The North Coast 500 has been billed as Scotland’s answer to America’s Route 66 but this Scottish road trip is unlike anything you’ll see in the USA. The North Coast 500 takes you through the Scottish Highlands seeing legendary castles, extraordinary coastal scenery, and famous whisky distilleries lining the winding single track roads. The NC500 is one of the great road trips in the world.
When planning your North Coast 500 trip be sure to give plenty of days to explore the sights. We spent a very two weeks on this spectacular driving route through the Scottish highlands and we’ve put together the ultimate NC500 Trip Planner to help you make the most of your time in the Scottish highlands.
North Coast 500 Guide
Dave and I have done a lot of road trips. We’ve come to the conclusion that they just might be our specialty. We’ve driven a car from England to Mongolia in the Mongol Rally, we were the first media to drive Ireland’s entire Wild Atlantic Way (the longest coastal route on earth) and yes, we have driven through large chunks of America’s Route 66.
When we had the opportunity to drive the North Coast 500, we jumped at the chance, we have always wanted to see the Scottish Highlands and this route takes you through the best of them. We love marking our map with must-see attractions, stocking up on snacks, putting together a playlist, and hitting the road.
The North Coast 500 loop counterclockwise from Inverness and we’ve put together the ultimate plan to help you plan ahead and make the most of your time in the Scottish highlands.
What is the North Coast 500
The North Coast 500 (NC500) is a scenic route that runs along the northern coast of Scotland, covering a distance of approximately 516 miles (830 km). It was created as an official loop around the north coast of Scotland, but the roads have always been there.
The official North Coast 500 was launched in 2015 to boost the Northern Highland economy and has now become a popular tourist destination offering stunning coastal views, rugged landscapes, and a chance to visit picturesque villages and towns.
The route starts and ends in the city of Inverness, taking visitors on a circular journey through the Scottish Highlands and along the coast of the North Atlantic, and down the west coast.
Along the way, travelers can visit iconic landmarks such as the Bealach Na Ba Pass, the ruins of Ardvreck Castle, and the white sands of Achmelvich Beach. The route also passes through several communities, providing opportunities for visitors to experience local culture and hospitality.
The NC500 has gained recognition as one of the world’s most scenic road trips, attracting visitors from all over the world who come to explore the natural beauty of Scotland’s rugged north highlands. When you visit Scotland, you are going to want to experience at least a portion its spectacular scenery.
Where is the North Coast 500
Our North Coast 500 drive started and ended in Inverness, the Capital of the Scottish Highlands. We drove counterclockwise along the north coast of Scotland in a 516-mile (830km) circle route through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, stopping at many towns and attractions before returning to Inverness.
The North Coast 500 is located in the North West corner of Scotland winding its way up the east coast, along the the north and down west coast of Scotland starting in Inverness.
NC500 Car Rentals
The best way to explore the North Coast 500 is on a road trip is by driving. If you don’t already live in the UK and have your own car, you’ll want to book a rental car well in advance. There are plenty of places to book rental cars in Scotland. We use Rental Cars Connect to find the best deals on any rental car. You can compare prices on their website.
Hot Tip: Be sure your rental car is a smaller car as roads are often single track roads along the North Coast 500 and a small car is easy to navigate through the North Highlands. The roads through the Scottish Highlands are winding and narrow there are several hairpin turns. Small cars can also fit easily into the passing places to let faster drivers overtake you. Rental cars are scarce these days, so be sure to book well in advance. Compare prices at RentalCars.com
Day 1: North Coast 500 – Inverness
We started our North Coast 500 road trip in Inverness and spent two days enjoying this historic city. Inverness is the main city on the North Coast 500 route and it is the capital of the Scottish Highlands.
The capital of the Scottish Highlands, Inverness is home to the very famous Loch Ness where you can search for Nessie herself. That was our main interest when visiting Inverness, but there are plenty of other things to see and do.
- St. Andrew’s Cathedral
- Abertarff House dating back to 1592
- Nessie Islands – Islands connected by beautiful walkways and gardens
- Golf and Spa at Kingsmills Spa
- Read our full article Things to do in Inverness
Day 2: North Coast 500
There are plenty of things to do in Inverness and in the surrounding area, so you will definitely want to spend some time here. Here are a few top attractions to see before moving along the North Coast 500.
Inverness is the main hub for exploring Loch Ness. People visit the legendary Loch Ness in search of the Loch Ness Monster, but it is worth exploring the sandy beaches and scenery around Inverness as well.
The visitors center in Drumnadrochit is fun and kitschy and is a must-stop to learn about the history of the Loch Ness Monster, but exploring the massive lake is the highlight.
Drumnadrochit and Glen Affric
If you have more time, you can stay in Drumnadrochit, there are plenty of B&Bs in the area. If you are staying in the area take a drive to Glen Affric to take in its stunning landscape and view the beautiful Plodda Falls. This is the spot where the tour busses stop though so be prepared for large crowds and traffic.
Be sure to watch the sunset from Dores Beach and you may even run into the Nessie Hunter who has set up camp right in this spot to keep watch for the elusive monster.
Urquhart Castle is another must-see stop on the lake. It is a beautiful ruin that has survived many a battle over the past 1000 years. The setting overlooks Loch Ness and the rolling hills of the Scottish Highlands, I can see why people fought over this beautiful setting.
Where to Stay in Inverness
Accommodation Suggestion: Kingsmills Hotel and spa with swimming pool and breakfast included. We stayed here and absolutely loved it.
The Kingsmills Hotel is located on a golf course just outside the downtown core. Set in a large historic mansion on a massive treed property with spa and pool. We stayed in the newer spa portion of the hotel and the rooms were spacious, and comfortable. Parking is free and breakfasts are included. Check it out on TripAdvisor / Booking.com
The Rocpool Reserve Hotel is another recommended hotel: Trip Advisor / Booking.com
Suggested places to eat: Rocpool Restaurant or Dores Inn at Loch Ness in Dores after you’ve watched the sunset.
Day 3 – Drive North to Dornoch
Today you will leave Inverness and make your way to Dornoch for the start of your east coast drive up North Coast 500 Road trip. Your next overnight is just a little over an hour’s drive away, but it is the perfect base for your next set of explorations as there is a lot to see and do in the area.
Along the A9 towards the NC500 offers many things to see and places to stop. Dornoch is famous for the Dornoch Castle and makes a good base to explore the whisky route.
