The NC500 is without a doubt the best road-trip anyone can take in Britain!
The name the ‘NC500’ (or North Coast 500) was given to a circular itinerary that stops off in plenty of Scottish beauty spots. The term was coined by the non-profit North Highland Initiative in 2014. The aim of the route is to bring more awareness to rural Scotland and bring tourists to the most breath-taking parts of the Highlands.
The NC500 is 516 miles (830km) long and whether you choose to head east or west at the beginning you will take in all the stunning places along the loop.
The roads which make up the ‘NC500’ have always been there, they wind up and around the Scottish coast and through the valleys and mountains of the Highlands. Six regions of the Highlands are included within the route: Inverness-shire, Wester Ross (yes, just like Game of Thrones), Easter Ross, Sutherland, Caithness, and the Black Isle. This is an incomparable road-trip where you can take in the most ‘instagramable’ landscapes in the world and enjoy Highlands’ hospitality which is second to none.
How long does it take to go 500 miles?
Your journey can be as long or short as you would like. How long your adventure takes depends on how long you want to stay in each place and how many activities you’d like to do. Some people have zoomed around the route in just two days while VisitScotland recommends taking two weeks to soak it all up. There are so many different activities available for every kind of holidaymaker. From golfers, camping enthusiasts, lovers of luxury and pampering, foodies, adventure seekers and ‘quaffers’ of whisky to history hunters; there’s something for everyone.
For the purposes of this article I’ll be sharing the best itinerary (approximately seven days) taking in all of the highlights.
Start Your Ignition at Inverness
The route begins and ends in Inverness, the unofficial starting point is the castle in the city, but this is entirely up to you. Inverness is the most northerly city in Scotland and is a cultural hub, so it is considered the capital of the Highlands. While you are there, I recommend taking the time to sample the city’s outstanding Scottish cuisine and that you check out some live traditional music. You can also climb the viewing tower of the castle to take in a 360 degree view of the Highland capital. A brilliant spot for the traditional music, great whisky and a good dance is the award winning bar; Hootenanny.
While in Inverness you can rent a car or campervan. Or if you’re looking for a big cycling challenge there are also options for bike hire so you can tackle the NC500 that way.
What about Nessie?
Inverness gets its name from the River Ness which flows through the middle of the city, so naturally Loch Ness is nothing but a stone’s throw away. So, if you have time to spare why not investigate the mystery of the Loch Ness monster.
For at least 1500 years a legend has told of a giant aquatic creature lurking in the depths of Loch Ness. Nessie was first sighted by St. Columba in 565 A.D, legend says that this saint repelled the beast after seeing it kill a man swimming in the River Ness. She was first photographed in 1935. Millions of people have been coming to Loch Ness to investigate ever since. Is she fact or fiction? You decide. To get up close and personal you can book a cruise on the lake.
Urquhart castle is on the banks of the lake and is definitely worth checking out while you’re there as one of the first in a long list of spectacular castles along the route.
Choose your own adventure
Right from the start you have a choice to make, which way will you head around the loop? You can head west towards the Applecross Peninsula and then take the winding roads along the west coast through Ullapool and Gairloch, on to Durness, Wick and John O’Groats at the Northern most tip of the Scottish mainland. Alternatively, you could begin your journey heading east towards Wick and John O’Groats via the wild landscapes of the Black Isle. Either way you will get to see everything, because every road leads to Inverness in the end.
This route heading west, starts by going over the Kessock Bridge on the A9.
Check out the map below
Bealach ‘na ba to Applecross, if you dare!
You are now heading into Wester Ross. Yes! You read correctly! Wester Ross, although the likelihood of spotting a dragon is slightly less than on your TV screen. This part of the Highlands is genuinely magical all the same.
Wester Ross is where you will find Bealach ‘na ba a route through the mountains for only the bravest adventurers.
Bealach ‘na ba (pronounced; Bell-ach-na-baa) means Pass of the Cattle in Scotts Gaelic. Bealach ‘na ba is a road along the North Coast 500, but it’s not your typical road.
