Travel Guide

Experience Scotland’s Dramatic Landscapes on an Epic Road Trip along the North Coast 500

Stretching for 516 miles around Scotland’s northern coast, the North Coast 500 has rapidly grown in popularity as a must-do road trip for travellers in recent years. Offering the opportunity to experience the incredible diversity of Scotland’s landscapes in one epic journey, the NC500 is an unforgettable way to immerse yourself in the Scottish Highlands and northern isles.

This article provides everything you need to plan your own Scottish road trip adventure along this spectacular route. From the best times to visit and top attractions to see, to driving tips and essential information – you’ll be prepared to take on Scotland’s answer to Route 66.

What is the North Coast 500?

The NC500 route forms a circular driving road trip around the far north coast of Scotland, starting and ending at Inverness Castle. Linking together just over 500 miles of stunning coastal scenery, the route passes through Wester Ross, Caithness, Sutherland and the Black Isle.

Travelling anti-clockwise, highlights include the epic mountain ranges of Assynt and Torridon, the otherworldly beauty of the north coast, whisky distilleries amid green rolling hills, and the fairy tale setting of the Isle of Skye. You’ll also discover magnificent white sand beaches, turquoise waters, enchanting forests, lochs and glens, and atmospheric fishing villages and towns.

First established as a tourist route in 1970, the NC500 has seen a surge in popularity over the last decade. The route promises the freedom of a road trip with the romance of cruising along singletrack cliff roads and sleeping in seaside villages. Travellers are drawn by the variety of experiences and landscapes compressed into one journey.

The Best Time of Year to Drive the NC500

Thanks to its position up in the far north of the UK, planning when to embark on your NC500 road trip is important. Summer months of June to August offer the most daylight with around 19 hours of sun in June, perfect for long days of driving and exploring. The weather is also more settled in summer, though thick mist and rain can still roll in. Expect midges in early summer!

Spring (March to May) and Autumn (September to November) have their perks too. You’ll avoid peak crowds and midges, while still having long daylight hours. Weather is more changeable but adds drama to the landscapes. Just be prepared for colder winds and rain. Many prefer travelling in shoulder seasons.

Winter offers a truly atmospheric experience from November to February, with snow-capped mountain tops and cosy pubs to warm up in. However, daylight is limited to around 7 hours in December and January. Beware snow, ice and closed attractions in winter.

Allow 5-7 Days to Travel the Route

Rushing this epic 500 mile journey would be a crime. Allow at least 5-7 days to comfortably drive the route, while also allowing time for hikes, detours, and lingering over stunning vistas.

Popular starting points include Inverness, John O’Groats or Wick. Travel anti-clockwise to be on the coastal side first. Split your time between peaceful west coast forests and beaches, the drama of the north coast, and the Isle of Skye’s fame and beauty.

Driving the Route

One of the joys of the NC500 is the freedom of the open road. The most popular option is to drive the route in your own vehicle, allowing you to take detours and change plans as you please. Car hire is available in Inverness and other towns.

The roads around the coast vary from wide, smooth highways to dramatic, narrow cliff roads. Confidence driving on single lane roads with passing places is a must. Go slow and be courteous to oncoming traffic.

Watch out for roaming sheep, deer, and even reindeer! Petrol stations can be scattered, so keep your tank topped up. Allow time for plenty of photo stops and picnics as you explore.

Motorcycle enthusiasts relish tackling the route on two wheels – just prepare for changeable weather. Alternatively, join a guided NC500 driving tour in a small group if you prefer less planning.

NC500 road sign

Where to Stay on the NC500

One of the charms of the NC500 is getting to stay in a new spot each night. Accommodation options range from hotels, B&Bs, hostels and campsites to more unique options like lighthouses, boats and rural cottages. Advance booking is essential during peak season.

Inverness makes a perfect start or end point, with amenities and accommodation options aplenty. The Palace Hotel located along the River Ness offers 4-star rooms in a 19th century building. Out of town, the Ness Walk Hotel provides modern suites with views.