Don’t just beeline it to the next town, be sure to pop into these highlights on your way out of Inverness before hitting the North Coast 500 Route.
The Culloden Battlefield is one of the best stops on the North Coast 500 road trip. As you make your way through the Scottish Highlands, make sure to stop at one of the most historic sites on the itinerary. The modern visitor’s centre opened in 2008 and is a stark contrast to the empty land where one of the bloodiest battles on British soil took place.
On a spring day in 1746, more than 1200 men were killed in just one short hour. It was the final battle of the Jacobite uprising and it came to its fateful end.
Visitors are given headsets triggered by GPS telling them the story of the bloody battle as they walk both sides of the battlefield. One of the most powerful moments comes when you enter the interior museum and stand inside a room projecting a 360-degree reenactment of the battle. You are surrounded by the cries of the warriors meeting their fate.
If you are fascinated with Highland history (as we are) this is a place where you can easily spend hours. For more information see Culloden Battlefield Visitor’s Centre
Clava Cairns is not far from the Culloden Battlefield and is a good stop for this day of sightseeing on the North Coast 500. Cairns are ancient stone cemeteries dating back 4000 years. There are several cairns along the nc500 but none as famous as Clava Cairns.
Clava Cairns was used as the inspiration for the Outlander series (this is the place where Claire was transported back in time) you can understand why Diana Gambon felt time travel could happen here.
The standing stones and circular cairns feel like magic. The Cairns of Scotland were burial tombs used to house the dead and today, visitors can stroll the grounds and walk right into the centre of the tombs feeling the peace and quiet of the sacred site. It’s free to visit so don’t miss it!
It’s time to move on from Inverness and cross into the Black Isle portion of the driving route. Black Isle is a peninsula located just north of the city of Inverness. Despite its name, Black Isle is not an actual island but rather a peninsula, bounded by water on three sides: the Cromarty Firth to the north, the Beauly Firth to the south, and the Moray Firth to the east.
The name “Black Isle” is said to come from the fact that when viewed from a distance, the area appears to be black due to the forests that cover much of the peninsula. Black Isle is a popular stop on the NC500 for those who want a taste of the route with its scenic villages away from the larger towns, beaches, and wildlife reserves. You can easily explore Black Isle on a day trip from Inverness.
Road Trip Snacks
North Coast 500 Road Trip Snacks – We stocked up on water and snacks in Inverness, but there are plenty of local shops along the route. One of our favorite stops for local meats & cheeses, fresh fruits, and local treats, be sure to stop in at Roberston’s The Larder.
You can also meet the farm animals including Highland Cows. If you are worried about not seeing the famous highland cattle along the route, (don’t be) you’ll have a good chance here. It is located on the route from Inverness to Glen Ord Distillery.
Located in the heart of Black Isle, The Singleton Distilerry is the closest distillery to Inverness so it can easily be done as a day trip from there. What makes a visit to Singleton unique is that it is one of the few distilleries in Scotland that still malts its own barley and their Singleton blend can only be bought in Scotland or if you visit Asia.
For us, it was also the first time we’d seen wooden fermentation barrels. Every other distillery tour we’ve ever taken was stainless steel.
The end of day 3 on your North Coast 500 trip ends at Dornoch Castle. Dornoch is a destination unto itself with the castle at its center. The Scottish highlands are filled with old castles that have been converted into hotels. Do yourself a favor and book a night at least one castle hotel.
Dornoch Castle is located right in the market square of Dornoch directly across from the Dornoch Cathedral. This 12th-century cathedral is such a draw that Madonna had her son Rocco christened here.
The castle sets the tone for this unique Scottish road trip. The pub makes you feel like you are sitting in a 17th-century tavern as the fire roars and the whiskey pours. The set dinner menu is divine and the rooms make you feel like royalty.
Dornoch Castle and Whisky Bar
Dornoch Castle is home to one of the best whisky bars on earth. It was voted the #1 Whisky Hotel of the Year by whiskybase.com. It’s the whisky bar that is the main attraction. Sitting inside the thick old stone walls with the giant fireplace roaring with flame you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time to when clans ruled the land.
The extensive whisky stock has won awards as the best whisky bar in the world and is currently the reigning number 1 whisky hotel of the year as named by whiskybase.com.
Having the distillery tour helped us to understand the distilling process of Scottish whiskey and gave us insight into aromas and flavors when we decided to taste a few drams at Dornoch Castle’s whisky bar. This truly made us feel like we were taking a tour through history and our guide Alistair was as passionate about his scotch as he was informative.
We ordered a tasting flight of three whiskeys after chatting with the bartender who will help us decide what shots to choose. He will pick your brain to see what type of Scotch you prefer and offer up choices of different whiskeys at different prices to suit your needs.
Note: Scotland spells whisky without an “e”. So when you visit Scotland, be sure to spell it the way they do in Scotland, it’s whisky NOT Whiskey.
Where to Stay in Dornoch
Dornoch Castle – We loved our stay in the historic Dornoch Castle. Whenever we visit Ireland or Scotland, we always try to stay in a castle for a truly authentic and historic experience. Trip Advisor / Booking.com
There is also The Dornoch Hotel you can see more information on Trip Advisor / Booking.com
Royal Marine Hotel – Just a little farther up the East Coast is the Royal Marine Hotel which was voted one of the best places to stay in Britain. Just an hour from Inverness along the North Coast 500, this is a good place to make a base while exploring the east coast of Scotland. Check rates and availability on Expedia.com
Day 4: North Coast 500 – Dornoch to Wick
Click here for an interactive map of NC 500
Day 4 of your North Coast 500 road trip is all about the whisky and the spectacular scenery of the North Highlands. The drive from Dornoch to Wick takes approximately 4 hours but as with every part of the NC500 route, you’ll end up taking much longer as there is so much to see and do.
There are several distilleries in Northern Scotland where road trippers can pick up a bottle of their favorite Scotch whisky. It is worth stopping at least once but if you want to spend longer in the area, check them all out on a day tour. From the town of Dornoch, there are half a dozen distilleries to visit that are from mere minutes to only a couple of hours away.
- Dunnet Bay
- Pulteney Distilleries are all nearby.
If you are looking for something outside of distilleries, make your way to the Black Isle Brewing Company. Black Isle is an organic brewer with a wide range of organic beers and seasonal specials.
