and then made my way along A832 which wound through a lush forest beside the shores of Loch Maree.

Scotland's Victoria Falls

To my surprise I spotted a marker for “Victoria Falls”. Not expecting much, but eager to see a waterfall sharing the same namesake as Zambia’s Victoria Falls – arguably the greatest waterfalls in the world – I pulled into a small dirt car park. The car park itself didn’t look like much. The trees in the area around it had semi-recently been harvested leaving a mixture of ugly stumps, gnarled roots, and mixture of blooming wildflowers.

Scotland's Victoria Falls

Luckily the area in the immediate vicinity of the falls had been spared. With the heather and other local flowers in full bloom, I settled in atop an old tree stump and delighted in my little discovery. The waterfall wasn’t the grandest or the most beautiful, but it was still one of the best I had seen so far on the trip and is a must-see if you find yourself in the area. Scotland’s mini-Vic has a beautiful drop, lovely greenery surrounding it, and if you’re lucky is awash not only in rich green hues, but also purples, reds, yellows and golds.

Massive Tides - Scotland

Not a mile goes by while driving the back roads of the north western coast during which you don’t want to stop for a stroll, to explore some small loch, or to wander down an even smaller rural road. In so doing you’ll have the chance to discover some of Scotland’s best kept secrets…most of which are only known to locals. There are also a number of slightly larger towns along the road which offer a mixture of limited culinary options and various activities. To my surprise I learned that it is possible to take sightseeing cruises dedicated to whale watching, sea lions, diving, or even in some cases killer whales. The harbors are also well worth a visit at low tide, so you can properly see and experience northwestern Scotland’s drastic tidal extremes in which water levels rise and fall by as much as 20+ feet.

Scottish Beaches - North Western Scotland

Another of Scotland’s best kept secrets are its beaches. With harsh weather and its cold climate thoughts of Scotland’s coasts often bring with them visions of jagged stony shores, dramatic cliffs, and crude pebble beaches.

A Brilliant Scottish Beach

While you can find all of that and more along the coastline, you’ll also find some of the most picture-perfect beaches in Europe with incredibly fine golden, white, and yellow sand, crystal clear water and ample beach access. The downside? It’s often still far too chilly to take a swim or to properly enjoy the beaches for anything beyond a relaxing stroll or brief bit of sunbathing.

The Photographer - Corrieshalloch Gorge

With a careful eye on the clock, I was forced to sprint the last leg of the trip to ensure I reached Corrieshalloch Gorge and its stunning waterfall a bit before sunset. I had been introduced to the gorge a few years previous while doing a multi-day tour of the north western coast and the Orkney Isles. At the time our visit was rushed, but I fell in love with the spot. Not only because of the dramatic waterfall, but also because of the gorge with its plant-covered near-vertical walls. The path down to the gorge from the road is brief, but zig-zags through a small wild-flower garden. Upon reaching the gorge you’re met by a floating suspension bridge that free-hangs over the the falls offering a gut-twisting view…particularly when the small bridge starts to sway slightly.  For perspective as to the size of the gorge note the photographer in the above photo located at the center of the bridge.

The Falls - Corrieshalloch Gorge

While I’m unsure about the orientation, I suspect that the falls would be every bit as impressive at sunrise (perhaps more so) than at sunset.   The best view of the falls is from a metal overlook situated on the opposite side of the gorge and about a 5 minute walk past the bridge. While not for those with height fears, the platform extends out from the sheer wall of the gorge and has an open railing and metal grate for a floor leaving you feeling almost as though you’re getting a bird’s eye view.  The sound of the falls combines with the sound of the near-constant mild breeze which floats down the canyon while gently stirring the trees which sprout from the walls of the gorge in apparent acts of grand acrobatics and utter defiance of gravity.

Ullapool Harbor - Scottish Highlands

The last one to leave the gorge, I made my way back to my car before driving the remaining 15 minutes down and into the area’s largest town: Ullapool. Home to a large market, a number of fishing vessels, a plethora of B&Bs, a few hotels, and a large hostel it was the perfect place to crash for the evening. I dropped off my bag, picked up some fish and chips and then sat enjoying the sunset as the sky turned violet before drifting into darkness.

