It's been billed at Scotland's answer to America's Route 66 but the North Coast 500 is unlike anything you'll see in the USA. With legendary castles, extraordinary coastal scenery, and famous whisky distilleries lining the winding single track lanes, the North Coast 500 is the ultimate road trip for travel lovers.
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 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 love marking our map with must see attractions, stocking up on snacks, putting together a playlist, and hitting the road. We spent 10 days driving the loop counter clockwise from Inverness and we've put together the ultimate plan to help you make the most of your time in the Scottish highlands.
To skip to any section of the North Coast 500 at anytime, click the links below
Part 1: Heading out of Town: North on the North Coast 500
Part 2: Distilleries of the North Coast 500
Part 3: North Coast Wildlife and Scenery
Part 4 The Beaches and Scenic Views of the North Coast 500
Part 5: Tongue to Balnakeil
Part 6: Kylesku and Single Track Fun
Part 7 Lochinver to Ullapool
Part 8: Gairloch
Part 9 Most Scenic Drive on the North Coast 500
Part 10 History and Wildlife
North Coast 500 Guide - Starting Point
Introduction - Inverness in two days
Inverness is the main city on the North Coast 500 route and it is the capital of the Highlands. Plan on spending at least two days in Inverness. It's a beautiful town with a lot to explore like the Inverness Castle, St. Andrew's Cathedral and Abertarff House dating back to 1592. Be sure to visit the Ness Islands for a beautiful stroll in the park as well.
What we loved even more than the city was all there is to see and do near Inverness. It is from Inverness that people visit the legendary Loch Ness in search of Nessie herself. It's fun and kitschy to check out the visitors centre in Drumnadrochit and learn about the history of the Loch Ness Monster, but exploring the massive lake is the highlight. The banks are beautiful housing Urquhart Castle, a beautiful ruin that has survived many a battle over the past 1000 years.
If you have more time, you can stay in Drumnadrochit, there are plenty of B&Bs in the area. This is the spot that the tour busses stop though so be prepared for large crowds and traffic. 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.
Be sure to watch 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.
North Coast 500 Car Rentals: We rented our car from Arnold Clark Depot (44 0141 648 1200) and they were fabulous. They pick you up directly from the airport and take you to their extremely cool office filled with classic cars. Be sure to rent a smaller car as roads are often single lane tracks along the North Coast 500 and a small car is easy to navigate. Plus, it's easier to find parking and you can pull off on small turnouts and be out of the way while capturing those awe-inspiring shots of the landscape and scenery.
Accommodation Suggestion: Kingsmills Hotel and spa with swimming pool and breakfast included.
Suggested places to eat: Rocpool Restaurant or Dores Inn at Loch Ness in Dores after you've watched the sunset.
For more ideas of what to do in Inverness visit our post: 8 Things to do in Inverness
Part 1: Heading out of Town: North on the North Coast 500
Working your way along the A9 there are many things to see and places to stop. Don't just beeline it to the next town, be sure to pop into these highlights on your way out of Inverness following the North Coast 500 route. Don't miss these incredible attractions, you will be sorry.
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 where 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 reinactment 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
There are several cairns along the North Coast 500 but none as famous as Clava Cairns. 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.
Cairns are ancient stone cemeteries dating back 4000 years. They 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!
North Coast 500 Road Trip Snacks - Remember when we said we love snacks for our road trips? We stocked up on water and snacks in Inverness, but if you want 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 and if you are worried about not seeing the famous highland cattle along the route, (don't be) you'll have a good chance here.
Part 2: Distilleries of the North Coast 500
Dornoch Castle and Whisky Bar
Driving from Inverness your next overnight is just a little over an hour's drive away, but it is the perfect base for your next set of exploration. Dornoch Castle is located in the heart of the historic town of Dornoch directly across from the Dornoch Cathedral. This 12th century cathedral is such a draw that Madonna had her son Rocco christened here.
Dornoch Castle is a destination unto itself. The family run business has 22 rooms, each with its own theme and the fine dining restaurant offers up a relaxing atmosphere with an excellent choice of local dishes.
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 when clans ruled the land. The extensive whisky bar 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
We ordered a tasting flight of three whiskies 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 whiskies at different prices to suit your needs.
Note: Scotland spells whisky without an "e". When we spelled it as whiskey on our Inveress post, we raised many a Scottish temper in more than a few people. We won't be making that mistake again. So when you visit Scotland, be sure to forget what you learned in Ireland, the US and Canada about whiskey, it's whisky here.
If you are a whisky lover, Dornoch castle is the perfect place to base your travels as you explore the distilleries of the North Coast 500. Visit their website for bookings and availability.
