Welcome to the North Coast 500…
Have you heard about the North Coast 500? Scotland’s incredible road trip takes in 500 miles around the north coast of Scotland taking in some of the most spectacular scenery in the world – there’s no wonder they call it Scotland’s Route 66.
With over 500 miles of dramatic driving roads, beautiful coastal scenery, turquoise blue seas and white sand beaches, the North Coast 500 (NC500) is one of Scotland’s best road trips. Here’s how to drive the North Coast 500 route.
Disclaimer – this post uses affiliate links [marked by *] from which I may receive a small commission.
Ready to drive the North Coast 500 route?
The North Coast 500 takes you over 500 miles around the north coast of Scotland. Many of the roads are single track and are home to highland coos, sheep, geese and all manner of other travellers.
Before you set off it is worth reading up on the rules of the road in Scotland – Visit Scotland have a great video guide to how to drive in Scotland. The Bealach Na Ba to the Applecross Penisula is not for the faint of heart.
You will need as much time as you can get to do the route – you will want to stop every couple of hours and get out of the car and go for a walk – the North Coast 500 should definitely not be all about the road.
I would suggest that you need a minimum of five days to do the route, a week would be perfect, and 10 days or more if you want to visit Inverness or any of the west coast islands.
Don’t forget to go off-piste. There is lots to see and do just off the route – don’t miss a trip into Cromarty and the Black Isle, take a trip across to Orkney or to the gorgeous Handa Island. I love the wee village of Laird, the Falls of Shin, and it is always worth exploring the mountains of Assynt.
Ready to drive the NC500? Let’s go.
What is the North Coast 500 in Scotland?
The North Coast 500 is a road-tripping route around the far north coast of Scotland.
How long is the North Coast 500?
516-miles (830 km)
Is the North Coast 500 Scotland’s Route 66?
The NC500 is often described as Scotland’s route 66 – because it is one of the world’s most epic road trips. However, there are some differences. Route 66 crosses eight states over 2400 miles from Chicago to California.
The NC500 miles is a lot shorter at just over 500 miles and takes you through some of the most remote bits of Scotland.
Where does the North Coast 500 start and finish?
The NC500 starts and finishes in the Highland capital of Inverness.
How long does it take to drive the North Coast 500 route?
How long you take driving the North Coast 500 is up to you. If you just want to experience one of the world’s best roads you could just about manage it in a day – but then you’ll miss everything the route has to offer.
Why not take longer to visit huge sea caves, sail to a tropical island to see puffins, or bag Scotland’s most northerly Munro … there is so much to see and do along the route it’s a shame to not do it justice.
If you just want to see the main sights I would suggest you will need a minimum of four days to do the main stages of the NC500, however, I would suggest a week to 10 days to really make the most of your trip around the North Coast 500.
When should I drive the NC 500?
Scotland gets the best weather in the traditional ‘shoulder seasons’ of Spring – April/May and Autumn – September/October. In Scotland, Summer can be wet, but you are most likely to get the best temperatures.
Whenever you drive the route, Scotland’s North Coast 500 will take you on an incredible road trip around Scotland you won’t ever forget…
What’s the best time of year to drive the North Coast 500?
- My favourite time(s) of year in Scotland are April – May and September.
- June and August can be wet months in Scotland.
- July is busy with UK school holidays – particularly campsites on the west and north coasts.
- Most attractions (from the National Trust or Historic Scotland) close from October to Easter. Many of the grounds are still open.
- There is always a risk of snow in winter months inland from the coasts.
…but what about ticks and midges in Scotland?
Travelling in summer in Scotland means midgie – a tiny biting black fly – they are legendary for a reason. You can’t avoid them, but you can beat them – pick up the best insect repellent for the Scottish midge – ‘Smidge’.
Sadly, midgies are worst in the early evening – just as you want to sit out on the lochside with that sundowner drink…
You also need to watch out for ticks in Scotland. These beasties sometimes carry lyme disease, so wear long trousers if you are hiking and always check yourself out.
If you want to avoid beasties, the best time to travel in Scotland is spring, autumn and winter.
North Coast 500 – clockwise or anti-clockwise?
