The North Coast 500 Route: 12 Great places to visit, stop and stay
Described as “Scotland’s answer to Route 66”, the North Coast 500 is an epic yet affordable road trip for anyone keen to explore the beautiful North Highlands. Taking you from the city of Inverness right into the craggiest extremities of Britain, it is an adventure in every sense of the word.
The dramatic views are a given, but if we had to pick just a dozen must see (or should that be must-stop?) destinations, the following would be high on our list.
Just a modest drive from our doors and the gorgeous Cairngorms, the city of Inverness is the gateway to the NC 500 road. It is also a natural place to get supplies, perhaps hire a vehicle and prepare for your journey. If you have the time, you could also explore the likes of Inverness Castle, Botanic Gardens and the Highlanders’ Museum.
Did you know? Inverness is not only one of Europe’s fastest growing cities, but statistically one of the happiest places in the UK. They obviously missed the memo saying Scots were meant to be dour.
2. Rogie Falls
A great early chance to stretch your legs and take in some natural beauty, just 35 minutes or so west of Inverness. Hidden from the road, but only five minutes on foot they are a must stop location, not to mention a great photo opportunity. You might even see one of our iconic wild salmon leaping up the falls too.
3. Applecross Peninsula
A community of just two hundred or so souls, Applecross is an idyllic little oasis of both calm and local culture. The route there alone is spectacular too, with some epic mountain passes. Motorhomes and other heavier vehicles might want to take a detour!
Pretty gardens and alfresco dining at Applecross Walled Garden.
Once at Applecross, you could try glamping in a funky wooden hut, try tasty local smoked fish, or perhaps stop for lunch in the pretty Applecross Walled Garden. Don’t just follow the guidebook though, have a ramble, chat to the locals and see where the mood takes you (www.appplecross.uk.com is a handy resource). Of course, you could make a detour to the Isle of Skye just a little south too.
Did you know? The mountain pass of Bealach na Ba is the steepest ascent of any road in the UK.
A gateway to further adventures or a pretty destination in its own right, Ullapool is a small, scenic town with some fine views and local history. Should you want to add a trip to the summer isles to your journey you could always catch a ferry from here too. If you’d rather keep it short and sweet, a wildlife cruise is a great way to spot seals, dolphins and other local guests. Local eateries and galleries are also a worthwhile detour: http://www.ullapool.com is a great resource for further ideas.
You’ll find a surprising amount of arts and crafts along even the wilder bits of the NC500 (Picture: Shake The Tree, Clachtoll).
Another tiny but perfectly formed settlement, Clachtoll offers beautiful beaches and some great potential for those who enjoy kayaking, fly fishing or climbing. Indeed, there are an incredible number of lochs of all shapes and sizes where you can catch wild trout or paddle to your heart’s content. It’s perfect for the footloose traveller- although there are also guided cruises and kayak trips here, plus some cute arts and crafts, camping and self-catering accommodation. If you fancy a coastal walk, go and find the “Old Man of Stoer” and Stoerhead Lighthouse. For more on the area, including summer games and concerts, see http://www.clachtollholidays.com
6. Cape Wrath
The dramatic name of this location is well founded for the craggy scenery. It’s the very northy-westerly point of mainland Britain. Aside from sweeping views, there is a lighthouse and café, while the area is also an SSSI site, particularly noted for rare sea birds. If you’re keen to stay longer and learn more, there is glamping and an entertainingly original tour by bus to enjoy. See http://www.visitcapewrath.com/
Fun and fantastically imaginative treats at Cocoa Mountain.
Just the other side of the Kyle of Durness (not a bloke called Kyle but a sea loch), your next stop is the hyper-craggy coast in and around Durness. As remote as you now are, there are a surprising amount of local activities. Durness Golf Club have one of the most dramatic courses in Scotland, while Faraid Head offers a supremely crooked, rocky beauty. For a shot of adrenaline, you could try Golden Eagle Zip Lines, while visiting chocoholics simply have to stop at Cocoa Mountain!
A route into the beautiful Orkney Isles, or a pleasant detour in its own right, Thurso has some colourful heritage and notable local beauty spots. If we had to pick just a handful of things to do, the Caithness Horizons Museum and Caithness Wildlife Tours both win rave reviews from visitors.
Smiles all round at Caithness Wildlife Tours.
Did you know? Scotland has roughly 790 islands, with 130 of these inhabited.
9. John O’Groats & Wick
Spectacular scenery awaits at mainland Britain's northernmost tip...
