Britain’s Greatest Climb: Ultimate Guide to Cycling Bealach-Na-Ba (Applecross Pass)

Planning on cycling Bealach-Na-Ba?

It’s an epic feat that should not be underestimated. It is often dubbed the most challenging climb in the UK.

Believe the hype.

Bealach-Na-Ba is unique. Unlike other climbs in the UK, which often go through valleys and around mountains, the Applecross Pass tackles the imposing mountain head-on.

Although the Bealach-Na-Ba is officially only Scotland’s third-highest pass, it can boast the greatest altitude gain of any road in the UK due to beginning at sea level.

Located in the Applecross Peninsula, the climb can be tackled from the East or West; both are incredible. Most riders will attempt the climb heading West from Tornapress towards the village of Applecross.

In this profile of the Bealach-Na-Ba cycling route, we’ll be covering the following:

  • History of the Bealach-Na-Ba Cycle Route
  • Guide To Cycling Bealach-Na-Ba Route
  • Tips For Cycling Bealach-Na-Ba
  • Applecross Pass Cycling: The Surrounding Area

Let’s dive in!

Cycling Bealach-Na-Ba: Title Image

History of The Bealach-Na-Ba Route

Pay homage to the cattle! It is because of them we are lucky enough to get the opportunity to ride this beast.

The Scottish Gaelic name, “Bealach Nam Bò,” means ‘pass of the cattle.’ This historic mountain pass was initially built in 1822 as a livestock path connecting the village of Applecross to Tornapress.

If you wanted to access Applecross before 1975, you had two choices; up the Bealach-Na-Ba or by boat! Since then, a coastal road has provided access to Applecross.

The pass is renowned for being inaccessible due to bad weather. At the beginning of the climb from Tornapress, large signs warn drivers of the danger.

Since 2015 the climb has been part of the well-known North Coast 500 route.

Simon Warren, the author of “100 Greatest Cycling Climbs,” scores this climb as 11/10 for difficulty. In Warren’s own words: ‘This is it: the Holy Grail.’ 

View of a sign at the bottom of the road when cycling Bealach-Na-Ba.
Credit: Ben Gibbons

Guide To Cycling Bealach-Na-Ba Route

As previously mentioned, there are two ways to head up Bealach-Na-Ba.

#1: From tornapress To Applecross

  • Departure Elevation: 10m (33 ft)
  • Finish Elevation: 636m (2,086 ft)
  • Altitude Gain: 626 m (2030 ft)
  • Length: 9.2 km (5.7 miles)
  • Average Gradient: 6.8%
  • Maximum Gradient: 20%

There is a great little cafe by the sign at the start.

You’ve read the sign, had your cake, and had your coffee. You’ve concluded that you are neither a learner driver nor a caravan. You’re good to go.

The climb starts quite gently, with the road meandering up from sea level, winding around the bay at a comfortable 3-5% for the first 3 km.

Conserve your energy; the climb steadily ramps up as you continue.

Until now, the climb has seemed relatively tame; the contours of the mountain have shrouded the Bealach-Na-Ba in its full glory.

The road for cycling Bealach-Na-Ba snakes up the mountain.
Credit: Ben Gibbons

As the road snakes to the right, you will catch your first glimpse of this imposing pass. The manageable section is now a distant memory; you are in the thick of it.

From kilometer 4, the road stretches out into straighter and steeper gradients. You will average 9.6% for the next 4 kilometers, and there is nothing that breaks the persistence of this climb.

Bealach-Na-Ba is well known for the hairpins at the top. Although daunting, they are not the most challenging part of the climb. Before you reach them, you will have to tackle a continuous kilometer at 13%. 

If you need to take a break, now is a great time!

With your lungs burning and legs screaming, you will approach a series of hairpins; if the road is clear, take them wide. 20% gradients lurk in those turns.

However, you are almost at the top.

Views over Loch Kishorn.
Views over Loch Kishorn. Credit: Ben Gibbons

After the hairpins, the gradient drops to a manageable 3% for the last 500 m. You can now look up from the handlebars and enjoy the view. Congratulations!

Traffic on the Applecross pass tends to be relatively low. As it is an access road, there is no real traffic. However, during the summer, you may bump into motorhomes, sports cars, and motorbikes.

In my experience, most vehicles tend to appreciate the graft you are putting in and will let you pass. But you never know.

If Scotland is treating you to the authentic wet and windy experience, you will likely have to descend pretty quickly.

Otherwise, it is worth walking a short distance off the road and onto the rocky hilltop to get the views over the sea. Cast your eyes towards Skye, Raasay, and the Torridon hills.

The descent down into Applecross is excellent, although there are a few turns to watch out for.