If you are a whisky lover, Dornoch castle or Royal Marine Hotel is the perfect place to base your travels as you explore the distilleries of the route. Visit their website for bookings and availability.
Open from April 1 to October 15, visiting Dunbrobin Castle is a must. You can visit the gardens and grounds year-round. We parked our car and walked down the steps to a magnificent view of this 800 year-old castle. It’s different from other castles in Scotland resembling a French Chateau rather than the stark stone structures in other parts we saw.
Dunrobin castle has been home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th century.
This castle can be visited from Dornoch, or you can plan as we did and make it a stop along the way to our next destination which in our case is Wick. Read all about Donrobin Castle here.
Where to Stay – Ackergill Tower Hotel
Something we loved about driving the North Coast 500 was the chance to stay in historic castles. There are many unique accommodations along the route from farmhouses, B&Bs, lighthouses, and luxury estates. Making our way up the East Coast towards the northernmost tip of Scotland, we stayed at the Ackergill Tower Hotel.
We enjoyed a delicious meal in this grand hotel. Like Dornoch Castle, Ackergill Tower is an accommodation that is a destination. The Tower is an incredible 600-year-old stone tower that stands proud on the shores of Sinclair Bay. The Northernmost point of Scotland. This luxurious highland estate is as romantic as it is remote.
Dining in the great hall, we ate a delicious three-course menu before retiring to the sitting rooms for an after dinner drink. It felt fresh out of Downton Abbey. As we sat by the fire we read about the history of the castle and wondered what life might have been like back in time.
The most famous story of the castle tells the tale of Helen Gunn, known as the Beauty of Braemore who was kidnapped on her wedding night and held prisoner in this very tower. To escape her fate she leapt to her death. It is said that her ghost haunts the halls to this day.
Day 5: Wick to Dunnet Head
Once we reached the Northern Tip of Scotland, the scenery turned to dramatic views. This was probably our favorite area to explore on the road trip. Everyone told us the west coast was the best, but the northern tip was stunning. We could have spent at least two more days exploring the walking trails along the coast.
It is the area where you see those massive sea cliffs and sea stacks housing migrating seabirds and seals. If you like hiking and wildlife, you’ll love this area.
If you want to get down inside something similar to the Geo of Sclaites, the Whaligoe Steps is a superb trek. The Whaligoe Steps consist of 330 steps leading down to one of the most inaccessible harbors in Scotland. Dating back to the mid 18th century, the Whaligoe Steps were used by fishermen’s wives to haul fish up in their baskets. At its prime, 24 fishing boats were working these waters fishing for herring.
Wick Heritage Centre
If you want to learn more about the fishing and history of the area, the Wick Heritage Centre is the place to go. Wick was Europe’s premier herring fishing port during the 19th century and dedicated guides volunteer their time to tell share their historical knowledge.
There are many artifacts on display and rooms furnished to portray the past. To get directions and look up hours visit the Wick Heritage Centre website.
Dunnet Bay Distillery
Scotland may be known for its Scotch, but Gin is making a huge mark in the country. Tours operate from May to Sept at 3 pm on Mon, Wed, Fri and on Saturdays at 11 am and 1 pm.
This was probably our favorite area to explore on the North Coast 500. Everyone told us the west coast was the best, but the northern tip was stunning. It is the area where you see those massive sea cliffs and stacks housing migrating seabirds and seals. If you like hiking and wildlife, you’ll love this area.
Ackergill Tower – Overnight
The Ackergill Tower Hotel became our base for exploring this portion of the Scottish Highlands and we stayed here another night.
Like Dornoch Castle, Ackergill Tower is an accommodation that is a destination. The Tower is an incredible 600-year-old stone tower that stands proudly on the shores of Sinclair Bay. The Northernmost point of Scotland. This luxurious highland estate is as romantic as it is remote.
The most famous story of the castle tells the tale of Helen Gunn, known as the Beauty of Braemore who was kidnapped on her wedding night and held a prisoner in this very tower. To escape her fate she leaped to her death. It is said that her ghost haunts the halls to this day. Check out Ackergill Tower to book your accommodation
Day 6: North Coast 500 – Wildlife and Scenery
Dave and I love taking tours. As much as we enjoy exploring on our own, we find that helps us discover hidden gems and areas we would never have thought of visiting. We spent a half day exploring with Caithness Wildlife Tours. Guide and owner Kate is a marine biologist and outdoor lover who takes visitors to see view seabirds, seals, and other wildlife in the area.
But she also showed us historic sites such as Mary Ann’s Cottage dating back to 1850 and The Castle of Mey. The Queen Mother bought and restored the Castle of Mey and King Charles still visits each summer.
Castle of Mey
It was the impressive views of Dunnet Head and Brough Harbour that really took our breath away. But what we loved the most was learning the interesting facts of the area from Kate. For example, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin was a regular visitor to the area and nearly bought an estate in Caithness for a recording studio.
He never did buy the studio, but he did rebuild the harbor and there is a plaque with his name on the Harrow Harbour commemorating the reopening.
Castle Sinclair Girnigo
Located just a short walk or drive from Ackergill Tower the ruins of Castle Sinclair Girnigo is an imposing sight on the coast. We saw this from the road, but when we decided to go for a walk to it, the rain came down in full force.
There was one particular moment when we really appreciated being on the tour. We had stopped with Kate to view seals in the harbor (a regular tourist would miss seeing this on their own) and she told us to turn around.
The harbor was nice, but the scene behind us was beautiful. The peaceful setting housed an old mill and quiet brook that was just screaming to be photographed. Other tourists drove right on by looking at us instead of the scene and missed this highlight of the coast.
If you look up images of the North Coast 500 on Google, chances are you’ve seen countless images of Duncansby Head. Hiking here is spectacular with many walking paths along the coast. Located just a mile and a half from John O’Groats, make your way to parking at the Duncansby Head Lighthouse.
If you have more time, you can hike directly from John O’Groats to take in the entire spectacular view. It is the most northern point of mainland Scotland, We had limited time, so we started our hike from the lighthouse and made our way to the awe-inspiring stacks. It’s only about a 10-15 minute walk, but along the way, make sure to stick to the coast so you can view the dramatic narrow sea gullies known as the Geo of Sclaites.
