How to explore the North Coast 500 Route
The North Coast 500 is one of the world’s most epic road trips taking you over 500 miles around the far north coast of Scotland. The NC500 route is a spectacular drive taking you through some of Scotland’s best scenery – from soaring mountains, beautiful glens, and stunning beaches. However, the north coast 500 is much more than just a drive – there is so much to do on the route!
Disclaimer – this post uses affiliate links [marked by *] from which I may receive a small commission.
Here is Love, from Scotland’s guide to things to do on the North Coast 500 Route.
North Coast 500 Route Map
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.
You can 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.
What is the nc500 route?
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 also need a paper map of the North Coast 500 route.
Stage 1 – the start of the North Coast 500 route at Inverness
Things to do in Inverness
The North Coast 500 route starts in Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. Home to over 45,000 people, there are plenty of things to waylay in Inverness before you start your journey around the North Coast 500 route!
- The River Ness – the city of Inverness is bisected by the River Ness and the Caledonian Canal. Take a stroll along the river, and cross back and forth across the bouncy bridges for a view of the castle.
- Inverness Castle – sitting on the banks of the River Ness, Inverness castle was built in the 1800s and now houses Inverness Sheriff Court. You can visit the castle grounds and the north tower which has a great viewpoint of Inverness.
- Leakey’s Bookshop – home to thousands of second-hand books, Leakey’s is an Inverness treasure trove.
- Take a walking tour of Inverness – take this walking tour of Inverness* with a local guide or grab tickets for the Hop on Hop off bus tour*.
- Black Isle Brewery Bar – serves up organic beers accompanied by delicious pizzas. The Castle Pub also serves a huge range of beer overlooking the river.
- The Caledonian Canal – stretching the length of Scotland’s spectacular Great Glen, take a walk along the 62-mile Caledonian Canal down to Loch Ness.
- Culloden Battlefield – managed by the National Trust for Scotland, a visit to Culloden is sobering and stark and tells the tale of one of the most important battles in Scottish History. Free for National Trust members, otherwise £11 for adults.
- Clava Cairns – a bronze age cemetery, the Clava Cairns are made up of standing stones, cairns and graves dating back 4000 years.
- Boat trip out on Loch Ness to Urquhart Castle – The Loch Ness Monster is a national treasure – and don’t let anyone tell you she isn’t real. Take a leisurely boat trip out on Loch Ness* to the dramatic Urquhart Castle.
- Urquhart Castle – one of the largest in Scotland, and is deservedly popular – there is even a working trebuchet siege engine in the castle grounds! Entry to the castle is £9 for adults free with an Explorer Pass.
- The Loch Ness Visitor centre – this year marks the 85th anniversary of the famous Surgeon’s Photograph. Gossip is that the photo is actually of a toy submarine purchased from Woolworths with a fake Nessie head!
Stage 2 of the NC500 route – The Black Isle and Easter Ross
Things to do Easter Ross & The Black Isle
Leaving Inverness the first stage of the North Coast 500 route takes you through Easter Ross and beside the Black Isle. Don’t just drive by – there are lots of things to do on the Black Isle and Easter Ross.
- Dolphin watching – around 130 Bottlenose Dolphins live in the waters off Inverness and Morayshire. The best place to see the dolphins mucking around are Chanonry Point and North Kessock on the Black Isle north of Inverness or take a boat trip out into the Cromarty Firth. The best time to see Dolphins is on an incoming/rising tide which brings in the food for the dolphins.
- Black Isle Brewery – like craft ale and organic lager? Make sure you make a stop at the Black Isle Brewery as you head north – their beers are available to buy on-site and they door tours of the brewery.
- RSPB Tollie Red Kites – watch the RSPB volunteers feed beautiful Red Kites from the pretty farmsteading at RSPB Tollie. The Kites can also be seen flying over the A9 as you head north. Entry to RSPB Red Tollie is free.
- Hugh Miller’s Birthplace – home of geologist, folklorist and fossil hunter Hugh Miller with a beautiful small garden. Run by the National Trust for Scotland. Adults are £6.50, family tickets available.
- RSPB Nigg Bay – take a pause to visit this RSPB wetland home to pintails, pink-footed geese and in winter, wigeons.
- Glenmorangie Distillery – famous worldwide, you can take a tour of the distillery – remember no drinking for the designated driver! Other local whisky distilleries include Balblair Distillery, which has one of the oldest archive records of whisky in distilling, and Clynelish Distillery who make most of the whisky for Johnnie Walker Gold.
- Fyrish Monument – one of the NC500’s hidden gems, the view from the Fyrish Monument is well worth the 3-hour round trip walk.
- 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.
- Loch Fleet – just fancy a stroll? Walk around Loch Fleet to Little Ferry and explore Balblair Woods. You might spot Ospreys and Crossbills in the trees. You can also walk from the cabin through the woods and all the way along the coast to Dunrobin Castle.
- Golspie Big Burn to Ben Bhraggie – At Golspie make sure you visit the beautiful waterfalls at the Big Burn, and if you are feeling energetic there are mountain bike trails on Ben Bhraggie – or you could climb to the top for a view!
- Visit Mac & Wild at the Falls of Shin – next to the waterfalls at the Falls of Shin (famous for leaping Salmon) is Mac & Wild – a café and bbq serving up incredible food. We popped in for Mac & Cheese and pulled pork rolls with melted Applewood cheese – incredible!
- 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!
