Hit the road this summer and explore what the beautiful north coast of the country has to offer. Explore more, experience the sights and scenery, camp under the stars and get ready for adventure on the North Coast 500!
The North Coast 500 has been hailed as one of the best coastal driving routes in the world, showcasing the very best in breath-taking Scottish landscapes, fairy-tale castles and caves as well as excellent opportunities to get out into the hills and bag a Munro or two along the route!
|Route:||(Inverness → Ullapool → Thurso → Dornoch → Inverness)|
|Best For:||Everyday Explorers|
|Best Sights:||Instagram Worthy Beaches, Stunning Mountains & Fairytale Castles|
Keep reading to see our tips for the journey, travelling through some of the most quintessentially Scottish highland villages and exploring the wild and rugged coastline.
The five hundred and sixteen mile route offers an unforgettable road trip from the capital of the highlands, Inverness, through majestic mountain ranges and running alongside sweeping sea views up to the most northerly point in the UK. The route continues down the east coast of the country through Caithness & Sutherland before making it’s way back to Inverness past endless miles of sandy beaches, hidden castles and historic towns.
Trying to work out your own personal itinerary for your North Coast 500 adventure can be a difficult and time consuming task, so we’ve included a few options for each stage to get you inspired, and to take some of the guesswork out of your preparation. From places to stay, to places to eat and drink, must-see stop-offs along the way and estimates of how long each section will take to explore. We know that these won’t be set in stone, everyone will have their own ideas of where they’d like to spend more time, and depending on their interests and free time available, some might want to take in a climb or hike for a day between stops, while others might want to enjoy one of the many distillery tours along the route.
As Scotland’s answer to Route 66, the North Coast 500 is the perfect example of the freedom of the long open road. Created by the North Highland Initiative back in 2014 as a effort to develop growth across the Highland region, the North Coast 500 aims to inspire tourists to visit the area, and create a boost for local businesses along the route. With meandering country tracks that provide easy access to the best of the great outdoors, this is the best way to explore the highlands for anyone that loves to get closer to nature or experience our rich heritage or traditions. Whether you’ve decided to take the car or cycle the route, you’re in for some excellent adventure! Our tips below are based on driving, so please allow more time on a bike, and consider the environment – it might not be best for cycling on certain sections.
THE ULTIMATE NORTH COAST 500 GUIDE
STAGE ONE – INVERNESS TO APPLECROSS – 4 Hours
If you’re starting your North Coast 500 adventure from the capital of the highlands, you’ll have plenty to explore before you even set out on the road. Inverness is a great place to spend an afternoon before setting of on the drive the following day, enjoy some of the great restaurants in the city and take a walk along the river or visit the striking sandstone castle.
If you’re wanting to start the trip with nature in mind, Inverness also has a great botanic garden to explore as well. Giving yourself the extra evening will also allow you to pick up the essential snacks for the first stage of the road trip to the west coast. It’s always a good idea to pick up or print off essential route details and contact numbers for anywhere you might be staying. Mobile phone signal in the highlands can be poor, and internet access can be very limited.
The first stage of the drive towards the beautiful coastal town of Applecross is one for stunning scenery. With most stretches of this road being single-track or narrow country roads, it can be a bit of a challenge. Even with the increase in tourists in the area, the infrastructure hasn’t been much improved over the years.
Start the drive with an open mind, take in the stunning surroundings on the road out of Inverness and be prepared for changing weather – a tip you should take note of the for the whole of the trip! On this stage, there’s plenty of opportunities for great photos and excellent pit-stops along the way! You’ll be driving on the Bealach Na Bà road, translated from Gaelic as “Pass of the Cattle”. This section of road is famous for its hairpin bends meandering through the mountains of the Applecross peninsula as well as having the greatest ascent of any road in the UK. When you reach the top, there’s a small car park and viewing point, with a slightly higher vantage point just five minutes walk away. Getting to this point in time for the sunset will be a memorable start to the rest of the trip, and something we’d highly recommend!
Points of Interest: Lochcarron, Rogie Falls & Applecross House & Walled Garden
Where To Stay: Eagle Rock (Self-Catering) or the Applecross Inn
STAGE TWO – EXPLORING TORRIDON
From beginners to well experienced Munro Baggers, the Glen Torridon peaks offer a wide range of mountaineering experiences for anyone that loves to get out and explore. If you’re travelling the North Coast 500, it’s definitely worth factoring in an extra day to head for the hills and climb one of the nine Munros in the area. Just a short drive from Applecross, you’re a stone’s throw from the wild and rugged landscape, with peaks like Beinn Alligin, Liathach and Beinn Eighe to explore.
If you’re not one for heights, there’s also walking opportunities available in the nearby Coulin Forest. With routes ranging from 1.5km circuits to 10km climbs, there’s something or everyone, and this could be a great way for you to experience the natural landscape of the Scottish Highlands at an early stage in the trip – plus it’s perfect for that Instagram shot to round up the trip when you’re back in signal. With magnificent sandstone mountains and stunning lochs, this is also a great area for a wild camp! You can get more information on all the routes in the area by visiting the Walk Highlands website, where you can also share your own experiences of the area.
