Bealach na Ba, Scotland, UK
This Great Road was initially published in issue 66 of Total 911.
It’s surely a sign of an interesting road when there’s a warning sign at the beginning of it. When that warning sign runs to about three metres square, and cautions of both the altitude (2,053ft), gradient (one in five) and hairpin bends, then clearly you are about to experience something rather special.
We’re not in the Pyrenees or Alps, though, but the UK. Namely the Bealach na Ba in the Wester Ross region of Scotland; possibly the closest road within the UK to a true alpine pass.
The route was originally a cattle drover’s trail to the village of Applecross on the west coast. The ‘road’ was established in the Fifties, but it wasn’t until the late-Seventies that a decent surface was laid. Such is the scale of the terrain, and the engineering involved, that it took until the mid-Eighties for safety barriers to be added to the centre hairpins, and the gradients reduced from the previous one in four.
The best direction to drive the road is from east to west. Turning left off the A896, do pull over to read the warning sign and take in the views. Being at sea level, almost every metre forward will mean a gain in altitude.
The single-track doubles back around a loch, and you find yourself looking down to where you’ve just driven, noticing the view over the water opening up, presenting a myriad of islands, peaks and inlets wherever you look.
Arcing inland our attention is taken by the height of the twin peaks of Chaorachain on the right and Meall Gorm on the left, as our route straightens out a little and points along the right of the valley, ever rising. Quickly, we chase the barrier round the point and are presented with the head of the valley and a view of the snaking hairpins right through the middle of the horizon.
The Armco ends and with superb sight lines, we have a glorious sprint in third, hearing the exhaust ring around the hillsides. Lifting off to enter the start of the switchbacks, pops and burbles are amplified around the landscape, as our speed drops and concentration rises in the curves of the one in four hairpins before the summit.
There’s a small section of rough Tarmac before the final right-hander (just visible in the image, above); pull in here to look back and you can almost trace the whole route and every one of the 2,053 feet you’ve climbed in the last few miles.
From here on we begin the descent, a much more gentle affair, but still weaving through landscape that delights and beguiles. Applecross and the coast soon arrive, and a pitstop at the superb Applecross Inn will beckon.
From here, you’ve the option of retracing your steps or following the coast road north to Sheldaig, then on to close the loop south again, on empty roads apparently designed to thrill 911 drivers.
Bealach na Ba itself is by no means a fast route – it is single track almost throughout – nor a difficult drive, especially in a 911, but for sheer exhilaration in being part of a vast landscape, there are few roads in the UK that match the drama.
For the experience of a lifetime, please resolve to make the time to do this. Go in mid-September at first light, then park before the summit bend and climb the small hill giving the exact view as our photograph.
Spend an hour there as the sun rises. With luck, the light will be sublime, mist will be floating up the valley before slowly burning off, and the road will be empty. Revel in the experience of your car in a such a unique and thrilling view.
In a 911, you’ll remember not only the drive up through the mist, nor the sublime quality of light, but the sight of that iconic shape in such an elemental landscape for the rest of your life.