When a friend of mine asked me if I would like to do the North Coast 500 I have to be honest…I’d never heard of it. Once he explained that it was a 500 mile road-trip around the very north of Scotland, beginning and ending in Inverness, I immediately said yes. How could I refuse? I adore the Scottish Highlands. In comparison to the modernity of the central belt, the Highlands are truly wild. Remote. Desolate. It is an area of Scotland that feels like a different world. A world from which all the Scottish cliches are derived, such as the proud bellowing stag, the achingly beautiful glens and long beaches with undisturbed white sand. I’ve been in this area quite a lot in my life but I’d never done anything like this.
My North Coast 500 would start on Friday the 7th of September and would end on Wednesday the 12th. This meant 5 days to drive 500 miles, frequently on single track roads (some of which were hair raising!). We would also have to fit in time to see and do some of what the area had to offer.
That is perhaps the best part of the North Coast 500. It is unique to you. In this article I am going to show you what I did and how I did it. You, however, can do the route any way you wish. Some people drive it in a mere 2 days! Others spend a month taking in this beautiful area. What do you want to see? Some head for the mountains, others stop in the pretty little villages and towns dotted all along the route. While others may take a fishing rod!
How you complete the route is entirely up to you.
That’s the beauty of it.
#1: Before You Go
Before you go you are going to have to do some research. Now, luckily, you have come here and I have done a lot of the hard work for you already! My first suggestion would be to buy the NC500 guidebook and map. Many book stores sell these online however, personally, I got my set from E-bay where you can usually buy them as a bundle rather than individually.
I especially recommend buying the map. It is large and waterproof and could prove to be very valuable if anything goes wrong (either due to a breakdown or wrong turn: phone signal can be non-existant in the Scottish Highlands!). It is also just plain useful for basic navigation and should always get you where you want to be.
Another absolutely essential recommendation I have is that you pack appropriate clothing! You are going to one of the most beautiful places on Earth but it is not the Bahamas. Scotland is famous for rain and temperamental weather. Do not assume if you go in June that the weather will be pleasant. Warm clothing and sturdy footwear for exploring are always essential.
There is also the recently launched companion app for the NC500! They launched it on the 14th of September which was 2 days AFTER I had completed the route. (I like to think they did this on purpose to annoy me)
The Official Guide Book & Map
#2: The Route
The Route From the Official Website of the NC500
The North Coast 500 begins and ends in Inverness and the map above shows the official 500 mile route. To ‘properly’ complete the journey, you have to do this route. Of course you don’t have to, but to say you have officialy completed the NC500 will require that you do! This isn’t really an issue unless you are strapped for time: the entirety of the route will take you through a wide variety of stunning scenery. I do, however, recommend doing the route backwards (I.E anti-clockwise).
Typical Views on the NC500
Why is this? Generally, there is a consensus that anti-clockwise ‘saves the best till last’ by going up the flatter, less dramatic east coast and returning down through the far more mountainous west coast. Here on the NC500 twitter page you can see and discussion on the matter and anti-clockwise seems to win out. It is what I did and I’d recommend it.
#3: Where to Stay
So you have decided to do the NC500 and you have followed my advice and are going to do it anti-clockwise. Where will you stay?
Despite the remoteness, you will be well covered by a wide variety of hotels, B&B’s or campsites. You can easily use Booking.com to find quite a variety. If you are feeling like something a little different, there is also a variety of pods, tents and huts that can be rented!
The View at Breakfast in Bettyhill
On my tour of the NC500 I stayed at 5 hotels and my favourite was the Bettyhill Hotel. Bettyhill itself is a gorgeous village lying about 30 miles west of Thurso with views over Torrisdale Bay to the North Sea. The hotel was peaceful, comfortable and had a nice bar area for food and a few drinks. Just 12 miles along the road is the equally pretty village of Tongue and the hotel also lies close to Strathnaver Museum.