- 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 3 of the North Coast 500 route – Caithness
Things to do Caithness
Don’t let anyone tell you the northeast coast of Scotland is boring. Ok, it might not have white sands beaches and fjord-like sea lochs of the west coast but it is beautiful, wild, remote and full of lots of fantastic hidden gems.
- Waligoe Harbour – climb down 250 metres to the tiny Waligoe Harbour. Watch out for the weather – descending the 250 steps into sea haar can feel very spooky indeed.
- Hill O Many Stanes – Wonder just why 200 wee stones were placed in rows up to 4000 years ago.
- The Castle of Old Wick – perched on dramatic cliffs, the Castle of Old Wick one of Scotland’s oldest castles.
- Caithness Brochs – No one knows what Brochs were really used for, just that there are lots of them. There are over 200 brochs (Iron Age structures) across Caithness. Find out more from the Caithness Broch Project.
- Buchollie Castle – access is across a walkway with sheer 100m drops on each side – don’t try and visit in bad weather! Built by Sweyn Asliefson the notorious pirate and robber in about 1140 and later remodelled by the Mowat Family until 1661
- Castle Sinclair Girnigoe – near Wick is a spectacular ruin.
- Duncansby Head Lighthouse and stacks – the most northerly part of the UK and a lot more attractive than John O’Groats. Take a walk to Duncansby’s huge sea stacks.
- John O’Groats – the most northerly village in the UK – take the photo of the sign.
- Castle of Mey – previously the home of the Queen Mother in Scotland, you can now tour this royal palace.
- Thurso – a good wee town for lunch. Walk along the river to the beach to watch seals.
- Scrabster Harbour – walk from the harbour to Holburn Head to see the blowholes with views of Orkney.
- Melvich Beach – one of the north coast’s most stunning beaches, just a short walk from the road to Melvich Beach.
- The Split Stane, Sutherland – the boundary between Sutherland and Caithness – said to have been split by the devil’s tail. Find the stone at Drumholliston near Melvich.
- Tongue causeway and bridge – a dramatic bridge over the Kyle of Tongue sea loch
- Strathy Point Beach/Strathy Point Lighthouse – a great spot to see dolphins and whales in the summer month.
- Castle Varrich – climb up to Castle Varrich for a great view over Kyle and Ben Loyal climb.
- Climb Ben Loyal and Ben Hope – the Queen of Scottish Mountains, Ben Loyal is a Corbett with four dramatic peaks to climb. Ben Hope is the most northerly Munro.
- Ceannabeinne – visit a highland clearance site on a short walk with beautiful sea views and a great beach
- Smoo Cave – explore this huge cave near Durness by foot or by boat. Smoo Cave is floodlit inside and was formed by both the river inside and the sea outside! The tour costs £6.
- Balnakeil Craft Village – have hot chocolate at Cocoa Mountain – you won’t regret it.
- Sandwood Bay Beach – It might be an eight-mile walk to Sandwood Bay and back, but boy is the hike worth the trek. This is one of Scotland’s best beached.
Stage 4 of the NC500 – Lochinver & Assynt
Things to do Lochinver and Assynt
One of my favourite parts of Scotland, and the most dramatic part of the North Coast 500, Assynt is famous for its mountains – and Lochinver for its pies!
- Handa Island – one of Scotland’s most beautiful islands and a nationally important wildlife reserve, Hand Island is home to Puffins, rare Bonxies, stunning views of the Assynt mountains.
- Kylesku Bridge – a famous photo stop on the NC500 route, the Kylesku Hotel is nearby serving up great seafood.
- Achmelvich and Clachtoll Beaches – two beautiful beaches well worth an afternoon detour.
- 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.
- Lochinver Larder – famous for their pies.
- 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.
- Stac Pollaidh – 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.
- Suilven – At 731m Suilven might be considered a wee hill in Scotland (Ben Nevis is nearly twice its height) but once seen, Suilven (pronounced Sool-ven) is a hill never to be forgotten – it is one of Scotland’s most iconic mountains.
- 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!
- 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.
- Whale Cruise – Take a Hebridean Whale Cruise to spot otters, seabirds and even dolphins and sharks in the waters off Gairloch.
- Big Sands and Red Point Beach – views across to Raasay and Skye.
The last stage of the North Coast 500 – Wester Ross and Applecross
Things to do Wester Ross and Applecross
With over 3000 square miles of soaring mountains and atmospheric glens, ancient Caledonian forest and wild beaches set against a backdrop of fjord-like lochs; Wester Ross is one of the world’s most spectacular, and remote, regions and probably the most beautiful part of the famous North Coast 500.
- 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.
- Torridon Countryside Centre – low-level walks and visit the Torridon Countryside Centre.
- 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.
- Applecross Penisula – To get here, you either need to brave the famous Bealach Na Ba pass or the winding coast road from the neighbouring village of Shieldaig – both of which require nerves of steel from those not used to Scotland’s dramatic west coast roads. For those who do make it, the peninsula is as blissful as it gets – the view across the Inner Sound to Raasay and Skye is mesmerising.
- Bealach na Ba Viewpoint – drive this famous 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.
- 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.
- Glen Docherty – detour along the A832 for stunning views to Loch Maree.
- Strome Castle – stop on Loch Carron to discover one of the National Trust for Scotland’s little gems.
- Plockton – where the mild, warm and wet climate allows palm trees to prosper on the waterfront, and home to two great pubs!
Ready to go? Let’s road trip!
Love, from Scotland