I would suggest going anti-clockwise. Start at Inverness Castle and travel first up the East coast to John o’Groats, across to Durness, down to Gairloch and finally Applecross taking in some of Scotland’s most spectacular coastal scenery along the way.
Alternatively, you could start your trip with a drive through Glencoe and visiting the famous Eilean Donan Castle before joining the route clockwise on the west coast at Strathcarron.
Any driving tips for the North Coast 500?
Most of the NC500 route is on single-track roads – and you will be driving the route along with sports cars, campervans, motorbikes, cyclists, tractors, delivery drivers, sheep, coos and deer.
Here are a few tips for driving the North Coast 500.
- KEEP LEFT – or you will cause an accident
- Know the speed limits, road signs and general driving advice – in Scotland, understand how to drive on a single track road!
- Learn how to use passing places on the single track road – always pull to your left into the passing space and be prepared to reverse
- Acknowledge your fellow drivers – a wave, a thank you or let someone past
- Remember the route is not just for you to enjoy your holiday – people use the roads as part of their daily life, so let people past.
- I recommend that your stops are no more than 1-1.5 hours apart unless much of the journey is on a motorway or you know the rules of the road. 2 hours on mountain roads will exhaust even the most patient of drivers.
Is the North Coast 500 suitable for motorhomes and campervans?
Yes – and lots do – although you will need to be prepared for the single track roads. The Bealach Na Ba is the only section not recommended for anything larger than a 16 – 18 ft camper and the Berriedale Brae is a very steep hairpin bend.
If you have never driven a campervan before I suggest doing the route anti-clockwise as you will be coming down the Bealach Na Ba rather than up it.
Are there petrol stations on the North Coast 500?
There are plenty of petrol stations on the route. I suggest filling up regularly as the NC500 is quite remote in places.
What about the 3g mobile phone signal if I get lost?
It is an issue, I admit. Most of the route does not have a signal, let alone 4g, so be prepared. However, wifi is very common in hotels and b&bs so you will be able to keep up with the outside world along the way. Using google maps? Use wifi to download sections of your map each day.
What is the NC500 route?
- Starting in Inverness you will drive to the very top of the UK, spotting dolphins and visiting amazing castles along the way.
- You will then road trip along the far north coast of Scotland – don’t miss the incredible Duncansby Head Stacks, exploring the huge Smoo Cave, and trying the famous hot chocolate at Cocoa Mountain.
- Heading south, you will then travel through the otherworldly landscapes of Lochinver and Assynt and drive along a coastline pepper-potted with incredible white sand beaches with turquoise blue seas to Wester Ross.
- Finally, you will drive through the huge Torridon mountains, past fiord-like lochs to the beautiful Applecross Peninsula where you end your trip driving the famous Bealach na Bà.
Is there a section of the North Coast 500 I should not miss?
There is a saying in Scotland that ‘west is best’ and the route certainly takes you through the best of the west coast of Scotland‘s scenery, but that doesn’t mean the east coast of the North Coast 500 isn’t stunning in its own right – with dolphins, fairytale castles, over 200 brochs (Iron Age structures) and the 330 Waligoe Steps.
Plan your North Coast 500 Itinerary
Whether you want to drive the route in 4 days or 3 weeks, take a tent or stay in luxury accommodation, there is a North Coast 500 itinerary for you! A good way to plan out your NC500 road trip is to think of the route in four stages.
If you are travelling anti-clockwise – try this North Coast 500 itinerary:
- Stage 1 – Inverness & Easter Ross – Starting from the Highland capital, Inverness, drive up Scotland’s east coast
- Stage 2 – Caithness – Explore Scotland’s wild north coast including Cape Wrath and Durness
- Stage 3 – Sutherland & Assynt -Drive the beautiful coast from Durness to Gairloch and visit Scotland’s best beaches.
- Stage 4 – Wester Ross – Explore the Torridon mountains and drive the incredible Bealach Na Ba.
