North Coast 500 – The Ultimate Trip Guide to Scotland’s Epic Drive

Written By: The Planet D

The North Coast 500 has been billed as Scotland’s answer to America’s Route 66 but it 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 NC500 is the ultimate road trip for travel lovers.

When planning your North Coast 500 trip be sure to give plenty of days to explore the sights. We spent a very hectic 10 days driving the loop but feel that two weeks is a more reasonable time to experience properly. We’ve put together the ultimate NC500 Trip Planner to help you make the most of your time in the Scottish highlands. 

North Coast 500 Guide

Table of Contents

Here is a breakdown of our stops along the North Coast 500 and you can skip directly to each in the links of the table of contents below.

Our North Coast 500 drive started and ended in Inverness, the Capital of the Scottish Highlands. We drove counterclockwise around the north coast of Scotland in a 516 mile (830km) circle route through the some of the most beautiful landscape in the country, stopping at many towns and attractions before returning to Inverness.

NC 500 Guide – Map of Our Route

nc500 route
The entire North Coast 500 route – Click here for your map of the NC500

Inverness – 2 Days

things to do in inverness featured image

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. Capital of the Scottish Highlands, Inverness is home to the very famous Loch Ness where you can search for Nessie herself.

Highlights in the town of Inverness

  • Inverness Castle
  • St. Andrew’s Cathedral
  • Abertarff House dating back to 1592
  • Nessie Islands – Islands connected by beautiful walkways and gardens
  • Read our full article Things to do in Inverness

There are plenty of things to do in Inverness and in the surrounding area, so you will definitely want to spend some time here. Here are a few top attractions to see before moving along the North Coast 500.

Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle

loch ness centre

Inverness is the main hub for exploring Loch Ness. People visit the legendary Loch Ness in search of the Loch Ness Monster, but it is worth exploring for the beaches and scenery around Inverness as well.

The visitors centre in Drumnadrochit is fun and kitschy and is a must-stop to learn about the history of the Loch Ness Monster, but exploring the massive lake is the highlight.

If you have more time, you can stay in Drumnadrochit, there are plenty of B&Bs in the area. 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.

This is the spot that the tour busses stop though so be prepared for large crowds and traffic.

Be sure to watch the sun set 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.

Urquhart Castle is another must-see stop on the lake. It is a beautiful ruin that has survived many a battle over the past 1000 years.

Inverness Details:

  • Car Rentals: We use Rental Cars Connect to fing the best deals on any car or campervan rentals.
    Hot Tip: 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.

The Kingsmills Hotel is located on a golf course just outside the downtown core. Set in a large historic mansion on a massive treed property with spa and pool. We stayed in the newer spa portion of the hotel and the rooms were spacious, comfortable. Parking is free and breakfasts are included.

Road trip North to Dornoch – 1 Day

north coast 500 map 1
Get your map of Day one and two of the North Coast 500

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.

Along the A9 towards the NC500 offers many things to see and places to stop. Dornoch is famous for the Dornoch Castle and makes a good base to explore the whisky route.

Don’t just beeline it to the next town, be sure to pop into these highlights on your way out of Inverness before hitting the North Coast 500 Route.

Culloden Battlefield

clans of scotland memorial
Memorial to the Clans

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 reenactment 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

Clava Cairns

clava cairns
Clava Cairns

Cairns are ancient stone cemeteries dating back 4000 years. There are several cairns along the nc500 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. The Cairns of Scotland 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!

  • Hot Tip: NC500 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.
  • GPS co-ordinates: Latitude: 57.493216/ Longitude: -4.453883

Dornoch Castle – Overnight

dornoch castle dornoch
Beautiful Dornoch Castle

End your night at Dornoch Castle. It is a destination unto itself. The set dinner menu is divine and the rooms make you feel like royalty.