Find Out More: Beinn Alligin Climb | Aird Mhor & The Falls of Balgy
About Wild Camping
Fancy getting off the beaten track? If you don’t mind sacrificing the usual day-to-day comforts and conveniences and want to explore the areas of Scotland that very few visit, then wild camping is for you. It’s a great way to discover remote parts of our stunning landscapes and get close to nature. Plus, the experience definitely comes with a great feeling of adventure! Read this handy guide to wild camping from Visit Scotland.
Stage Three – Torridon To Ullapool – 2.5 Hours
Although not the longest of sections, this stage of the drive offers plenty more chances to stop and explore some of the rich landscapes that we have in this country as well as some of the quintessential highland towns. With clear blue sea, and striking mountains in this area, you really do get a sense of how wild Scotland really is. Although this area is becoming a lot busier with the increased interest in the North Coast 500, due in part to it being used as a filming location on a variety of major productions over the recent years, including Netflix’s Outlaw King, the Amazon Prime blockbuster show, Outlander as well as the more recently, Avengers: Infinity War. On the way past Loch Maree and the picturesque islands dotted within it, we’d recommend taking the detour via Gairloch – it only adds an hour or so onto the drive, but gives you the perfect place to stop for delicious mussels and a stunning view at the Badachro Inn.
From Gairloch, you’ve got a drive along the beautiful west coast, with some of the best beaches in the whole of the UK. If the weather is on your side, the beach at Gruinard Bay is a must-see. If beaches aren’t your thing, there’s the Corrieshalloch Gorge and Falls of Measach on the way up to Ullapool. Formed in the last ice age, and with a 150 foot drop, the falls here aren’t for the faint hearted. Take the pit-stop to the next level by walking along the suspension bridge from the nearby car park for impressive views of the gorge. The last part of the drive towards Ullapool offers some less rural road surfaces while still providing great views of Loch Broom, and once you’ve arrived in Ullapool you’ll have plenty of time to explore.
Points of Interest: Corrieshalloch Gorge, Inverwe Garden and Estate & Boat Trips from Ullapool
Where To Stay: Skylark B&B (Ullapool) or Ardmair Point Chalets
Stage Four – Stac Pollaidh / Loch Assynt or the Outer Hebrides
If you’ve built in the extra free time while on your North Coast 500 adventure, why not make another additional detour that we’d recommend adding to your itinerary? From Ullapool you can get the ferry over to the Western Isles – landing in Stornoway – this is the home of sights such as the Calanis Stones, Eilean Donan Castle and Luskentyre, one of Europe’s Best Beaches in 2022 (as voted by members on Tripadvisor)
Around halfway between Ullapool and the next advised stop on the route, Durness, you’ll find Stac Pollaidh, Loch Assynt and Suilven. Any one of these are a great addition to your adventure, with great hiking and climbing available, and beautiful scenery for those who don’t want a challenge. You could combine exploring these areas into the drive to Durness, but we’d recommend giving yourself enough time to really make the most of it. Stac Pollaidh is a family friendly climb, with great views over Assynt to the North and the Summer Isles to the South. Taking around 2-4 hours to climb, and ascending 510m, this isn’t too much of a challenge, while still being great fun.
Stage Five – Ullapool To Durness – 3.5 Hours
This next stage of the road trip takes you up to Cape Wrath, the UK’s most north-westerly point, as well as offering some hidden gems along the route. From Ullapool, you drive up the A835, a long and scenic road that passes through the small highland towns of Strathcannaird, Drumrunie & Elphin and the Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve. A little further up the road, you’ll reach Loch Assynt and Ardvreck Castle, a 16th century ruin that stands on the rocky shore of the loch, overlooking spectacular views of the Sutherland landscape. Built by the Macleods of Assynt, the rectangular, three storey castle provided a defensive site for the family, though it was acquired by the MacKenzies in 1672. Getting out for a walk round Loch Assynt is a great way to spend an hour or so, and it’s a great place for some awesome photos. Your next opportunity for a great road trip memory, is the iconic Kylesku Bridge. This bridge is the gateway to the North of Scotland, and it’s a pretty spectacular one crossing the Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin.
The following section of the drive goes through some of the most stunning scenery you’ll get on the whole of the trip, so taking your time here will really pay off. Take a detour just past Lochinver to another one of the best beaches in the UK, either Clachtoll or Achmelvich, and try your hand at stand-up paddle boarding for the afternoon.
Although the roads on the detour here are beautiful, it can be a really challenging drive as well, with tight corners and numerous blind summits. Once you’re past the Kylesku Bridge, the driving gets a bit easier with a wider road until the approach into Durness. Stop off at Cocoa Mountain in Balnakeil for the arguably one of the best hot chocolates in Scotland before heading off to explore the breath taking Smoo Cave nearby. You can explore the cave by boat or by the path that runs through it, taking in one of the largest sea cave entrances in Britain. This is a truly memorable place and well worth getting the camera out for!