On the west coast, Ullapool is a vibrant harbour village with loads of dining and shopping. The gorgeous Hillcrest House B&B is set on a hillside just outside town. Further north, Scourie provides a remote base with Scourie Hotel’s cosy rooms and Scottish fare.

Stylish modern cottages like The Boathouse at Kylesku are found all around the north coast for a remote experience. Near Durness, family-run Kokomo Aparthotel offers panoramic views in a peaceful spot.

Portree on the Isle of Skye is another hub with plentiful options like the historic Cuillin Hills Hotel or modern Bosville Hotel in the town centre. For pure romance, book a stay at The Toravaig House Hotel featuring a Michelin-starred restaurant and lochside setting.

On the east coast, Brora offers a handy base with traditional charmers like Links House B&B while Trentham Lodge outside of Dornoch stuns with beachfront rooms in a historic house. For unique accommodation, try a night in Duncansby Lighthouse near John O’Groats, sleeping with the seals! Wherever you rest your head, the NC500 accommodations enable you to savour Scotland’s astounding landscapes

For the true Scottish wilderness experience, outdoor enthusiasts can consider wild camping in certain areas along the route. Scotland has a right to roam law allowing pitching tents in open spaces like forests and fields, as long as you follow guidance like leaving no trace and not camping too close to homes or roads. Useful resources like the NC500 campervan and motorhome guide highlights permitted spots like Kinlochewe and Coire Dubh. Just ensure you are well-prepared with equipment and supplies as facilities will be limited. Remember to always respect nature, farmers’ properties and leave spaces as you found them.

Must See Highlights Along the Route

With so much diversity packed into the one route, careful planning is needed to include your top sights and experiences. Here are some of the key highlights to factor in:

North Coast

The rugged northern coastline of Scotland offers rocky cliffs, towering lighthouses, and a remote windswept beauty. As you traverse this coast, some of the top attractions to experience include:

  • Dunnet Head – Visit mainland Britain’s most northerly point, with cliffs and stunning views.
  • Dunnet Bay – Explore the vast golden sands of this dramatic beach.
  • Castle of Mey – The Queen Mother’s former home near John O’Groats.
  • Duncansby Head – Great seabird spotting on these towering cliffs.
  • Smoo Cave – Enter this vast flooded cavern near Durness via steps and boat.
  • Kylesku Bridge – Iconic bridge rewarded with estuary views.

Isle of Skye

The Isle of Skye is deserving of its reputation for iconic natural beauty and Scottish charm. Whilst not directly on the NC500 its worth adding to your itinerary. Don’t miss:

  • Old Man of Storr – Hike for views of this iconic rock pinnacle.
  • Neist Point Lighthouse – Rugged cliffs and waves crashing on this wild west coast.
  • Quiraing – Walk amid the rocky spires and pinnacles of this geological wonder.
  • Fairy Pools – Crystal clear blue pools to spot amid dramatic scenery.

West Coast

The scattered villages and pristine beaches of the northwest coast retain a remote, rustic charm. Top stops include:

  • Applecross – Quaint harbour village on a remote peninsula accessed by a mountain road.
  • Torridon – Mighty mountains and lochs to hike around and admire.
  • Ullapool – Vibrant village and base for exploring the northwest Highlands.
  • Corrieshalloch Gorge – Walk above this stunning tree-lined gorge.

With so much diversity packed into one epic road trip, you’ll likely have to be selective with the amount of stops you can make. Use this list of highlights as a starting point, but don’t be afraid to wander off the set route and discover your own hidden gems. Chat to locals for their secret spots and insider tips. The joy of the NC500 is blending the renowned attractions with the freedom to meander – you never know what you might stumble upon next! Just be sure to allow enough time in your itinerary for a healthy mix of must-sees and spontaneous stops.