Things to do on the North Coast 500
Don’t just drive the route, there are lots of things to do on the North Coast 500 along the way:
You might want to purchase a 3, 7, or 14-day Historic Scotland Explorer Pass*
Stage 1 – Inverness & Easter Ross
Start in Inverness – walk along the River Ness and the Caledonian Canal, discover the incredible Leakey’s Bookshop, take a boat trip out on Loch Ness* to Urquhart Castle, visit the Nessie centre and then head back into town to the Black Isle Brewery Bar which serves up organic beers accompanied by delicious pizzas. The Castle pub also serves a huge range of beer overlooking the river. Why not take a walking tour of Inverness*?
Detour to Culloden Battlefield – telling the tale of one of the most important hours in Scottish History, a visit to Culloden is sobering and stark – even if you are not long related to one of the clans. Take a walk out onto the field, but please respect it – the Fraser clan who died on this moor have nothing to do with the fantasy Outlander tale. The battlefield is managed by the National Trust for Scotland, free for members, £11 for adults.
Don’t miss dolphin watching – it is estimated that around 130 Bottlenose Dolphins live in the waters off Inverness and Morayshire. The best place to see the dolphins mucking around is Chanonry Point on the Black Isle north of Inverness. The best time to see Dolphins is on an incoming/rising tide which brings in the food for the dolphins. Fortrose Bay Campsite is located on Chanory Point.
Explore the amazing Dunrobin Castle – a gorgeous stately home just outside Golspie, Dunrobin Castle has lovely gardens – with the designs copied from Versailles. Dunrobin is a popular spot for Instagrammers – the castle looks like it just fell out of a fairy tale!
Visit the strange Fyrish Monument – one of the NC500’s hidden gems, the view from the Fyrish Monument is well worth the 3 hour round trip walk.
Stop off at the Berriedale Brae viewpoint (A9 north of Helmsdale). The Berriedale Brae is an incredibly steep hairpin bend. This is one of the most challenging sections of the North Coast 500 route.
Stage 2 – Caithness
Don’t let anyone tell you the northeast coast of Scotland is boring. Ok, it might not have white sands beaches and fjordlike sea lochs of the west coast but it is beautiful, wild, remote and full of lots of fantastic hidden gems.
Climb down to Waligoe Harbour – descend the 330 Waligoe Steps to a tiny harbour surrounded by 250 m cliffs. Watch out for the weather – descending the steps into sea haar is very spooky indeed.
Find the Hill O Many Stanes – wander amongst 200 wee stones placed in rows up to 4000 years ago. Wonder why.
Visit the Castle of Old Wick – one of Scotland’s oldest castles. The cliffs on which the Castle of Old Wick perches are just as dramatic.
Visit the Caithness Brochs – there are over 200 brochs (Iron Age structures) across Caithness. No one knows what they were really used for, just that there are lots of them. Find out more from the Caithness Broch Project.
Find Bucholly Castle – one of Caithness’s more spectacular castles, access is across a walk way with sheer 100m drops on each side – don’t try and visit in bad weather! Love castles? Castle Sinclair Girnigoe near Wick is also a spectacular ruin.
Walk out to the Duncansby Head Lighthouse and stacks – john O’Groats might be thought of as the most northerly part of the UK, but it is not. It is actually Duncansby Head – and it’s also a whole lot more attractive. Take a walk out to Duncansby’s huge sea stacks.
Visit the Castle of Mey – previously the home of the Queen Mother in Scotland, you can now tour this royal palace.
Walk on the stunning Melvich Beach – one of the north coast’s best beaches, it is just a short walk from the road to Melvich Beach.
Looking for dolphins? Walk out to the Strathy Point Lighthouse – it is a great spot to see dolphins and whales in the summer month.
Climb Ben Loyal – known as the Queen of Scottish Mountains, Ben Loyal might just be a Corbett but it has four dramatic peaks to climb. For a great view over Kyle and Ben Loyal climb up to Castle Varrich.
More things to do in Caithness – Stop at Mhoine House to see the graffiti art. Discover the huge Smoo Cave, have hot chocolate at Balnakeil Craft Village and walk to the incredible Sandwood Bay Beach, take a wildlife tour from John O’Groats*.
Stage 3 – Sutherland & Assynt
One of my favourite parts of Scotland, and the most dramatic part of the North Coast 500…
Photograph Ardvreck Castle – Sitting on the banks of Loch Assynt sits the ruins of Ardvreck Castle, once the 15th-century stronghold of Clan MacLeod, longtime owners of the Isle of Skye and the Isle of Lewis and Harris.