Points of Interest: Ardvreck Castle, Smoo Cave & Loch Assynt
Where To Stay: Mackay’s Boutique B&B (Durness)
Stage Six- Durness To Thurso – 3 Hours
This is the longest section of the route, passing a little over seventy miles on the north coast of the country. Offering spectacular sea views and rolling countryside, this stage runs along the A836 from Durness to Thurso and from the North-West into Caithness. With hidden bays, and dramatic cliffs, you’re in for a treat no matter where you stop!
The remainder of the drive to Thurso is lovely, with beaches at Farr Bay & Melvich that are perfect for a picnic pit-stop. With crystal-like blue water and a bit of sunshine, there’s nowhere better in the North of Scotland to soak in the views. If you’re wanting to extend your trip slightly, travel to the nearby village of Scrabster to catch a ferry to the Orkney Islands. This is a great option for those who want to explore more of our rural heritage and want to spend a couple of days immersed in small island life. Although it is possible to visit in a day, we’d recommend giving yourself enough time to explore properly.
Places of Interest: Thurso Castle, Faraid Head or the UK’s most northerly zip-line, the Golden Eagle
Where To Stay: Forss House Hotel, Dunnet Bay Escapes or Greenland House Hotel
Stage Seven – John O’Groats & Distilleries
Getting to the most Northerly point of Great Britain can be exciting, but don’t miss out on some of the other great spots to explore on the next stage of the drive. Leaving Thurso towards Castletown, you can choose to go straight through Dunnet towards John O’Groats, or take a left and spend some time exploring the RSPB Nature Reserve at Dunnet Head. Home to bird species such as the Puffin, Razorbill, Guillemot, Fulmar and Cormorant, this is the perfect location for any avid bird watcher or nature lover. As a place of strategic importance during World War II, the Dunnet Head reserve is dotted with old military buildings, as well as offering a diverse seabird habitat above the cliffs. From here, why not stop off at the Dunnet Bay Distillery for a tour of the handcrafted Gin & Vodka production before heading for your photo opportunity at John O’Groats?
On the way to John O’Groats, stop for a tour of the restored 16th century fortress, the Castle of Mey just past Harrow. Acquired by the Queen Mother as Barrogill Castle in 1952, the castle and gardens have received a five star award from the Scottish Tourist Board after undergoing a renovation to save it from abandonment. We’d recommend parking up at John O’Groats in order to get out and explore, though it can get very busy at peak times in the year. Take a walk to the Duncansbay Head Lighthouse for a slightly off the beaten track view of the North Sea and the striking Scottish coastline. We’d recommend getting here for early evening so that you have plenty of time to get to Wick. You might even have time for a second distillery tour at the Pultney Distillery when you arrive. We’d recommend staying at the famous Mackay’s hotel, situated on the world’s shortest street!
Interested in discovering more about the nation’s most well-known tipple? Steve Duncan from Visit Scotland takes us behind the doors at Scotland’s newest whisky distilleries.
Where To Stay: Mackay’s Hotel
Stage Eight – Wick To Dornoch – 3 Hours
The remaining stages of the North Coast 500 travel mostly along the A9 – making it slightly more difficult to make unscheduled stops, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a great amount to see on the way back down to Inverness. Our top recommendation for this stage is the Disney-like Dunrobin Castle. Described as the jewel in the crown of the highlands, the french chateau style castle dates back to the fifteenth century. Home of the Strathnaver family ancestors, this castle is absolutely stunning and offers activities and events throughout the year.
With a museum on site in the gardens, the collection contains a number of important archaeological relics. With a great restaurant and perfectly manicured gardens, you could easily spend a full day here, and in such a fairy-tale location, there’s nothing to stop you! Head down the road to Dornoch for a good night’s sleep before heading onto the last section of the drive!
Where To Stay: Dornoch Castle Hotel
Stage Nine – Dornoch To Inverness – 2 Hours
From Dornoch, you can take a fairly leisurely drive down the remaining section of the A9 to Inverness. This final part of the North Coast 500 route passes through the wonderful Easter Ross scenery, crossing three bridges on the way, so there’s plenty of great opportunities for those final few photos from the trip. If you’ve still got some adventure left in you after exploring for the last week or so, we’d recommend taking a detour up to the Tarbat Ness Lighthouse for a view onto the Dornoch Forth. Getting here for around lunchtime is a good idea, as an early afternoon meal at the award winning Kincraig Castle is definitely a good idea while you’re in the area.
As a final bit of exploration on the tour of the best parts of the North of Scotland, head back through Inverness to visit Cawdor Castle & Fort George on your last afternoon and watch the sunset over the Moray Firth.
If you’re looking to take on the trip, then make sure you check out the great range of resources on the Visit Scotland website. We’d also love to hear about your own experiences of this fantastic road trip. Tag is in your photos and posts using #RelativeLuxury or leave us a comment below about your own recommendations!