After marveling at the views here, we moved along the North Highlands to the stacks of Duncansby Head. There’s a path right along the coast overlooking the stacks so you can view them from all directions.
Geo of Sclaites
Be sure to keep an eye out for seabirds. Different are constantly migrating through the area at all times of the year. Including puffins! A Geo is a deep inlet of water with high seacliffs and while there are plenty along the northern coast of Scotland, none are quite as dramatic as the Geo of Sclaites.
Rock formations date back 4000 years and you can take walking paths right to the edge of the cliff to see migrating birds and the spectacular scenery.
Where to Stay near Dunnet Head
Ackergill Tower was the perfect base for exploring the northernmost point of Scotland. This 16th-century tower has a lot of history, and you can sit by the fire reading about its checkered past as you enjoy a dram of whiskey. Dining in the great hall, we ate a delicious three-course menu before retiring to the various sitting rooms for an after-dinner drink.
We love road trips! We included the North Coast 500 in our best road trips we’ve ever taken.
Day 7: Dunnet Head to Tongue
This stretch of the nc500 takes you across the top of Scotland. It was surprising to look at our map and see just how far north we were. Northern Scotland is the equivalent of being halfway up the Hudson Bay in Canada’s north, or just one-degree shy of Oslo, Norway, Stockholm Sweden, or St. Petersburg, Russia. It’s no wonder Northern Scotland reminded us so much of Iceland!
Surfing in Scotland
It was also really surprising to find out that this area is a popular surfing destination. World surfing events are held here. We didn’t brave the water, but while driving through the likes of Armadale Bay and Melvich, we did see surfers in the water taking on the swells. These bays are still way up in the north coast of Scotland so I can only imagine what the temperatures were like.
We were a bit too early in the season for kayaking and when we go back to Scotland we will definitely give it a go. But we did see a few experienced kayakers in the water. Looking at the rough seas, we decided it was best left to the professionals at this time of year. We’ll brave the North Sea when the weather is a little more inviting.
Hopefully, by the time you go, the ruins of Castle Varrich will be open. It was under scaffolding when we arrived as we were told that they had just discovered a bone and it was being excavated. It should be open now for you to see.
You can hike from the Tongue Hotel. It is believed that the castle was built in the 14th century upon an old Norse fort. So you can be sure there is a lot of history just waiting to be discovered here.
Kyle of Tongue
Instead of driving directly along the A383 to cross the Kyle of Tongue, take the scenic route around the tip of the loch for extraordinary scenic views. We had the single track roads all to ourselves. We’d spy a lake, park the car and hike to extraordinary views.
We spent the day here before meeting up again with the A383 at the Kyle of Tongue Bridge. We made sure to cross the bridge for a full view of the highlands before turning around again to continue our journey.
Overnight at Tongue Hotel
The Tongue Hotel It has a cozy atmosphere with large rooms, and there’s always someone offering a drop of sherry when you arrive. There is a dining room and in town there is a store close by to stock up on supplies for the rest of your road trip. See prices on Trip Advisor / Booking.com
Ben Loyal Hotel is another suggested place to stay on this portion of the north coast 500. Located on Main Street Tongue. View it on Trip Advisor / Booking.com
Day 8 – Tongue to Balnakeil
This is another fabulous stretch filled with long deserted sandy beaches, more coastal hike and one incredible cave.
One of our favorite things on our trips was to explore the Smoo Caves. Stopping in the town of Durness, the Smoo Caves are beautiful to see inside and out. There are boardwalks leading down to the caves on either side giving you views of the steep path. A bridge lets you cross the river leading in from the sea while looking into the giant cavern.
Many people just go into the caves and take a quick look, but we highly recommend taking a geological tour. Previously it was run by Colin who spent his lifetime excavating these caves. We had the privilege of doing a tour with him, but sadly he passed away in 2019.
Check out the website for more information on his tours and the geology of the caves. It’s a fascinating read and you’ll find yourself getting lost in the facts.
A beautiful stretch of sandy beach can be found just out of town and it is definitely worth visiting. Not only is it very picturesque, but you’ll also experience the unique feeling of walking on a beach while military vehicles drive by with great purpose.
The Royal Naval gunnery ranges are located out here and military personnel comes to this area to train. You constantly hear guns and bangs in the distance making you wonder “what on earth is going on out there?”
There is a scenic cemetery located on the site by the beach housing an old church and tombstones. It’s very photogenic and John Lennon’s aunt is buried here.
John Lennon visited the area many times to see his aunt and there is a memorial in the town of Durness. He revisited it again with Yoko Ono and it is said that some of his happiest memories took place here.
Belnakeil Craft Village
This is a cool spot where locals are starting to build a craft community converting an old military camp into an artist’s compound. The most famous attraction here is the Cocoa Mountain coffee shop. We stopped here to load up on chocolate and pick up a takeaway cappuccino for our drive out of town.
We didn’t try the hot chocolate, but we heard two different customers give glowing recommendations on our way out. Don’t worry though, we definitely had our fill of handmade chocolate and an oh so smooth cappuccino.
Be prepared to give your wallet a workout. When you walk in, you’ll want to sample all the truffles and handmade local chocolate in the store.
Smoo Cave Hotel
Smoo Cave Hotel a basic hotel, but the location is a perfect stop after driving from Tongue, giving you the chance to spend a day or two in Smoo. There’s a good bar and they have some of the best Haggis around.
Where to eat – Sango Sans, The Whale Tale, or Pick up a picnic lunch at the Carfour and stop at the Cocoa Mountain coffee shop in Belnakeil Craft Village
Smoo Cave Hotel has a good bar and they have some of the best Haggis around.
Day 9: North Coast 500 – Belnakeil to Lochinver
Today is a big day as we make our way down the west toward Achmelvich Bay. It is during this section that the driving gets really fun. The single track roads can get quite hair-raising and the drive is along huge lakes and through mountains is a thrill.
This is another stunning drive along a single track with views to die for. The scenery along the North Coast 500 is unique. It varies from place to place, so make sure to take your time to really enjoy all of the views. If you can, take your time and possibly stay in Lochinver for a night. We however moved on.
Located where Loch Glencoul and Loch Glendhu meet, this is a very picturesque spot in the heart of the highlands. The Kylesku bridge is one of the Most Photographed Stops on the North Coast 500.
