The North Coast 500 has been billed as Scotland's answer to America's Route 66 but it is unlike anything you'll see in the USA.
With legendary castles, extraordinary coastal scenery, and famous whisky distilleries lining the winding single track lanes, the NC500 is the ultimate road trip for travel lovers.
Newly updated with more information, links and better viewing. April 2018
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Ultimate Guide to the North Coast 500
NC500 Road Trip Planner
We spent 10 days driving the loop counter clockwise from Invernesss and witnessed spectacular landscapes and scenes. We've put together the ultimate NC500 Trip Planner to help you make the most of your time in the Scottish highlands.
To skip to any section of the North Coast 500 at anytime, click the links below
- Inverness - Spend two days exploring the Capital of the Highlands
- Inverness Attractions - Attractions include Highland battlefields, two thousand year old cairns.
- Dornoch - Castles and Distilleries - Dornoch makes for a great base to explore the Scotch distilleries of the Highlands
- Wick to Dunnet Head - This is where you'll find the scenic sea stacks and high cliffs. Plus coastal wildlife and bird spotting.
- Along the Northern Coast - Secluded beaches, scenic lookouts and interior drives and epic hikes.
- Tongue to Balnakeil - Great spot for coastal walks, the famous Smoo Caves and crafts markets of Balnakeil.
- Kylesku and Single Track Fun -
- Lochinver to Ullapool - Rock Climbing and Adventure tours with lots of dining options in Ullapool
- Gairloch - Good base for exploring the epic viewpoints and lochs of the North Coast 500
- Klinlochewe to Applecross - The most scenic lookout and drive along the coast.
- Plockton - History and Wildlife - Reraig Forest and Eilean Donan Castle - Scotland's famous castle from Highlander
NC 500 Guide - Our Route
Our North Coast 500 drive started and ended in Inverness. We drove counterclockwise around the 516 mile (830km) route through the North of Scotland.
Inverness is the main city on the route and it is the capital of the Highlands. Plan on spending at least two days in Inverness.
Tips for Driving the North Coast 500
- When driving the North Coast 500 be prepared for single track lanes. You share one lane with both directions and you will have to back up or pull over often for oncoming traffic.
- Rent a small car to make things easier.
- In the summer traffic is busier, if you travel in the off season, you will come across less cars.
- Many people camp the NC 500 and campervans are allowed, but cannot navigate some of the of the way trails and smaller tracks.
- Scotland is on the Pound Sterling - 1 Pound Sterling = 1.30 USD. For up to date exchange rates visit XE Currency Convertor.
- Have a cell phone for emergencies. For International Roaming we use KnowRoaming. The PlanetD readers receive 50% Discount (use promo DDSave50) on SIM Stickers that attach to your existing SIM. Read Details here.
- Eagle Creek Plug Adapter - This all in one adapter is all your need for Scotland outlets and other European and world travels.
- Weather can change in an instant. You could encounter snow, rain, wind and sunny weather. Dress in layers and pack waterproof clothing. See our tips
- Also pack a good pair of hiking boots.
- Get your tunes ready, there are many places you won't get radio service - See our Road Trip Songs Playlist
1. Introduction - Inverness
Highlights in town include
- Inverness Castle
- St. Andrew's Cathedral
- Abertarff House dating back to 1592
- Nessie Islands - Islands connected by beautiful walkways and gardens
- Car Rentals: We rented our car from Arnold Clark Depot (44 0141 648 1200) and they were fabulous. They pick you up directly from the airport and take you to their extremely cool office filled with classic cars.
Hot Tip: Be sure to rent a smaller car as roads are often single lane tracks along the North Coast 500 and a small car is easy to navigate. Plus, it's easier to find parking and you can pull off on small turnouts and be out of the way while capturing those awe-inspiring shots of the landscape and scenery.
- Accommodation Suggestion: Kingsmills Hotel and spa with swimming pool and breakfast included.
- Suggested places to eat: Rocpool Restaurant or Dores Inn at Loch Ness in Dores after you've watched the sunset.
2. Inverness Attractions
Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle
Inverness is the main hub for exploring Loch Ness.
People visit the legendary Loch Ness in search of the Loch Ness Monster, but it is worth exploring for the beaches and scenery.
The visitors centre in Drumnadrochit is fun and kitschy and is a must stop to learn about the history of the Loch Ness Monster, but exploring the massive lake is the highlight.
If you have more time, you can stay in Drumnadrochit, there are plenty of B&Bs in the area.
This is the spot that the tour busses stop though so be prepared for large crowds and traffic.
If you are staying in the area take a drive to Glen Affric to take in its stunning landscape and view the beautiful Plodda Falls.
Be sure to watch sunset from Dores Beach and you may even run into the Nessie Hunter who has set up camp right in this spot to keep watch for the elusive monster.
Urquhart Castle is another must see stop on the lake. It is a beautiful ruin that has survived many a battle over the past 1000 years.
Leaving Inverness for the NC 500
Working your way along the A9 towards the NC500 offers many things to see and places to stop.
Don't just beeline it to the next town, be sure to pop into these highlights on your way out of Inverness before hitting the North Coast 500 Route.
The modern visitor's centre opened in 2008 and is a stark contrast to the empty land where one of the bloodiest battles on British soil took place.
On a spring day in 1746 more than 1200 men were killed in just one short hour. It was the final battle of the Jacobite uprising where it came to its fateful end.