Dornoch Castle is located right in the market square of Dornoch directly across from the Dornoch Cathedral. This 12th-century cathedral is such a draw that Madonna had her son Rocco christened here. The pub makes you feel like you are sitting in a 17th century tavern as the fire roars and the whiskey pours.

Dornoch Castle and Whisky Bar

dornoch castle scotland
Stay at Dornoch Castle

Dornoch Castle is home to one of the best whisky bars on earth. It was voted the #1 Whisky Hotel of the Year by whiskybase.com. 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 stock 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.

  • Note: Scotland spells whisky without an “e”. When we spelled it as whiskey on our Inverness 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. 

We ordered a tasting flight of three whiskeys 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 whiskeys at different prices to suit your needs.

If you are a whisky lover, Dornoch castle is the perfect place to base your travels as you explore the distilleries of the route.Visit their website for bookings and availability.

Dornoch to Wick – 1 day

NC 500 Map Dornoch to Wick

Click here for interactive map of NC 500

Distillery Tours

There are several distilleries in Northern Scotland where road trippers can pick up a bottle of their favorite Scotch whisky. It is worth stopping at least one but if you want to spend longer in the area, check them all out on a day tour. From the town of Dornoch, there are half a dozen distilleries to visit that are from mere minutes to only a couple of hours away.

  • Balblair
  • Glenmorangie
  • Dalmore
  • Dunnet Bay
  • Pulteney Distilleries are all nearby.

Glen Ord Distillery

The fermentation process at Glen Ord takes place in wooden barrels.
The fermentation process at Glen Ord takes place in wooden barrels.

We visited the Glen Ord Distillery. It is the closest distillery to Inverness so it can easily be done as a day trip from there. 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.

For us, it was also the first time we’d seen wooden fermentation barrels. Every other distillery tour we’ve ever taken was stainless steel. Having the tour helped us to understand the distilling process of Scottish whiskey and gave us insight into aromas and flavors when we decided to taste a few drams at Dornoch Castle’s whisky bar. This truly made us feel like we were taking a tour through history and our guide Alistair was as passionate about his scotch as he was informative.

Dunrobin Castle

donrobin castle scotland
Gardens of Donrobin Castle

Open from April 1 to October 15, visiting Dunbrobin Castle is a must. You can visit the gardens and grounds year-round. We parked our car and walked down the steps to a magnificent view of this 800 year-pld 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.

This can be visited from Dornoch, or you can plan as we did and make it a stop along the way to our next destination which in our case is Wick. Read all about Donrobin Castle here.

Wick to Dunnet Head – 1 Day

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Around the Northern Tip

This was probably our favorite area to explore on the road trip. Everyone told us the west coast was the best, but the northern tip was stunning. We could have spent at least two more days exploring the walking trails along the coast.

It is the area where you see those massive sea cliffs and sea stacks housing migrating seabirds and seals. If you like hiking and wildlife, you’ll love this area.

Whaligoe Steps

whalegoe steps scotland
the view from Whalegoe Steps

If you want to get down inside something similar to the Geo of Sclaites, the Whaligoe Steps are a superb trek. The Whaligoe Steps consist of 330 steps leading down to one of the most inaccessible harbors 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. 

Ackergill Tower – Overnight

Ackergill Tower Scotland
Ackergill Tower

Like Dornoch Castle, Ackergill Tower is an accommodation that is a destination. The Tower is an incredible 600-year-old stone tower that stands proudly on the shores of Sinclair Bay. The Northernmost point of Scotland. This luxurious highland estate is as romantic as it is remote.

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 a prisoner in this very tower. To escape her fate she leaped to her death. It is said that her ghost haunts the halls to this day.

Dunnet Head – 2 days

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. We saw this from the road, but when we decided to go for a walk to it, the rain came down in full force.

Caithness Wildlife Tours

cathness wildlife tours
Dave and Katie looking at nesting birds in the distance

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 would never 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.

Castle of Mey

castle of mey scotland
The Castle of Mey

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 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 harbor and there is a plaque with his name on the Harrow Harbour commemorating the reopening.

