Are you looking to take part in the Ultimate road trip? The North Coast 500 is a mapped out scenic route which travels all around the North Coast of Scotland, both starting and ending at Inverness Castle. This really is the best way to take in all the highlights of the Highlands of Scotland in one trip, and the establishment of this route since 2015 has increased the number of tourists to several parts of Scotland.
Travelling through the regions of Inverness-shire, Ross and Cromarty, Sutherland and Caithness in a clockwise direction, the NC500 has in fact been described as ‘Scotland’s Route 66’, and although it is usually undertaken in a car, it has also been taken on as a challenge for experienced cyclists too!
It is recommended that to really get the most out of the North Coast 500 route you take at least 5 days to drive it at a leisurely pace and really take in all the sights. Obviously the longer you take and the most stops you make, the more you can get out of the experience.
The Tourism Project Board of the North Highland Initiative (NHI), supported by Visit Scotland, identified that a gap existed in the market within the North Highlands for a tourism offering and thus The North Coast 500 was launched in March 2015. It has brought unified benefits to businesses across the route.
In 2015, the NC500 route was named fifth in the “Top 5 Coastal Routes in the World” listing by Now Travel Magazine.
The NC500 is also regarded as a challenge for endurance cyclists. The current record is held by Robbie Mitchell from Durness, having completed the route in 29 hours, 5 minutes and 42 seconds.
A survey commissioned by HIE suggested that the NC500 led to around 29,000 more people visiting the area in its first year, who collectively spent a whopping £9 million!
Things to see along the NC500
Inverness is where the North Coast 500 route both starts and ends, and it is full of great places to stay and things to see and do.
“Inverness is not only one of Europe’s fastest growing cities, but statistically one of the happiest places in the UK.”
Known locally as the capital of the Highlands, Inverness is unique because despite how quickly the city is growing, it still manages to retain the feel of its market town roots. The population currently sits at around 61,000, and there is even an airport, so if you plan on flying in to undertake the NC500 it couldn’t be easier. There are a wide variety of shops in the city as well as a range of vibrant and popular bars and restaurants. You can even explore a wealth of beautiful scenery around Inverness if you prefer a slower pace of sightseeing.
This series of waterfalls on the Black Water, a river in Ross-shire in the Highlands, are a must-stop place to visit as you travel west along the A835. There are several secluded woodland walks which attract tourists all year round, and if you are brave enough to cross the suspension bridge, you will be rewarded with the most incredible views. Be warned though, the bridge is only built to hold up to 5 people at a time and the paths are not at all wheelchair accessible. Visitors to Rogie Falls in the past have reported the highlight of their visit being the wild salmon leaping upstream in August and September.
Bealach na Bà
If you continue to make your way west you will come across this stretch of road that is really not for the faint of heart, as it twists and turns across the Applecross peninsula with steep gradients and sharp hairpin bends. But if you drive carefully the views across to the Isle of Skye, Wester Ross and the Outer Hebrides will be more than worth it! Just remember though that this stretch of road will close in the winter months due to the ice and snow.
Shieldaig is a beautiful village, made up of a scattering of largely white-washed cottages and other buildings along the shore of the loch. The island comes complete with a small collection of tourist services including a shop and a hotel with outstanding dining, so why not pop in for a spot of lunch as you make your way along the North Coast 500 route.
Loch Maree is the fourth largest freshwater loch in the whole of Scotland and it is the largest north of Loch Ness- approximately 21.7 km long and with a maximum width of 4 km.
The area is well known for it’s beautiful scenery with its scattered islands, in fact the Loch Maree has more than 60 islands. There are oakwoods and mountains on one side and Beinn Eighe Nature Reserve on the other.
There is an abundance of rare wildlife and plants surrounding the Loch Maree, so if you decide to pay a visit, keep your eyes peeled for sea eagles, golden eagles, black-throated divers, red deer, dragonflies and butterflies in the vicinity.
When thinking of North West Scotland, Stac Pollaidh is one of those places that instantly springs to mind for many people. The iconic mountain with it’s distinctive rocky ridge is a popular hiking destination for people of a range of abilities, with an easier ascent on the eastern side and a challenging exposed high ridge on the west. tHe easier path can be completed in roughly ‘half a day’ so achievable for most people as they tour around the North Coast 500.
Known as one of the most peculiar structures in the whole of Scotland, Hermit’s Castle is Europe’s smallest castle, and possibly the smallest castle in the world. It was built single-handedly over 6 months in 1950 by an architect from Norwich, David Scott, and is situated to the Western headland of Achmelvich Beach. If you cross the beach and climb up the rocks to the flat area at the top, you should be able to spot the castle amongst the rocks- it is less than 10m squared in area though!
Durness is the most north-westerly village in the British mainland and a good stop on the NC500 to stock up on essentials such as fuel. There is also an excellent tourist information centre, a small supermarket and cash machines.
Whilst here you could also check out some of the highlights including Smoo Cave, which is the largest cave in Scotland, and Balnakiel beach which also happens to provide a beautiful backdrop to the ruins of the old Balnakiel Church.
Dunnet Head & John O’Groats
Once you start heading back East on your North Coast 500 Journey, one of those most obvious stops to make would probably be the most northerly point of mainland Britain, Dunnet Head, or the popular tourist attraction, John O’Groats, known for being one end of the longest distance between two inhabited British points on the mainland.
The views from Dunnet Head are magnificent, and if visibility is good you can see the Old Man of Hoy in Orkney in the distance, and there are a range of activities both here and around John O’Groats that are worthwhile taking part in.
Find out more about how you can entertain yourself for a whole day out HERE.
Dunrobin Castle is one of the oldest, biggest, and most iconic castles in Scotland. It overlooks Moray Firth and was once the home of the Earls and later Dukes of Sutherland. The Castle, which resembles a French château with its towering conical spires, has an impressive 189 rooms! You can visit the Dunrobin Castle website and plan your visit HERE.