Visit The Knockan Crag – a site of special scientific interest famous for the Highland’s Controversy – a long-running argument between geologists about the age of the rocks here. There is a visitor centre for those interested to find out just why the debate over Knockan Crag was so bitter and a walking trail for those just wishing to take in the incredible views. Explore Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve.
Climb Stac Pollaidh – Despite rising to just under 2000ft, Stac Pollaidh (pronounced Stac Polly) is one of Scotland’s best hill walks. With a well-made path to the summit, easy and fun scrambling over its pinnacles and ridges and incredible views over the Assynt mountains of Cul More and Suilven, climbing Stac Pollaidh is not to be missed.
Walk across the spectacular Corrieshalloch Gorge – through which the River Droma falls through a series of waterfalls, including the huge 45 m Falls of Measach. Don’t be scared!
Visit the spectacular Inverewe Garden and Estate at Poolewe, one of Scotland’s most beautiful gardens. Inverewe House has recently been opened to the public for the first time in its history and gives visitors a snapshot of 1930s life in a Scottish estate. Visit Inverewe.
Explore some of the world’s best beaches – head to Red Point, for beautiful red sands and Big Sands for views across to Raasay and Skye. In Assynt, Achmelvich might be one of Scotland’s most famous beaches, but my favourite beach is Clachtoll.
Stage 4 – Wester Ross and Applecross
Photograph Ardvreck Castle – Sitting on the banks of Loch Assynt sits the ruins of Ardvreck Castle, once the 15th-century stronghold of Clan MacLeod, longtime owners of the Isle of Skye and the Isle of Lewis and Harris.
Visit the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve – explore the woodlands, home to 350-year-old Scots Pines remnant of the ancient Caledonian forest. Beinn Eighe is a Unesco Biosphere, covering 500,000ha meters of protected landscape.
Take a walk to Sands Beach – voted by Countryfile readers as the Beach of the Year in 2015/16. It is one of my favourite places in Scotland and a gorgeous 10km walk from the village on the Peninsula.
Explore Attadale Gardens – where, in the late 19th century a plant collector started a garden on the Attadale estate, importing rhododendrons from all over the world. Visit Attadale Gardens.
Don’t miss out on visiting the village of Plockton, where the mild, warm and wet climate allows palm trees to prosper on the waterfront!
Drive the famous and terrifying Bealach Na Bà pass across the remote Applecross Peninsula. The road is utterly incredible, and definitely not for the faint of heart, for an idea just look at this film of the route.
Best things to do with kids on the North Coast 500
- A boat trip out on Loch Ness to Urquhart Castle – try and spot the Loch Ness Monster
- Urquhart Castle – one of the largest in Scotland
- Dolphin watching, around 130 Bottlenose Dolphins live in the waters off Inverness
- RSPB Tollie Red Kites – watch the RSPB volunteers feed beautiful Red Kites
- Black Rock Gorge – take a short walk up the Black Rock Gorge north of Dingwall. This ‘box gorge’ appeared in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
- Waligoe Harbour – climb down 250 metres to the tiny Waligoe Harbour.
- Melvich Beach – one of the north coast’s most stunning beaches
- Smoo Cave – explore this huge cave near Durness by foot or by boat.
- Cocao Mountain – kids will love the hot chocolates!
- Whale Cruise – Take a Hebridean Whale Cruise to spot otters, seabirds and even dolphins and sharks in the waters off Gairloch.
Best Beaches on the North Coast 500
My favourite beaches on the North Coast 500 are:
- Melvich Beach – the north coast’s best beach
- Strathy Point Beach/Strathy Point Lighthouse – a great spot to see dolphins and whales
- Sandwood Bay Beach – It might be an eight-mile walk to Sandwood Bay and back, but boy is the hike worth the trek.
- Achmelvich and Clachtoll Beaches – two beautiful beaches well worth an afternoon detour.
- Big Sands and Red Point Beach – huge beaches with views across to Raasay and Skye.
- Sands Beach – voted by Countryfile readers as the Beach of the Year in 2015/16.
