The North Coast 500 (NC500 for short) is Scotland’s latest and greatest travel innovation. Despite only being presented in this format for around about eighteen months, the road trip is already considered amongst the world’s best driving routes. Designed to compete with the likes of America’s legendary Route 66, the Scottish equivalent is a five-hundred mile route around the north of Scotland.
Starting from Inverness you can complete the road trip in a clockwise or anti-clockwise fashion. We opted for clockwise because our excitement to see the the wonderful west coast was palpable.
The sites include incredible white sand and turquoise beaches, a hill-walker’s paradise of mountain tops which beckon you to explore them, delicious food and drinks from independent and award-winning local suppliers, caves, ancient treasures such as castle ruins and steps carved from rocks which lead you to secluded bays, the most northerly part of mainland UK, ferocious waves for surfers, a great chance to spot the Aurora Borealis and much more.
Our route, starting in Inverness, going west, then north, east and back south via the east coast
Day One: Inverness to Gairloch
The route from Inverness to Applecross, which is a morning’s drive across the width of the country, is largely unremarkable, certainly in contrast to what is to come, but having stopped in Dingwall for provisions we made another quick stop at the Rogie Falls to take in some waterfalls. Beyond that there’s not much to see except pretty scenery along twisting roads until you reach the foot of the Applecross Pass (historically known as Bealach na Bà), a beautiful road up the mountains which sit on this peninsula in Wester Ross. Similar to alpine roads in Europe, this road twists and turns and has one particular hairpin turn which offers incredible views back down the mountain.
This mountain pass is one of the most fantastic roads to drive along the route but, sadly for us, we faced some truly awful rain and decided to continue down to the village of Applecross, on the other side, and specifically to the Applecross Inn, for restbite. Happily, this was the very worst of the weather we faced on the trip.
Two minute video of our road trip
Departing Applecross we began to find the nice weather that would largely stay with us over the next five days. Winding our way along the roads which hug the west coast of this wonderful landscape we passed Loch Torridon, which was truly stunning, and made our way through the Beinn Eighe Nature Reserve to Gairloch, where we camped for the night. It’s well worth your time pulling over and exploring Torridon on your way past because the local area is phenomenal.
Day Two: Gairloch to Lochinver
Day two was always billed as a little bit of a beach day, owing to the fact we were passing some of Scotland’s finest. These wouldn’t be the only beaches of the trip, indeed some of the best, as you’ll read later, were in the very north west of Scotland, but day two was special none the less.
Exiting Gairloch we passed Inverewe Gardens and set our sights on the wonderful Isle of Ewe Smokehouse, where we met the owners and purchased some delicious smoked salmon (both hot and cold) which would serve us well over the coming days as lunch time treats.
Before turning inland and driving around Guinard Bay, we travelled a little off piste to Mellon Udrigle Beach. By no means a bad beach at all, but it was soon to be eclipsed by all the rest. None the less the beach was a little active and next to it was a walk to a cairn upon a cliff that gave us a chance to stretch our legs.
After leaving Mellon Udrigle beach and making our way around Little Loch Broom, we settled in for a day’s driving to Lochinver. Along the way we passed through the stunning Corrieshalloch Gorge Nature Reserve and Falls, Inchnadamph Bone Caves and Ardvreck Castle.
There may not be a lot remaining of the 16th century Ardvreck Castle but it is well worth a visit on your way past. Surrounded on almost all sides by Loch Assynt, it’s location makes it one of the most beautifully situated ruins along our journey.
After enjoying a little time in the sunshine at the ruins we completed the day’s exploring at the wonderful white sand beach at Achmelvich. This was the busiest of the beaches we visited along the NC500, partly as it was close to Lochinver and partly because a hostel sits right on the beach, but it’s well worth a visit. After a dip we then had dinner at Lochinver Larder, famous throughout Scotland and along this route for it’s traditional pies.
Day Three: Lochinver to Durness
The road from Lochinver to Kylescu Bridge, via Clachtoll, Stoer and Drumbeg, affectionately known as the “Mad Wee Road” or the “Drumbeg Loop”, was my favourite stretch of driving road along the NC500. The road dips between glens and hugs hillsides. Views on either side are truly stunning and half-way along the road you’re treated to the quaint village of Drumbeg, which I recommend you stop at.