Why A Tour is a Good Option

old abandoned mill scotland
Abandoned Mill on our Wildlife Tour

There was one particular moment when we really appreciated being on the tour. We had stopped with Kate to view seals in the harbor (a regular tourist would miss seeing this on their own) and she told us to turn around.

The harbor 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.

Duncansby Head

duncansby head northern scotland
Stacks of Duncansby Head

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.

 Geo of Sclaites

Scotland's Geo of Sclaites.
Beautiful scenery along coastal hikes

After marvelling that views here, we moved on to the stacks of Duncansby Head. There’s a path right along the 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!

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 3 pm on Mon, Wed, Fri and on Saturdays at 11 am and 1 pm.

Where to Stay on the North Coast 500 near Dunnet Head

Ackergill Tower Scotland
Ackergill Tower

Ackergill Tower was the perfect base for exploring the northernmost point of Scotland. This 16th-century tower has a lot of history, and you can sit by the fire reading about its checkered past as you enjoy a dram of whiskey. Dining in the great hall, we ate a delicious three-course menu before retiring to the various sitting rooms for an after-dinner drink.

We love road trips! We included the North Coast 500 in our best road trips we’ve ever taken. 

The North Coast to Tongue – 1 Day

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Continuing along the Northern Coast

This stretch of the nc500 takes you across the top of Scotland. It was surprising to look at our map and see just how far north we were. Northern Scotland is the equivalent of being halfway up the Hudson Bay in Canada’s north, or just one degree shy of Oslo, Norway, Stockholm Sweden or St. Petersburg, Russia. It’s no wonder Northern Scotland reminded us so much of Iceland! 

Surfing in Scotland

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.

northern beach scotland
Deb watches surfers tackle the icy waters Wardrobe by Dolly Varden Outdoor Clothing

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.

Castle Varrich

Hopefully, by the time you go, the ruins of Castle Varrich will be open. 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.

Kyle of Tongue

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Admiring the lake reflections

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.

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.

Overnight at Tongue Hotel

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Our room at the Tongue Hotel

The Tongue Hotel It has a cozy atmosphere with large rooms, and there’s always someone offering a drop of sherry when you arrive. There is a dining room and in town there is a store close by to stock up on supplies for the rest of your road trip. See prices on Trip Advisor / Booking.com

Ben Loyal Hotel is another suggested place to stay on this portion of the north coast 500. Located on Main Street Tongue. View it on Trip Advisor / Booking.com

Tongue to Balnakeil – 1 Day

nc500 map tongue to balnakiel
Tongue to Balnakiel

This is another fabulous stretch filled with long deserted beaches, more coastal hike and one incredible cave.

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave Scotland
Entrance to the Smoo Caves

One of our favorite things on our trips 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.

Geological Tour

dave on smoo caves tour
Smoo Caves Tour with Collin

Many people just go into the caves and take a quick look, but we highly recommend taking a geological tour. Previously it was run by Colin who spent his lifetime excavating these caves. We had the privilege of doing a tour with him, but sadly he passed away in 2019.

Check out the 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.

Balnakeil Bay

balnakiel beach scotland
Admiring Balnakiel Beach

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 comes 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?”

John Lennon

John Lennon memorial Durness Scotland
John Lennon Memorial

There is a scenic cemetery located on the site by the beach housing an old church and tombstones. It’s very photogenic and John Lennon’s aunt is buried here.

John Lennon visited the area many times to see his aunt and there is a memorial 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.

Belnakeil Craft Village

chocolate shop on nc500
Picking up snacks for the road

This is a cool spot where locals are starting to build a craft community converting an old military camp into an artist’s 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.

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.

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.

Smoo Cave Hotel – Overnight

It’s a basic hotel, but the location is a perfect stop after driving from Tongue, giving you the chance to spend a day or two in Smoo. There’s a good bar and they have some of the best Haggis around.