Visitors are given headsets triggered by GPS telling them the story of the bloody battle as they walk both sides of the battlefield.
One of the most powerful moments comes when you enter the interior museum and stand inside a room projecting a 360 degree reenactment of the battle. You are surrounded by the cries of the warriors meeting their fate.
If you are fascinated with Highland history (as we are) this is a place where you can easily spend hours.
For more information see Culloden Battlefield Visitor's Centre
Cairns are ancient stone cemeteries dating back 4000 years.
There are several cairns along the nc500 but none as famous as Clava Cairns. Used as the inspiration for the Outlander series (this is the place where Claire was transported back in time) you can understand why Diana Gambon felt time travel could happen here.
The standing stones and circular cairns feel like magic.
They were burial tombs used to house the dead and today, visitors can stroll the grounds and walk right into the centre of the tombs feeling the peace and quiet of the sacred site. It's free to visit so don't miss it!
Hot Tip: NC500 Road Trip Snacks - Remember when we said we love snacks for our road trips? We stocked up on water and snacks in Inverness, but if you want local meats & cheeses, fresh fruits and local treats, be sure to stop in at Roberston's The Larder.
You can also meet the farm animals and if you are worried about not seeing the famous highland cattle along the route, (don't be) you'll have a good chance here.
GPS co-ordinates: Latitude: 57.493216/ Longitude: -4.453883
For more ideas of what to do in Inverness visit our post: 8 Things to do in Inverness
Where to Stay in Inverness
More About Kingsmills
You should allow at least two days to explore this picturesque town. It's the capital of the Highlands and there is a lot of Highlander history in Inverness.
The Kingsmills Hotel is located on a golf course just outside the downtown core. The hotel is exactly what you'd expect and want when visiting Scotland.
Set in a large historic mansion on a massive treed property, you will feel as if you've stepped back in time.
We stayed in the newer spa portion of the hotel and the rooms were spacious, comfortable, and offered great views of the golf course.
There is a spa and pool
Parking is free and breakfasts are included.
3: Dornoch and Distilleries
Driving from Inverness your next overnight is just a little over an hour's drive away, but it is the perfect base for your next set of exploration. Dornoch is famous for the Dornoch Castle and makes a good base to explore the whisky route.
Dornoch Castle and Whisky Bar
Dornoch Castle is located in the heart of the historic town of Dornoch directly across from the Dornoch Cathedral.
This 12th-century cathedral is such a draw that Madonna had her son Rocco christened here.
It's the whisky bar that is the main attraction.
Sitting inside the thick old stone walls with the giant fireplace roaring with flame you feel as if you've stepped back in time when clans ruled the land. The extensive whisky bar has won awards as the best whisky bar in the world and is currently the reigning number 1 whisky hotel of the year as named by whiskybase.com
We ordered a tasting flight of three whiskeys after chatting with the bartender who will help us decide what shots to choose. He will pick your brain to see what type of Scotch you prefer and offer up choices of different whiskeys at different prices to suit your needs.
If you are a whisky lover, Dornoch castle is the perfect place to base your travels as you explore the distilleries of the route. Visit their website for bookings and availability.
Note: Scotland spells whisky without an "e". When we spelled it as whiskey on our Inverness post, we raised many a Scottish temper in more than a few people. We won't be making that mistake again. So when you visit Scotland, be sure to forget what you learned in Ireland, the US and Canada about whiskey, it's whisky here.
Glen Ord Distillery
There are several distilleries in Northern Scotland where road trippers can pick up a bottle of their favorite Scotch whisky.
From the town of Dornoch, there are a half a dozen distilleries to visit that are from mere minutes to only a couple of hours away.
- Dunnet Bay
- Pulteney Distilleries are all nearby.
We chose to visit Glen Ord Distillery and here's a video of our experience.
Glen Ord is the closest distillery to Inverness so it can easily be done as a day trip from there, or you can visit from Dornoch Castle.
Having the tour helped us to understand the distilling process of Scottish whiskey and gave us insight to aromas and flavors when we decided to taste a few drams at Dornoch Castle's whisky bar.
What makes a visit to Glen Ord unique is that it is one of the few distilleries in Scotland that still malts its own barley and their Singleton blend can only be bought in Scotland or if you visit Asia.
For us, it was also the first time we'd seen wooden fermentation barrels.
Every other distillery tour we've ever taken was stainless steel.
This truly made us feel like we were taking a tour through history and our guide Alistair was as passionate about his scotch as he was informative. .
Visit Glen Ord for more details.
Open from April 1 to October 15, we just missed visiting Dunbrobin Castle's interior by mere days but you can visit the gardens and grounds year round.
We parked our car and walked down the steps to a magnificent view of this 800 year-0ld castle.
It's different from other castles of Scotland resembling a French Chateau rather than the stark stone castles in other parts we saw. It has been home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th century.
This can be visited from Dornoch, or you can plan as we did and made it a stop along the way to our next destination.
Where to Stay in Dornoch
More About Dornoch Castle
Dornoch Castle is a destination unto itself. The family-run business has 22 rooms, each with its own theme and the fine dining restaurant offers up a relaxing atmosphere with an excellent choice of local dishes.
Dornoch Castle is located right in the market square of Dornoch. This was our first castle stay in Scotland and it did not disappoint.