Glen Ord Distillery
There are several distilleries along the North Coast 500 where road trippers can pick up a bottle of their favourite Scotch whisky. From the town of Dornoch there are a half a dozen distilleries to visit that are from mere minutes to only a couple of hours away. If you want to visit distilleries on the North Coast 500, Dornoch is a good place to make a base. Balblair, Glenmorangie, Dalmore, Dunnet Bay and Pulteney Distilleries are all nearby. We chose to visit Glen Ord Distillery and we were glad we did!
Our guide Alistair was as passionate about his scotch as he was informative. Glen Ord is the closest distillery to Inverness so it can easily be done as a day trip from there, or you can choose to do what we did. We stopped at Glen Ord on our way to Dornoch Castle. Having the tour helped us to understand the distilling process of Scottish whiskey and gave us insight to aromas and flavours when we decided to taste a few drams at Dornoch Castle's whisky bar.
What makes a visit to Glen Ord 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. It was also for us, the first time we'd seen wooden fermentation barrels. Every other distillery tour we've ever taken was stainless steel. This truly made us feel like we were taking a tour through history.
Visit Glen Ord for more details.
Open from April 1 to October 15, we just missed visiting Dunbrobin Castle's interior by mere days but you can visit the gardens and grounds year round. We parked our car and walked town the steps to a magnificent view of this 800 year-0ld castle. It's different from other castles of Scotland resembling a French Chateau rather than the stark stone castles in other parts we saw. It has been home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th century.
Part 3: North Coast Wildlife and Scenery
Something we loved about driving the North Coast 500 was the chance to stay in historic castles. There many unique accommodations along the route from farm houses, B&Bs, lighthouses and luxury estates. Making our way to the northernmost tip of Scotland, we stayed at the Ackergill Tower Hotel. That became our base for exploring the area. This was probably our favourite 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.
Caithness Wildlife Tours
Dave and I love taking tours. As much as we enjoy exploring on our own, we find that help us discover hidden gems and areas we never would have thought of visiting. Guide and owner Kate is a marine biologist and outdoor lover who takes visitors to see view seabirds, seals and other wildlife of 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 Prince Charles still visits each summer.
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 of 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 harbour and there is a plaque with his name on the Harrow Harbour commemorating the reopening.
There was one particular moment when we really appreciated being on the tour. We had stopped with Kate to view seals in the harbour (a regular tourist would miss seeng this on their own) and she told us to turn around. The harbour 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.
To book your own wildlife and scenic tour, check out the Caithness Wildlife Tours website
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. 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. 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 marvelling that views here, we moved on to the stacks of Duncansby Head. There's a path right along coast overlooking the stacks so you can view them from all directions. Be sure to keep an eye out for seabirds. Different are constantly migrating through the area at all times of the year. Including puffins!
If you want to get down inside something similar to the Geo of Sclaites, the Whaligoe Steps are a superb trek. We met a woman walking up from the steps commenting on how she has travelled this area many times and today was her first time ever visiting them. She didn't even know they existed. The Whaligoe Steps consist of 330 steps leading down to one of the most inaccessible harbours 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 3pm on Mon, Wed, Fri and on Saturdays at 11am and 1pm.
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 estates 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.
Check out Ackergill Tower to book your accommodation
Castle Sinclair Girnigo
Located just a short walk or drive from Ackergill Tower the ruins of Castle Sinclari Girnigo is an imposing sight on the coast. Sadly it was a complete downpour when we showed up to hike to the castle and after just crashing our drone a couple of hours earlier, we weren't up for facing the elements. So we missed exploring this castle even though it was just within our grasp. We decided to move on and see if our luck on the North Coast 500 would change
Packing Tip: 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. We actually had incredible weather for most of our trip with sunny skies and comfortable temperatures in the high teens (Celcius). We were told by Kate of Caithness Tours that last summer the average temperature was about 16 degrees Celcius.
So when traveling the North Coast 500, 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.
Part 4 The Beaches and Scenic Views of the North Coast 500
This stretch of the North Coast 500 takes you across the top of Scotland. It was surprising to look on a map and see just how much farther north we were than where we live in Canada. Northern Scotland is the equivalent of being half way up the Hudson Bay, or just one degree shy of Oslo, Norway, Stockholm Sweden or St. Petersburg, Russia. That was really cool to us. It's no wonder Northern Scotland reminded us so much of Iceland!
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 Amadale Bay and Melvich, we did see surfers in the water taking on the swells.
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.
