The North Coast 500 - Scotland's Best Road Trip
The North Coast 500 (NC500) is a coastal route in the north of Scotland which starts and ends at Inverness Castle and covers just over 500 miles in total. It was launched in 2015 by the Tourism Project Board of the North Highland Initiative after a gap in the market was identified for a tourism offering that included all counties in the area.
Visit Scotland and Highlands & Islands Enterprise supported the venture and it achieved immediate success with Now Travel Magazine listing it as fifth in "Top Five Coastal Routes in the World" and the increased number of visitors has had great economic benefits for the area.
A quick search for #nc500 on Instagram gives over 400,000 results whilst the same hashtag on Tiktok has over 60 million views, highlighting that the NC500 Route is one of the most popular and successful road trip routes in the UK.
The official NC500 route runs through six regions of the North Highlands; the Black Isle, Caithness, Easter Ross, Inverness-shire, Sutherland, and Wester Ross. As a result it is recommended to give yourself between 5 and 7 days to cover the route but adding to this will allow you to take in more of this beautiful corner of the world.
You'll be able to drive by dramatic cliffs and visit sandy beaches all along the route and stop off at destinations that suit your interests and allow you to take in the natural beauty of Northern Scotland and the Central Highlands.
There's also a great selection of stops and accommodation along the route so whether you're camping, taking the campervan, looking for self catering accommodation, or a traditional hotel there's options to suit your journey.
The NC500 route starts and ends, technically, at Inverness Castle and the city itself is full of stunning scenery and rich history that it's worth a day or two of your trip on its own.
Within Inverness itself you can visit the Cathedral which is the most northerly Anglican Cathedral in the UK or The Malt Room which is a family-owned specialist whisky bar with NC500 Flights available to allow you to sample from some of the distilleries you'll pass on the route.
Just south of Inverness lies Loch Ness, one of the most famous destinations in Scotland, and the beautiful villages that run along its shores. The main base for lots of the activities is Drumnadrochit which is home to the Loch Ness Centre, Urquhart Castle, and lots of options for boat tours of the Loch itself.
Other must see attractions in the area include Brodie Castle, a 12th century rose-coloured castle which was the ancestral home of the Brodie Clan for over 400 years, and Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre, an experience that guides you through the 1745 Jacobite Rising and the Battle of Culloden.
Easter Ross covers the area north of Inverness and covers the eastern area of the Ross region of the Scottish Highlands. It includes towns such as Dingwall, Invergordon, and Tain and has a fascinating Pictish history that you can explore all over the region.
The Pictish Trail will take you all over the area and will allow you to see beautiful sculptures and visit two information points: Tarbat Discovery Centre and Seaboard Memorial Hall.
The Fyrish Monument can be found just outside of Alness which was built in 1782 on Fyrish Hill and was built under the instruction of Sir Hector Munro who was a native Lord of the area that had served as a General in India. It is designed to represent the Gate Of Negapatam in India and can be seen from almost anywhere in Kiltearn and Alness whilst providing extensive views of the Cromarty Firth.
For whiskey fans you'll find the famed Glenmorangie Distillery just outside of Tain which is home to the tallest stills in Scotland and produces the award winning spirit. It's open all year round and offers a few different tour options to suit what you're interested in knowing about.
The Black Isle
A short drive from Inverness lies The Black Isle: a peninsula that is steeped in Scottish history and home to the towns of Cromarty and Fortrose. It's surrounded by three separate bodies of water, the Cromarty Firth in the north, Beauly Firth to the south, and Moray Firth to the east, is reachable from Inverness across the Kessock Bridge, and is a section of Easter Ross which has plenty to see on its own.
If you're travelling the route in the summer you can tie it in with a visit to the Black Isle Show which is held on the first Thursday in August at Mansfield Showground at Muir of Ord. This is the largest outdoor agricultural show in the North of Scotland and is a great family day out.