The set dinner menu is divine with friendly and helpful staff, the rooms make you feel like royalty, and the bar makes you feel like you are sitting in a 17th century tavern as the fire roars and the whiskey pours.
Dornoch Castle is home to one of the best whisky bars on earth. It was voted the #1 Whisky Hotel of the Year by whiskybase.com.
4. Wick to Dunnet Head
This was probably our favorite area to explore on the road trip. Everyone told us the west coast was the best, but the northern tip was stunning. We could have spent at least two more days exploring the walking trails along the coast.
It is the area where you see those massive sea cliffs and sea stacks housing migrating seabirds and seals. If you like hiking and wildlife, you'll love this area.
Part 1 - Around Wick
If you want to get down inside something similar to the Geo of Sclaites, the Whaligoe Steps are a superb trek.
The Whaligoe Steps consist of 330 steps leading down to one of the most inaccessible harbors in Scotland. Dating back to the mid 18th century, the Whaligoe Steps were used by fishermen's wives to haul fish up in their baskets.
At its prime, 24 fishing boats were working these waters fishing for herring.
Wick Heritage Centre
If you want to learn more about the fishing and history of the area, the Wick Heritage Centre is the place to go.
Wick was Europe’s premier herring fishing port during the 19th century and dedicated guides volunteer their time to tell share their historical knowledge.
There are many artifacts on display and rooms furnished to portray the past.
To get directions and look up hours visit the Wick Heritage Centre website.
Like Dornoch Castle, Ackergill Tower is an accommodation that is a destination. The Tower is an incredible 600-year-old stone tower that stands proudly on the shores of Sinclair Bay.
The Northernmost point of Scotland. This luxurious highland estate is as romantic as it is remote.
The most famous story of the castle tells the tale of Helen Gunn, known as the Beauty of Braemore who was kidnapped on her wedding night and held a prisoner in this very tower. To escape her fate she leaped to her death. It is said that her ghost haunts the halls to this day.
Check out Ackergill Tower to book your accommodation
Castle Sinclair Girnigo
Located just a short walk or drive from Ackergill Tower the ruins of Castle Sinclari Girnigo is an imposing sight on the coast. We saw this from the road, but when we decided to go for a walk to it, the rain came down in full force.
Packing Tip: The weather changes dramatically in Scotland. When asking the locals what the temperature is like in the summer, many said it wasn't much different from when we visited in late March/early April.
We actually had incredible weather for most of our trip with sunny skies and comfortable temperatures in the high teens (Celcius). We were told by Kate of Caithness Tours that last summer the average temperature was about 16 degrees Celcius.
So when touring Northern Scotland, be sure to pack layers, waterproof hiking boots, and waterproof outer layers. We had all of this with us and other than this one time at Castle Sinclair Girnigo, we didn't let wind or rain stop us from exploring and you shouldn't either.
That is the charm of Scotland. It's exactly the same as Iceland. If you don't like the weather just wait a minute or so, it will change.
Part 2- Around Dunnet Head
Caithness Wildlife Tours
Dave and I love taking tours. As much as we enjoy exploring on our own, we find that help us discover hidden gems and areas we would never have thought of visiting.
Guide and owner Kate is a marine biologist and outdoor lover who takes visitors to see view seabirds, seals and other wildlife of the area.
But she also showed us historic sites such as Mary Ann's Cottage dating back to 1850 and The Castle of Mey. The Queen mother bought and restored the Castle of Mey and Prince Charles still visits each summer.
It was the impressive views of Dunnet Head and Brough Harbour that really took our breath away. But what we loved the most was learning the interesting facts of the area from Kate.
For example, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin was a regular visitor to the area and nearly bought an estate in Caithness for a recording studio. He never did buy the studio, but he did rebuild the harbor and there is a plaque with his name on the Harrow Harbour commemorating the reopening.
Why A Tour is a Good Option
There was one particular moment when we really appreciated being on the tour. We had stopped with Kate to view seals in the harbor (a regular tourist would miss seeing this on their own) and she told us to turn around.
The harbor was nice, but the scene behind us was beautiful. The peaceful setting housed an old mill and quiet brook that was just screaming to be photographed.
Other tourists drove right on by looking at us instead of the scene and missed this highlight of the coast.
To book your own wildlife and scenic tour, check out the Caithness Wildlife Tours website
If you look up images of the North Coast 500 on Google, chances are you've seen countless images of Duncansby Head. Hiking here is spectacular. Located just a mile and a half from John O'Groats, make your way to parking at the Duncansby Head Lighthouse. If you have more time, you can hike directly from John O'Groats to take in the entire spectacular view. We had limited time, so we started our hike from the lighthouse and made our way to the awe-inspiring stacks.
It's only about a 10-15 minute walk, but along the way, make sure to stick to the coast so you can view the dramatic narrow sea gullies known as the Geo of Sclaites.
After marvelling that views here, we moved on to the stacks of Duncansby Head. There's a path right along the coast overlooking the stacks so you can view them from all directions. Be sure to keep an eye out for seabirds. Different are constantly migrating through the area at all times of the year. Including puffins!
Dunnet Bay Distillery
Scotland may be known for its Scotch, but Gin is making a huge mark in the country. Tours operate from May to Sept at 3 pm on Mon, Wed, Fri and on Saturdays at 11 am and 1 pm.
