The North Coast 500 has been described as Scotland’s answer to America’s iconic Route 66. This circular route runs to and from Inverness, cruising round the capital of the Highlands, up the West Coast to the farthest reaches of the rugged north coast and back down to Inverness. The roads that make up the NC500 have always been there, but it wasn’t before the non-profit North Highland Initiative drew a circle around this loop of Scotland and gave it a sexy name that it became the much-loved tourist route that it is today.
As popularity for this trip has grown over the years, it’s best to plan ahead to make sure that there’s still availability in all the places that you’d like to rest your weary head – especially in the summer months (wild camping is still legal in Scotland, so if you’ve got a tent, anywhere you’d like to bunker down for the night is free and fair game).
What’s All the Fuss About? The rugged and often moody highland scenery is inarguably stunning and moving to look at, the winding single track roads with heart-stopping hairpin turns are dangerously fun to try to maneuver, and the chance to spot whales, dolphins, seals, puffins and an innumerable amount of other wildlife are a constant excitement. In addition, the exquisite local seafood and world-class distilleries are a scintillating treat for the senses and the hiking routes, adventure sports opportunities, hidden beaches, ancient ruins and humbling castles round off this incredibly special part of the world rather spectacularly.
So, as you can see, the NC500 has a little bit of everything for every kind of traveler, whether you’re into the finer things in life, get off on really good views, are a wildlife nut, love to break a sweat or would just like to drink drams ‘til the sun comes up. Basically, this route has you covered!
The Route This can be taken at any pace really, however official itineraries suggest allowing for a minimum of five days. Larger vehicles and camper vans will have to bypass some bits of this route, as the road will be either too narrow and/or steep.
Inverness to Applecross Spend the day in Inverness, wandering around the picturesque streets and making sure that you’re fully prepared before embarking on your trip. If you have time, take the longer winding country road out Inverness, as it’s much prettier than the direct route and will kick off your trip the right way. Make a stop at Rogie Falls on your way to Lochcarron for lunch before tackling the greatest ascent of any road in the UK, Bealach na Bà.
This road is plenty steep and full of hairpin turns, but the views from the top are spectacular. Once you’ve reached the car park at the top, if you don’t feel as if you’ve quite gone high enough, then there’s a further walking route that you can take to get your altitude fix. After taking in the sights hop back into your car for the dramatic descent into Applecross.
Applecross to Loch Assynt Out of Applecross, you’ll want to hit the road towards Torridon. On the way, you’ll see picturesque landscapes of seaside dwellings and lush green fields filled with sheep. Once in Torridon, you can stop off at the Torridon Countryside Center to grab a gander at some elegant red deer on your way to Gairloch Harbor. From there it’s onto Ullapool via Loch Ewe, Gruinard Bay and, if you choose, Corrieshalloch Gorge. For the final stretch, it’s more stunning scenery all the way up to Loch Assynt, where you’ll find the supposedly haunted ruins of Ardvreck Castle.
Loch Assynt to Tongue Just outside of Lochinver, you’ll find Achmelvich and Clachtoll – two of the most pristine and beautiful beaches in the whole of the UK. Start this day off early to make sure that you have enough time to spend exploring this stunning bit of coast. The route between Lochinver to Kylesku is going to be another challenging one with a load of sharp ascents, descents, and bends, so although it might not look like a whole load of mileage on the map, you’ll want to make sure you budget enough time to get through this challenging terrain.
After you cross the iconic Kylesku Bridge, it’s easy roads through to Scourie Bay, Durness and onto Tongue. This section is brimming with breathtaking sights and things to do. Highlights include the aforementioned beaches and Kylesku Bridge, Sandwood Bay, the Smoo Caves and Cocoa Mountain in Durness and the Castle Varrich ruins.
Tongue to John O’Groats Head out toward Bettyhill and the Strathnaver Museum to find out a bit about the Highland Clearances and Scottish history. On your way to John O’Groats, you’ll pass sweet little beaches like Farr Bay, Strathy Bay, and Melvich, where you can stop for a stretch of the legs or a spot of (prepacked) lunch before pressing on past Thurso to Dunnet Bay. Here you can check out the impressive dunes and/or opt for a tour of the husband-and-wife operated Dunnet Bay Distillery for a tipple of artisan gin and vodka. Next, you can take the road out to Dunnet Head and feel the gale-like winds on the northernmost point of the UK before stopping for the day in John O’Groats.
John O’Groats to Dornoch This section is a fairly quick one, but there’s a smattering of must-see side opportunities like puffin watching in Duncansby Head, the ruins of Duncansby Stacks and Sinclair and Girnigoe, a tour of the Old Pulteney Distillery, the Whaligoe Steps and the fairy tale castle of Dunrobin.
Dornoch to Kincraig and Back to Inverness This leg is littered in a whole load of fantastic distilleries, the most famous of which being Glenmorangie. If you have a penchant for the flavor of smoked peat then you could spend a very merry afternoon here sampling the area’s amber produce (non-drivers only – although you can bring samples with you for later on in the evening). Other highlights of this leg include Shin Falls to see salmon leaping, dolphin watching at Chanonry Point and seal spotting from the lookout at Foulis.
If you love a good road trip and have already marked the NC500 down in your BUCKiTDREAM diary, then you might also like 3 of the Most Off-the-Beaten Track and Epic Road Trips You Can Take Around Thailand, The Bucket List Guide to a Road Trip Around Spain and 5 Best Australian Road Trips.