Where to eatSango Sans, The Whale Tale, or Pick up a picnic lunch at the Carfour and stop at the Cocoa Mountain  coffee shop in Belnakeil Craft Village 

Smoo Cave Hotel has a good bar and they have some of the best Haggis around.

Lochinver to Ullapool – 1 Day

Lochinver to Ullapool Map Scotland
Lochinver to Ullapool

The drive from Clachtol to Lochinver is another stunning drive along a single track with views to die for. The scenery along the North Coast 500 is unique. It varies from place to place, so make sure to take your time to really enoy all of the views. If you can, take your time and possibly stay in Lochinver for a night.

stags looking on as we drive the nc500

The scenery is breathtaking. The single-track road weaves through mountainous terrain and heavily wooded areas. Have your camera ready, there are plenty of photo opportunities of wild deer on this leg from Lochinver to Ullapool.

Adventure at Staic Pollaidh

Stac Pollaidh Scotland
Hiking to Stac Pollaidh

On 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. You can walk the trails yourself, but to hire a guide is where you really get the true experience.

Hamlett Mountaineering

Stac Pollaidh trek with Hamlett Mountaineering
Tim of Hamlett Mountaineering

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 – Overnight

Ullapool Scotland
Downtown Ullapool

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.

Where to Stay in Ullapool

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.

Where to Eat in Ullapool

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.

Corrieshalloch Gorge

Corrieshalloch Gorge Scotland
Corrieshalloch Gorge

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.

Where to Stay in Ullapool

ullapool hotels westlea interior
Our room at the Westlea B&B

Westlea House Boutique B&B was by far our favourite place to stay on the North Coast 500. There are incredible hikes and scenic views in the area, and you should give yourself time to stay in Ullapool. Check it out on Trip Advisor / Booking.com

Argyll Hotel is another option for hotels on this portion of the NC500 – See it on Trip Advisor / Booking.com

Kylesku to Achmelvich Bay – 1 Day

Kylesku map nc500
Kylesku to Achmelvich Bay Scotland

It is during this section that the driving gets really fun. The single-lane tracks can get quite hair raising and the drives long huge lakes and through mountains is a thrill.

Kylesku Bridge

Kylesku Bridge Scotland
Kylesku Bridge

Located where Loch Glencoul and Loch Glendhu meet, this is a very picturesque spot in the heart of the highlands. The Kylesku bridge is one of the Most Photographed Stops on the North Coast 500

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.

Drumbeg

scotland cow
Famous Scottish Cattle

Many people cut this portion of drive 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. It was only 10 miles long but it 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.

Stoerhead Lighthouse

Stoerhead Lighthouse northern scotland
Stoerhead Lighthouse

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 the area, this is as unique as it gets for accommodation and you’ll have incredible views of the sea!

Coffee Stop

Flossies coffee shop northern scotland
Flossies coffee shop has excellent coffee

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!

Clachtol

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 Beach

Achmevilch Bay is apparently quite stunning and a good spot to park your caravan. 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, windsurfing, lots of walking trails and fishing. It’s settled then, we must go back to Northern Scotland!

Where to Stay on Drumbeg Leg

kylesku hotel scotland
The Kylesku Hotel

We stayed at a small farmhouse called the Croft 338 B&B. It’s a basic B&B, but the Internet is good, there’s cable TV and she makes a hearty breakfast in the morning.

Kylesku hotel is a good base There are boat trips, hiking trails and wildlife excursions where you can spot sea otters, seals and migrating sea birds. See it on Trip Advisor / Booking.com There is also the Drumbeg Hotel.

Gairloch – 2 Days

gairloch map scoldand nc500
Map around Gairloch

Gairloch makes for a great base when exploring the western portion of the NC 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 Scotland with a lot of history.

About Gairloch

Gairloch sign Scotland
Dave goes back to his roots in Gairloch

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. 