Castle sinclair Scotland

Top Hikes, Views, and Historic Sites found on the NC500

The NC500 route offers countless opportunities to stretch your legs on scenic hikes and walks. On the Isle of Skye, tackle the hike up to the Old Man of Storr for dramatic views of the pinnacle rock formations. Or try the 6 mile Quiraing Loop passing through otherworldly rock spires and pinnacles.

On the west coast, hike up the Flowerdale Glen Waterfall Trail near Gairloch for a steep but rewarding 1.5 mile walk to see the cascades. Or head to An Corran beach in Staffin for a 2.5 mile coastal walk taking in the dinosaur footprints and lush scenery.

For history buffs, highlights include 16th century Dunrobin Castle in Golspie with its French-inspired gardens, the well-preserved medieval harbour town of Cromarty, and the Pictish carved stones and Norse ruins at Portmahomack dated to the 8th century.

Don’t miss visiting the iconic Eilean Donan Castle on the western edge of the route and the romantic Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye, backdrop for films like Highlander and Skyfall.

Top spots for panoramic views include the Quiraing Pass overlooking the Trotternish Peninsula on Skye, the viewing platform at Knockan Crag in northwest Sutherland, and the rugged sea cliffs of Hoy island in the Orkneys.

Wildlife and Nature North Coast 500

The diversity of landscapes along the NC500 provides plenty of opportunities to spot Scottish wildlife. Look for colonies of noisy seabirds including puffins, razorbills and guillemots around the coastal cliffs and sea stacks. Prime birdwatching spots include Duncansby Head, Dunnet Head and the Orkney Islands.

Keep an eye out for seals sunbathing on rocky shores, especially around the Moray Firth near Inverness. The beaches of Wester Ross are inhabited by common and grey seals. Boat tours from Gairloch and Durness allow you to spot minke whales, dolphins, basking sharks and white-tailed sea eagles.

On land, be on the lookout for red and roe deer, pine martens, wildcats, beavers and golden eagles, especially in the Northwest Highlands. Otters can also be spotted around lochs and along the coastline in the early morning.

Highland Coo on the NC500

Culture and Nightlife on the NC500

After a busy day exploring the NC500, recharge by experiencing Scottish culture and nightlife. Pop into a local pub session to hear traditional folk musicians jam late into the night. Recommended spots include The Old Inn in Gairloch, Stein Inn on Skye and Tongue Hotel up on the north coast.

On the east coast, sample whisky at distilleries like Glenmorangie in Tain, Clynelish in Brora and Wolfburn in Thurso. In harbour towns like Ullapool, Cromarty and Portree, tuck into fresh local seafood like langoustines, scallops and crab.

In the summer months, look out for Highland games taking place featuring competitions in caber tossing and hammer throw. The Black Isle Show in August offers Highland cattle displays, music and dancing. Or learn history at Culloden battlefield near Inverness and cruise Loch Ness in search of its famous monster.

Top Tips for an Unforgettable NC500 Road Trip

After the key route planning, here are some top tips for making your NC500 adventure smooth, safe and unforgettable:

  • Don’t skimp on time – allow 7-10 days if possible to avoid rushing this bucket list experience.
  • Travel anti-clockwise to be coastal first and break up drives between sights better.
  • Split overnight stops between peaceful west coast, the north’s wilderness, and Isle of Skye.
  • Pack layers and waterproofs – Scottish weather is famously changeable.
  • Give single track roads focus – be patient and use passing places.
  • Make the most of long summer days – set off early to maximise exploring time.
  • Chat to locals for insider tips and stories about the regions.
  • Vary activities – hike, boat, tour distilleries, wander towns – for diverse experiences.
  • Check road conditions and temporary closures especially in winter.
  • Fill up on fuel when you can as petrol stations are scattered.
  • Book accommodations ahead in peak season – it gets busy!

Prepare phone power banks – electricity and signal can be limited in remote spots.

Sample Itineraries for the North Cost 500

Planning your ideal NC500 road trip depends on how much time you have available. To make the most of your journey around Scotland’s northern coast, it helps to have an efficient route and itinerary mapped out ahead of time.