Wardrobe by Dolly Varden Outdoor Clothing
The Tongue Hotel
The northern section of the North Coast 500 is definitely a relaxing part of the trip where you can stop at your leisure to take in the views. We didn't find a lot of historic sites here so we took this time to enjoy the scenery as we made our way to the Tongue Hotel. It was once a former sporting lodge to house the elite on their hunting trips. The famous stags of the highlands can be seen along the North Coast 500 and today they are protected so you will find they aren't skittish at all when coming across human beings. They are the most magnificent creatures.
We enjoyed a relaxing evening sipping the sherry provided in our hotel room complete with fireplace as we planned the days ahead.
Hopefully by the time you drive the North Coast 500 you'll be able to explore the ruins of Castle Varrich. It was under scaffolding when we arrived as we were told that they had just discovered a bone and it was being excavated. The hotel staff told us it should be open by summer. 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.
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 road all to ourselves. We'd spy a lake, park the car and hike to extraordinary views.
Drive to Smoo
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.
Part 5: Tongue to Balnakeil
One of our favourite things to do on the North Coast 500 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 the tour led by Colin. He has been excavating these caves for years making discoveries and digging during the off season. For £5 he'll take you on a boat across the water inside the cavern to explore deeper into the system. Donning our hard hats and cameras, we floated inside the cave getting so close to the waterfall it splashed on our faces. We then walked along narrow paths as he explained the geology of the cave and his theories on how deep the cave goes and how it might be connected. Bring some cash with you and be sure to take this trip!
Check out Colin's 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, you'll 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 come 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 housing an old church and tombstones. It's very photogenic and John Lennon's aunt is buried here.
Speaking of John Lennon, he spent a lot of his childhood in the area and there is a memorial to him 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. It's an interesting little garden to visit with a little path weaving through the garden leading to the John Lennon memorial. It's a place for quiet contemplation and surprisingly very serene even though its located on the side of the road.
Belnakeil Craft Village
This is a cool spot where locals are starting to build a craft community converting an old military camp into an artists 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. 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.
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.
Durness, The Details
Where to stay: Smoo Cave Hotel, Mackay's Rooms, Bae Seren B&B
Where to eat: Smoo Cave Hotel, Sango Sans, The Whale Tale, or Pick up a picnic lunch at the Carfour and stop at the Cocoal Mountain coffee shop in Belnakeil Craft Village
Part 6: Kylesku and Single Track Fun
It is during this section that the driving gets really fun on the North Coast 500. I must admit we covered a lot of ground on this leg of our trip and didn't spend a lot of time sightseeing between Belnakeil and Kylesku. It wasn't until we reached the Kylesku Bridge that we really stopped to take it all in. Located where Loch Glencoul and Loch Glendhu meet, this is a very picturesque spot in the heart of the highlands.
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.
Staying at the Kylesku hotel is a good base for exploring this area. There are boat trips, hiking trails and wildlife excursions where you can spot sea otters, seals and migrating sea birds.
Many people cut this portion of the North Coast 500 and head directly to Lochinver along the A894 and A837 but one of the most picturesque road routes we took was towards Drumbeg. The open roads that we had seen thus far, gave way to narrow single track lanes dropping off into deep valleys. It was a beautiful winding trip that while only 10 miles long, 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.
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.
Stay: We stayed at a small farmhouse called the Croft 338 B&B. It's a two room place run by a friendly couple. There isn't a sitting area so your room is what you get, but the Internet is good, there's cable TV and she makes a hearty breakfast in the morning. There is also the Drumbeg Hotel.
I remember driving the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland where we came across many a lighthouse along the coast. We didn't seem to stumble upon as many during our drive on the North Coast 500, but 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.
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 this part of the North Coast 500, 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 was 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 fun continues from Clachtol through an incredibly beautiful rocky and rolling landscape. When in Clachtol be sure to check out the stone broch. Scottish broch's 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 if you are traveling the North Coast 500 that way. 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 is during the summer months anyway as there is water skiing, wind surfing, lots of walking trails and fishing. It's settled then, we must go back to Northern Scotland!
Part 7 Lochinver to Ullapool
The drive from Clachtol to Lochinver is another stunning drive along a single track with views to die for. If you can, take your time and possibly stay in Lochinver for a night. The scenery is breathtaking. We didn't have a lot of time to explore, but we did enjoy the drive which is a huge part of the adventure.
Rock Climbing and Adventure Tours
Guided Climbing and Treeking with Hamlett Mountaineering
One 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. This is the area of the North Coast 500 where we could truly spend days exploring. While hiking with Tim, we commented that if there was one place to stick around in Northern Scotland for a few days, this would be it!
You can walk the trails yourself, but to hire a guide is where you really get the true experience. Tim knows this area like the back of his hand and can take you to see anything you like. The climbing is world class and the scenery is outstanding. If you haven't climbed before, don't worry, Tim will set up a top rope and guide you through it. He has tons of outdoors experience where he honed his skills at a young age growing up in Nepal. He trekked to Everest Base Camp at 11 years old!