The View of the Bay (Right Outside the Hotel)
One thing to remember when in the very north of Scotland is you should plan ahead for the location of petrol stations and shops. Between Thurso and Ullapool there are no major towns, no cities and you should bare that in mind: the route has petrol stations all along it although I found it easier to fill up in Wick with enough fuel to make it to Ullapool. The Tesco filling station in Wick is simply of a more reasonable price than some of the smaller garages! Additionally, Thurso is the last ‘major’ stop before Ullapool so if you want some food and drink I’d suggest buying what you need rather than finding yourself searching for a small convenience store. This is twice as important if you are camping.
The Dotted Fuel Stations on the Route
#5: Places To See
The route has so much to see that it would be impossible for me to list everything. You should have a think about what you want to see before you go: are you interested in history? Food? Scenery? Hiking? Fishing? Geology? Whisky? Perhaps the hardest part of the North Coast 500 is deciding what to actually do! This is the part that will also determine how many days you will need to complete the route. I did it in 5 days but you might need 14 to see and do everything you want to!
Firstly, I suggest you make a stop at John o’ Groats. This is the most north-easterly tip of Scotland and something you just have to say you’ve seen. Expect tourists and a small visitor area with a few shops and a cafe. You could even hop over to Orkney!
At John o’ Groats
The Inn At John O’Groats
Now, most websites will suggest you visit John O’Groats. Many won’t suggest Dunnet Head, however!
I wanted to see Dunnet Head because it is the most northerly point in Britain and it offers spectacular views north to Orkney, Scapa Flow and west along the mainland. Dunnet Head has an ample car park with informations boards and some nice paths to walk along and take in the views. I strongly recommend you stop and take it in! Due to the higher elevation, the views are better than those at John O’Groats and it is frankly just a prettier spot to be due to the absence of shops and lots of tourists.
Dunnet Head Welcomes You
Just one of the Beautiful Views at Dunnet Head
The entire route is littered with historic castles. The Castle of Mey in Thurso, Keiss Castle in Wick, Inverness Castle there are a wide variety but my favourite of all is easily Dunrobin Castle in Sutherland which is one of the prettiest castle’s I have ever seen.
Dating back to the early 1300’s, Dunrobin Castle resembles a French chateâu and includes a tearoom, gift shop, beautiful gardens and a fantastic museum that lets you roam the building and explore the gorgeous rooms. Entry for an adult is £11.50 and includes a falconry show which is performed twice daily at 11.30am and 14.30pm. The castle also has a large, free car park.
Approaching the Castle
The Library in Dunrobin Castle
The Stunning Building
Dunrobin Castle From the Gardens
The Falconry Show is Must-See!
On the route you will also pass Castle Varrich at the pretty little village of Tongue. The ruined castle sits atop a hill overlooking the Kyle of Tongue and can be visited for a walk around. Even if you don’t go to see the castle, you should stop for a look because it makes for some spectacular pictures!
The Moody Castle Varrich
#6: Things To Do
If you don’t want to just see things and want to engage in activities there is plenty for you to do during your tour of the north of Scotland. For the golf fanatic, why not play on the most northerly course in Scotland? Reay Golf Club lies just outside of Thurso and was designed by James Braid. If you are interested in fly fishing then you are truly spoiled for choice: the salmon fishing in the area is fantastic with rivers such as the Thurso and Helmsdale offering superb salmon fishing. The North Coast 500 is also littered with spectacular lochs which offer fantastic fishing for brown trout.
If you’d like to try your luck at spotting some marine life, there are an abundance of operators offering tours of the coast where you can see a wide variety of creatures. From minke whales and dolphins to porpoises and orcas: the sea surrounding Scotland is full of life! HERE is a great list to begin planning your excursion.
See? I Told You!
That picture above was taken at the Stoer Lighthouse, an absolutely beautiful lighthouse which is perched on cliffs overlooking the Isle of Harris & Lewis, where it is clearly possible to see an amazing variety of marine life (sadly I had no such luck!). Despite a hair-raising drive on the B869 (and I mean hair-raising: a narrow winding road takes you through woodland, with blind bends and steep gradients throughout!) I would strongly recommend visiting the lighthouse and making the 4.5 mile circular walk to the Old Man of Stoer.