Kylesku sits in the middle of Scotland’s 2,000 km2 (770 sq mi) Global Geopark. There is a lot of history human and geological in this land and the Geopark is recognized by UNESCO and is set up to promote and preserve that history.
Many people cut this portion of drive and head directly to Lochinver along the A894 and A837 but one of the most picturesque road routes we took in the north highlands were toward Drumbeg. The open roads that we had seen thus far, gave way to narrow single track roads dropping off into deep valleys.
It was a beautiful winding trip. It was only 10 miles long but it took us well over an hour to navigate and take in the sights. It was here that we saw countless stags running through the hills. And, it was here that we came across the very pretty highland cows, and it was here that we saw hundreds of sheep grazing in the fields and skittering away whenever we drew near.
The Stoerhead Lighthouse was certainly worth a short detour. The lighthouse itself isn’t tall, but it stands on a cliff that is 54 meters (162 feet) above sea level jutting out from the West Coast of Scotland.
The scene is impressive and you can actually book a stay in the lighthouse. There are two flats and a kitchen, so if you want to spend more time exploring the area, this is as unique as it gets for accommodation and you’ll have incredible views of the sea!
Dave and I love a good coffee on a road trip and admittedly the choices for on-the-go coffee on the North Coast 500 were few and far between. That’s why when we saw a sign promoting coffee ahead, we followed it.
Flossies is a tiny coffee shop located on the side of the road, but it is an institution in the area. Opened in 1972 by Mrs Flossie Machphail it has now been taken over by her son William and his wife Caroline who continue the tradition of making great coffee to warm your bones from the damp Scottish weather. When driving through this section, be sure to stock up!
The single track roads continue from Clachtol through an incredibly beautiful rocky and rolling landscape. When in Clachtol be sure to check out the stone broch. Scottish Brochs date back to somewhere around the first century BC.
Experts can’t quite agree on what they were, but these stone structures are worth a visit to witness how these mounds of stones have survived through the centuries.
Achmevilch Bay is apparently quite stunning and a good spot to park your caravan. Unfortunately for us, we were heading in that direction while the road was under construction. We were told to come back in a few hours by workers, but alas, we had to move on as we were on a mission to finish our NC500 road trip.
The time to visit Achmevilch Bay is during the summer season anyway as there is water skiing, windsurfing, lots of walking trails and fishing. Okay then, it’s settled, we must go back to Northern Scotland!
Where to Stay
Kylesku hotel is a good base There are boat trips, hiking trails and wildlife excursions where you can spot sea otters, seals and migrating sea birds. See it on Trip Advisor / Booking.com There is also the Drumbeg Hotel.
We stayed at a small farmhouse called the Croft 338 B&B. It’s a basic B&B, but the Internet is good, there’s cable TV and she makes a hearty breakfast in the morning.
Day 10 – Lochinver to Ullapool
The scenery is breathtaking in the North Highlands, and once again as we make our way further down the west coast to Ullapool we are treating to stunning views. The single-track road weaves through mountainous terrain and heavily wooded areas. Have your camera ready, there are plenty of photo opportunities of wild deer on this leg from Lochinver to Ullapool.
On our way to Ullapool, we met up with adrenaline junkie and guide extraordinaire, Tim Hamlett. Tim runs Hamlett Mountaineering and we instantly became fast friends. He’s definitely that guy that you want to hang out with. He offers guided climbing trips and guided treks into the mountains. Tim really does it all!
With kayaking adventures and snorkelling trips coming soon, you could spend a week hanging with him exploring the highlands. He offers multiday treks, but we were on a schedule so only had the morning with him. You can walk the trails yourself, but to hire a guide is where you really get the true experience.
We met Tim at the Stac Pollaidh car park where we joined up to climb Stac Pollaidh. This is a premiere attraction in the area but we met early enough in the morning that the other trekkers had yet to arrive and we had the trail all to ourselves.
Tim told us of the geology and other climbs in the area. His wife works for the GeoPark and he is very passionate about promoting tourism and conservation in the highlands. His business is expanding rapidly and we can’t wait to come back in the near future to do some proper mountaineering with him.
You should definitely book a trip with him and let us know what we should do next! Visit Hamlet Mountaineering for more details.
Located just 15 minutes outside of Ullapool, the Corrieshalloch Gorge is an interesting stop. A short yet steep walk from the car park takes you to a deep and narrow box canyon where you can cross the suspension bridge.
The bridge is a bit hair-raising as it’s narrow and the railings are low, but it is worth the view. There are hiking trails to explore and a waterfall to visit.
Overnight in Ullapool
Ullapool is a picturesque fishing town that is bustling with business. It seems that everyone driving the North Coast 500 stays here. We loved our B&B and highly recommend it. We put it up there as the coolest accommodation on the NC500.
Where to Stay in Ullapool
Westlea House Boutique B&B was by far our favourite place to stay on the North Coast 500. You’ll want to sit by the fire perusing the huge choice of books and magazines, or you may want to pop into the music room and choose from the extensive collection of vinyl records.. Check it out on Trip Advisor / Booking.com
Argyll Hotel is another option for hotels on this portion of the NC500 – See it on Trip Advisor / Booking.com
Ullapool offers a considerable choice of dining options for the size of the town. Recommendations are the Arch Inn, Argyle Hotel Seafood Bar for fresh local seafood, The Ceilidh Place and Ferry Boat Inn.
We thoroughly enjoyed coffee at Mountain Supplies Coffee Shop. Located on the second floor of a mountaineering equipment store, this café has a hipster vibe with and outdoor lover’s twist. The friendly staff made us feel warm and welcome.
Day 11: North Coast 500 – Gairloch
Gairloch makes for a great base when exploring the west coast portion of the NC 500. You can go up and down the coast in both directions. There is a lot to see and do here and you can cover a lot of ground so if you want to make a base here for a couple of days, it’s a great option. Gairloch is an extremely important town in Scotland with a lot of history.
Gairloch was founded by the McKenzies as a safe destination for Scottish Highlanders to wear their kilts and continue their Scottish traditions when the British weren’t allowing them to do so. Dave has ties to Gairloch. We found out about it when we had our Ancestry DNA done just before leaving.
Inverewe Gardens is an interesting stop filled with exotic plants that simply shouldn’t be able to grow in this corner of northern Scotland. In 1860 Osgood McKenzie created this carefully sculpted garden out of a few scrub willows and bare rocks.