This road is infamous, it has the most amazing views, but it is not for learner or nervous drivers. It is what is known as an ‘A’ road in Scotland; a single lane road for coming and going with the need to pull in when you meet another vehicle. It also has the steepest ascent of any road in Scotland; beginning at sea level it quickly climbs to 626 metres. Please also note that if you cannot accurately reverse your vehicle several hundred yards on a narrow single track, then you cannot safely drive over the Bealach. It is not suitable for motorhomes or cars with caravans, so take the alternative route.
There is a sign that warns new drivers not to attempt it and politely suggests an easier route.
If you do take the Bealach ‘na ba road you’ll be treating the person in the passenger seat to a visual delight. Please do remember that this road is everyday use for locals, not just a challenge for holidaymakers, so treat it with respect and allow for overtaking.
Whether you choose the ‘Pass of the Cattle’ or take the easier Shieldaig to Applecross through Kenmore route you’ll get to see some lush nature and climbing mountains.
You can take a wee break by stopping off at Muir of Ord a small picturesque village 9 miles outside Inverness. Muir of Ord is a small village and is famous for its Glen Ord scotch whiskey distillery which was established in 1838. Anyone who is not the designated driver might appreciate sampling a wee dram of whisky.
So you’ve made it to Applecross
Applecross is a very popular place and it is easy to understand why. The peninsula that the village is nestled in offers dramatic views. Even though the village is remote it attracts plenty of tourists every year especially during the summer. On a dry day plenty of people can be found in the outside seating area of the Applecross Inn; a perfect place for dinner (12-9pm). If you love fresh seafood and gamemeat.
Applecross is a great place to rest for the night with a campsite and several guesthouses.
From Applecross you can find Sands Beach a long golden strand that looks out over the Atlantic, it’s ideal for giving children a good run around and while you’re there you can see a rock shelter which is a Mesolithic dwelling used 9,500 years ago.
The Wild Road to Ullapool
Next it’s time to head on to Ullapool. This leg of the journey will take you through the mountains of the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, this place is indescribable, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve been transported to the set of the Lord of the Rings. No, you’re not in New Zealand with Bilbo Baggins, you’re in the Scottish Highlands!
Venture into Shieldaig village
After heading off from Applecross the next village on your to-do list should be Shieldaig. An idyllic village that sits on the edge of Loch Shieldaig offering stunning views, great food, drinks and fantastic hospitality.
Stop off at Gruinard Bay
When you leave Shieldaig you will begin travelling along more winding coastal roads, they offer amazing sights and plenty of places that deserve your time. One of the first places that I recommend pulling over and checking out is Gruinard Bay.
Gruinard Bay is home to a quiet beach, perfect for a stroll or a swim. A great spot to stop for a picnic break (weather permitting) during your adventure.
Check out Ardressie Falls
Ardessie falls are a series of waterfalls in the river Allt Airdeasaidh west of Dundonnel along road A832. From the carpark it is a short 500 metres to view the six waterfalls tumbling off the mountainside. The waterfalls are at their most magnificent in Spring and Summer when melted snow from the mountains is flowing down, turning them from a trickle to a tumult.
Ullapool is one of the most lively village in the highlands, every year it holds a book festival (held in May), a music festival called Lullapoola (held in September), Ullapool Guitar Festival (held in October) and Ullapool Beer Festival (at the end of October) all of which are jam packed full of events, concerts and fun activities.
Another village resting on the banks of a loch, Ullapool is on the banks of Loch Broom (‘loch of rain showers’) and is flanked by the rolling Fannich hills. You’ll see beautiful white washed cottages and during the summer months you can join a guided walking tour around the streets.
The village has a museum to learn more about the place’s history. You can take a boat trip out on Loch Broom or rent a sea kayak and if you have time to spare there are ferries that can take you to the Isle of Lewis (Stornaway).
Ullapool is also a golfers dream, boasting a 9 hole course in one of the most inspiring landscapes. Foodies can also sample the seafood the place is famous for, I recommend the fish and chips which some claim is the best on the west coast.