Ullapool Waterfront

As with every leg of this trip, I could have easily gone slower and spent more time exploring side roads or relaxing along the way at any of the numerous wonderful spots I found during the drive. The region is also crisscrossed with what are reputed to be incredible hiking trails. Stay tuned for the next post in this series which will follow Day 4 of the adventure and cover the far reaches of the north western coast of Scotland, including Smoo Cave before marking the start of my gradual return to Edinburgh.

You can view all of my photos from this leg of the trip in the flickr album here.

Jump to Part I and Part III of my road trip as I leave behind Skye and strike northward along Scotland’s rugged western coast.

*A special thank you to www.carrentals.co.uk who partially sponsored my car rental and helped make this trip possible.

Dashcam Footage From Northern Scotland

The Road To Applecross - Scotland
Ever wondered what it would be like to drive the tiny two-way one-lane roads that thread their way through the rural Scottish countryside?  Wonder no longer – during my recent roadtrip through Northern Scotland I tossed my video camera on the dashboard and periodically pressed record.  The end result is this roller-coaster of a video which takes highlights from that footage, speeds it up 3-4 times its normal speed and takes you racing along coastal roadways, mighty Scottish glenns, gorgeous Scottish lochs and highlights what happens when sheep decide to block the way or a highland traffic jam occurs.  Footage was predominantly filmed on the Isle of Skye, and the road between Skye and Durness along the North Western coast. For highest quality and due to the nature of the sped up footage make sure to change the video to play in 720p.

Martian Landscapes, Barren Desert and Old Bridges

Northern Arizona Desert - B&W

When I left you last I’d just wrapped up a delightful evening exploring Flagstaff and begun my first American Hostel experience.  The following morning I woke up early, washed up and made a quick call to connect with Noelle who was the friend of a friend I’d met the evening before and was eager to join me on my day-long road trip through Northern Arizona.  We connected around 10:30 and by 11 had piled into the car and were trailblazing northward.

Desert Cactus - Northern Arizona

The first 30 minutes of the drive were pleasant and cool along old route 89A.  It took us through rural Flagstaff, pine forest and open meadows before cresting a small hill which opened up onto Arizona’s barren flatland’s.   The view before us stretched out and away for miles with the straight black line of the road cutting a ruler-perfect line down the sloping hill and out toward the horizon.  From our vantage point it was easy to identify where the pine transitioned into juniper, the juniper forest into grass lands with an occasional tree and then the naked rocky terrain that springs to mind when one imagines Arizona.

Northern Arizona - View Towards Flagstaff

As we said goodbye to most things green we found a small paved road which forked out from a tiny town (Gray Mountain) with a restaurant, gas station and 4 buildings nestled along along the highway. Eager to get out into the countryside we followed the road as far as we could – it eventually turned to dirt before dead ending at a power relay station.  As we backtracked we parked (essentially in the middle of the road) and got out to take in the natural beauty and sheer contrast of the location.   The desert that surrounded us was brown and lacked any consistent form of ground vegetation, though it was periodically dotted by beautiful blooming cactus blossoms or small wildflowers with muted orange and yellow flowers.  The barren desert landscape stretched out, largely flat, but was broken by the snow covered peaks of the San Francisco Mountains which surround Flagstaff.

Cameron Trading Post - Arizona


The small town of Cameron is located just under 60 miles north of Flagstaff and tends to stand out on maps for two main reasons.  The first and best known of which, is that it sits at the junction of Highway 89 and Highway 64, which splits off from 89 and strikes west towards the Grand Canyon.  The town’s second claim to fame is the Cameron Trading post: a sprawling trinket, food and hotel complex that sits overlooking the Little Colorado’s dusty riverbed.