Yes, it is as predictable as a sporran on a kilt, not to mention busy. But who isn’t going to stop at the famous North Easterly tip of mainland Britain? You could even stay here if you have a few extra beans to rub together. It’s certainly splendid to behold, although for more things to do and cultured attractions, you might want to swiftly tick the John O’Groats box and move south to Wick, which has a nice Heritage Museum and Arts Centre, along with ruined castles and the crazy Air Extreme Assault Course for those who prefer adrenaline to tea and cake.
Did you know? Wick is home to the shortest street in the world. Ebenezer Place is just 2.06m long. The Scottish rugby team has had players longer than that!
This pretty fishing village is an interesting little place with a surprising amount of things to see and do. Indeed, for a refreshingly different NC 500 experience you could try your hand at panning for gold or fossil hunting, or just get a bite to eat and enjoy some local creativity at Strath Ullie Crafts. There’s also the fascinating Timespan Museum, while the River Helmsdale is also a great place to try and catch your first Scottish salmon.
11. Dunrobin Castle
Dunrobin Castle is a real Scottish fairytale (image: Official Facebook page)
With seven centuries of tales to tell, this grand site has plenty to see and enjoy from spring to autumn. Indeed, it’s among the most remarkable castles on the route; and there are quite a few! Whether you take the guided tour, watch a falconry display or simply relax in the castle’s elegant gardens, there is no shortage of fascination here. See http://www.dunrobincastle.co.uk
12. Dornoch Firth & Cromarty Firth
The last leg of our journey takes in more coastal drama, from the Dornoch Firth Bridge to the more industrial looking Cromarty Firth. Several photo opportunities and places of interest await too. History fans will be especially tempted to explore further, with several important museums and heritage sites here, from Tain and District Museum, to the 8th Century Nigg Old Church.
North Coast 500 travel tips and advice
♦ It’s always good to have a plan, but don’t make it in concrete. Allow extra time to explore those pretty villages or enjoy some cycling, kayaking or other outdoor pursuits.
♦ The NC 500 is already getting quite a reputation among travellers, so the peak holidays can be quite busy. Outside the summer months, it might be cooler, but the traffic thins out significantly, while accommodation also gets cheaper.
♦ If you do travel in the “rush hour” of July and August, try and get up early to conquer a good distance each day. You can then spend the middle of the day exploring on foot, rather than looking at the back of a caravan.
♦ Whatever you do, don’t leave that camera, fishing rod or the walking boots at home! The opportunities for hiking, climbing, cycling and fishing in the North Highlands are vast and all these activities are low cost, should you be tackling the NC 500 on a budget.
♦ For a truly immersive experience, turn your technology off for the trip. As selfie-tastic as some spots are, the real charm of Northern Scotland is its splendid sense of rough-hewn wilderness and romantic isolation. Treat that “no signal” message as a blessing, not a curse, and plan ahead because you cannot always rely on clear reception in the Highlands!
♦ We all like a craft beer or a wee dram on our holidays, but do be aware that the drink driving limit is lower in Scotland! You can always take away a little sample from the distillery to celebrate later when you get to your stopover destination.
♦ How you tackle the NC500 is your call, but we recommend starting at Inverness and travelling anti-clockwise. This way, you will tackle the really wee little-twisted roads at the end of your trip rather than straight away. Once you’re used to the smaller roads you’ll feel more confident too.
♦ Motorhomes are a bit of a bone of contention these days. The really big ones tend to struggle with tough gradients, which won’t endear you to other road users! Smaller vehicles fare better but avoid driving too close to other caravans and making it impossible for cars to overtake safely. It is good manners to pull over briefly if you are creating a tailback.
♦ If you intend to go kayaking or cycling on the NC500, consider hiring rather than bringing boats and bikes with you. The better fuel economy and reduced hassle is often more than worth the small extra cost to hire.
♦ For lots more tips, route maps and attractions, see the official North Coast 500 site: http://www.northcoast500.com/
Knockomie Inn: The perfect place to begin or end your North Coast 500 Trip
Situated just a short drive from Inverness, Knockomie Inn is among the best places to stay as you set out or return from the North Coast 500 route. From our 15 elegant rooms to the delights of our excellent restaurant and bar, why not treat yourself to a little luxury on your next road trip? For further news and current hotel deals, see our special offers section and Facebook page.
Further travel adventures in Scotland...
For those who suffer from an even greater sense of wanderlust, there are of course many other great recommended routes to include on your journey. For lovers of wildlife, the Snow Roads Scenic Route is a majestic 90 mile drive through the Cairngorms National Park that runs from Blairgowrie to Grantown-on-Spey.
Don't forget to follow our blog for travel ideas and fresh inspiration every month!