The Walk Along the Cliffs to the ‘Old Man Of Stoer’
If, like me, you enjoy a good walk then you will have an abundance of Munro’s and Crobett’s to choose from on your route of the North Coast 500. There are, to be honest, far too many for me to recommend or list here so I will just go for the one essential mountain: Ben Hope!
Why ben Hope? It is the most northerly of all the Munro’s and, as you’d expect, it is gorgeous. You will have to turn off of the A838 in the beautifully named ‘Hope’ in Lairg, before you reach Heilam, onto a very tight side road that will take you along the beautiful banks of Loch Hope. Eventually, you will reach the parking spot for Ben Hope.
The Sign Doesn’t Mess Around
Totally Not Posing
View From the Ridge
Looking to Loch Hope and Beyond
While you are travelling around the north of Scotland you might also want to stop in one of the many whisky distilleries dotted around the landscape. I am not a whisky drinker but the friend I travelled with is and I really enjoyed having a look around the Old Pulteney Distillery in Wick. The visitor centre was informative, my friend was allowed to hand bottle his own whisky straight from the cask! We were also given a free sample. Which I drank.
It would have been rude not to.
The Old Pulteney Visitor Centre in Wick
I hope you have found this guide helpful and I hope it has inspired you to do the North Coast 500! I had a wonderful time and I am definitely planning on doing it again at some point. Please don’t be put off by the 500 mile distance (and the extra to actually get to the starting point in Inverness) as I found it quite easy despite the narrow roads: the 5 days flew by and I had no bad experiences for the entirety of the trip.
It is so difficult to write a ‘guide’ for the North Coast 500 because it really is unique to you. I haven’t mentioned the amazing bone caves we visited, or Knockan Crag, or the highland cow that was resting beside the road as we drove past.
The Fascinating Knockan Crag, 13 Miles Before Ullapool, Which Shows the Geological History of the Area
The Wonderful Bone Caves at Inchnadamph
If you’d like to see more pictures from my trip, why not check out my Instagram HERE where I will be sharing some more images of my NC500 and other adventures. If you would like to read more on the Bone Caves at Inchnadamph, I have written a seperate piece on them which you can read HERE.
This is a great help, loved reading your thoughts. We are currently on the NC500 , at Farr Bay at Bettyhill and you have just convinced us to try Ben Hope.
Great website, its bookmarked!
Thank you Nicola for such a lovely comment!
So nice to hear I’ve inspired you to try Ben Hope, I hope you got good weather for it.
Bettyhill is still in my memory for being such a beautiful place.
Such a shame that you didn’t understand that shopping in small local shops and filling up at more remote filling stations would help benefit these small businesses and the communities they serve. Their prices are higher because their running costs are higher. Locals use them and pay these higher prices all the time, though earnings in our part of the world are lower than the national average, and work is often seasonal. You can shop in Tescos any time.
Hi Alison thanks for leaving a comment,
I do appreciate the hardships faced by rural communities (I have lived in various rural locations throughout my life) but I was writing this as a guide for those doing the NC500 and the best ways in which to do it: which often means the most affordable. Some may be visiting the area on a budget of their own (the petrol, food and accomodation can add up) and I like to try and be as honest as I can with my readers.
I imagine most locals will use their local Tesco.
Great read and would love to share on our Facebook page and website. We love reading people’s experiences as that’s the best way to find out about the real NC500. Guide books are great but many like the official NC500 are obliged due to sponsorship etc to highlight certain places.
Well done and after your 5 days am sure you’ll return to see the hundreds you missed. No time is long enough but glad you found the experience good enough to share your thoughts.
Hi Willie thanks for commenting!
I loved the NC500 and 5 days really wasn’t enough to get close to doing everything the area had to offer. I tried to write this guide as honestly as possible with how I did it: I’m glad you liked it.