Wick to Dunnet Head Accommodation
More on Ackergill Tower
Ackergill Tower was the perfect base for exploring the northernmost point of Scotland.
There are many unique accommodations along the route from farmhouses, B&Bs, lighthouses, and luxury estates to choose from along the North Coast 500. And this is a must!
We stayed in the large Nun's room, which even has an old prayer nook in the corner where the inhabitants used to pray.
This is the castle that will remind you most of Downton Abbey.
This 16th-century tower has a lot of history, and you can sit by the fire reading about its checkered past as you enjoy a dram of whiskey.
Dining in the great hall, we ate a delicious three-course menu before retiring to the various sitting rooms for an after-dinner drink.
As we sat by the fire we read about the history of the castle and wondered what life might have been like back in time.
We love road trips! Enjoy we included the North Coast 500 in our best road trips we've ever taken.
5. Along the Northern Coast
This stretch of the nc500 takes you across the top of Scotland. It was surprising to look at our map and see just how much farther north we were than where we live in Canada.
Northern Scotland is the equivalent of being halfway up the Hudson Bay, or just one degree shy of Oslo, Norway, Stockholm Sweden or St. Petersburg, Russia.
That was really cool to us. It's no wonder Northern Scotland reminded us so much of Iceland!
People Surf in Scotland
It was also really surprising to find out that this area is a popular surfing destination. World surfing events are held here.
We didn't brave the water, but while driving through the likes of Amadale Bay and Melvich, we did see surfers in the water taking on the swells.
Wardrobe by Dolly Varden Outdoor Clothing
We were a bit too early in the season for kayaking and when we go back to Scotland we will definitely give it a go. But we did see a few experienced kayakers in the water.
Looking at the rough seas, we decided it was best left to the professionals at this time of year. We'll brave the North Sea when the weather is a little more inviting.
Hopefully, by the time you go, the ruins of Castle Varrich will be open. It was under scaffolding when we arrived as we were told that they had just discovered a bone and it was being excavated. The hotel staff told us it should be open by summer.
You can hike from the Tongue Hotel. It is believed that the castle was built in the 14th century upon an old Norse fort. So you can be sure there is a lot of history just waiting to be discovered here.
Drive to Smoo
Instead of driving directly along the A383 to cross the Kyle of Tongue, take the scenic route around the tip of the loch for extraordinary scenic views.
We had the single track road all to ourselves. We'd spy a lake, park the car and hike to extraordinary views.
We spent the day here before meeting up again with the A383 at the Kyle of Tongue Bridge.
We made sure to cross the bridge for a full view of the highlands before turning around again to continue our journey.
Dunnet Head to Armadale Bay
The Tongue Hotel Details
The Tongue Hotel was a former sporting lodge that once again made me think of Downton Abby. I remember an episode where the Crawley family visited relatives in the Scottish Highlands to hunt for bucks, and this could have been that lodge.
It has a cozy atmosphere with large rooms, and there's always someone offering a drop of sherry when you arrive.
There is a dining room and in town there is a store close by to stock up on supplies for the rest of your road trip.
6. Tongue to Balnakeil
This is another fabulous stretch filled with long deserted beaches, more coastal hike and one incredible cave.
One of our favorite things on our trips was to explore the Smoo Caves. Stopping in the town of Durness, the Smoo Caves are beautiful to see inside and out.
There are boardwalks leading down to the caves on either side giving you views of the steep path. A bridge lets you cross the river leading in from the sea while looking into the giant cavern.
Many people just go into the caves and take a quick look, but we highly recommend taking the tour led by Colin. He has been excavating these caves for years making discoveries and digging during the offseason.
For £5 he'll take you on a boat across the water inside the cavern to explore deeper into the system. Donning our hard hats and cameras, we floated inside the cave getting so close to the waterfall it splashed on our faces.
We then walked along narrow paths as he explained the geology of the cave and his theories on how deep the cave goes and how it might be connected. Bring some cash with you and be sure to take this trip!
Check out Colin's website for more information on his tours and the geology of the caves. It's a fascinating read and you'll find yourself getting lost in the facts.
A beautiful stretch of sandy beach can be found just out of town and it is definitely worth visiting. Not only is it very picturesque, you'll experience the unique feeling of walking on a beach while military vehicles drive by with great purpose.
The Royal Naval gunnery ranges are located out here and military personnel comes to this area to train. You constantly hear guns and bangs in the distance making you wonder "what on earth is going on out there?"
Wardrobe for Dave and Deb by Dolly Varden Outdoor Clothing
There is a scenic cemetery located on the site by the beach housing an old church and tombstones. It's very photogenic and John Lennon's aunt is buried here.
John Lennon visited the area many times to see his aunt and there is a memorial in the town of Durness.
He revisited it again with Yoko Ono and it is said that some of his happiest memories took place here.
It's an interesting little garden to visit with a little path weaving through the garden leading to the John Lennon memorial. It's a place for quiet contemplation and surprisingly very serene even though its located on the side of the road.
Belnakeil Craft Village
This is a cool spot where locals are starting to build a craft community converting an old military camp into an artists compound. The most famous attraction here is the Cocoa Mountain coffee shop. We stopped here to load up on chocolate and pick up a takeaway cappuccino for our drive out of town.
We didn't try the hot chocolate, but we heard two different customers give glowing recommendations on our way out. Don't worry though, we definitely had our fill of handmade chocolate and an oh so smooth cappuccino.
