It has been called the UK’s greatest road trip; the ultimate Scottish adventure and a journey you should definitely take at least once in your lifetime. Whatever you decide to call it, there’s no better way to experience the very best that Scotland has to offer than by travelling the North Coast 500 (NC500).
Winding through 516 miles of breathtaking scenery, stunning beaches, glistening lochs and historic towns and cities, it’s little wonder Scotland’s NC500 has become such a mecca for tourists in recent years.
But with some careful planning and by timing your journey to avoid the queue of high-season campervans and caravans, you can hit the high road with the solitude this trip truly deserves.
Beginning and ending in Inverness, the road trip spans the North of Scotland and takes in many of the country’s most famous and beautiful locations.
While there’s no set way to tackle it, here’s our guide to the five key stages, the places to go and how to ensure you get the most out of your Highland fling.
Stage one: Inverness To john o’groats
En route: Inverness, Beauly, Dingwall, Tain, Dornoch, Brora, Helmsdale, Dunbeath, Wick, John O’Groats Whether you explore Inverness at the start of your trip or at the end, just make sure you explore it! Check out the historic Inverness Castle, the fascinating Museum & Art Gallery, the enchanting Inverness Botanic Garden or take a short drive to mystical Loch Ness. Once you hit the road make sure to stop off in the charming town of Dingwall for a bite to eat at one of several popular dining spots while a trip to Dornoch and its world-famous championship golf course is well worth a visit. Further up the coast Wick is the place to head for a whisky fix and is home to a number of famous distilleries who offer tours.
- Dornoch Castle Hotel and Restaurant
STAGE TWO: JOHN O’GROATS TO DURNESS
En route: John O’ Groats, Thurso, Bettyhill, Tongue, Eriboll, Polla, Durness You might feel inclined to visit John O’ Groats to have the obligatory snap in front of the famous ‘Journey’s End’ signpost but don’t hang about as there’s a wealth of beauty and nature just waiting to be explored along this fascinating stretch. It’s a haven for wildlife so don’t forget your binoculars to watch the many puffins, guillemots and other seasonal birds settling among the surrounding cliffs. At Scrabster you can take the ferry over to the Orkney Islands, home to some of Scotland’s very best walking routes while back on the mainland, you’ll drive through the North West Highlands GeoPark. Described as one of the highlights of the entire NC500 experience, this UNESCO designated Geopark boasts unique geology and outstanding landscapes. While for surfers, Thurso East has some of the best waves in the UK and has hosted numerous international competitions..
- The Tongue Hotel & Restaurant
STAGE three: Durness to Ullapool
En route: Durness, Kylesku Bridge, Lochinver, Ullapool After two adrenaline-fuelled stages taking in the highs of Scotland’s finest views you may well want to start this leg of the journey relaxing on the gorgeous sandy beaches around Durness. Both Sango Sands and Balnakeil Beach are both idyllic spots while further en route Sandwood Bay has been described as the most beautiful in the country. A boat trip from Durness to Cape Wrath is another adventure of a lifetime that comes highly recomended and be sure to stop off at the striking Kylesku Bridge which serves as an ideal vantage point for some stunning scenic photography. Finally, finish your journey in the popular fishing port of Ullapool where you can check out some of the town’s welcoming watering holes, restaurants and hotels – we love the Seafood Shack and Ceildih Place – and watching the sun set over Loch Broom.
- Seafood Shack and Ceildih Place, Ullapool
STAGE four: Ullapool to Applecross
En route: Ullapool, Aultbea, Gairloch, Kinlochewe, Applecross After a welcome break in Ullapool, lovers of nature will be in their element on this leg of the trip. Highlights along the way include Inverewe Gardens at Poolewe, Leckmelm Shrubbery and Arboretum, Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve and Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve – best known for its suspension bridge and its spectacular mile-long canyon, several magnificent gorges, and an abundance of native wildlife. While you’re there, be sure to take in the view of Slioch across Loch Maree as it’s one of the sights of the Northern Highlands. At Applecross, you’ll find red sandy beaches and the Applecross Heritage Centre where you can learn about local history and heritage. Check out the Applecross Inn for great food and incredible views across Skye.
- The Old Inn and The Shieling Restaurant, Gairloch.
STAGE five: Applecross to Inverness
En route: Applecross, Lochcarron, Strathpeffer, Inverness While your road trip might be nearing its end, there’s still plenty to enjoy and explore on the final fifth stage including one of the most famous sections of the NC500 – the spectacular drive up the Bealach Na Ba road. Reaching no less than 2,053 ft, the route offers breath-taking views and a truly unforgettable driving experience. Sit back and enjoy another spell-binding scenic masterclass as you journey through picturesque villages such as Stratchcarron and Garve. A little off route but also well worth a visit is the rail journey to the beautiful village of Plockton and a trip to the Victorian town of Strathpeffer Spa. Finally, you’ll find yourself back in Inverness, where you can head to one of the numerous restaurants and pubs to celebrate completing one of the most unforgettable road trips of your life.
- The Plockton Hotel, Plockton
• Royal Dornoch golf course – a mecca for all serious golfers.
• Whilagoe Steps – natural harbour enclosed on three sides by 250ft cliffs.
• Helmsdale River – one of the best salmon rivers in Scotland.
• Thurso East has some of the best waves in the UK for surfers
• Ben Hope – Walk up Scotland’s most northerly Munro
• Cape Wrath – is another adventure of a lifetime.
• Sandwood Bay, (pictured right)
• Inverewe Gardens at Poolewe
• Beinn Eighe National Nature reserve
• Bealach na Ba – 2,000ft pass in Applecross.