Ullapool is also home to the Stac Pollaidh if you’re hoping to do a self-guided North Coast 500 hike (stick with the designated hike trails for your own safety). The mountain is just north of Ullapool and is a quick drive from the village. This hike pays off by giving you the ultimate photo opportunity at the peak’s viewing point.
Head to The Ceilidh Place for a drink; the bar is run by actor Robert Urquhart who starred in The Avengers and The Danger Man. Robert Urquhart was born in Ullapool and returned in the 1970s to establish the Ceilidh Place with his wife Jean. Ceilidh place is absolutely jumping on weekends but is always well worth a visit any day of the week.
Keep in mind that even though this itinerary is for just seven days to do the North Coast, Ullapool is such a treasure many people choose to spend just as long in Ullapool alone!
Crossing Kylescue Bridge
After a night or two resting in Ullapool it’s time for the road-trip to take off again. Head north to cross Kylescue Bridge and continue along the coastal roads to Durness.
Kylescue Bridge was built in the 1980s to replace the ferry which was the only way to cross Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin. While crossing this elevated bridge you’ll take in devastatingly beautiful scenery as the bridge sweeps over the fjord.
Durness village is surrounded by the kind of beaches you would find on a postcard, but with one quirky twist, you will often spot cattle grazing on the grass growing up on the dunes as they seem to roam free in this area.
Durness also features a craft village; Balnakeil craft village where you can shop for souvenirs, but most importantly this is where you can visit Cocoa Mountain. Cocoa Mountain is an upbeat café which claims to sell “the best chocolate in the world!” The only way to find out if this is true, is to sample it for yourself!
For dinner and the best views head to Sango Sands Oasis, the pub next to the campsite which offers panoramic views out to sea.
Discover the legends of Smoo Cave
Durness is famous the world over for Smoo cave, a long, creepy, but beautiful cavern which is definitely worth a visit!
Smoo cave may have a silly sounding name, but it is quite a haunting place. This spectacular limestone cave is the setting for many local legends. One of the stranger myths is about John MacKay or ‘The Wizard of Reay’. The story claims that Lord Mackay who was a man with a colourful past including adultery and bigamy was actually a wizard of the dark arts!
The Legend of The Wizard of Reay
The story goes that while he was a soldier in the 16th century Mackay met the devil, who invited him to study black magic. In payment for his teachings the devil demanded that the last man to leave the classroom would forfeit his soul. MacKay was the unlucky last man. But being a cunning Scotsman MacKay turned to the devil and shouted the spell ‘De’il tak’ the hindmost’, meaning he would instead leave his shadow behind. The devil grabbed his shadow, thinking it was his apprentice’s soul and was furious when he realised he had been tricked!
Shadow-less and chased to the ends of the earth by the devil, MacKay eventually came to Smoo cave. He thought this would be the perfect place to hide, surely the devil wouldn’t bother going somewhere so far north and remote?
But, somehow the devil caught wind of MacKay’s plans and hid in the cave to ambush him. Luckily for MacKay he had his loyal dog with him. The dog warned him of the dangers awaiting in the darkness, so he waited. MacKay waited until the sun rose and the light of day left the devil powerless.
Furious the devil flew up through the roof of the cave along with some witches (who he’d brought along for extra muscle). These three monsters broke through the ceiling of the cave and created the three holes. These are said to be the holes through which the waterfall now flows.
True or false? Who cares it’s a grand old yarn and as good a reason as any to explore the caves for yourself.
Heading south to Wick
As a former Viking settlement the roots of Wick’s history run deep. Wick sits along the river Wick and stretches its limbs on either side of Wick Bay. Wick is actually two towns; Wick proper and Pultneytown immediately across the river. To learn more about the history of Wick you can head to the Heritage Centre in Bank Row, Pultneytown, here you can see a fascinating collection of artefacts from the old fishing days.
Wick holds the Guiness world record for the shortest street in the world! At just two metres and six centimetres Ebenezer Place has snatched up this most exciting record, why not challenge yourself to see how fast you can cross it?