Be prepared to give your wallet a workout. When you walk in, you'll want to sample all the truffles and handmade local chocolate in the store.
Durness, The Details
Where to stay: Smoo Cave Hotel, Mackay's Rooms, Bae Seren B&B
Where to eat: Smoo Cave Hotel, Sango Sans, The Whale Tale, or Pick up a picnic lunch at the Carfour and stop at the Cocoa Mountain coffee shop in Belnakeil Craft Village
Pick up a Lonely Planet Travel Guide to carry with you on your road trip around the North Coast 500.
Where to Stay Durness
One of our favorite spots along the North Coast 500 was the village of Smoo, where we explored the Smoo Caves and Balnakeil Bay and its beautiful beach.
We didn't stay in this town, but if we did, we would have chosen the Smoo Cave Hotel. It's a basic hotel, but the location is a perfect stop after driving from Tongue, giving you the chance to spend a day or two in Smoo. There's a good bar and they have some of the best Haggis around.
7. Lochinver to Ullapool
The drive from Clachtol to Lochinver is another stunning drive along a single track with views to die for. If you can, take your time and possibly stay in Lochinver for a night.
The scenery is breathtaking. We didn't have a lot of time to explore, but we did enjoy the drive which is a huge part of the adventure.
The single track road weaves through mountainous terrain and heavily wooded areas.
Have your camera ready, there are plenty of photo opportunities on this leg.
Rock Climbing and Adventure Tours
On our way to Ullapool, we met up with adrenaline junkie and guide extraordinaire, Tim Hamlett. Tim runs Hamlett Mountaineering and we instantly became fast friends.
He's definitely that guy that you want to hang out with. He offers guided climbing trips and guided treks into the mountains. Tim really does it all!
With kayaking adventures and snorkelling trips coming soon, you could spend a week hanging with him exploring the highlands. He offers multiday treks, but we were on a schedule so only had the morning with him.
You can walk the trails yourself, but to hire a guide is where you really get the true experience.
Tim knows this area like the back of his hand and can take you to see anything you like. The climbing is world class and the scenery is outstanding.
If you haven't climbed before, don't worry, Tim will set up a top rope and guide you through it. He has tons of outdoors experience where he honed his skills at a young age growing up in Nepal. He trekked to Everest Base Camp at 11 years old!
We met Tim at the Stac Pollaidh car park where we joined up to climb Stac Pollaidh.
This is a premiere attraction in the area but we met early enough in the morning that the other trekkers had yet to arrive and we had the trail all to ourselves.
Tim told us of the geology and other climbs in the area. His wife works for the GeoPark and he is very passionate about promoting tourism and conservation in the highlands.
His business is expanding rapidly and we can't wait to come back in the near future to do some proper mountaineering with him.
You should definitely book a trip with him and let us know what we should do next! Visit Hamlet Mountaineering for more details.
Ullapool is a picturesque fishing town that is bustling with business. It seems that everyone driving the North Coast 500 stays here. We loved our B&B and highly recommend it. We put it up there as the coolest accommodation on the NC500.
Westlea House is a chic and comfortable hotel that has an amazing common area. You'll want to sit by the fire perusing the huge choice of books and magazines, or you may want to pop into the music room and choose from the extensive collection of vinyl records.
Ullapool offers a considerable choice of dining options for the size of the town. Recommendations are the Arch Inn, Argyle Hotel Seafood Bar, The Ceilidh Place and Ferry Boat Inn.
We thoroughly enjoyed coffee at Mountain Supplies Coffee Shop. Located on the second floor of a mountaineering equipment store, this café has a hipster vibe with and outdoor lover's twist. The friendly staff made us feel warm and welcomed.
Located just 15 minutes outside of Ullapool, the Corrieshalloch Gorge is an interesting stop. A short yet steep walk from the car park takes you to a deep and narrow box canyon where you can cross the suspension bridge.
The bridge is a bit hair-raising as it's narrow and the railings are low, but it is worth the view. There are hiking trails to explore and a waterfall to visit.
Where to Stay in Ullapool
Durness, The Details
Westlea House Boutique B&B: Ullapool
This was by far our favourite NC500 Accommodation and we wish we had had two nights here. We could have spent more time exploring the scenic drive from Clachtoll to Lochinver.
There are incredible hikes and scenic views in the area, and you should give yourself time to stay in Ullapool.
Westlea House was a chic boutique hotel that was carefully decorated with a modern design. The sitting area is filled with books to read and there's even a vinyl room where you can listen to classic music in a private nook.
8. Kylesku to Achmelvich Bay
It is during this section that the driving gets really fun. The single lane tracks can get quite hair raising and the drives long huge lakes and through mountains is a thrill.
But I must admit we covered a lot of ground on this leg of our trip and didn't spend a lot of time sightseeing between Belnakeil and Kylesku.
Kylesku Bridge - One of the Most Photographed Stops on the North Coast 500
It wasn't until we reached the Kylesku Bridge that we really stopped to take it all in. Located where Loch Glencoul and Loch Glendhu meet, this is a very picturesque spot in the heart of the highlands.
Kylesku sits in the middle of Scotland's 2,000 km2 (770 sq mi) Global Geopark. There is a lot of history human and geological in this land and the Geopark is recognized by UNESCO and is set up to promote and preserve that history.