Cameron Trading Post - Arizona

While the trading post itself has never had much draw for me – it mostly consists of the usual over-priced south western toy tomahawks, sand paintings and weird leather cowboy memorabilia – the old bridge built in 1911 has always captured my imagination.  There’s something about the basic design, when combined with the classic suspension architecture that oozes personality.

Cameron Trading Post - Arizona

The old one lane bridge, which has been closed to public traffic for years, turns 100 next year.  Though old and no longer used by automotive/foot traffic the bridge is in good condition and still supports a large north/south pipeline.  It offers an interesting contrast between new and old, as it stands immediately parallel to a more modern bridge which supports 89A and serves as one of Arizona’s main North/South arteries.

Northern Arizona Desert

Painted Desert/Tuba City

Some 30 miles North of Cameron is Tuba City.  Though a relatively short geographic distance, the geological variation is spectacular.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise that those 30 minutes, took us close to two hours as we regularly paused along the side of the road to explore.

Northern Arizona Desert

Our first stop was at a series of incredible bald hills.  The hills, if they can be called that, varied in size and looked more on par with giant anthills than the usual small hill.  Roughly the size of a house, they were completely devoid of any vegetation.  What limited vegetation could be found was usually in the form of small plants clustered along small ditches carved out by rain and erosion.

Northern Arizona Desert

Unfortunately, the area we stopped at had been used somewhat recently by ATVers for off road fun which left the hills heavily scarred. The ground itself had an odd consistency.  The dirt was cracked and obviously dry, but also extremely fine and soft.  It left me feeling like I was walking across the surface of the moon, though its appearance had far more in common with mars.  The dirt itself was a wide mixture of colors, from reds and browns to deep grays.  It’s truly an incredible site and well worth exploring.  Especially if you’re the type who has always dreamed of visiting Mars or the Moon.

Northern Arizona Desert

Our next stop wasn’t technically in the painted desert, which is further to the North East, but it did offer an incredible view of gorgeous desert landscapes that looked as though they’d been painted in watercolor.

Northern Arizona Desert

Located just outside Tuba City – these hills were absolutely stunning.  With each layer a different color they offer a desert rainbow for those who pause long enough to take them in.   In many places the sandstone rocks have been partially eroded creating small sand dunes, which only serve as a further reminder of just how arid and difficult the natural environment is.

Northern Arizona Desert

As we paused for a few photos, we were greeted by one of those a-typical sights that you only stumble across while traveling. As we stood sweating, roasting in the desert heat a heavily laden Asian man in what appeared to be his 30’s passed us.  In and of itself not all that noteworthy right?  Wrong, this guy was apparently rollerblading his way across the state, loaded with a heavy backpack, wearing two roller-blades, and with a modified hockey stick for balance (and perhaps snakes).  Needless to say, the guy oozed a mixture of badass and Buddhist monk.

From there it was up a hill, across jagged, rocky terrain and into Tuba City.  A small-ish town with a few gas stations, fast food joints and a dive restaurant or two.  We ended up at a small sandwich shop which looked busy and had mediocre food.   The service was slow and ambling, though that may have been as much perception as reality given our famished state.

Northern Arizona Desert

Time was slipping by, and we elected to stop our northward push and begin making our way back towards Cameron, where we’d split off and make a B-Line for the Grand Canyon in the hope of reaching it in time for sunset.  First, however, it was time for another quick break.  This time we found a small pull off atop a decent sized shelf, which offered a Lion King esque view of the desert valley below us.

Northern Arizona Desert

The view was incredible and the lack of vegetation served as a stark contrast against the pine trees and lush greenery that we’d started the morning out with.

Northern Arizona Desert

We took a few minutes to enjoy the view, paused to snap a few silly snapshots jumping off the cliff or taking in the scenery and then jumped back in the car.  We were drenched in sweat and eager to escape the sun scorched desert.

Where next? Cameron, a quick pause along the Little Colorado and then the Grand Canyon to take in a spectacular sunset. The photos from that leg of the trip are spectacular, so stay tuned for my next post!