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. We spent two days in Gairloch weaving back and forth looking for lochs, ocean viewpoints, and gardens to explore.

Inverewe Gardens

Inverewe Garden Scotland
Inverewe Garden

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

isle of ewe smokehouse scotland
Esle of Ewe Smokehouse for fish and snacks

Fishing is a huge part of the economy in Northern Scotland and while you may are in Gairloch, yoiu may want to stop at the Isle of Ewe Smokehouse. 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 flavor.

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! 

Loch Maree

loch maree scotland sunrise
Sunrise at Loch Maree

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 traveled 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 kilometers down the road we found the cut off to the beach and were treated to a spectacular view.

Walk the trails of Beinn Eighe

Beinn Eighe is Britain’s oldest nature reserve and a premier hiking destination. There is 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.

Klinlochewe Viewpoint

Klinlochewe Viewpoint Scotland
Stunning Klinlochewe Viewpoint

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 viewpoint 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 shortcut through the mountains today. Both are highly recommended.

Diabag Viewpoint

Diabag Viewpoint Scotland
Diabag Viewpoint

Another incredible view that we stumbled upon was Diabag Viewpoint. Driving from Torridon 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 lane 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 for a lot photographs though)

Where to Stay in Gairloch

old inn gairloch scotland
The Old in outside Gairloch

The Old Inn. It’s an old coaching inn remodeled 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. See it on Trip Advisor / Booking.com

Shieldaig Lodge This old hunting lodge is located on Loch Gairloch. It is set on a 26,000 acre estate in the West Highlands. See it on Trip Advisor / Booking.com

Klinlochewe to Applecross – 1 day drive

map of Scotland from Kinlochewe to Applecross
All Around Applecross

This final stretch of driving along the coast is probably the most scenic and fun driving you’ll have along the 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.

Highlights along the way are:

This is a great day trip for a coast journey taking you all the way around the route to Applecross where you drive the most spectacular pass Baelnabach Pass. The star attraction of the North Coast 500.

The Viewpoint of the Town of Sheildag

sheildag Scotland
View 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

famous read farmhouse northern scotland
Famous Red Farmhouse

Have you ever seen the photos of the red house of northern Scotland? 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.

coastal view of northern scotland
Plentiful Coastal Views

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 in the Norther of Scotland.

Applecross to Baelnabach Pass

Baelnabach Pass Scotland
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

kishorn seafood bar scotland
Kishorn Seafod Bar for Lunch

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.

Plockton – 2 Days

map of Plockton to Inverness
Plockton back to Inverness

Our final destination before finishing off the loop to Inverness took us to Plockton. Plockton became our home base to explore the area. Like other parts of the nc500, 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

buggy and deer reraig forest
Buggy ride at the Reraig Forest

We met our guide 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 Deer of Reirig Forest

reraig forest deer herd
The massive deer herd of Reraig Forest

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.

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

Entrance Eilean Donan Castle Scotland
Walkway to 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 about 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.

Strome Castle

Strome Castle Scotland
Strome Castle overlooks the sea

A far less intact castle but still beautiful to visit is Drome Castle. Today it is 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.

Duncraig Castle

Duncraig Castle Scotland
Duncraig Castle

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.

Where to Stay in Plockton

plocton hotel scotland
Downtown Plockton Hotel

The Plockton Hotel Located on the waterfront of Plockton, the Plockton Hotel is the most popular spot in town. With a Michelin rated pub, it has some of the best pub food and atmosphere in Scotland. We ate there each night, enjoying local seafood with whiskey and wine. Trip Advisor / Booking.com

Plocton Inn is another hotel in town and it has excellent dining as well.

Where to eat in Plockton: The Plockton Inn, Plockton Hotel, and Plockton Shores all specialize in seafood and are all excellent. 

North Coast 500 Tips

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.

So when touring Northern Scotland, 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. 