Staying at the Kylesku hotel is a good base for exploring this area.
There are boat trips, hiking trails and wildlife excursions where you can spot sea otters, seals and migrating sea birds.
Many people cut this portion of drive and head directly to Lochinver along the A894 and A837 but one of the most picturesque road routes we took was towards Drumbeg.
The open roads that we had seen thus far, gave way to narrow single track lanes dropping off into deep valleys. It was a beautiful winding trip that while only 10 miles long, took us well over an hour to navigate and take in the sights. It was here that we saw countless stags running through the hills.
It was here that we came across the very pretty highland cows, and it was here that we saw hundreds of sheep grazing in the fields and skittering away whenever we drew near.
Stay: We stayed at a small farmhouse called the Croft 338 B&B. It's a two room place run by a friendly couple.
There isn't a sitting area so your room is what you get, but the Internet is good, there's cable TV and she makes a hearty breakfast in the morning.
There is also the Drumbeg Hotel.
I remember driving the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland where we came across many a lighthouse along the coast. We didn't seem to stumble upon as many during our drive around Northern Scotland, but the Stoerhead Lighthouse was certainly worth a short detour.
The lighthouse itself isn't tall, but it stands on a cliff that is 54 meters (162 feet) above sea level.
The scene is impressive and you can actually book a stay in the lighthouse. There are two flats and a kitchen, so if you want to spend more time exploring the area, this is as unique as it gets for accommodation and you'll have incredible views of the sea!
Dave and I love a good coffee on a road trip and admittedly the choices for on the go coffee on the North Coast 500 was few and far between. That's why when we saw a sign promoting coffee ahead, we followed it.
Flossies is a tiny coffee shop located on the side of the road, but it is an institution in the area.
Opened in 1972 by Mrs Flossie Machphail it has now been taken over by her son William and his wife Caroline who continue the tradition of making great coffee to warm your bones from the damp Scottish weather. When driving through this section, be sure to stock up!
The single track fun continues from Clachtol through an incredibly beautiful rocky and rolling landscape. When in Clachtol be sure to check out the stone broch. Scottish broch's date back to somewhere around the first century BC. Experts can't quite agree on what they were, but these stone structures are worth a visit to witness how these mounds of stones have survived through the centuries.
Achmevilch Bay is apparently quite stunning and a good spot to park your caravan.. Unfortunately for us, we were heading in that direction while the road was under construction. We were told to come back in a few hours by workers, but alas, we had to move on as we were on a mission to finish our NC500 road trip.
The time to visit is during the summer months anyway as there is water skiing, wind surfing, lots of walking trails and fishing. It's settled then, we must go back to Northern Scotland!
Where to Stay
The Croft 338 BnB
Drumbeg, Sutherland, Highland
IV27 4NW, United Kingdom
Trip Advisor / Booking.com
It was a big day of driving for us after exploring the Smoo Caves and Durness. If we weren't on such a strict schedule, we would have stayed at the Kylesku Hotel which would have broke up our drive.
It's the current Scottish Hotel of the Year and an excellent base for exploring northwest Scotland. The scenery here was spectacular and we saw many bucks along the way.
To us, it seemed the perfect location for exploring the mountains and lochs of the area. If we go back, we'll definitely stay here.
Kylesku, Sutherland, IV27 4HW
Croft 338 B&B
Our drive took us forward, however, to the town of Croft.
The drive before and after Croft is probably one of the most beautiful drives along the way, with narrow winding roads through the mountains of Assynt.
The Croft 338 B&B is very basic with two bedrooms located in a farmer's house. Our bedroom had its own private bath and we spent the night taking advantage of the wifi and cable TV.
The hosts are friendly and welcoming and prepare a delicious breakfast.
This was a long day of driving, and Croft is a good stop for breaking off the long kilometers you'll be covering along the North Coast 500.
Our fellow patrons of the hotel had spent several days in Croft, making it their home base for several hikes in the area.
Gairloch makes for a great base when exploring the western portion of the NC 500. You can go up and down the coast in both directions.
There is a lot to see and do here and you can cover a lot of ground.
Gairloch is an extremely important town in Scotland. It was founded by the McKenzies as a safe destination for Scottish Highlanders to wear their kilts and continue their Scottish traditions when the British weren't allowing them to do so.
Dave has ties to Gairloch. We found out about it when we had our Ancestry DNA done just before leaving. See our story here.
When it comes to the North Coast 500, the scenery is the star attraction so take your time to stop, go for hikes, enjoy the trails, book a trail ride (the Highlanders were great horsemen), go kayaking, sailing and search for wildlife.
The sky is the limit here. We spent two days weaving back and forth looking for lochs, ocean viewpoints and gardens to explore.
Inverewe Gardens is an interesting stop filled with exotic plants that simply shouldn't be able to grow in this corner of northern Scotland. In 1860 Osgood McKenzie created this carefully sculpted garden out of a few scrub willows and bare rocks.
The 50-acre garden stands on the shore of Loch Ewe and exotic plants from around the world thrive here because of the warm currents of the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic
Drift. In 2016 the house was opened to the public after undergoing a £2million restoration by the National Trust for Scotland.
Isle of Ewe Smokehouse
Fishing is a huge part of the economy in Northern Scotland and while you may have visited the Wick Heritage Centre to learn about the history or gone to fishing villages or even a boat excursion, it's interesting to stop and see what happens to the fish after the catch.