The 50-acre garden stands on the shore of Loch Ewe and exotic plants from around the world thrive here because of the warm currents of the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic. Drift In 2016 the house was opened to the public after undergoing a £2million restoration by the National Trust for Scotland.
Isle of Ewe Smokehouse
Fishing is a huge part of the economy in Northern Scotland and while you are in Gairloch, you may want to stop at the Isle of Ewe Smokehouse. It’s interesting to stop and see what happens to the fish after the catch. This family-run shop smokes all its fish in traditional stone kilns using whisky barrel staves & local Larch to give their fish its own unique flavor.
They have a gift shop where you can pick up supplies and local seafood for your road trip or grab a gift box for someone special at home. You can even order online!
There are so many lochs in Northern Scotland it is difficult to choose where to stop, but Loch Maree is definitely a beautiful place to visit at sunrise. Campervans park overnight on the shores of this loch but you can drive in for a view as well. It’s not highly traveled and can be difficult to find.
At first, we parked at a logging road and started to walk the distance to the loch, but luckily we decided to move on. Just a couple of kilometers down the road we found the cut off to the beach and were treated to a spectacular view.
Beinn Eighe is Britain’s oldest nature reserve and a premier hiking destination. There is 48 Square km to explore with trails as short as 1 1/2 km. Hiking is popular in Scotland and you can’t visit the country without doing a proper trek.
The main access is from Loch Maree near the village of Kinlochewe and trails leave from either the visitor centre here or the Coille na Glas-Leitir car park also on the shores of Loch Maree. For full trail maps and information see the visit Scotland National Nature Reserve website
Picking up a coffee at the newly opened Klinlochewe Coffee Shop at the gas station we chatted with the owners who gave us some pointers on the best viewpoint in the area. I can’t believe we almost missed this!
Many people miss this view because they take the coastal scenic route to Applecross. But be sure to at least drive up to the viewpoint. Top Gear named it one of the great drives of the UK.
We were lucky because we had a couple of days in the area so we drove the coast the day before and could take the shortcut through the mountains today. Both are highly recommended.
Another incredible view that we stumbled upon was Diabag Viewpoint. Driving from Torridon we heard that this was a great place for panoramic views and whoever gave us that advice was right!
The road is an incredible thrill of one lane switching back and forth up a steep mountain. There are several stops to see views to the east, to the west, and over the water looking from Scotland’s stunning west coast.
It’s worth the drive and to do the entire route to Lower Diabag took us about an hour each way. (we do like to stop for a lot photographs though)
Where to Stay in Gairloch
The Old Inn. It’s an old coaching inn remodeled with modern conveniences. Set on a beautiful estate, there are walking trails, gardens and streams running through the property. On-site, there is an excellent seafood restaurant and an award-winning pub. This is a place that felt like we were in the real Scotland. See it on Trip Advisor / Booking.com
Shieldaig Lodge This old hunting lodge is located on Loch Gairloch. It is set on a 26,000 acre estate in the West Highlands. See it on Trip Advisor / Booking.com
Day 12: North Coast 500 – Klinlochewe to Applecross
When it comes to the North Coast 500, the scenery is the star attraction so take your time to stop, go for hikes, enjoy the trails, book a trail ride (the Highlanders were great horsemen), go kayaking, sailing, and search for wildlife. The sky is the limit here.
This final stretch of driving along the coast is probably the most scenic and fun driving you’ll have along the North Coast 500. There are so many viewpoints to stop and enjoy the scene, you’ll spend an entire day getting through just a short 32-mile stretch. As you drive from Torridon the views are plentiful.
We picked up a delicious cappuccino for takeaway (have you noticed we like coffee?) at the Torridon Hotel and bar and began our scenic journey along Upper Torridon Loch. This is a great day trip for a coast journey taking you all the way around the route to Applecross where you drive the most spectacular pass Baelnabach Pass; The star attraction of the North Coast 500.
Town of Sheildag
Be sure to pull over as much as possible along this route as you are going to find some amazing overhead views. The initial climb up the coast has hairpin turns and viewpoints. A gorgeous one we found was a pull-off with a short trail leading to a view of the town of Sheildag.
Famous Red House
Have you ever seen the photos of the little red house in northern Scotland? Well, it’s here along this route that you’ll find it. Enjoy a quiet stop on the side of the road here and watch the sheep graze in the yard.
Non-stop pullovers and Passing Places
This route around the North Highlands takes you along the ocean side of the west coast and there are so many stops you just may take an entire day to get to your destination. We saw a lot of highland cows along this road too. The narrow roads have pullovers and passing places where you can either get out of your car for photos or let faster drivers pass. This is a place you want to take your time, but also be considerate of faster drivers.
Flocks of sheep were plentiful and there were even views of the Isle of Skye. It was an incredible drive but be prepared for a lot of wind. We had beautiful sunny weather, but the wind was strong. When getting out of the car we had to put on a jacket. Never assume you’ll be fine in shorts or a t-shirt all day when driving in Northern of Scotland.
Applecross to Baelnabach Pass
This is the highlight of the entire North Coast 500 and it does not disappoint. Baelnabach Pass used to be an old cattle trail that was turned into a driving transport route and is now a popular tourist route.
The drive is thrilling with hairpin turns on single-lane tracks that you still share with transports. There are a few pullovers and it is worth stopping if you see one and feel confident. The views are magnificent looking down the valley.
When you get to the top of the pass be sure to get out of your car and go for a hike. The rocky landscape is like nothing you’ve ever seen leading out to the ocean.
Kishorn Seafood Bar
It’s been a big day and you’ve probably built up an appetite. If you keep following the main road towards Lochcarron you’ll come across the pleasant Kishorn Seafood Bar. Serving fresh local seafood, this is not to be missed.
This family-run eatery is filled with excellent choices for lunch or dinner and the staff is friendly. They even gave us a taste of the local specialty. If you haven’t tried oysters before, this is the place to do it. They even give certificates to first-timers.
Day 13: North Coast 500 – Plockton
Our final destination before finishing off the loop to Inverness took us to Plockton. Plockton became our home base to explore the area. Like other parts of the nc500, there is a lot of history, wildlife and scenery to enjoy and here are a few highlights of what you must see and do!