Tips for Driving the North Coast 500

  • When driving the North Coast 500 be prepared for singletrack lanes. You share one lane with both directions and you will have to back up or pull over often for oncoming traffic.
  • In the summer traffic is busier, if you travel in the off-season, you will come across fewer cars.
  • Many people camp on the NC 500. Campervans are allowed, but cannot navigate some of the trails and smaller tracks. So take that into consideration when booking your vehicle.
  • We rented a small car and it made things much easier to pull over for oncoming traffic.
  • Scotland is on the Pound Sterling – 1 Pound Sterling = 1.30 USD. For up to date exchange rates visit XE Currency Convertor. 
  • Eagle Creek Plug Adapter – This all in one adapter is all your need for Scotland outlets and other European and world travels.
  • Weather can change in an instant. You could encounter snow, rain, wind and sunny weather. Dress in layers and pack waterproof clothing. See our tips
  • Also, pack a good pair of hiking boots.
  • Get your tunes ready, there are many places you won’t get radio service – See our Road Trip Songs Playlist

Isle of Skye – Side trip

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.

The NC500 will soon be known as one of the greatest drives in the world. The single track roads may be turned to double lane highways in the future and more hotels will be popping up everywhere.

But if you get there quick, you’ll enjoy old Scottish hospitality with some extraordinary scenic views. So what are you waiting for? Book your North Coast 500 Accommodation now, rooms fill up fast and you may miss out if you wait!

If you enjoyed this route planner for the North Coast 500, Save it to Pinterest for reference

NC 500 Pinterest
The Ultimate Guide to the North Coast 500

This post is in partnership with Visit Britain, Check out their website for more details.

Disclosure: There are some affiliate links on the post below where theplanetd will earn a commission. But it is no extra cost to you.

Travel Planning Resources

Looking to book your next trip? Why not use these resources that are tried and tested by yours truly.

Flights: Start planning your trip by finding the best flight deals on Skyscanner

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Need more help planning your trip? Make sure to check out our Resources Page where we highlight all the great companies that we trust when we are traveling.

About The Planet D

Dave Bouskill and Debra Corbeil are the owners and founders of The Planet D. After traveling to 115 countries, on all 7 continents over the past 13 years they have become one of the foremost experts in travel. Being recognized as top travel bloggers and influencers by the likes of Forbes Magazine, the Society of American Travel Writers and USA Today has allowed them to become leaders in their field.

Leave a Comment

41 thoughts on “North Coast 500 – The Ultimate Trip Guide to Scotland’s Epic Drive”

  1. When I drove between Applecross and Kishorn, the pass was spelt “Bealach Na Ba”. Otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed your post.

    Reply
  2. This was a joy to read. Thank you. When I left the army 30 years ago I walked the West Highland Way from Milngavie (Mullguy) to Fort William and back again. I love Scotland. Thank you for this. Alex

    Reply
  3. Fantastic guide! I have done the east coast countless times, but I am finally driving the west coast in a couple of weeks and cannot wait! You’ve added a couple of stops to my list, too! By the way, I’ve just been reading up on Ackergill Tower (as I’ve always wondered what it was, haha), and apparently it’s been bought out and they closed the hotel with immediate effect. So tragic!! It looked like a beautiful place to stay (not to mention 40 people lost their jobs and 30 guests had their Christmas ruined last year, geez). Anyway, I’m excited for the trip!!

    Reply
  4. We are doing a 5 day trip from Ullapool to the Isle of Skye. Enjoyed your posts about places to stop for the scenery. From the photos, you are dressed for winter, with jackets and wool hats. We plan to do some walking. We are taking our trip the first week of Sept. I know the weather can change quickly in Scotland. What type of clothing should we wear? I assume waterproof and warm jackets, hiking boots, wool hats as well as rain hats, day pack?

    Reply
    • Be prepared for any weather in Scotland. WE asked people what the weather is like in the summer and winter and they said it doesn’t change too much. I would dress in layers, and definitely bring a waterproof and windproof jacket. Everything that you said will work perfectly.