After a snack which included one of the most delicious cheese twists I’ve ever had the good fortune to taste (goat’s cheese and honey, from Drumbeg Stores), we made our way to Klyescu bridge for photographs.
Leaving Kylsecu and setting our sights on our overnight stay at Durness, we settled in for the drive. On our way past Kinlochbervie, however, with the weather now as hot as it had been at any time during our trip, we took a lunch trip detour to Oldshoremore beach, which, as it would turn out, was completely deserted and by far my favourite sandy stop on the trip. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
After sunning ourselves on Oldshoremore beach, we left the west coast for the last time and arrived in Durness. With it still being such a beautiful day we decided to go for a dip in the North Sea at Balnakeil Bay, neither of us ever having been to the north coast before, but not before visiting the famous Cocoa Mountain cafe. Balnakeil Bay was another stunning beach with a huge sweeping area of sand and dunes to laze on and around.
After checking in to the local camp site, we managed to catch the sun set, with a beer in hand, on the Durness beach cliff-side.
Day Four: Durness to John o’Groats
Perhaps Durness’ best-known site is Smoo Cave. I LOVE underground places and so we spent the morning exploring it. For an extra £5 you can take a trip across the water of the first cave in a boat to the secondary cave behind, and learn about the cave’s history, chemistry, the on-going investigation of it’s source and future works.
After a little lunch we left Durness for John o’Groats, hugging the north coast, again basking in beautiful weather and under stunning blue skies. The north coast roads were just as single tracked as those on the west coast and they follow the coastal line almost to a fault, meaning they weave left and right for more than a hundred miles. We passed through Tongue and Thurso on our way to John o’Groats and I have to say that there wasn’t much to report on except one interesting and curious site: Ard Neackie, on Loch Eriboll, which is a peninsula that contains stone kilns which were once used to heat the limestone quarried from the rock above it. As well as being a very pretty walk, we were able to explore all of these areas and try to figure it out before truly learning it’s purpose after returning to our car.
Thurso has some of the UK’s finest waves and had we been surfers I’ve no doubt we would have stopped off to try and tame them, but instead we visited Castle of Mey, Dunnet Point Lighthouse (most northernly mainland point in the UK) and Achvarasal Broch before taking photos at the famous John o’Groats sign. After checking in to the camp site we decided to take a trip to a site that has long been on my Scottish ‘bucket list: The Stacks of Duncansby. These sea stacks are a 10-15min walk from the local lighthouse and offer an opportunities for fans of birds to watch some of the local flying nesters.
The Stacks of Duncansby
The John o’Groats seafront
Day Five: Orkney
We took the ferry over to Orkney for two hals days, essentially 24hrs. Our itinerary was packed and we’d both always wanted to visit, so it was great to see Orkney fully deliver.
After landing in St Margaret’s Hope we crossed the Churchill Barriers, built by prisoner’s of war during the Second World War in many cases, to protect from submarine attacks. You can still see shipwrecks poking up from the water between the first three Orkney islands you arrive at. On Lamb Holm, just before driving to Orkney’s main island, you pass the beautiful little Italian Chapel, again built by POW’s.
After being provided permission to convert two Nissen huts into this wonderful chapel, the building had a facade erected to disguise it’s true identity. Inside, painstakingly, tiles and beautifully ornate paintings were added to astonish all those who step inside. It’s incredible to believe that this was all put together using next to no materials.
After making our way to Kirkwall, we visited Saint Magnus Cathedral and the Earl’s Palace before setting up camp and making our way to the pub for a night of food and drinks.
The Italian Chapel
Day Six: More of Orkney
If you’d asked me, before the trip and probably at any time through my life, what my number one ‘to see’ attraction in Scotland was, I can’t believe I’d ever have given an answer that wasn’t “Skara Brae”. Blame it on the fact I was raised by historians and am a bit of a geek. So you can imagine my excitement ahead of that visit on day six.
It wasn’t just the incredible beauty of the site itself, nor was it the location, right there on the edge of an island (in actual fact this would have been a sea loch at the time of it’s use 5,200 years ago, but the fact that so much has still to be learned about Skara Brae (despite having been found 1850) in that really took my breath away. When I spoke to a tour guide and asked if she thought there was any more of the dwellings she said “Oh yes, we’re sure there are some right there”. As she pointed to a ridge just fifty feet away it was obvious to me she was right. I loved every second spent here, but sadly we still had lots to do..