Reraig Forest Tour
We met our guide Colin at Lochcarron village not having a clue as to what we were doing or where we were going. Hopping into his truck he took us to Reraig Forest where we got into a buggy to make our way up a steep mountain.
The buggy was an adventure enough as we clung to the edge of steep banks, rammed through deep mud and trotted along the rocky landscape. But that was just part of the adventure.
The true beauty came when we reached the pack of deer and stags roaming the land. It’s here that you’ll find beautiful deer that roam free on thousands of acres of property.
Colin feeds the deer special pellets to subsidize their diet as he says the vegetation doesn’t give them the nutrients they need. You can tell he loves the herd and he even pointed out a few that jumped over the fence to stick around.
Colin also has sheep and rams on the land that come running when he arrives. It was quite funny to see the deer follow our buggy over the hills like a flock of sheep. They were very excited to see him!
Eilean Donan Castle
Possibly the most famous castle in the land, Eilean Donan Castle was used for the set of Highlander, James Bond’s The World is Not Enough, and the New Avengers. It’s a beautiful castle where you can tour and learn about the history of the clans that ruled the Highlands.
It tells the tale through an excellent audio-visual display about the Jacobite uprising and fall, and the wars of the clans. You can walk through the different rooms of the castle that are decorated just as they were hundreds of years ago and get a true sense of what life was like. The gift shop is excellent and it was here that we bought a woolen scarf in the colors of Dave’s ancestors the McKenzies.
A far less intact castle but still beautiful to visit is Drome Castle. Today it is in ruins, the outer walls are still standing and you can walk inside and out exploring the coastal piece of land.
At low tide you can walk pretty far out to the sea for a good view of the castle and you can snap the obligatory picture through the doorway arch.
Duncraig Castle is a castle that has been turned into a bed and breakfast and is worth a photo stop if you are not staying there. The road leading to the railway station goes directly through the castle grounds, you can easily drive your car right up to the front door to have a look. It’s located on Loch Carron and can be seen from the town of Plockton. There are even hikes that lead out to the castle.
Where to Stay in Plockton
The Plockton Hotel – Located on the waterfront of Plockton, the Plockton Hotel is the most popular spot in town. With a Michelin rated pub, it has some of the best pub food and atmosphere in Scotland. We ate there each night, enjoying local seafood with whiskey and wine. Trip Advisor / Booking.com
Plocton Inn is another hotel in town and it has excellent dining as well.
Duncraig Castle is a castle that has been turned into a bed and breakfast and is worth a photo stop
Where to eat in Plockton: The Plockton Inn, Plockton Hotel, and Plockton Shores all specialize in seafood and are all excellent.
Day 14: Isle of Skye – North Coast 500
Visiting the Isle of Sky is an good optional side trip. While it is not located directly on the North Coast 500, it is a stones throw away. Plockton is also an excellent place to make a base for visiting the Isle of Sky. As one person said to us, “You can’t really come to this part of Scotland and not visit Skye.” We made a point to visit the Isle of Skye to see some of the highlights. A day is not enough but was just enough to view its top attractions.
When visiting the Isle of Sky, don’t miss seeing the Old Man of Storr, its most famous site. We made a b-line out there while the weather was good and then weaved our way around the island to see its beautiful landscape from its dramatic sea cliffs, waterfalls, fairy pools and the town of Portree. If you are a whisky lover, pop into the Talisker Distillery for a tasting.
And that ends a two-week North Coast 500 itinerary. You can make your way back to Inverness or continue on to explore Scotland. If you have your own car, why not stay a month? There is still so much to see from Edinburgh to Glasgow and everywhere in between.
The NC500 is one of the greatest drives in the world. In the future, the single-track roads may be turned into double-lane highways and more hotels might be popping up everywhere. But if you get there quickly, you’ll enjoy old Scottish hospitality with some extraordinary scenic views. So what are you waiting for? Book your North Coast 500 Accommodation now, rooms fill up fast and you may miss out if you wait!
North Coast 500 Tips
The North Coast 500 covers a huge portion of mainland Scotland and planning can be overwhelming. We’ve put together a few tips to help you organize your accommodations, packing and car rentals for your official North Coast 500 road trip.
The weather changes dramatically in Scotland. When asking the locals what the temperature is like in the summer season, many said it wasn’t much different from when we visited in late March/early April.
So when touring Northern Scotland, be sure to pack layers, waterproof hiking boots, and waterproof outer layers. We had all of this with us and other than this one time at Castle Sinclair Girnigo, we didn’t let wind or rain stop us from exploring and you shouldn’t either.
That is the charm of Scotland. It’s exactly the same as Iceland. If you don’t like the weather just wait a minute or so, it will change.
How to Get to Inverness
There are several ways to get to Inverness, Scotland. If you aren’t driving your own car from one of the other countries in the United Kingdom, chances are you will be flying.
Inverness has its own airport (Inverness Airport – INV) with domestic and international flights. From major cities in the UK, such as London, Manchester, and Birmingham, you can fly directly to Inverness. There are also direct flights from some European cities, such as Amsterdam and Dublin. Once you arrive at the airport, you can take a taxi or bus to get to the city center.
By Train: Inverness is well-connected by rail to other major cities in the UK, including London, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. The train station in Inverness is located in the city center, making it convenient for travelers. You can check train schedules and book tickets online via websites such as National Rail Enquiries.
By Automobile: Inverness is accessible by car via the A9, which is the main road linking the city to the rest of Scotland. If you are driving from the south, you can take the M6 and A74(M) to reach the A9. The journey time from Edinburgh or Glasgow to Inverness is approximately 3-4 hours by car, depending on traffic conditions. There are several car rental companies available at Inverness airport or in the city center, if you need to rent a car.
Tips for Driving the North Coast 500
The North Coast 500 is a scenic driving route that covers the northern coast of Scotland, and it can be a thrilling adventure for drivers. Here are some tips to keep in mind when driving the North Coast 500.
When driving the North Coast 500 be prepared for singletrack lanes. You share one lane in both directions and you will have to back up or pull over often for oncoming traffic. The rules work that if there is a passing place on your side, you are the person to pull over. If the passing place is on the other side of the road, they will.
There are plenty of passing places where slower drivers can move out of the way if they have cars behind them, and there are pullovers where you can pull in to let oncoming traffic through. In the summer season, traffic is busier, if you travel in the off-season, you will come across fewer cars.