You'll be able to see farmer's showing off their livestock, show jumping, the Flower Show, sheep sheering, vintage tractors, and live performances from entertainers such as Highland dancers. If you're unfamiliar with County Shows then it's a great opportunity to see a showcase of many traditional aspects of Scotland as people will travel from all over to attend and present.
Fortrose is the largest town in the area and is known for things such as its 13th century cathedral and for being the home of the Brahan Seer, a predictor of the future who lived in the 17th century with his predictions apparently including the Highland Clearances, the discovery of North Sea Oil, and the Battle of Culloden.
Chanonry Point lies just beyond Fortrose and is one of the best places in the UK to view bottlenose dolphins with porpoises and grey seals regularly being seen from the area too. There's also an active lighthouse which was first lit in 1846, although is now run by the Northern Lighthouse Board.
The town of Cromarty is located in the north east coast of the peninsula and offers wildlife tours into the Cromarty Firth, which are incredibly popular with visitors. You can also visit The Cheese House, the only Dutch cheese shop in the Highlands, which specialises in Dutch and Scottish cheeses and is built in the Old Police Station - utilising the original cell as a storeroom!
Sutherland covers a huge area of the route, stretching from Dornoch all the way along the remainder of the east coast before taking you along the north and west coasts until you reach the area around Lochinver.
The Falls of Shin are a lovely little detour from the main route that allows you to explore forest trails, playpark, and garden games area but also, if you visit at the right time of year, you can watch the salmon leaping. It's one of the best places in the UK to watch the fish as they return from the sea to their spawning grounds with the best time to catch them between May and September.
There are several National Nature Reserve locations in this area of the NC500 too. These are the best nature reserves in Scotland and are all home to nationally or internationally important species and habitats. These include Loch Fleet, just outside of Dornoch, and Forsinard Flows which lies a little further north.
Smoo Cave is one of the destinations you should definitely add to your itinerary. It's located just east of Durness and is fully accessible to the public 365 days a year (unless heavy rainfall has caused the cave to flood). You can also opt to take a tour further into the cave to learn about the natural and human history of the cave. If you're not opting for the tour then it takes 10 minutes to walk to the gorgeous waterfall and lake chamber, a truly stunning sight.
Further along the west coast takes you to Clashnessie and the beautiful Clashnessie Falls, where the water comes down the falls to enter the sea. At around 15 metres high they are a wonderful focal point for photographers and finding them is a 15 walk from the town itself.
A little further south lies Achmelvich Bay, just three miles outside of Lochinver, and its stunning white sand beach. It can be a little busier than some on the route as it has a campsite nearby but offers great views, lovely walks, and is a good option for water sports too.
Caithness covers the most north eastern part of the Highlands and is tucked in to the corner of the Sutherland area.
John O Groats is probably the most well known location along the route and serves as the most northerly village in Scotland. It marks the starting point for those travelling the "End to End" journey of the UK where the finish lies 876 miles away at Land's End in Cornwall.
If you want to be really exact and visit the most northern tip on Mainland Scotland then you'll need to stop at RSPB Scotland Dunnet Head. This nature reserve is home to lots of seabirds such as puffins, razorbills, and guillemots and the RSPB undertake annual seabird monitoring in the area.
As well as this you'll find some old military buildings that are still standing on the site as Dunnet Head was of great strategic importance during World War II. Buildings in the area included the Scapa Flow naval base, a Chain Home Low radar station, and a bunker used by the Royal Observer Corps during the Cold War. The Lighthouse is an active lighthouse which was built in 1831 by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson.
About 6 miles west of John O Groats lies the Castle of Mey which was purchased by Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and then restored for use as her holiday home. It is now available for tours and viewing between May and September aside from a period of 10 days at the end of July when King Charles III and Camilla, Queen Consort, usually stay.
From here you head west to Thurso and can stop by the Dunnet Bay Distillers who create premium Scottish spirits that you can sample after you've learned all about the product and how its made.