These 7-day and 10-day sample itineraries aim to help you optimize your NC500 trip based on your length of stay. They highlight the top sights and optimal driving times, while still allowing flexibility for detours and spontaneous stops. Consider them a helpful guide, but feel free to customize the routes to match your own travel style and interests.

7 day NC500 itinerary:

Day 1 – Drive east coast Inverness to Wick

Day 2 – North coast Wick to Durness

Day 3 – Northwest coast Durness to Ullapool

Day 4 – West coast Ullapool to Isle of Skye

Day 5 – Isle of Skye loop

Day 6 – Return to Inverness via Loch Ness

Day 7 – Explore Inverness or side trips

10 day NC500 itinerary:

Day 1-2 – Inverness to Ullapool, detour Northwest Highlands

Day 3-4 – North coast Ullapool to Durness

Day 5 – Scrabster to Orkney Islands

Day 6 – Orkney Islands loop

Day 7 – John O’Groats to Dunrobin Castle/east coast

Day 8-9 – West coast, Isle of Skye, Loch Ness

Day 10 – Return to Inverness

Remember these itineraries are only a starting point – the magic of the NC500 comes from wandering freely and soaking up the diversity of landscapes and experiences at your own pace. Chat to locals, be spontaneous, and always allow extra time for detours down country lanes and admiring sprawling vistas. Whether you have 7 or 10 days, this epic coastal route promises an unforgettable adventure through Scotland’s incredible north. Just be prepared – you may never want to leave!

North Coast 500 route on map of Scotland

Recommended Side Trips

While the NC500 offers more than enough sights and activities to fill your whole itinerary, consider extended detours to surrounding regions if you have extra time.

Venturing north, the Orkney and Shetland Islands provide a glimpse of remote island life, prehistoric villages like Skara Brae, and abundant seabird colonies. Take a ferry from Thurso or Scrabster to spend a day or two discovering the windswept beauty.

Just south, you’ll find the epic Cairngorms National Park perfect for hiking among the heather-clad hills and ancient Caledonian pine forests. Base yourself in Aviemore to climb the soaring mountain of Cairn Gorm and explore the sweeping scenery.

On your way to or from the NC500, detour into the majestic Northwest Highlands like Torridon and Applecross to uncover picturesque coastal villages, dramatic peaks and glassy lochs. The Bealach na Bà mountain road accessing Applecross is a highlight.

It’s also worth spending extra time in Inverness, the gateway to the NC500, to admire its castle, take a cruise along the River Ness, and sample the city’s lively food, music and cultural scene. However long you have available, adding these side trips allows you to fully experience the diverse natural beauty, history and culture of Scotland’s northern regions beyond just the coastal route. The NC500 provides the perfect base to craft your ultimate Scottish road trip adventure.

NC500 Summary

Taking on the North Coast 500 is an unforgettable way to experience the rich diversity of Scotland’s dramatic landscapes and vibrant culture. As you journey through the ancient woodlands of the west coast, down lonely single track roads bound by mountain ridges, past shimmering lochs and the remains of iron age settlements, it becomes abundantly clear why Scotland has inspired adventures and artists for centuries.

The freedom of the open road lets you fully immerse yourself in the heart of the Highlands, encountering famous attractions at your own pace as well as hidden gems waiting to be uncovered. Chat to locals and take your time wandering the fishing villages and dynamic towns to understand the deep connection people have to this storied land. With an open mind, sense of discovery and decent rain jacket, you’re bound to create lasting memories exploring the nooks and crannies of Bonnie Scotland. So get your engines running. This epic road trip along Scotland’s wild northern shores, among the heather-clad hills and age-old ruins, is one of the world’s truly great adventures. Just beware – you may find a piece of your heart forever in the Highlands after completing the NC500.

For other trip ideas and sight seeing in Scotland why not read out blog on the magical Galloway Forest Park.