In Scotland, like in the UK, traffic drives on the left side of the road. If you are not used to this, take some time to adjust and be extra cautious when driving, especially on narrow and winding roads.
The North Coast 500 can get busy during peak season, so be respectful of other drivers and locals. Follow the speed limits, yield to other vehicles, and use pull-outs or designated passing places to let other cars pass if you are driving slower. There is no harm in pulling over to let someone pass you. It is a common courtesy so be respectful of the drivers behind you.
Driving the North Coast 500 can be challenging. The route runs through a diverse landscape with narrow single track roads winding through steep hills, and blind corners. Stay alert and focused, especially when driving in the evening or early morning when visibility is low.
Be prepared for all weather conditions: Scotland’s weather can be unpredictable, so be ready for all types of weather and weather can change in an instant. You could encounter snow, rain, wind and sunny weather. Dress in layers and pack waterproof clothing. Bring warm clothing, waterproof gear, and a first aid kit in case of an emergency. See our tips
Watch out for wildlife: The North Coast 500 takes you through some wild and remote areas, so keep an eye out for wildlife on the road, such as deer, sheep, and cows. They can be unpredictable, so slow down and drive cautiously.
Car Rentals and Driving
Make sure to be considerate of other drivers when driving the NC500. The roads are narrow and many people don’t use the passing places dedicated to allowing others to pass. If you are driving slowly, pull over when one of the passing places comes up to let another pass.
Plus, it’s easier to find parking in towns and you can pull off on small turnouts along the route to be out of the way while capturing those awe-inspiring shots of the landscape and stunning coastal scenery. If you have a smaller car, you won’t have too much trouble getting around.
We rented a small car and it made things much easier to pull over for oncoming traffic. Many people camp on the NC 500. Campervans are allowed, but cannot navigate some of the trails and smaller tracks. So take that into consideration when booking your vehicle.
Scotland is on the Pound Sterling – 1 Pound Sterling = 1.30 USD. For up to date exchange rates visit XE Currency Convertor.
Eagle Creek Plug Adapter – This all in one adapter is all your need for Scotland outlets and other European and world travels.
Get your tunes ready, there are many places you won’t get radio service – See our Road Trip Songs Playlist
Take your time and enjoy the scenery: The North Coast 500 offers some of the most breathtaking scenery in Scotland, so take your time and enjoy it. Stop often to take photos, stretch your legs, and enjoy the views. There are plenty of scenic spots to stop and admire, such as beaches, cliffs, and waterfalls.
By following these tips, you can have a safe and enjoyable driving experience on the North Coast 500 in Scotland.
North Coast 500 Packing Tips
The weather changes dramatically in Scotland. When asking the locals what the temperature is like in the summer, many said it wasn’t much different from when we visited in late March/early April.
Packing for the North Coast 500 in Scotland requires careful planning, especially if you are traveling during the cooler months. Here are some packing tips to consider:
Warm and waterproof clothing: Scotland’s weather can be unpredictable, and it can get chilly and wet even during the summer months. Pack warm and waterproof clothing, including a waterproof jacket, pants, and shoes. Layering is also essential to stay warm, so bring sweaters, long-sleeved shirts, and thermals.
Comfortable hiking boots: The North Coast 500 offers plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities, such as hiking and walking. Bring comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots with good traction to explore the countryside.
Sun protection: While Scotland’s weather can be cold and wet, the sun can still be strong, especially during the summer months. Pack sun protection, including sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat.
Insect repellent: Scotland has its fair share of midges, tiny flying insects that can be a nuisance during the summer months. Pack insect repellent to avoid being bitten.
Camera and binoculars: The North Coast 500 offers some of the most stunning landscapes and wildlife in Scotland, so bring a camera and binoculars to capture the scenery and wildlife.
Mobile phone and charger: Make sure to bring a mobile phone and charger, as there are plenty of scenic spots with no phone coverage. It is also essential to have a GPS and a paper map to navigate the route. We also carry a portable adaper.
Cash and credit cards: While there are ATMs and credit card facilities available along the North Coast 500 route, it is always good to have some cash on hand for smaller transactions, such as parking or purchasing items from local businesses.
Where to Stay on the North Coast 500
We broke down where we stayed on the North Coast 500 in each section, but to make things easier for you, we have rounded up the best luxury hotels, self catering accommodation, and BnBs for you to check out on this amazing driving route. You should book your accommodations in advance as this
- Dornoch Castle – A historic castle located in the heart of Dornoch Trip Advisor / Booking.com
- Royal Marine Hotel – One of the few luxury hotels on the North Coast 500 East Caost and makes for a great base to explore this portion of the driving route.
Wick / Dunnet Head
- Ackergille Tower Hotel – If you are looking for more luxury hotels on the North Coast 500, check out the castle hotels. We loved our stay at Ackergille Tower hotel making for a superb base to explore along the north coast. Check it out on Trip Advisor / Booking.com
- If you are looking for self catering accommodation, Riverside Apartments has kitchens, washing machines and free WiFi view it on Trip Advisor / Booking.com
- Smoo Cave Hotel a basic hotel, but the location is a perfect stop after driving from Tongue. There’s a good bar and they have some of the best Haggis around. Compare prices on TripAdvisor
Lochinver / Drumbeg / Lochinver
- Kylesku hotel is a good base There are boat trips, hiking trails and wildlife excursions where you can spot sea otters, See it on Trip Advisor / Booking.com There is also the Drumbeg Hotel.
- We stayed at a small farmhouse called the Croft 338 B&B. It’s a basic B&B, but the Internet is good, there’s cable TV and she makes a hearty breakfast in the morning.
- The Plockton Hotel – Located on the waterfront of Plockton, the Plockton Hotel is the most popular spot in town. Trip Advisor / Booking.com
- Plocton Inn is another hotel in town and it has excellent dining as well.
- Duncraig Castle is a castle that has been turned into a bed and breakfast and is worth a photo stop
Plan your route and stops in advance: The North Coast 500 route covers over 500 miles and takes you through some remote areas. Plan your route carefully, and research the attractions and book your accommodations in advance.
When you visit Scotland, make sure to add the North Coast 500 to your itinerary. It is one of the great road trips in the world and takes you through some of the most stunning coastal scenery in the country and truly lets you experience all the highlights of the Scottish Highlands.
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