      Reply
  5. Thanks for the great information. I hope to do this trip in my campervan within the next year. I live in Scotland in the Borders and look forward to taking the round trip to visit places I’ve not been to see.

    Reply
  6. Not sure if it has been pointed out but there are spelling mistakes for example Sinclair & Girnigoe Castle not Girnigo

    Apart from that a First class Guide and we shall certainly recommend it to all

    Reply
    • Thank you for the tips! I appreciate it when people find my spelling mistakes. I definitely don’t catch them all. I will go and change that right now!

      Reply
  7. Thoroughly enjoyed looking through this, as we are just back from Scotland and visited some of the same places. Started off on the 500 but took a rather different route as we wanted to take in Orkney. Your blog makes my (very recent) effort look amateurish. Really clear and well organised.

    Reply
  8. Hi
    I was born in Scotland but have lived in Australia since 1974. I used to drive buses in Scotland and I have been a Driver Adviser in 4×4 driving. I am planning to drive the 500 route in summer with a medium sized motor home. How do you think the motor home would travel on this route? Any comment would be appreciated.
    Eddie

    Reply
    • We saw some small motorhomes on the trip and it looked like a great way to explore. There are some roads that you can’t go down with larger vehicles, but you can get there in a campervan. It’s great in a van because you can pull over anywhere and make camp. Have a great time!

      Reply
  9. Great post!
    I live in the UK (northwest of England) and I have been meaning to do this for a while now – and I really should since it’s practically on my doorstep! This post might have just tipped me over the edge.
    Thanks so much!

    Reply
  10. This is such a great comprehensive post on the North Coast 500 guide! There is so much to see and do. It looks like a really beautiful drive. Stunning pictures too – Thank you so much for sharing it… Keep posting like this! Always loved your post.

    Reply
  11. WOW what a jaw dropping scenery! i couldn’t decide where to go first beautiful photographs and amazing post. Your detailed post help for the future plans.

    Reply
  12. I’ll be going to Scotland for about 5 days in October/November timeframe. Is there any of these that you would consider the “do-not-miss”‘s?

    Reply
  13. This was such a joy to read! Written so well and a fan post to read! i loved reading your experiences! you captured beautiful pic in your post. Thanks.

    Reply
  14. Guys this is jaw-dropping scenery! Like Route 66 but so much more. With like castles LOL. Not been on a good road trip in a minute but I am heading here for sure.

    Ryan

    Reply
  15. Saving this link for future reference! This looks like the roadtrip of a lifetime! Did you stay in B&Bs along the way, and did you find it easy to make last minute bookings or should we be booking and planning accommodation in advance?

    Reply
  16. What an excellent, detailed resource! I will be in Scotland soon for 2.5 weeks with one week just one the Isle of Skye. I hope to be able to do a part of this route as a long day trip. Such a stunning country.

    Reply
    • Have an amazing time on the Isle of Skye. You are not far from Applecross and Baelnabach Pass, so you should definitely take a drive there one day. Also, Reirig Forest with Colin was such a blast I highly recommend it. It’s great for a day trip too and not terribly far from Skye.

      Reply
  17. Wow! How long did the trip take? Stefano and I really love drive around, our trips are often on the road. We hope to follow your guide one day, we went to Edinburgh last winter and we fall in love with Scotland!
    Thank you for your amazing post and pics. You make us dream!

    Reply
    • Ours was 10 days and we packed a lot in. People say you can do it in 5 but I think you miss a lot. We think 2 weeks is perfect.

      Reply
  18. So many different experiences! Really enjoyed reading about the lessons you have learned and are taking with you for your next adventures.Great pics. Thanks for sharing it.

    Reply
  19. Beautiful photographs! Stunning post! We are planing to take this trip too.

    Thank you for all tips!

    All the best
    Karolina

    Reply