Best castles on the North Coast 500
The best castles worth a stop on the NC500
- Dunrobin Castle – a gorgeous stately home just outside Golspie which looks like a fairytale castle
- The Castle of Old Wick – perched on dramatic cliffs, the Castle of Old Wick one of Scotland’s oldest castles.
- Buchollie Castle – access is across a walkway with sheer 100m drops on each side – don’t try and visit in bad weather!
- Castle Sinclair Girnigoe – near Wick is a spectacular ruin.
- Castle of Mey – previously the home of the Queen Mother in Scotland, you can now tour this royal palace.
- Castle Varrich – climb up to Castle Varrich for a great view over Kyle and Ben Loyal.
- Ardvreck Castle – Sitting on the banks of Loch Assynt
- Strome Castle – stop on Loch Carron to discover one of the National Trust for Scotland’s little gems.
North Coast 500 route map – things to Do
My North Coast 500 route map has lots of ideas of things to see and do to help you plan your North Coast 500 itinerary.
- Yellow – places to visit
- Light green – places to stay & eat
- Brown – mountains to climb
- Orange – towns and villages
- Blue – where to eat and drink
- Dark green – petrol stations
The North Coast 500 is not a waymarked route and the highlands of Scotland are renowned for not having a 3g or even in some places a mobile signal, you will need actually need a paper map of the North Coast 500 route.
- Download my north coast 500 map to your smartphone. Click on the link via your phone and it will open in the google maps app so you can follow it.
- Get a copy of the North Coast 500 official map from northcoast500.com or download the North Coast 500 app.
- Use the wifi in your accommodation to download your daily sections of the route to Google Maps.
North Coast 500 guidebooks
Check out these recommended guidebooks for your road trip! [affiliate links]
- Charles Tait’s North Coast 500
- The Rough Guide to the North Coast 500
- The North Coast 500 map
- Rough Guide to the Scottish Highland’s and Islands
- The Wild Guide to Scotland
Where to stay on the North Coast 500
There are lots of ways to do the NC500 – with a tent, staying in b&bs or self-catering. How you do it is up to you! There are hundreds of places to stay in the Scottish Highlands* from fancy hotels, luxury lodges, AirBnBs and cool campsites. If you are looking for options for certain areas use my (affiliate) links :
- Stage 1 – Inverness
- Stage 2 – Caithness and the Northern Highlands
- Stage 3 – Lochinver
- Stage 4 – Plockton
Here are my recommended places to stay on the North Coast 500.
(affiliate links used below)
Do I need to pre-book north coast 500 accommodation before setting off?
It depends if you are camping or booking pubs and hotels. For hotels, B&Bs and camper vans the route is so popular many places are booked up a year in advance – so get planning! For tent camping, for some of the more remote places such as staying at Applecross Campsite, I would recommend booking in advance. However, even doing the route in summer we found we could easily find camping spots – and change location dependent on the weather.
North Coast 500 Self-Catering Accommodation
- Book into a luxury cabin near Golpies on the east coast of the North Coast 500 at the Birdwatcher’s Cabin*. You can watch ospreys from your deck and walk to the fairy tale Dunrobin Castle along the beach. Read more about the Birdwatchers Cabin.
- Enjoy splendid isolation in the quirky Batbox, on the west coast of the NC500 near Lochinver – book the Batbox with Airbnb (first-time user? use my referral for £25 off!)
- Natural Retreats, self-catering accommodation at John O’Groats
North Coast 500 Hotels and b&bs
- Kylesku Hotel, fish heaven at this hotel in Sutherland
- Scottish hospitality at its best at Torridon Hotel* and Torridon Inn
- Westlea B&B in Ullapool – check out the Munro room!
- Visit Scotland’s sunshine coast and stay at Plockton Inn
- Book a year in advance for the Applecross Inn, Main Street
North Coast 500 Campsites
Pitch up and put your feet up here…
- Fortrose Bay Campsite
- Wick Caravan and camping site
- Dunnet Bay Caravan Site
- Sango Sands Campsite
- Clachtoll Beach Campsite
- Sands. Gairloch
- Applecross campsite
Love, from Scotland x