North Coast 500

Why We Love The North Coast 500

  • Lochs - There are roughly 31,000 lochs in Scotland but the North Coast 500 features some unmissable lochs including Gair Loch, Loch Maree, and Loch Ness.
  • Beaches - Scotland has no shortage of rugged coastlines but the white sand beaches of Wester Ross are some of the most stunning in Scotland. Highlights include Achmelvich Bay, Clachtoll Beach, and Sandwood Bay.
  • Castles - Scotland has many castles but few are as impressive as Dunrobin Castle. Other great visits include Inverness Castle, Ardveck Castle, and Castle Sinclair Girnigoe.

North Coast 500 Itineraries

What is the North Coast 500?

The North Coast 500 is a 516-mile scenic route along Scotland’s northern coast that begins and ends in the city of Inverness, the capital of the Scottish Highlands. We’ve put together this comprehensive North Coast 500 guide to help you plan the perfect North Coast 500 road trip in Scotland.

Durness Beach by Eric Fraser on Unsplash.Durness Beach by Eric Fraser on Unsplash.

North Coast 500 route

Whether you're driving the NC500 over 5 days or 3 weeks, the Highlands have something for everyone. Luxury hotels to camping, hiking to pubs, the NC500 it has it all! To make the most of your trip, we recommend driving the 516-mile route anticlockwise. This allows you to end your trip on a high, saving the beautiful coastal beaches, quaint villages, and iconic stops of Wester Ross until last.

To keep this guide concise, we’ve broken down the NC500 into 4 sections, these are as follows:

  • Stage 1: Inverness to John O’Groats - Marvel at the rugged cliffs and windswept castles of Easter Ross and Caithness. Visit the magnificent Dunrobin Castle, Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, and Duncansby Sea Stacks.
  • Stage 2: John O’Groats to Durness - Take in the coastal views of Sutherland including Melvich Beach, Strathy Bay, Ceannabeinne Beach and visit the mysterious Smoo Cave.
  • Stage 3: Durness to Ullapool - Explore the endless white beaches of Wester Ross and walk the striking cliffs of Cape Wrath before heading to the bustling sea port of Ullapool.
  • Stage 4: Ullapool to Lochcarron, and Inverness - Meander through the ancient mountains of the Torridon Hills and take in the majestic lochs of the southern Highlands. On the way back to Inverness, stop at the peaceful village of Applecross before driving the infamous Bealach na Bà Pass.
Dunrobin Castle by Colin Horn on Unsplash.Dunrobin Castle by Colin Horn on Unsplash.

Stage 1: Inverness to John O’Groats

The drive between Inverness and John O’Groats offers stunning coastal views, impressive castles, and excellent whisky tasting opportunities. Though we completed the drive in 1 day, we’d recommend 2 days to fully take in the dramatic landscapes (and visit more castles!).

Top things to do between Inverness and John O’Groats:

  • Black Isle Bar - Love a good IPA? Visit the Black Isle Bar nestled in the heart of Inverness city centre and sample beer from 100% organic Black Isle Brewery.
  • Chanonry Point - Watch dolphins leap from the water at high tide in Moray Firth from Chanonry Point.
  • Glenmorangie Distillery - Experience the best whisky the NC500 has to offer with a tour and tasting at Glenmorangie Distillery.
  • Dunrobin Castle - Explore the fairytale fortress of Dunrobin Castle, the largest castle in Northern Scotland, complete with turrets and formal gardens.
  • Big Burn Walk - Descend through beautiful woodland along Golspie Gorge to the stunning Golspie Burn Waterfall via the Big Burn Walk.
  • Falls of Shin - Travelling in late summer or autumn? Head inland to see migrating Salmon leaping upstream to lay their eggs.
  • Whaligoe Steps - Climb down the 330 flagstone steps to the remote harbour of Whaligoe Haven, constructed in 1786 for North Sea fisherman.
  • Castle Sinclair Girnigoe - Explore moody ruins at Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, once home to the ‘Wicked Earls’.
  • Duncansby Head Sea Stacks - Spot puffins and other rare birds flying between the cliffs at the Geo of Sclaites beside Duncansby Head Sea Stacks.
  • John O’Groats Signpost - Stand at the edge of Scotland and take a photo with the famous John O’Groats Signpost.
Smoo Cave by Janita Top on Unsplash.Smoo Cave by Janita Top on Unsplash.

Stage 2: John O’Groats to Durness

The journey from John O'Groats to Durness along Scotland's windswept north coast offers some of the best seascapes in Britain. Expect dramatic sea cliffs, quaint fishing villages and breathtaking views out to the North Sea. We completed the drive in 1 day and we’d recommend doing the same to save more time for the densely packed journey between Durness and Ullapool.

Top things to do between John O’Groats and Durness:

  • Dunnet Head - Visit the most northerly point of mainland Scotland and photograph the 18th century Dunnet Head Lighthouse.
  • Melvich Bay and Strathy Bay - Watch surfers as they take on the North Atlantic waves at Melvich Bay and Strathy Bay.
  • Golden Eagle Zipline - Glide 100 feet above the beautiful Ceannabeinne Beach with the thrilling Golden Eagle Zipline.
  • Smoo Cave - Explore the mysterious Smoo Cave, used by smugglers, Vikings, and Norse settlers for over 5,000 years.
  • Cocoa Mountain - Enjoy a monstrous hot chocolate at the Cocoa Mountain Balnakeil chocolate shop.
Kylesku Bridge by K B on Unsplash.Kylesku Bridge by K B on Unsplash.