This family-run shop smokes all their fish in traditional stone kilns using whisky barrel staves & local Larch to give their fish its own unique flavor.
They have a gift shop where you can pick up supplies for your road trip or grab a gift box for someone special at home.
You can even order online!
There are so many lochs in Northern Scotland it is difficult to choose where to stop, but Loch Maree is definitely a beautiful place to visit at sunrise.
Campervans park overnight on the shores of this loch but you can drive in for a view as well. It's not highly traveled and can be difficult to find.
At first, we parked at a logging road and started to walk the distance to the loch, but luckily we decided to move on. Just a couple of kilometers down the road we found the cut off to the beach and were treated to a spectacular view.
Watch our video showcasing the best of Northern Scotland
Walk the trails of Beinn Eighe
Beinn Eighe is Britain's oldest nature reserve and a premier hiking destination. There is 48 Square km to explore with trails as short as 1 1/2 km.
Hiking is popular in Scotland and you can't visit the country without doing a proper trek. The main access is from Loch Maree near the village of Kinlochewe and trails leave from either the visitor centre here or the Coille na Glas-Leitir car park also on the shores of Loch Maree.
For full trail maps and information visit Scotland's National Nature Reserve website.
Picking up a coffee at the newly opened Klinlochewe Coffee Shop at the gas station we chatted with the owners who gave us some pointers on the best viewpoint in the area. I can't believe we almost missed this!
Many people miss this view because they take the coastal scenic route to Applecross. But be sure to at least drive up to the viewpoint.
Top Gear named it one of the great drives of the UK.
We were lucky because we had a couple of days in the area so we drove the coast the day before and could take the shortcut through the mountains today. Both are highly recommended.
Another incredible view that we stumbled upon was Diabag Viewpoint. Driving from Torridon we heard that this was a great place for panoramic views and whoever gave us that advice was right!
The road is an incredible thrill of one lane switching back and forth up a steep mountain. There are several stops to see views to the east, to the west and over the water.
It's worth the drive and to do the entire route to Lower Diabag took us about an hour each way. (we do like to stop for a lot photographs though)
Where to Stay in Gairloch
The Old Inn: Gairloch
An excellent place to stay just outside of downtown Gairloch is the Old Inn. It's an old coaching inn remodeled with modern conveniences. Set on a beautiful estate, there are walking trails, gardens and streams running through the property.
On-site, there is an excellent seafood restaurant and award-winning pub. This is a place the felt like we were in the real Scotland. Locals popped in for a pint and the relaxed atmosphere makes you feel welcome.
We spent two nights at the Old Inn, an old Coaching Inn that is warm and inviting. There are plenty of sights around the area, some that are mere minutes away and others that are an hour drive.
The Old Inn is located a few miles outside of downtown so meal choices are limited, but they do have a good seafood menu that is reasonably priced.
There's pub in the hotel that attracts many locals and has won Pub of the Year. It's an ideal setting to unwind and relax.
Each room has pamphlets and books explaining the clan history of the area, and you can sign out DVDs if you can't find what you want on the telly.
The Old Inn
Flowerdale Glen, Gairloch Ross-shire
T: 01445 712006
This old hunting lodge is located on Loch Gairloch. We stopped here for cappuccinos and breakfast and it is a place we would have loved to stay.
It is set on a 26,000 acre estate in the West Highlands.
It is farther away from Downtown Gairloch, but we didn't spend any time in the town.
We drove past the Shieldaig Estate en route to our day trip around the coast to lower Diabag.
IV21 2AN, Scotland
10. Klinlochewe to Applecross
This final stretch of driving along the coast is probably the most scenic and fun driving you'll have along the nc500. There are so many viewpoints to stop and enjoy the scene, you'll spend an entire day getting through just a short 32-mile stretch.
As you drive from Torridon the views are plentiful.
We picked up a delicious cappuccino for takeaway (have you noticed we like coffee?) at the Torridon Hotel and bar and began our scenic journey along Upper Torridon Loch.
This is a great day trip for a coast journey taking you all the way around the route to Applecross where you drive the most spectacular pass Baelnabach Pass. The star attraction of the North Coast 500.
Highlights along the way are
View point of the town of Sheildag
Be sure to pull over as much as possible along this route as you are going to find some amazing overhead views. The initial climb up the coast has hairpin turns and viewpoints.
A gorgeous one we found was a pull off with a short trail leading to a view of the town of Sheildag.
Famous Red House
Have you ever seen the photos of the red house of northern Scotland? Well, it's here along this route that you'll find it. Enjoy a quiet stop on the side of the road here and watch the sheep graze in the yard.
This route takes you along the ocean side and there are so many stops you just may take an entire day to get to your destination. We saw a lot of highland cows along this road.
Flocks of sheep were plentiful and there were even views of the Isle of Skye. It was an incredible drive but be prepared for wind. We had beautiful sunny weather, but the wind was strong. When getting out of the car we had to put on a jacket.
Never assume you'll be fine in shorts or a t-shirt all day when driving in the Norther of Scotland.
AppleCross to Baelnabach Pass
This is the highlight of the entire North Coast 500 and it does not disappoint.
Baelnabach Pass used to be an old cattle trail that was turned into a driving transport route and is now a popular tourist route.