View across the Loch at Bealach-Na-Ba.
Credit: Ben Gibbons

#2: From Applecross to tornapress

  • Departure Elevation: Sea Level
  • Finish Elevation: 628 m (2,060 ft)
  • Altitude Gain: 628 m (2060 ft)
  • Length: 8.68 km (5.4 miles)
  • Average Gradient: 7.4%
  • Maximum Gradient: 15.5%

Getting to Applecross can be a little tricky. You have two options; traverse Bealach-Na-Ba by vehicle or bicycle, or follow the A896 road north towards Shieldaig and along the Applecross coastal road.

The ascent from Applecross is slightly shorter than its eastern counterpart, with a maximum gradient of “just” 15.5%. To make up for this, it boasts a slightly higher average gradient.

You will begin in the small village of Applecross, greeted by friendly locals and a little cafe where you can refuel.

The road up to Bealach-Na-Ba.

As you begin to travel up the mountain road and out of the bay, you will be glad to hear that the gradient remains relatively manageable.

In fact, the average gradient for the first 6.5 km is just over 6%. So, take a look around and soak up the scenery.

Whether that be far-reaching views over the bay or mist-soaked gorse covering the rocky outcrops, both have their charm.

Before long, the mountain will loom above you, and the gradients will increase accordingly.

For the next kilometer, you will be fighting 12% gradients, with a sustained 100 meters of 15.3%.

As you cross the 7.5 km mark, legs full of lactic acid, you’ll be questioning why you even do this at all.

However, every cloud has a silver lining; the next kilometer will treat you to gradients below 5%, followed by spectacular panoramic views as you crest the summit.

View from the Bealach-Na-Ba.
View from the Bealach-Na-Ba. Credit: Ben Gibbons

Tips For Cycling Bealach-Na-Ba

Here are a couple of extras to consider before attempting the climb.

#1: Time of year

The weather in Scotland is ambiguous at the best of times. At worst, it can be downright miserable.

In winter, expect high winds, snow or ice, and lots of rain. It is for this reason that the pass is closed.

The best time of year to attempt Bealach-Na-Ba cycling is between May-September. You’ll give yourself the best chance of warm weather.

Nevertheless, always bring clothing and equipment for the worst-case scenario.

During summer, the roads are a little busier but generally remain pretty quiet across the pass.

You may have to contend with midges, all the more reason to cycle faster!

The hairpins near the summit of Bealach-Na-Ba.

#2: training

The Bealach-Na-Ba is one of the longest climbs in the UK, and training for it is going to require long, sustained efforts. When you think you’ve had enough, along comes a hairpin.

Try and include some over-under intervals alternating between just below functional threshold power (FTP) and just over FTP.

Including these intervals in training will increase the length of time you can work above FTP.

You’ll find that your body will begin to become more efficient at processing the lactate buildup that leads to muscle acidity.

#3: Fuel

Cycling at or around the threshold is a highly glycolytic effort. Your body will need sugar or other easily absorbed carbohydrates.

Fueling before, during, and after the climb will ensure your body has enough fuel on board to power through the hairpins and up to the summit!

A general rule for fueling on a demanding ride would be to try and consume one gram of carbohydrates per kilo of body weight each hour.

The route for cycling Bealach-Na-Ba.

Applecross Pass Cycling: The Surrounding Area

The Applecross Peninsula is a gem. A panacea of raw, unspoiled mountain landscapes which have escaped modern development.

Here are a couple of extras to consider while you are in the area:

  • Bealach Beag – Starting in the village of Shieldaig on the beautiful northwest coast of Scotland, this cycling challenge takes you towards Tornapress, up the Bealach Na Ba, down to Applecross, and along the undulating coastline back towards Shieldag.
  • Bealach Mor – Feast your eyes on the Bealach Mor Sportive, a 144 km circular ride with over 2100 m of ascent. You will be rewarded with wide open roads, beautiful lochs, mountain climbs, and undulating coast.
  • NC500 – The North Coast 500 is Scotland’s ultimate bikepacking adventure. An iconic 500-mile route complete with 10,000 m of elevation that circumnavigates the entire north coast of Scotland. Starting on the east coast in Inverness, you’ll head west towards Applecross, up the west coast, along the north coast, and back down to Inverness. It is not one to be missed!

Enjoyed this cycling Bealach-Na-Ba guide? Check out more from the BikeTips experts below!

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Ben is an avid cyclist and runner, evenly splitting his time between road and mountain bike. He is a particular fan of XC ultra-endurance, but nothing beats bikepacking with mates. He has toured extensively through the UK and is currently spending a summer in the Alps and Pyrenees trying to cycle up as many mountains as possible. Ben has worked for the last eight years as a Personal Trainer and Sports Massage Therapist.

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