Stage 3: Durness to Ullapool

The drive from Durness to Ullapool was the highlight of our North Coast 500 road trip, with breathtaking scenery around every bend and endless white sand beaches - we couldn’t get enough of the awesome scenery! Beth and I took 3 days to complete the drive, stopping frequently for hikes and photography. For the best experience, we'd suggest taking 3-4 days, allowing more time to soak in the magical beauty of Scotland's northwest Highlands.

Top things to do between Durness and Ullapool:

  • Sandwood Bay Beach - Hike through barren moorlands to one the most remote beaches in Scotland at Sandwood Bay Beach.
  • Cape Wrath - Walk along the highest sea cliff in Britain at Clò Mór in Cape Wrath.
  • Kylesku Bridge - Drive over Loch a' Chàirn Bhàin via the famous curved bridged at Kylesku Bridge.
  • Clachtoll Beach and Achmelvich Bay - Take a deep breath and relax on the beautiful white sand beaches of Clachtoll Beach and Achmelvich Bay.
  • Stac Pollaidh - Hike the rocky ridge of Stac Pollaidh, featuring stunning views of Loch Sionascaig, the Coigach Mountains, and Cùl Mòr.
  • Allt Chranaidh (Wailing Widow Waterfall) - Walk the hidden trail to the Wailing Widow Waterfall, plummeting 50 feet from the edge of Loch na Gainmhich.
  • Ardvreck Castle - Explore the moody ruins of Ardveck Castle surrounded by Loch Assynt, once home to the MacLeods of Assynt.
  • Ben More Assynt - Go munro bagging and reach the intimidating summit of Ben More Assynt, one of the highest mountains in Northern Scotland.
  • Lochinver Larder - Grab a homemade pie and watch the sunset over Loch Inver at the Lochinver Larder beer garden.
Bealach na Bà by Michael Scott on Unsplash.Bealach na Bà by Michael Scott on Unsplash.

Stage 4: Ullapool to Lochcarron, and Inverness

The drive from Ullapool to Inverness winds through craggy mountains and past shimmering lochs, with highlights like the rugged Bealach na Bà mountain pass. Although we completed this section in 2 days, we’d recommend driving over 3 days and spending more time in the area around the stunning Torridon Hills.

Top things to do between Ullapool to Lochcarron, and Inverness:

  • The Seaforth - Taste some of the best seafood Scotland has to offer at The Seaforth, featuring Langoustines from Lochbroom and Atlantic haddock fish and chips.
  • Gairloch Beach - Swim in the crystal clear blue waters of Gairloch Beach with stunning views of the Isle of Skye.
  • Beinn Eighe - Hike the second tallest of the Torridon Hills at Beinn Eighe, featuring 1000s of wildflowers and stunning views of Loch Maree.
  • The Torridon - Spend a night in 5 star luxury at The Torridon, the magnificent castle resort situated at the foot of the Torridon Hills.
  • Applecross - Marvel at the impressive hills on the Isle of Skye from the shoreline at the quaint village of Applecross.
  • Bealach na Bà Pass - Navigate the precarious twists and turns of the Bealach na Bà mountain pass featuring the steepest ascent of any road in the UK.

Frequently asked questions

We recommend driving the NC500 over 7-12 days. While it's possible to complete in 5 days, we'd recommend limiting driving to roughly 2 hours per day. With over 150 beaches, dozens of castles, and countless opportunities for outdoor activities, the NC500 offers something for everyone - resist the temptation to rush!

We recommended doing the North Coast 500 in May, June, September, or October for the best weather and fewer crowds.

The midge season peaks in July and August, so avoid these months if you'd prefer not to be bitten! The snow and ice of winter can also be challenging for driving conditions.

If your priority is ideal weather, fewer crowds and longer daylight hours we recommend June. The long summer days, mild temperatures and fewer crowds create ideal driving and sightseeing conditions. Lush green landscapes, wildlife and blooming wildflowers provide stunning scenery everywhere you look.

Yes, the NC500 is suitable for caravans. We'd recommend preparing for your trip in the following ways:

  • Allow extra time on narrow, winding roads.
  • Avoid single-track roads (e.g. Bealach na Bà pass).
  • Measure your vehicle height/width and research roads to avoid hazards (e.g. low bridges and thin roads).

Yes, the NC500 is suitable for large motorhomes. We'd recommend preparing for your trip in the following ways:

  • Allow extra time on narrow, winding roads.
  • Research single-track roads ahead of time (e.g. Bealach na Bà pass).
  • Measure your vehicle height/width and research roads to avoid hazards (e.g. low bridges and thin roads).

We recommend driving the NC500 anticlockwise. This allows you to end your trip on a high, saving the beautiful coastal beaches, quaint villages, and iconic stops of Wester Ross until last. Driving anticlockwise also puts the longer drives of Easter Ross and Caithness earlier in your journey when you're fresh.

Yes, wild camping is legal in Scotland, but the Scottish Outdoor Access Code recommends choosing where and how you camp carefully. We'd recommend avoiding enclosed or cultivated land, camping well away from roads and buildings, and never leaving waste behind. If you need a fire, use a stove rather than an open fire.

The North Coast 500 starts and finishes in Inverness. The route is a 516-mile loop around the northern Highlands coastline, passing through Wester Ross, Caithness and Sutherland. The route passes breathtaking beaches, mountains, and windswept castles, making it one of Scotland's most popular road trip attractions.