Thurso itself is a great base for exploring the surrounding area whilst also having Dunnet Bay right on the outskirts which is a gorgeous beach which is fairly sheltered from the elements and stretches for over two miles. It's also a key spot for surfers as it offers dramatic surf when the wind is high.
Wester Ross, as it's name suggests, covers the remainder of the west coast and loops you back around to Inverness and the end of the route.
If you're looking for a unique sightseeing experience along the North Coast 500 then you can opt to take a kayaking tour of the Summer Isles, tailored to you and your experience. A local guide will take you around the area whether you want to explore the coastline or some of the inland lochs. These can be booked for as little as a half day's kayaking or you cold choose to do a longer camping trip over a few days.
The small fishing town of Ullapool is tucked into the shore of Loch Broom and is a great place to set up base for a couple of days whilst you explore the area. You can visit Rhue Lighthouse which guards the entrance to Loch Broom or Ardmair Beach on the edge of the town.
Corrieshalloch Gorge is a short drive south from Ullapool and is another natural wonder of the Highlands and the NC500. You can walk along the route and cross the suspension bridge to view the Falls of Measach as they plummet into the gorge below. There are forest trails covering the surrounding area too so its easy to spend an afternoon traipsing through the landscape.
Continuing along the route takes you to Gruinard Bay which is covered in rocky coves and home to three pink sand beaches. You'll also be able to get great views of An Teallach and the Northern Highlands.
Further along your journey you can stop off in the Torridon area where you'll be able to bag 5 Munros if you're keen enough! Aside from this you can also visit the hide by the loch where people have frequently spotted otters or climb through the rugged mountains that frame the area.
From here you'll be able to sweep around your final coastal area of the North Coast 500 down to Applecross, one of the more remote places along the route. The name itself is at least 1300 years old and it's thought to be one of the earliest settled areas of Scotland. You can stop at the Applecross Inn for something to eat and to take in the views across the Inner Sound of Raasay or purchase locally smoked fish from the Applecross Smokehouse.
Once leaving Applecross you'll take the Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle) which is one of the highest roads in Britain as it reaches 2053ft before crossing across the lower eastern part of the Highlands to reach Muir of Ord and then return to Inverness where you started your journey.
Leave No Trace
One of the key things that you're asked to do whilst on the NC500 route is to make sure that you keep the route tidy and leave it as you found it, to leave no trace. This means taking all litter an waste with you once you move on from a spot, whether you've stopped for lunch or an overnight stay.
Keep Scotland Beautiful estimates that 50 tonnes of litter is left on Scotland's roadsides every month, with much of this being items that could have been kept in a bag or vehicle until a bin was found. If there aren't any bins nearby or if the ones provided are full, don't leave any items by the side of the road, please hold onto it until you are able to dispose of or recycle it.
The increased traffic on the NC500 has also seen an increase in dangerous driving and damage to the roads being used. Anyone undertaking the North Coast 500 is asked to follow UK road laws, local signage, and road safety tips whilst respecting local infrastructure and driving conditions and, of course, only driving the route with a valid driving license. Whilst this is a holiday destination for you this is home to many residents and wildlife and should be respected as such.
Be aware that this isn't a route that covers just one road so your sat nav will not show you a direct route and you'll need to plan ahead and plot your destinations to keep on course. As well as this you'll need to be aware that not all roads are built for the high traffic volumes and you may encounters single track roads that require to use passing places.
If you're planning to stop at any distilleries along the route please be aware that Scotland has stricter drink driving limits than other areas in the UK so it's a much safer plan to have a designated driver rather than sampling and then choosing to continue to drive along the route.
The North Coast 500 is an incredible route and we've only covered a very small portion of what's available for you to do and see. We'd recommend doing plenty of research to make sure that you don't miss anything that you're interested in and, of course, so that you can get reviews from real travellers too.
Our team at Clarkie's Campers are on hand to answer any questions you have about hiring a campervan and can't wait to help get you out on your road trip of the North Coast 500!