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.
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. Westlea House is a chic and comfortable hotel that has an amazing common area. 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
Rooms are elegant and modern. We arrived on a very rainy afternoon and were content to relax indoors enjoying all the amenities including our relaxing tub.
Ullapool offers a considerable choice of dining options for the size of the town. Recommendations are the Arch Inn, Argyle Hotel Seafood Bar, 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 welcomed.
Check out more at Where to Eat in Ullapool
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.
Part 8: Gairloch
Gairloch makes for a great base when exploring the western portion of the North Coast 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. Gairloch is an extremely important town in Scotaland. It 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. See our story here.
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.
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 may have visited the Wick Heritage Centre to learn about the history or gone to fishing villages or even a boat excursion, it's interesting to stop and see what happens to the fish after the catch. This family run shop smokes all their fish in traditional stone kilns using whisky barrel staves & local Larch to give their fish its own unique flavour. They have a gift shop where you can pick up supplies 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 travelled 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 kilometres down the road we found the cut off to the beach and were treated to a spectacular view.
The Old Inn
An excellent place to stay just outside of downtown Gairloch is the Old Inn. It's an old coaching in remodelled 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 award-winning pub. This is a place the felt like we were in the real Scotland. Locals popped in for a pint and the relaxed atmosphere makes you feel welcome. You can take your drinks by the fire in the sitting room, or up to your traditional suites. There are board games, DVDs to borrow, books about the history of the area, and guides for things to do nearby.
Getting excited yet? You'll want to watch our video showcasing the best of the North Coast 500
Walk the trails of Beinn Eighe
Beinn Eighe is Britain's oldest nature reserve and a premiere hiking destination. There are 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 visit Scotland's 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 view point 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 short cut through the mountains today. Both are highly recommended.
Another incredible view that we stumbled up on was Diabag Viewpoint. Driving from Toridon 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 lanes 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. 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 a lot for photographs though)
Part 9 Most Scenic Drive on the North Coast 500
This final stretch of driving along the coast is probably the most scenic and fun driving on the whole 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 toAppleCross where you drive the most spectacular pass Baelnabach Pass. The star attraction of the North Coast 500.
Highlights along the way are.
View point of the 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 red house along the North Coast 500? 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
This route takes you along the ocean side 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. Flocks of sheep were plentiful and there were even views of the Isle of Skye. It was an incredible drive but be prepared for 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 the North Coast 500.
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.
Eat at the 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. 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.
Part 10 History and Wildlife
Our final destination before finishing off the loop to Inverness took us to Plockton. That became our home base to explore the area. Like other parts of the North Coast 500, 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
Our guide Colin is a craic as the Scottish say! He is the most enthusiastic and loveable guide you'll ever have. We met 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 the 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.
I was a bit nervous as I saw that he offers hunting trips as well, but after seeing him with the stags, I realized that a person can possibly hunt and be a conservationist all at once. He told us stories of finding sick or hurt deer that he put out of their misery and how he was worried about one male that was a bully in the herd and he was concerned that if it didn't calm down he'd have to put it down, but it had settled in and he thinks it's going to be ok. I am not quite sure how many people come to hunt here, but I feel that if photo safari tourism takes off, they won't have the need to sell to trophy hunters anymore.
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 of 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 colours of Dave's ancestors the McKenzies.
A far less in tact castle but still beautiful to visit is Drome Castle. Now just in ruins, the outer walls are still in tact 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.
It's about to be turned into a bed and breakfast and it is currently on private property, but since 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 .
Our stay at the Plockton Hotel was the perfect location as it was located directly on Loch Carron. It even has an outdoor patio where you can enjoy a beautiful view of sunset and Duncraig Castle. The pub is a great choice for dinner and there is also a formal dining room offering local seafood, whisky and beer.
Where to eat in Plockton: The Plockton Inn, Plockton Hotel and Plockton Shores all specialize in seafood and are all excellent.
This takes us to the end of our North Coast 500 road trip. We checked out of the Plockton Hotel and made our way to Inverness. The drive back to Inverness is beautiful too. We had an afternoon flight or we would have spent more time exploring and hiking on our way back, but alas, all trips must come to an end.
Our trip to Scotland was in partnership with British Tourism. To find out about more travel through the UK, visit their website VisitBritain.com
North Coast 500 Bonus Tip
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 on a quick half day tour in the morning and it was spectacular. But that my friends is another story. But when you plan your own tour of the North Coast 500 be sure to give extra days to see it all. We visited the are in 10 days, but we highly recommend two weeks.