The drive is thrilling with hairpin turns on single lane tracks that you still share with transports. There are a few pullovers and it is worth stopping if you see one and feel confident. The views are magnificent looking down the valley.
When you get to the top of the pass be sure to get out of your car and go for a hike. The rocky landscape is like nothing you've ever seen leading out to the ocean.
Eat at the Kishorn Seafood Bar
It's been a big day and you've probably built up an appetite. If you keep following the main road towards Lochcarron you'll come across the pleasant Kishorn Seafood Bar.
This family run eatery is filled with excellent choices for lunch or dinner and the staff is friendly. They even gave us a taste of the local specialty.
If you haven't tried oysters before, this is the place to do it. They even give certificates to first timers.
Where to Stay
We didn't stay in accommodation along this route. Instead we did day trips from Gairloch and our next stop, Plockton.
This route is all about driving and stopping for scenic views. It's not too long of a drive from either direction.
We explored the northern half of the route closest to Gairloch while staying there and then set out to explore the South and what we missed while visiting Plockton.
11. Plockton - History and Wildlife
Our final destination before finishing off the loop to Inverness took us to Plockton.
That became our home base to explore the area. Like other parts of the nc500, there is a lot of history, wildlife and scenery to enjoy and here are a few highlights of what you must see and do!
Reraig Forest Tour
We met our guide Colin at Lochcarron village not having a clue as to what we were doing or where we were going.
Colin is a craic as the Scottish say! He is the most enthusiastic and loveable guide you'll ever have.
Hopping into his truck he took us to Reraig Forest where we got into a buggy to make our way up a steep mountain.
The buggy was an adventure enough as we clung to the edge of steep banks, rammed through deep mud and trotted along the rocky landscape.
But that was just part of the adventure. The true beauty came when we reached the pack of deer and stags roaming the land. It's here that you'll find beautiful deer that roam free on the thousands of acres of property.
Colin feeds the deer special pellets to subsidize their diet as he says the vegetation doesn't give them the nutrients they need. You can tell he loves the herd and he even pointed out a few that jumped over the fence to stick around.
I was a bit nervous as I saw that he offers hunting trips as well, but after seeing him with the stags, I realized that a person can be a hunter and be a conservationist all at once.
He told us stories of finding sick or hurt deer that he put out of their misery.
He was also worried about one male that was a bully in the herd and he was concerned that if it didn't calm down he'd have to put it down, but it had settled in and he thinks it's going to be ok.
I am not quite sure how many people come to hunt here, but I feel that if photo safari tourism takes off in Scotland, they won't have the need to sell to trophy hunters anymore.
Colin also has sheep and rams on the land that come running when he arrives. It was quite funny to see the deer follow our buggy over the hills like a flock of sheep. They were very excited to see him!
North Coast 500 Bonus Tip
Plockton is also an excellent place to make a base for visiting the Isle of Sky.
As one person said to us, "You can't really come to this part of Scotland and not visit Skye." We made a point to visit the Isle of Skye to see some of the highlights on a quick half day tour in the morning and it was spectacular.
But that my friends is another story. But when you plan your own tour of the North Coast 500 be sure to give extra days to see it all.
We visited the are in 10 days, but we highly recommend two weeks.
Eilean Donan Castle
Possibly the most famous castle in the land, Eilean Donan Castle was used for the set of Highlander, James Bond's The World is Not Enough and the New Avengers.
It's a beautiful castle where you can tour and learn of the history of the clans that ruled the Highlands. It tells the tale through an excellent audio visual display about the Jacobite uprising and fall, and the wars of the clans.
You can walk through the different rooms of the castle that are decorated just as they were hundreds of years ago and get a true sense of what life was like.
The gift shop is excellent and it was here that we bought a woolen scarf in the colours of Dave's ancestors the McKenzies.
A far less in tact castle but still beautiful to visit is Drome Castle. Now just in ruins, the outer walls are still in tact and you can walk inside and out exploring the coastal piece of land.
At low tide you can walk pretty far out to the sea for a good view of the castle and you can snap the obligatory picture through the doorway arch.
It's about to be turned into a bed and breakfast and it is currently on private property, but since the road leading to the railway station goes directly through the castle grounds, you can easily drive your car right up to the front door to have a look.
It's located on Loch Carron and can be seen from the town of Plockton. There are even hikes that lead out to the castle.
Where to Stay in Plockton
Located on the waterfront of Plockton, the Plockton Hotel is the most popular spot in town. With a Michelin rated pub, it has some of the best pub food and atmosphere in Scotland.
We ate there each night, enjoying local seafood with whiskey and wine.
The rooms were modern and warm with elegant bathrooms and comfortable bedding, where we slept inside a fluffy duvet.
There's even an outdoor terrace to take in the sunset and enjoy a cocktail before dinner.
The Plockton Hotel
41 Harbour Street – Plockton - IV52 8TN
T: 01599 544 274
The NC500 will soon be known as one of the greatest drives in the world. The single track roads may be turned to double lane highways in the future and more hotels will be popping up everywhere.
But if you get there quick, you'll enjoy old Scottish hospitality with some extraordinary scenic views. So what are you waiting for? Book your North Coast 500 Accommodation now, rooms fill up fast and you may miss out if you wait!
Where to eat in Plockton: The Plockton Inn, Plockton Hotel, and Plockton Shores all specialize in seafood and are all excellent.
This post is in partnership with Visit Britain, Check out their website for more details.