For the whisky lovers among you, Wick is home to the famous distillery Old Pulteney where a sampling of their famous whisky would not go amiss.
Probably one of the best bases for castle hopping, from Wick you have access to three different castles. The village is home to a castle which sits on the edge of the cliffs just south of Wick Bay, it is known by some as the castle of Old Wick but locals refer to it as the Old Man of Wick. The Old Man of Wick dates back to the 12th century when Wick was under Norwegian Viking rule.
Just three miles north of the village of Wick are the ruins of the castle; Sinclair-Grinigoe. The ruins cast a dramatic silhouette on the precipice of the jagged cliffs. There is a scenic clifftop walk to the castle via Noss Head Lighthouse from the tiny fishing village of Staxigoe. Walkers will encounter a selection of wildlife along the way including various species of seabirds and puffins and a beautiful scenic beach, which is popular for windsurfing and sand-yachting, will be found at end of Sinclair Bay.
Down to Dunrobin Castle, Golspie
While you are winding along the roads that lead south towards Inverness on the last leg of your adventure, stopping at Dunrobin castle is a must! The castle can be found just before you enter the village of Golspie.
Dunrobin Castle appears to have been transplanted here from the pages of a fairytale book and its manicured gardens are perfect for an afternoon stroll. Inside the castle are 189 rooms, some of which the public can view. The gardens and castle overlook the Dornoch Firth (firth means ‘small inlet’) so when you look back over the gardens, the emerald green of the grass and the hedges will meet the line of the beach’s golden sand and then the endless expanse of pale blue ocean. On a sunny day this view is spectacular.
This magnificent locale is a photographer’s dream with lush vegetation and soaring turrets. Take the time to learn about the history of the castle and the Scottish people who were removed from the area during the Highland Clearances so that it could be built in this place.
Investigating the Black Isle’s History
Between Golspie and Inverness is the Black Isle; a peninsula which is made up of a collection of villages and hamlets. The area has a lot to offer so take the time to take it all in!
This area is considered one of the best in Scotland for spotting dolphins! It is famous for a pod of dolphins who are often seen at Chanonry Point, in between the villages of Fortrose and Rosemarkie where they are frequently observed leaping and playing in the Moray Firth, they like this place because the shallow waters in the firth are ideal for catching their fish dinners.
If you are a lover of nature walks and hikes then the Black Isle region is paradise. Home to two RSPB nature reserves. One of which is aptly called the Fairy Glen; a woodland glen with tumbling waterfalls, moss fringed paths, song birds and wild flowers. An ideal place to slow down and relax. The Fairy Glen can be found close to Rosemarkie and offers a three kilometer hike.
The second nature reserve worth a visit is the Udale Bay nature reserve. This watery landscape is home to many species of wild birds native to the area, including the migrating pink-footed geese. Here you can enjoy a stroll along the shoreline and admire the birds.
For the historians among you a trip to the Groam House Museum is in order. This museum houses very rare artefacts including; Pictish stones! The Picts lived in Scotland between the 5th and 9th centuries and to this day we know very little about them. But what they did leave behind were beautifully carved stones. Some inscriptions they left behind tell us that they spoke a language which was closely related to Scotts Gaelic and Welsh.
So that’s it. You’ve successfully completed the North Coast 500! By the time you return to the castle at Inverness you will have experienced so much more of Scotland that the typical tourist. You will have taken in some of the most amazing landscapes on earth, seen about a million sheep, perhaps about a hundred highland cows, drank some of the best whisky in the world, ate the best food and taken in some of the traditional culture, music and history of Scotland.
So does this have to be the end? Absolutely not! The above route with its many stop offs is only one of the thousands of ways one can take on the North Coast 500. There are so many different turns you could take, so many islands you could take a ferry to, so many activities that will take you off the beaten track.
So the highlands of Scotland will be waiting for the next time you feel the wild calling and the need to go adventuring fills your bones. Scotland will always be ready to take you away with her.