After leaving Skara Brae we made a loop back towards Kirkwall, first passing and exploring Yesnaby Castle. Just don’t expect to see a castle! What you will find are incredible cliffs, sea stacks and puffins. The wind was really up as we skirted the edge of the Orkney cliffs and we even saw water being thrown back up the hill, caught by the viscous winds.
After Yesnaby we visited the world famous Ring of Brodgar. Having visited the Stones of Callanis/Calanais, I was pretty excited about these and if I’m honest I was a little let down. Had I been here at sunrise, sunset or during some cloud they may have been a little more mystical, but a renovation project means you can’t really access many of them and the sheer number of tourists meant you couldn’t enjoy them in any sort of peace, or take photos easily. They’re a ‘must see’, but set your expectations low, especially if you’ve been blown away by other standing stones.
Making our way back to Kirkwall we also passed the Stones of Stenness and the new Ness of Brodgar excavations, but we were on a deadline to make the Highland Park distillery tour! And what a tour it was. Being treated to a dram at the end of the tour is of course a highlight but in no way the reason you take the tour. We loved learning about the special set of circumstances that lead Highland Park to being such a successful product, including having access to the Orkney peat and a milder and more mellow year-round climate (which means less loss to the Angel’s Share). I highly recommend this tour to anyone, regardless of whether you have any interest in tasting whisky. The history, heritage and manufacturing process are all well worth learning about.
Finally we departed Kirkwall, now ready to take a ferry back to the mainland and begin the southern stint of our journey.
Highland Park distillery
Day Seven: Wick to Inverness
After taking the ferry back from Orkney we’d settled in Wick, ready for the final leg. We visited Castle Sinclair Girnigoe before leaving Wick and I highly recommend you take a trip there if you’re ever in the area too. Situated precariously upon rocks and sea cliffs, this castle is in a very poor state of repair but that just makes it all the more fascinating the visit.
After leaving Wick we had two sites we really wanted to see, and neither disappointed. Firstly the Whaligoe Steps, later Dunrobin Castle.
The Whaligoe Steps are simply magnificent. First prospected by Thomas Telford in 1786, this site was thought to be a “terrible” one from which to begin a port. Despite this, Captain David Brodie spent £8 having the 330 steps cut out of the side of the cliff and by 1814 the site was home to 14 herring boats. The purpose of the steps was for fisherwomen to lift up creels of herring and carry them to the top. Women as old as seventy were involved in gutting and transporting the fish and, having climbs back up these steps, O can’t tell you how difficult a job this would be one just one day, let alone as your life’s occupation.
Whaligoe Steps are a super stop-off point and somewhere which is underrated on the NC500. There’s a beautiful waterfall to be found partly hidden when sitting in the harbour. Also look out for a two hundred year-old winch. One can only sit and wonder what this place would have been like two hundred years ago, but what a fantastic place to sit and wonder about anything after-all.
Moving south of Wick and taking the A9 back to Inverness, we passed a number of sites of interest, such as the abandoned village of Badbea. As this was a little walk from the road and with time running out, we weren’t able to visit, although I fully intend to some day soon. The village was created by landlords who had cleared villages off more fertile lands and moved them to this rocky outcrop. A bleak and windswept spot, the village didn’t last long and all that exists now is a stone monument and some old house walls.
The last stop on our trip was the regal-looking Dunrobin Castle. A famous day out for many Highlanders, I had been here as a child and remembered it well. Sam, on the other hand, was blown away. Much like a fairy-tale castle, it’s beautiful turrets and stunning grounds making it an incredible sight. With 189 rooms, it’s the biggest of it’s type in the northern Highlands.
After leaving Dunrobin and nearby Golspie, we made our way back to Inverness. Rather than take 500 miles, this route was actually more like 820. We’d taken every chance we had to go off-piste and explore lighthouses, beaches and Orkney after all.
We decided to make my younger brother’s house’s hot tub the unofficial finish line for our North Coast 500 trip, which is why we were to be found there by 5pm on the last day of our trip!
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
If you’ve enjoyed reading about our trip and would like to ask any questions, pop a comment below or send me a message. I’ll always be happy to share any of my maps, budgets, trip inventories or other information.